Jonathan Bartlett
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Miami’s New Diaspora

A wave of refugees is washing up on Miami’s shores, only now it’s disgruntled New Yorkers, fleeing the city’s draconian COVID restrictions and pessimistic politics

by
Armin Rosen
August 31, 2021
Jonathan Bartlett
Jonathan Bartlett

“You can’t even describe this place to people in New York credibly,” the young man said from a beanbag chair on a shaded balcony eight stories above Biscayne Bay. Joe Tornelli and I are looking across the cobalt waters towards a hazy sliver of dry land, a hedge of highrises in far-off Miami Beach. A few stories below us was the “baby pool,” as Tornelli put it—in possibly the last lifting of covid protocol anywhere in the Miami metro area, the steam room attached to the far vaster main pool, which was somewhere behind his, had reopened in mid-April, a couple weeks earlier.

Tornelli, like others I would meet over two weeks this past April and May, was someone who made perfect sense in New York. He still felt attached enough to the place that a boxy yet lovingly detailed 3D-printed model of his old block in Gramercy sat on a side table in his half-unpacked living room. He grew up in New Jersey, went to NYU, and launched a data management firm from his college dorm, a company that he still runs. He had never set foot in Miami until February, when New York’s COVID restrictions were still largely in place. Tornelli intended to stay for a month, but he began talking to realtors two weeks after getting to town.

Glutted with former Gothamites, Miami is now one the best and most natural places to ruminate on the fate of New York, and on the meaning of its downward spiral during the pandemic. Tornelli said he realized that he was “at an impasse” back in New York—the opportunities for personal or professional growth had stalled. Quality of life had plunged. The interesting people were leaving.

“In New York,” he said, “your brain is mostly occupied with trying to pretend you’re not there.” I knew exactly what he meant. The stressors were inescapable up north, and once you thought you’d outpaced them, on the beach in Fort Tilden or up in the Catskills, it usually wasn’t long before you were stressing about the journey home, a home that tended to be small and expensive and located in a place of expanding chaos, one where you increasingly felt the intrusions of an overactive yet underfunctioning government, along with the constant judgment of your fellow citizens. In Miami, you could have God’s own view and access to two swimming pools and a semiprivate elevator and a parking space, all for $4,000 a month, as Tornelli did.

Casey Zap has something better than any view. Back in New York, Zap founded the well-known Baby’s All Right rock club in Williamsburg. He came to Miami “for three weeks 11 years ago” and never got around to moving back. Today he runs the Center for Subtropical Affairs, a botanical garden and arts space in Little Haiti, and a self-contained paradise of a kind that couldn’t exist in many other places, certainly not in New York. The property is a palm-shaded honeycomb of trails and secret nooks with an enormous plastic frog standing watch over the entrance. One path leads to a wooden shack serving mezcal cocktails, while another ends at a cavernous greenhouse. On Saturday afternoons, Zap, tanned, slim, and youthful into his mid-40s, dressed in a floral button-up shirt and blue Crocs, counsels the plant-curious amid the orchids and tropical vines, many of which are for sale. He has another two greenhouses next to the lagoon behind his nearby home.

The center would soon be home to a vegan cafe, a weekly brunch concert, and a flea market. “My landlords are my patrons,” he said, before uttering words that haven’t been spoken by any New York creative for decades: “I didn’t pay any rent on this for four years.” Really? I stammered in disbelief. “They weren’t game,” he added, “but they let it happen.” Miami is still at the point where developers view rent discounts on buzz-building artistic endeavors as a worthwhile loss-leader. Zap’s experience was hardly unique.

Like Tornelli, Zap was unsentimental about the city he’d left. “New York isn’t a place, it’s a time,” he said. “The city I lived in doesn’t exist anymore.”

But only a profound schism could have elevated one city so quickly, especially this one. The sun melts the brain to a happy goo in Miami; the soft rustling of the sickly beautiful palms induces a kind of hypnosis. New Yorkers tend to view Miami as a place of unseriousness, or a place to die at a ripe old age. What does it mean that a beach resort with rented Lamborghinis drag-racing past high-rises that might be underwater in 50 years is where everything’s going? What did New York, and the rest of America, have to lose for Miami to win the pandemic?

