Unexplored Miami

It’s easy to forget to look up in the city when you’ve been here long enough. Too much wonder to take for granted.

I didn’t grow up in Miami. Hollywood is 30 minutes and a lifetime away. As a kid, Miami was someplace special my father would take me and my brother on the weekends, a whole day trip that involved jumping on the Tri-Rail, and then the Metrorail, until finally my favorite part — the Metromover. Sometimes we’d beg to simply ride around, watching the skyline. It felt like flying.

We rarely had any destination in mind on these trips. Just wandering around Downtown, looking up, sometimes finding surprising hidden places, little gems, and unexpected adventures. It seemed vast beyond comprehension to me, too big to explore no matter how often we went.

Of course, now when I go Downtown, it’s always with a purpose. I live in Miami Beach, its own sort of city with its own sort of adventures, and that’s usually where I do my wandering. I don’t look up much anymore, and when I’m on the Metromover, I’m usually staring at my phone just like everybody else.

So I decided I was due for a wander Downtown. I wanted to discover quiet spots, traverse the unexplored, and revisit places I’d simply forgotten.

One of the icons of my childhood was Bayfront Park and nearby Bayside, which always seemed overwhelming, a sensory overload of tackiness and crowds. I realized I’d never been there in the quiet of the morning, when everything was closed and the raucous halls were silent except for the sound of the birds. The only people there were workers getting ready for the day.

Anthony and Terry run across each other often. Terry works at Starbucks, one of the few stores to open early. “It’s mostly the workers and tourists, but we have a few locals who come here, too.”

Their shifts often overlap, though Anthony does something completely different. “I clean windows all day, inside and out. I do some buildings, but not 50 stories or anything like that. Ground level. My pole only stretches so far, and whatever’s above my pole I can’t reach. It’s my stripper pole — that’s what I call it. But it’s not a bad job. I’m just here relaxing right now.”

Wandering over to Museum Park, I ran into a group of students from the nearby School for Advanced Studies who were in the middle of the school’s very first model rocket launch. Most of them had never done anything remotely similar.

Anna Tous, mother of Sebastian Abisleiman, the model rocket club’s founder, was grateful to have this open green space in the middle of Downtown. “We love the parks. How it brings people out to enjoy. This is what brings Miami to life for the visitors, the tourists, and even the residents. You can be out at lunch, and you can just take that half hour and enjoy your surroundings.”

What I do remember very well is the Freedom Tower. Built in 1925, it was one of the first towers in Miami’s nascent skyline, and it has a powerful history. Originally the headquarters for The Miami News, throughout the 60s and early 70s, the building was used as a processing facility to document new Cuban immigrants. Now it’s a museum, its gorgeous Mediterranean revival architecture carefully preserved.

Walking through Downtown, I’m always struck by the mix of classic and new. There’s towers, of course, like the Art Deco masterpiece that is the DuPont Building. But there’s also strangely lit the neon stores and hidden little malls that unexpectedly snake their way through random buildings, often with architecture that seems untouched since the 80s.

It seems like there are so many little shops carrying much of the same thing, but I remember there being even more of them. Electronic stores, for example, used to be found everywhere Downtown. But not anymore.

Seaman’s Wireless Center seems generic and completely unassuming. Yet it’s been occupying the same spot on Third Ave. for 32 years. Avi’s been running it for decades, watching his competitors vanish. “There used to be 130 electronic stores. Today, we have no more than 15.  I am one of the legends. From 1984. It’s amazing we’re still here. Half of my life, I’ve spent Downtown. The good ones, we stay. The bad ones left. I work seven days a week. To make it in life, you have to work a lot.”

Even older than Avi’s store is the iconic Manolo y Rene, the tiny little open air cafeteria that’s been around since 1977. Open 24 hours, it attracts everybody, from cops and construction workers to lawyers in suits. They all stop for a cafecito and a medianoche. It’s a tradition.

Martha has been working there for two years, and claims they have “el mejor cafecito en Miami.” Especially when Martha makes them.

It’s always busy Downtown, she says. Always interesting.