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Peter Thiel arrives to speak at the Bitcoin Conference in Miami on April 7, 2022Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The Battle for the Soul of Miami

Magic City has changed since the tech bros made landfall—but not in the ways you think

by
Alex Perez
July 08, 2022
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Peter Thiel arrives to speak at the Bitcoin Conference in Miami on April 7, 2022Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Aug. 24, 1992, just after 5 a.m., Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Miami-Dade County. I was 9 at the time, and along with immediate and extended family, I was holed up at my paternal grandparents’ home, the electric atmosphere akin to a Nochebuena party. I remember my father and grandfather venturing outside during the eye and surveying the damage. I also remember the sheer relief when the wind died down and the greatest relief of all when I was finally allowed to go outside and saw that our neighborhood had mostly been spared.

The days that followed revealed the utter devastation that Andrew had caused, and even if the city has long since been rebuilt, the specter of Andrew remains. Simply say the name Andrew, and anyone who was around in ’92 will regale you with a wild tale or two of their hurricane experience. As much as Miami’s multicultural populace and the loosey-goosey tropical lifestyle they favor shapes the city, it is hurricane season, which stretches from June through November, that sets the tone. For six months of the year, Miamians watch as hurricanes form off the coast of Africa and set out on their predictable march toward the Magic City, terrorizing the Antilles and other islands along the way.

Every year we’re faced with a close call or two, but in especially unlucky seasons, a Katrina or a Wilma will swing through and remind us of Andrew. This yearly submission to the tropics—and the understanding that the next big one, no matter how much we try to will it away, is preordained—is a quintessential Miami experience. Until you’ve been through it—the panic buying, the hanging on every word of delirious weathermen, the inevitable winds and rains and days without power—you’re not a Miamian. But in the last year, as a new type of tempest threatens to reshape the city, more than one Miamian has told me they can’t wait, simply can’t wait for hurricane season to arrive. It’ll just take a Cat 2 or 3, they say. Then they’ll see the real Miami and leave.

Miami has always been a cultural outpost, a city of refugees from Latin America and the remaining white folk who stayed after the initial wave of Cubans signaled that the city would belong to them. If you live in Miami, it’s usually because you left a despotic motherland, or because you’ve been here so long that you can’t imagine living anywhere else. Most of us feel we could never live in any other American city, because the distinctly non-American ways of Miami have made us other. If surviving a hurricane is a Miami resident’s tevilah, learning to love the third-world, banana republic-style dysfunction is her bat mitzvah. “Americans” (as non-Miamians are called) come down here for the weekend, drink a little cafecito, hit the beach, dance some salsa, and then head back to hideous, freezing cold “America.” We’ve long tolerated them as moneyed outsiders who know better than to overstay their welcome. That is until, like so much else in American life, the pandemic turned everything upside down.

It’s a familiar story by now: COVID hits, Florida “stays open,” and lockdown-fatigued blue state refugees flood the state. Early in the exodus, the refugees were dispersed throughout Florida. But then on Dec. 4, 2020, in response to a tweet from a venture capitalist in California—“ok guys hear me out, what if we move silicon valley to miami”—Mayor of Miami Francis Suarez fired off his now-infamous offer: “How can I help?” Apparently, that was all it took. Tech bros started making the pilgrimage to Miami, and overnight, Suarez became a national star.

To understand what’s going on in Miami, it’s important first to understand why prototypical Miami bro Francis Suarez was so eager to open the floodgates to the tired, the rich, the huddled masses of the Bay Area. Suarez, whose father, Xavier, was also mayor of Miami, is 305 royalty. A handful of politically connected families basically run this city; Suarez—photogenic and charming in that unctuous Miami way—was all but destined to lead us. As Miami’s chief hype man—the role he relishes more than any other—Suarez clearly loves his hometown. But his relentless participation in the Twitter psychodramas of California have always struck me as a little insecure. In this way, Suarez embodies another Miami stereotype: the overly defensive resident of an intellectual and cultural backwater, the proud son of a forgotten city, a “little sister” to the big boys of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street.