The more time I spent in Miami, the harder it became to separate my own rosy view of the place from my pessimistic outlook for New York. In the year-and-a-half since the onset of the COVID era, I had come to a quasi-superstitious belief that while New York would never suffer any single event as cataclysmic as the first weeks of the plague, its fall was not complete. Crime had spiked, and public services had declined. The only viable alternative to an entrenched and venal political class were socialists who believed in slashing the NYPD budget, imposing ruinous Berlin-style rent controls, and boycotting Israel. New York was in thrall to a range of social experiments, expressed through policies like chasing away Amazon, inflicting the nation’s highest taxes, and implementing an absurd charter school cap and a pointless freeze on hotel construction. Hardly anyone seemed troubled by a lockdown that disproportionately affected schoolchildren and the working poor while yielding questionable public health benefits in return.

The dynamism had been stomped out of the place, and only a handful of bar and restaurant owners, and maybe the editorial pages of the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, had objected. No parallel process had occurred in Miami. Unlike Miami, New York remained in quasi-lockdown through much of May. By early July, even with all COVID restrictions lifted, only 82% of New York’s pre-pandemic economy had reopened, according to Moody’s and CNN, the lowest of any state and 10% behind the country as a whole. Florida was at 95% reopened.

Some 631,000 people lost their jobs in New York City in 2020, a single-year record. Public school enrollment, a measure of confidence in government and of whether the lower- and middle-class families that enable New York City to function still believe in the place, has plunged to under 900,000, a 19% decline since 2000. New York’s population dropped by .65% between 2019 and mid-2020, meaning more than one out of every 200 residents left the state. Florida saw a 1.12% increase, the second-most in the nation.

The economic and social devastation wrought by the virus and the lockdown regimes in New York, California, and elsewhere set the conditions for a social reckoning and cultural revolution that is perhaps in its early or its late or its decadent phase; who can really say? But the reckoning largely skipped Miami. Because its rise is a mirror to and consequence of New York’s and California’s decline, Miami is proof of how bright the future might be even in a divided and dysfunctional America. Even in its flashiness and general lack of self-awareness, Miami exhibits a potential for national-scale self-correction, and for the possibility of scorned and overlooked segments of the country acting as a check on America’s self-destructive excesses.

Everything had already been open for a while when I visited Miami in late spring. Mask mandates and indoor capacity limits had largely been gone since the beginning of the year. Even warehouse parties had come back that December. It was like the pandemic had ceased to exist—the Miamians had defeated it.

For the first time in over a year, there were things on the schedule, nearly every day: A swanky Lag B’Omer party at the National Hotel, with DJs from Israel and South America; a Manhattan Institute conference in Palm Beach, where Reihan Salam, the conservative New York think tank’s president, was “beaming because some of my colleagues I literally haven’t seen in a really long time,” as he told a nearly maskless hotel ballroom during introductory remarks; a Haitian jazz concert at the center, a full moon party on the beach near Oceanside Park. The last of these drew several hundred unmasked people of every age and description—drums thundered and whistles blared. A cop rode by on a dune buggy and ignored the whole thing, as revelers had ignored the signs saying the beach closed at 8 p.m. “As a mayor I’ll tell you one thing that I’ve realized is that it’s very easy to pass orders,” Gabriel Groisman, mayor of nearby Bal Harbour, told me. “Very hard to enforce them.”

My list of people and businesses that had arrived in the Miami area during the pandemic ballooned with every conversation. Finance and tech were showing up: Carl Icahn was in Sunny Isles; hedge funds like Melvin Capital and Point 72 had opened outposts, or maybe something larger than outposts. Softbank was investing millions in local startups, cash-engorged former WeWork head Adam Neumann was spotted sleeping on various couches during Miami tech week, and nearly everyone mentioned the arrival of Founders Fund, the venture firm with links to Peter Thiel and the rest of the PayPal mafia.

“Another thing I love about Miami is everybody here is happy, kind of no matter what they’re doing,” Jack Abraham, founder of the tech firm Atomic, told me in his living room-like office in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood that had opened less than two months earlier. Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, which Abraham had left the previous summer, had “become a little bit of a monoculture around technology,” and was so expensive that young people “can’t move there on a whim anymore.”

“There are billionaires here that nobody knows about,” one tech entrepreneur told me. “They have Florida driver’s licenses. They’re not tweeting about it.” He had decided to move from the Bay Area after the initial COVID wave stranded him in Miami during a conference. During the first lockdown, he became convinced that Florida is one of America’s “last strongholds against a hostile tax regime.”

Maria Derchi, director of Refresh Miami, a nonprofit that helps build and promote the city’s tech community, hosts a regular Zoom hangout to welcome founders, funders, and other industry types who are considering moving to Miami. “We’re hearing from people saying, I’m flying to Miami to raise my next round,” she added. “This is an alternate universe.”

