The quiet, reserved Manny Diaz came out of nowhere in his 2001 mayoral bid against opponents who were far more prominent. He had been a well-liked but low-profile lawyer who was thrust into the limelight as part of the legal team trying to keep Elian Gonzalez in Little Havana. Initially his principal qualification, aside from having Elian credentials, seemed to be that he wasn't Joe Carollo. But Diaz, in his understated way, promised a major revolution in city government, proposing to run the place more like a business and less like a Calle Ocho festival that has gone on far too long. After taking office, he eased out city manager Carlos Gimenez and hired Joe Arriola, a wealthy retired executive with a big mouth but considerable business acumen. Arriola restructured city operations and ousted several long-time department heads, among them the police chief, which cleared the way for a ball-breaker to come in and shake things up. Diaz and his lieutenants have made priorities of improving streets, services, and economic development in general. You can certainly disagree with specific actions and outcomes presided over by Diaz and Co., but the overall direction of change has been very good. The urban core is being revitalized and the city's bond ratings have soared.

The quiet, reserved Manny Diaz came out of nowhere in his 2001 mayoral bid against opponents who were far more prominent. He had been a well-liked but low-profile lawyer who was thrust into the limelight as part of the legal team trying to keep Elian Gonzalez in Little Havana. Initially his principal qualification, aside from having Elian credentials, seemed to be that he wasn't Joe Carollo. But Diaz, in his understated way, promised a major revolution in city government, proposing to run the place more like a business and less like a Calle Ocho festival that has gone on far too long. After taking office, he eased out city manager Carlos Gimenez and hired Joe Arriola, a wealthy retired executive with a big mouth but considerable business acumen. Arriola restructured city operations and ousted several long-time department heads, among them the police chief, which cleared the way for a ball-breaker to come in and shake things up. Diaz and his lieutenants have made priorities of improving streets, services, and economic development in general. You can certainly disagree with specific actions and outcomes presided over by Diaz and Co., but the overall direction of change has been very good. The urban core is being revitalized and the city's bond ratings have soared.

Once the thriving and prosperous heart of black Miami, Overtown has been in a downward spiral ever since brilliant bureaucrats thought it would be just fine to tear the place apart by running massive interstate highways through it. Today it is the poorest neighborhood in America's poorest city. Over the past decade roughly $70 million has been funneled into Overtown in a colossal, and colossally corrupt, effort at rehabilitation. Around here, that kind of public money is guaranteed to attract the greedy, the incompetent, the criminal. Clearly it did. Even a cursory tour of the area provides a compelling overview of what a city audit spelled out in detail last year: Tens of millions of tax dollars have been plundered and wasted. The Miami City Commission has appointed a panel to figure out what went wrong. It will be joining the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, state authorities, and the FBI in ongoing criminal investigations. About time.

Once the thriving and prosperous heart of black Miami, Overtown has been in a downward spiral ever since brilliant bureaucrats thought it would be just fine to tear the place apart by running massive interstate highways through it. Today it is the poorest neighborhood in America's poorest city. Over the past decade roughly $70 million has been funneled into Overtown in a colossal, and colossally corrupt, effort at rehabilitation. Around here, that kind of public money is guaranteed to attract the greedy, the incompetent, the criminal. Clearly it did. Even a cursory tour of the area provides a compelling overview of what a city audit spelled out in detail last year: Tens of millions of tax dollars have been plundered and wasted. The Miami City Commission has appointed a panel to figure out what went wrong. It will be joining the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, state authorities, and the FBI in ongoing criminal investigations. About time.

One thing Bayside Marketplace didn't have, until recently, was land-and-sea tours. Literally. Thanks to Miami Duck Tours, passengers ride around the streets on the odd-looking World War II style vehicles (it's a truck! it's a boat!) and see the sights. Then the vehicles slide into Biscayne Bay for a water-based view of other sights. By land and by sea, it's definitely a different way to get a look around, providing a tourist magnet and a new diversion for locals as well. And when the bus-boat completes its journey and patrons disembark, there is no enemy army awaiting to assault them. Not usually anyway.

