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Take a trip through time in Downtown Miami

We’re a young city, with a long history. Founded just over a century ago, Miami has been the center of countless booms and busts that have changed its character throughout the generations. Nowhere is this more pronounced than Downtown.

Miami Skyline 1962 (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory )
The Miami Skyline in 1962. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

The story of Miami begins there, where, in the late 19th century, a man by the name of Henry Flagler brought his railroad all the way down to what was a sparse settlement occupied by no more than a dozen people. Seeing promise, and with land given to him by Julia Tuttle and the Brickell family, Flagler began developing the area in earnest.

A city is born

By April 1896, Miami was connected to the rest of the state through Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, and just three months later it was officially incorporated as the City of Miami. Back then, the city was made up of a couple of buildings located on the banks of the Miami River. There was no Downtown — just the town.

As word spread about the natural beauty of the area, the stunning shorefront on which the city was growing, and the year-round warm weather, people began to flock to Miami.

Royal Palm Hotel (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Royal Palm Hotel (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In 1897, Flagler opened his famed Royal Palm Hotel, located on the former site of a Tequesta village, which would eventually be home to the DuPont Plaza Hotel and today’s EPIC Hotel and Residences. The luxuriously decorated Royal Palm Hotel featured electric lights and elevators, the first in Miami.

At the same time, Flagler created the Royal Palm Park, the burgeoning city’s first public gathering space. The park sat between SE 2nd Avenue and the shores of Biscayne Bay, extending as far inland as Biscayne Boulevard today. Lummus Park and Riverside Park followed shortly after. In 1913, Florida East Coast Railway opened a new Miami station just north of the County Courthouse.

From a town to a city

As it entered the 20th century, Miami’s population boomed, growing faster than any other city in the country at the time. It grew from a town of about 5,500 to a city of 30,000 by the beginning of the 1920s, with nearly all the growth happening in the Downtown area.

Flagler Street, then known as Twelfth Street, became the city’s hub of activity, while Miami’s black population grew in the neighborhood that would become historic Overtown. The shores of Biscayne Bay were home to everything from piers to dance halls and peep shows, amenities not all Miamians were happy about. In 1924, after years of legal wrangling, the city acquired enough waterfront land to replace most of the businesses on the shoreline with a new waterfront park.

It took seven months of pumping water before the shores of Biscayne Bay were pushed back to their current location, making way for Bayfront Park. The park opened in 1925 but suffered major damage after the Great Hurricane of 1926, which scattered vessels across the new commons. By the 1930s, it had become Miami’s “front porch,” in the words of Miami historian Paul George, holding local celebrations, gatherings, and performances. Politicians and global leaders visited frequently. Notably, it was the location of the 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been set to give a speech when a gunman began firing, hitting Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, among others.

Following the Depression years of the late 1920s, Miami rebounded with a development spree. Art Deco-style buildings sprang up around the city, especially in Downtown, including the gorgeous Alfred I. DuPont Building, Miami’s only Art Deco skyscraper.

The post-WWII years saw a dramatic boom in population and commerce. Downtown Miami had become a world-famous destination, with shopping, entertainment, and a gorgeous waterfront. Pier 5 was one of the top attractions, offering fishing charters, fresh seafood, and locals selling their wares.

Downfall and rebirth

Despite its popularity, Downtown would face a sudden and dramatic decline within a decade. The 1960s saw the flight of many Miamians from its urban core to flourishing suburbs offering more spacious living, as well as malls and shopping centers. The national push to extend the federal highway system compounded the decline, forcing out thousands of families whose homes were condemned to make way for I-95 and I-395. Businesses closed and moved on to more lucrative neighborhoods, with Downtown becoming home to mostly poor communities along the new highways, along with a growing homeless population. Tourism dropped sharply as Downtown lost the shine and glamor that had once attracted travelers to its shores from across the world.

Businesses selling cheap jewelry, clothes, and other kitsch merchandise to tourists soon took over retail spaces formerly known for fine shopping. This decline would continue until the early 2000s.

Then, in 1987, Bayside Marketplace opened up in the northern part of Downtown, drawing 12 million visitors and $72 million in sales. It quickly became a popular destination for tourists, offering shopping, food, and performances on an existing marina by the Bay. While it succeeded in drawing tourists to the Downtown area again, it’s fortunes would soon wane, with another decline in the 1990s leaving Bayside largely vacant with little to offer.

The late 1980s also saw the construction of the Miami Arena, which would house the Miami Heat, the Florida Panthers, and the University of Miami’s basketball team. Built at a cost of $55 million (about $105 million in 2015 dollars), it would be abandoned just 10 years later, its infrastructure quickly decaying.

Fortunately for Downtown, the first decade of the 21st century has seen the area’s luck turn around. A development boom led to the construction of new housing, hotels, and cultural centers. The American Airlines Arena, built in 2000, is now the home to the Miami Heat and attracts top acts from around the world, while the Adrienne Arsht Center and a restored Bayfront Park have become top destinations for visitors and locals alike. Most recently, major draws include the new Pérez Art Museum Miami and the soon-to-open Frost Science Museum, both of which will sit beside each other in Museum Park.

A transient neighborhood with an ever-evolving image, Downtown continues to grow and adapt to the 21st century. Adapting, however, has also meant the loss of many historic sites. Yet it retains a mix of early iconic buildings like the Freedom Tower alongside the new skyscrapers, and there are plenty of places Downtown that still seem untouched by time. It’s a place where Miami’s earliest past coexists with its future.

By Abel Iraola
Abel Iraola is a public relations, marketing, and events professional from Hialeah, FL. He’s worked across public, private, and non-profit sectors, including U.S. Congress. Today, he enjoys freelancing on the side and supporting cultural events in South Florida. His interests include history, soccer, politics, food, and everything under the hot Miami sun.