New York-based Major Food Group was opening a half-dozen new Miami restaurants, including a location of Carbone, its flagship Italian spot near Houston Street in Manhattan. By May, there was already a waiting list for a high-end sushi restaurant that Major planned to operate as a members-only club.

In Bal Harbour, an 80-room waterfront kosher hotel, complete with a restaurant and synagogue, was in development. A local philanthropist was exploring the creation of a new Jewish day school, thanks to unprecedented waiting lists at every other local day school. New arrivals made for unexpected arrangements: Mendel Segel, the proprietor of Mendy’s Backyard Barbecue, was renting out his Bal Harbour restaurant to a group of Haredi Jews from New York on Saturday mornings, with an alcove-like bar area serving as the women’s section during davening. Segel was frequently running out of kosher Kansas City-style burnt ends the other six days of the week: “We went from dead dead dead to bam, like the floodgates opened,” he said of the record-setting business that began once Florida’s restrictions were phased out last summer and the rest of the world started to show up.

October’s Oslo Freedom Forum will be in Miami. Rolling Loud, the world’s first major live music festival of the COVID era, happened in Miami in July, in a rebuke to a growing concerns over the virus’s delta variant. Superblue, a nationwide group of experiential art centers, debuted in Miami this year with a major James Turrell work, rather than in New York or LA. Sotheby’s had a private viewing room in Palm Beach, less than two hours up the coast. New York dealers that arrived during last winter’s COVID-modified Art Basel season hadn’t left yet. “Pick a New York gallery and they were probably down here at some point, or are still down here,” said Shantelle Rodriguez, art director at Superblue Miami.

Miami has “a diversity of attitudes and thought,” Derchi explained. “People can have a difference of opinion but still be civil and get along with each other and have great relationships.” She was referring to the tech community, but it became hard to ignore that things that could barely be whispered in Brooklyn—dissenting views on COVID restrictions or school curricula or the alleged social justice panopticon—could be declared out loud and without fear in Florida.

“People just live their life out here,” says Michael Shtravka, a videographer in his late 20s who moved to Miami with his wife from Bayonne, New Jersey, in early February. “Nobody is trying to cram anything down your throat.”

Florida is currently experiencing the worst covid wave in the nation. The state is 20th in deaths per 100,000 people, ranked between Illinois and South Carolina. It is now the first state in the country to have had its deadliest coronavirus surge after the introduction of mass vaccination. Still, as cases exploded in mid-August, Florida was the 22nd-most vaccinated state, with a higher percentage of fully vaccinated than Illinois and Michigan. The wave has been less catastrophic than other COVID spikes in other places—Florida’s rolling average COVID death rate per 100,000 people at the height of the August surge was about the same as California’s in early March of 2021. The difference was in Governor Ron DeSantis’s policy response. Fairly or unfairly, the thing that made Florida distinctive, and that had attracted so many people there during the pandemic, was pinpointed as the source of the state’s problems: Too much had remained too open, and the governor’s ideological fervor for an enforced normality was now getting people killed.

The governor, long convinced that nonpharmaceutical interventions caused grievous social and economic disruption while doing little to stop the virus’s advance, went ahead with a statewide ban on public school masking mandates, and threatened to punish officials who attempted to enforce them. He had prohibited the enforcement of local stay-at-home orders all the way back in the summer of 2020, around the same time he required the state’s public schools to offer five-day-a-week instruction. Earlier this year, DeSantis banned vaccine passports and vaccination requirements to enter private businesses, even for cruise ships, sparking an ongoing legal battle with one of his state’s major industries.

But most of the ex-New Yorkers I met in Florida didn’t come for political reasons, or because they were philosophically aligned with the state’s lightning rod of a governor. They were here because Florida was open, and because they wanted to have real lives, something their previous place of residence wouldn’t allow.

In New York, your brain is mostly occupied with trying to pretend you’re not there.

Mike Kanevsky, a former finance guy from Queens, switched careers when he realized he could make more money by getting high-end nightclubs to pay him to recruit crowds of customers. Then he switched cities after throwing 14 sold-out Miami New Year’s Eve parties. “I saw how big the demand here was,” he said as we drank smoothies under the purple Saturday twilight. “People came from LA, Chicago, Boston, all these different places that were locked down.” The previous night he had sold out a 400-capacity club that had the legal ability to stay open until five a.m., which was five hours past the New York curfew at the time. The forces of fun and excitement faced challenges beyond the virus back north. “I don’t know of other cities where you have to go to a community board to get approved for a liquor license and they’re looking for reasons not to approve you,” Kanevsky said. “There’s a push against nightlife in general in New York.”