Suarez, who oozes national political ambition, clearly wants to will Miami into national prominence, transform it into a futuristic metropolis, and elevate his fortunes along the way. His conspicuous mix of supreme overconfidence and cringey desperation is getting a lot of heat from locals these days. Is putting Miami under Chicago-level national scrutiny really what Miamians want? Is Big Tech’s impact on San Francisco something we really want a taste of?

Alas, I admit it: I can’t help liking the guy. His schtick is grating, but it’s also endearingly transparent to anyone who knows the city that shaped him. And at the risk of pissing off my many friends on the anti-Suarez bandwagon, I should also admit to something else: Suarez is right to want to change the city, and the tech bros ain’t so bad.

Miami has always been subject to cyclical waves of newcomers. Julia DeForest Tuttle, the “Mother of Miami” and the only woman to have founded a major American city, came from Cleveland. In 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, over 125,000 Cubans flooded the city in a six-month stretch. In the years that followed, political strife in Central America ushered in a new set of demographic changes, and in the late 1990s, after Hugo Chavez rose to power, the Venezuelans came to town. Whether we roll our eyes at them or not, the blue state lockdown refugees see themselves as firmly in this tradition.

Even before the recent influx of talented, highly educated, successful outsiders, Miami was already in advanced stages of gentrification. Little Havana, which was once a strictly working-class Cuban enclave, is now populated by a hodge-podge of rich South Americans and spillovers from the upscale neighborhood of Brickell. The upper-middle-class, Northeast yuppie types who once would have seemed like visitors from Mars are now a regular fixture on streets like Calle Ocho. Wynwood, which not too long ago was still the hood, and later became a hub of hip local art galleries that handed out free booze on the first Saturday of every month, is now a bona fide tourist trap. The same goes for Little Haiti, Allapattah, and every other neighborhood around downtown. All of this predates the pandemic; none of it is Suarez’s fault.

What is different this time around is that the tech lords and crypto evangelists who responded to Suarez’s bat signal have set their sights on neighborhoods previously thought to be safe from gentrification. In the early stages of the blue state refugee influx, very few working-class Miamians had ever even heard of a “tech bro” and were clueless about the mayor’s courtship of them. Once they understood what was happening, they figured the techies would just set up shop in Brickell, Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, and Coral Cables, like the rich folks from the Northeast and South America. The fact that they settled on the working- and middle-class western suburbs instead came as a big shock.

Hialeah, a working-class neighborhood with the highest concentration of Cubans and Cuban Americans in the country—and where 95% of residents speak Spanish at home—is now suffering skyrocketing rents. In January, Miami Twitter suffered a collective psychological meltdown when a luxury real estate developer breaking ground in the neighborhood dubbed it the “Brooklyn of Miami.” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava had to sign a new law requiring landlords to give residents a 60-day notice if their rent is going to increase by more than 5%. Even the rich folk of Brickell and Miami Beach are being forced out as rents in some cases have doubled. The experience of leasing a downtown studio apartment for $3,000-$4,000 a month might seem normal to the new arrivals, but many of the locals see it as the end of a dream. Hence the now-common refrain: We need another Andrew, bro.

The only Miamians who seemed to be early on the danger posed by the new arrivals were the small coterie of woke artists and writers who make up the suffocatingly mediocre local intelligentsia, which is only capable of interpreting the arrival of fresh creative energy as an existential threat. But even the fears of these people—these stewards of an intellectual and cultural wasteland, whom I normally consider my enemies—I understand. On Sunday afternoons, walking with old friends past the bars we used to frequent 15 years ago, we now pass a certain kind of person whose appearance immediately fans the flame of an adolescent rage I thought I had extinguished long ago. It’s not that these people are predominately white, per se, but that there’s a certain cleanliness to them, a pristine sensibility and unblemished aesthetic I find repulsive. These people are the enemy of grime, and it’s the grime that brings me back to this street in the Grove every Sunday. I can see in the habits and demeanor of these people that they can’t wait to sanitize my beloved Grove, and I feel they must be stopped. Speak fucking Spanglish, I want to yell at these invariably polite and conflict-averse whites, or go back to where you came from.