Ever wonder what the animals do at night after all the gawkers have left the zoo? Find out for yourself at a Zoo-Inn slumber party. September through June, Miami Metrozoo hosts groups of 15 to 30 nocturnal guests for overnight adventures. While the giraffes and elephants eat their evening grub, you'll nibble on pizza. Then a zookeeper will lead you and your friends into one lucky animal's nighthouse. Get an up-close look at a Bengal tiger, a Galápagos tortoise, or an Indian rhino doing whatever it is they do at night. Then embark on a bracing zoo walking tour and a presentation at the Ecology Theater. When you're done, the group will bunk down in the air-conditioned comfort of one of Metrozoo's classrooms or boardrooms. Sounds like fun, right? Especially because Mom and Dad can hardly blame you kids if you spend the night acting like beasts!

Ever wonder what the animals do at night after all the gawkers have left the zoo? Find out for yourself at a Zoo-Inn slumber party. September through June, Miami Metrozoo hosts groups of 15 to 30 nocturnal guests for overnight adventures. While the giraffes and elephants eat their evening grub, you'll nibble on pizza. Then a zookeeper will lead you and your friends into one lucky animal's nighthouse. Get an up-close look at a Bengal tiger, a Galápagos tortoise, or an Indian rhino doing whatever it is they do at night. Then embark on a bracing zoo walking tour and a presentation at the Ecology Theater. When you're done, the group will bunk down in the air-conditioned comfort of one of Metrozoo's classrooms or boardrooms. Sounds like fun, right? Especially because Mom and Dad can hardly blame you kids if you spend the night acting like beasts!

In our fantasy, the best place for a first date would be an exotic faraway locale like Casablanca or Spain's Costa del Sol. We'd meet in secret under the stars, perhaps pursued by nefarious forces, in the ruin of an old Moorish castle by the sea. You would look stunning in the half-light, gingerly stepping around a peacock as you approach through the rubble. We would kiss furtively, then part, fearing for our safety yet certain to meet again. In the meantime, let's meet at the restored Olympia Theater at the Gusman in downtown Miami. The faux Moorish architecture and simulated night sky will do for a setting. A peacock stares out from a box beside the stage. You will look stunning as you step gingerly up the steep balcony stairs, perhaps pursued by an usher, your hands filled with popcorn. If we pick the right night, Casablanca may be on the screen. We can kiss furtively when the lights dim. Whatever happens next, we'll always have the Gusman.

A few seasons ago Tim James carried the University of Miami Hurricanes basketball team to its greatest heights, making it to the NCAA tournament known as "March Madness." He then qualified for the Miami Heat's twelve-player roster. Nothing came of it, though, and he was soon gone. This year Miami native and former Miami High School star Udonis Haslem not only made the Heat roster, he's made a mark with skills far exceeding those of most rookies. Strong, fearless, and gifted, you can bet that this Miami product will be burning net and grabbing rock in the NBA for many years. Let's hope the Heat is smart enough to keep the young, versatile forward here in the sunshine, and, with starting forward Caron Butler's injury-related problems, in the spotlight as well.

BEST POLITICAL CONVICTION IN THE PAST TWELVE MONTHS

Pat Tornillo

The former United Teachers of Dade boss was a throwback to the days of smoke-filled rooms that admitted only good ol' boys. In 40 years Tornillo built the UTD into a political machine that propelled to power numerous school-board members, state legislators, even governors. With that kind of clout (and total control of the union), it wasn't so surprising to discover that the man's sense of entitlement led him to consider the UTD treasury his personal piggy bank. Audits revealed that Tornillo had embezzled at least $2.5 million to finance a lavish lifestyle that included luxury gifts for his wife, ritzy hotel rooms (some right here in Miami), and an extravagant three-week vacation that burned up $50,000 -- roughly the cost of hiring a new teacher with a master's degree and fifteen years' experience. On August 26, 2003, Tornillo pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion and mail fraud. Many were outraged at the lenient 27-month prison term he received, and incensed that he wasn't required to cooperate in further investigations. But he did get caught, and he was prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated. In Miami, that's a rare achievement.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®