David Bowman and Stacey Kawakami did not relocate to Miami from New York as part of any ideological crusade. The couple moved into a midtown Manhattan apartment just before the pandemic hit. Kawakami had visited Miami before and remembered a local recommending she check out Brickell, a swanky glass and steel neighborhood just south of Miami’s downtown and a savannah of vacant lots even into the early 2010s. During the lockdowns it didn’t take much research to realize that Bowman’s work for a boutique financial firm he’d founded, and Kawakami’s work designing online campaigns, often for activist and social justice-oriented groups, could seamlessly transfer to a freer, cheaper, and warmer city, where the fitness-loving couple could walk to a gym that was legally allowed to stay open, in contrast to New York.

We sat beneath a banyan tree of fairytale proportions, an arboreal fortress enclosing an entire restaurant patio near their Brickell high-rise. Almost everyone the couple knew in New York had either left or were in the process of leaving. “They destroyed everything I loved,” Bowman said of New York. “They took the heart out of it. … It was a place where if you were hardworking and ambitious you could work your ass off and build something. Now it’s all the old guard. You live there if you don’t know any better.”

In an inversion of the qualities that had made the place so special for so long, New York was now too expensive to be a practical option for people whose ambition and imagination outstripped their supply of ready cash. “If you’re bootstrapping, why do it in the most expensive place in the country?” Bowman asked. A startup could extend its runway by five times or more just by leaving for Miami. The tax difference between New York and Miami alone paid for the couple’s rent and food, Bowman explained. They had access to three swimming pools, along with a 400-square-foot balcony, all for about what they’d been paying up north, which was somewhere in the low $3,000-a-month range. (My indoor pool of choice, Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, remains closed as of this writing, as do the 11 other public indoor pools in New York City. There is no current timeline for reopening them).

Kawakami was gratified to find that the city’s burgeoning tech ecosystem wanted to avoid the mistakes that had made New York and Silicon Valley so turgid and exclusionary. “The food chain has a different shape here. It’s not like there’s a lot of old white guys with money here. It’s people from Cuba and from Latin America who built their own wealth.” Kawakami had “met a lot of women working on building companies,” she added.

More to the point: “Life is short,” she says. “Why not live in Miami? What are we going to miss?”

Upper East Siders Robert and Rachel Garson are the parents to two school-age girls, which made their move more complicated and more urgent than those of the younger transplants I met. “New York got nasty,” Robert, a British-born lawyer, recalled of the first months of the pandemic in New York. “If a child came with me and they had a mask remotely down, old people would shout: ‘Get your kid away from me!’” The kids, Rachel confirmed, “were getting constantly screamed at.” Children are less COVID contagious than adults, and there are few if any documented instances of COVID being transmitted in passing on an outdoor sidewalk, but New York had lapsed into mania. The family found a spacious Miami rental house and Jewish day schools with enough in-person instruction to justify a move. They left the city on June 1, 2020, driving past storefronts on Fifth Avenue that had been smashed during riots the previous week.

Rachel candidly admitted that Miami was not a paradise. Her husband was immediately able to practice law, thanks to a rule that exempts newcomers from taking the state bar exam if their law partner was a member of the Florida bar. But Rachel, a fashion industry veteran and importer of high-end swimwear, found it hard to reestablish her previous working life in Miami. “All the men think they struck gold,” Robert said. “You get up and it’s warm! And you feel great! Every weekend feels like a holiday.” Rachel broke in: “We’re bored out of our skulls.” Jewish day school education also turned out to be a cut below what the family was used to in New York.

There are other things about Miami that are hard to idealize: the suburban archipelago of strip malls, the constant premonition of a classic Floridian boom cycle on the brink of a spectacular and catastrophic bust, the widespread denial about the ocean’s slow advance; the fact that, as one local business owner put it to me, “you can live your life here barely knowing anything’s going on.”

What delivers Miami from existential torpor is the constant injection of new arrivals, whether refugees from the Caribbean and South America or internal
migrants from America’s colder regions. Over 53% of the population of Miami-Dade County was born outside the United States, mostly in Spanish-speaking countries. “We’re used to influxes of money,” said Jose Freixas, a television and film producer and the child of Cuban arrivals to the city. “We’re used to mass exoduses of people coming and settling here. We are the city that you can flee to.” These immigrants include large swaths of the city’s Jewish community, whose uniqueness they have helped shape and define.