The tech bros understand that the city’s natural sensibilities lean heterodox and anti-woke, even if the locals have no idea what those words mean.

The intellectual scene in Miami has for years now been dominated by two opposing factions: on the one hand, wokes who read the Miami Herald and Miami New Times and join Knight Foundation-funded poetry collectives like O, Miami; on the other, people who are actively hostile to anything that even smacks of intellectualism. The latest estimates found locals in the latter category at a rate of about 99%. The grimy tropical city with a sexy, intellectually disinterested populace should be the perfect home for risk-taking artists, but the cultural scene has been more or less commandeered by the tiny minority of self-flagellating mediocrities who pine for Park Slope.

The embodiment of this type is the filmmaker Billy Corben of Cocaine Cowboys fame. Corben has made a name for himself making gritty documentaries about Miami for people who live elsewhere, but he spends most of his time on Twitter joining the Miami Herald staff in trashing the city for its supposedly reactionary dysfunction, or—probably more accurately—for the fact that nothing he produces seems to resonate with the people who know better. It’s been hard not to notice that the denunciations of Miami by Corben and his ilk have gotten shriller as more and more people decide to move here.

So it’s no surprise that Francis Suarez is a special object of scorn for Corben and the woke set. For them, Miami is a source of self-loathing; but Suarez keeps pitching it as a land of freedom and opportunity, and the tech bros keep buying it. What’s more, a big part of Suarez’s pitch for Miami is that outsiders are welcome to transform it. But the Corbenists need it to stay the same. Otherwise, what great fight are they fighting?

This past January, Hereticon, “A Conference for Thoughtcrime” organized by Mike Solana of Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, took place on Miami Beach. Hereticon featured a who’s who of “heterodox” writers and tech entrepreneurs: Tyler Cowen, Tim Urban, Bret Weinstein, etc. They took over the luxurious Faena Hotel on South Beach for three days. The invite-only conference organized by outsiders and catered to a hyperelite audience of visitors and recent arrivals didn’t totally register on the city’s event calendar, which was counting down the days until the Ultra Music Festival and Miami Music Week in March. Still, it was nice to see that the mayor’s outreach to some of the biggest big shots in the country was embraced enthusiastically, and that the intellectual powerhouses seemed to feel welcomed and at home.

The dirty truth of the matter is that if Miami does stand a chance of casting the wokes into oblivion and becoming an intellectually viable city, it will be the tech bros, not the locals, who make it happen. The outsiders see more clearly than we do that the city’s natural sensibilities lean heterodox and anti-woke, even if the vast majority of residents have no idea what those words mean. It turns out that Miami Tech Week and the Bitcoin Conference code just as authentic as spring break. These tech bros, most of whom I find extremely annoying, have been Miamians all along. For better or worse, we’re neighbors now.

So let the intelligentsia and the panicky natives hate Suarez, I say. Eventually they’ll remember that Miami is and always has been a whore, always opening its legs to the newest injection of money and power. The rents were never going to stay low forever, anyway. At least the current crop is giving something back and, for the most part, isn’t interested in adding penthouses to the skyline with ill-gotten gains from blood and drugs. The tech bros only ever hang out with each other, take no interest in the locals who take no interest in them, and generally seem thrilled to be here. So what exactly is the problem?

In any case, it’s hurricane season. The next tropical cyclone is never far away. When it comes, I hope it covers the new arrivals in muck and chases them off Calle Ocho. I also hope they decide to stay.

Alex Perez is a writer from Miami. Follow him on Twitter @Perez_Writes.

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