Samuel Gorenstein, the chef and owner of Abba Telavivian Kitchen in South Beach, is a Colombian-born Syrian Jew, and a model of unpretension for someone who runs a high-end restaurant. Gorenstein recalled that back in South America his great-grandfather would eat a breakfast of radishes and raw onions and then bring himself back to life with a few swallows of the local version of arak, the anise liquor enjoyed across the eastern Mediterranean, including in Israel—this inspired Gorenstein to cure lox in arak, resulting in a ludicrously delicious mingling of culinary traditions. He gave me advice for making baba ganoush by sticking an eggplant over an open fire: “Char the skin, don’t be shy about it ... Just put it right on the flame.” He explained this could be done over the indoor gas stove in my Brooklyn apartment, though some cleanup might be required.

One could hear Hebrew and Spanish and French on the weekday morning I visited the blossom-lined Abba front porch. There were no free seats. The place had only opened in March—in Miami, one would never guess that perhaps a third of small businesses had closed nationwide over the previous year. “People are over the pandemic. That’s the reality,” said Gorenstein. “They wanna be over it, they wanna get on with their lives.”

As in many other places in America, the Miami Jews are a microcosm of their surroundings. Paul Kruss, owner of Mo’s Bagels and Deli in Aventura—a suburb which either has five synagogues and one church or five synagogues and zero churches; I’ve heard both—believes that the reason Miami’s Jewish community is growing where others are shrinking, and keeping up its firm support for Israel in a time when the Jewish state is a reliable source of intracommunal acrimony, is because of the high percentage of Miami Jews who are immigrants.

“There’s a huge infusion of non-American born Jews, so we’re much less assimilated,” says Kruss, who is originally from Venezuela. The shared experience of coming to the U.S., whether from Israel or Mexico or France, gave the community a sense of cohesion along with a greater tolerance for a wider range of practices and views. 

A thought often occurred to me in Florida: What if the Jews had wandered from Eretz Yisrael to Ashkenaz and Sefarad, and then later to New York and Cleveland, simply to end up here? Efrem Goldberg, rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, told me, “Every school and every shul is at record enrollment and membership—everybody,” which isn’t the case in most of the rest of the country or world. Goldberg’s shul, crowned with a high dome and a circular skylight through which HaShem could be glimpsed, was in the middle of a capital campaign, as were the rest of the major synagogues in south Florida.

Synagogues had been open in Florida since weeks before the first pandemic Shavuot, and could operate without requiring shulgoers to mask up. A voucher program called Step Up for Students meant that, as Brickell Chabad Rabbi Chaim Lipskar put it, “a family of six can make $150,000 and send their kids to a day school,” halving the price of education compared to New York. There were persistent rumors of Hasidic sects purchasing land near Orlando, as if Florida were the natural fallback once Williamsburg or Rockland County became even more expensive and unwelcoming. Jewish school enrollment in Florida jumped from around 10,600 in 2018 to 12,400 in 2020, with the number of schools growing from 50 to 64 during that brief yet eventful period. Katz Hillel is one of the nation’s only day schools with an outdoor swimming pool. You can eat the Shabbat cholent from the terrace at The Shul, the Chabad behemoth in Bal Harbour, while contemplating an ocean that’s just a block away.

Perhaps there’s a bit of concentration lost under the mind-melting sun, a lapsing into a life with little seasonality, into a feeling of almost terminal pleasantness. What did it mean that languid Bal Harbour, and not hard-edged Brooklyn, could turn out to be the culmination of Jewish American history? Did everyone have it too easy here?

I got my answer when I returned to Miami in late June, two days after the collapse of the Champlain Towers, when the rubble heap was still on fire. Nearly 100 people were killed in the Surfside condominium collapse, including over 40 Jews. Like the COVID surge, the tragedy was quickly drafted into arguments that Florida was unsustainable, mismanaged, and probably doomed. "The Dream of Florida Is Dead,” Slate announced. The Floridians themselves had more immediate and less lofty things to worry about. An under-construction social hall at The Shul was piled with mountains of blankets, clothing, and mattresses, an effusion of donated items that would be exhausted by the next afternoon, at which point a new accumulation of supplies would begin, organized in rows labeled “soap,” “diapers,” “deodorant,” “shampoo,” “kitchenware.” In the coming days, I met local volunteers who operated on three hours of sleep, unable to spend even a second inactive while their neighbors lay buried. At a small church a few blocks from the carnage, under a needlelike white steeple as high as the palm trees, people handed out bottles of water and offered prayers for any passerby in need of comfort.

Miami turned out to be the thing it’s not supposed to be, the kind of rooted, meaningful community that feels lost in so many other places in America, including back home in Brooklyn. It had not been hijacked by pessimism, or corrupted by self-regard. In the grips of a tragedy of surreal cruelty, it showed a better way is still possible.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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