To those of us who grew up watching – and re-watching – Scarface, Miami has always held a certain allure. The release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto Vice City years later only cemented the image of Florida’s second-largest city as a playboy’s playground synonymous with sweaty dancefloors, vintage convertibles and high grade cocaine.
Underneath the flashy visage depicted in films and video games, Miami’s headlines have often told of a grim reality. From 1980 to 1981 alone, at the height of the Colombian drug wars, the city saw more more than 1,000 murders, leading to the metropolitan morgue becoming famously full.
With all of this in mind, I had anticipated a full-blown city of sin, with all of the concomitant chaos and crime. What I found was an altogether different experience.
From the endless groves of Roystonea palms, to the shimmer of the Caribbean and fading elegance of the Art Deco facades, Miami dazzles in a way that vastly outweighs its reputation.
More famous for its heaving nightclubs and scantily clad denizens than its water quality and charming suburbs, the city is truly underrated and omits a highly liveable and cosmopolitan aura more akin to Sydney than Vegas.
Perhaps my own yearning for ocean breeze and salty skin has tinted my glasses a little too rosy. Undoubtedly, if you’re looking for narcotics-fuelled, booty-shaking Dionysian pleasure you will find it in Miami without much trouble. But overall the place is cleaner, nicer and more downright pleasant than Narcos makes it look.
Of course, the city has cleaned up its act since those heady days, as the War on Drugs claimed high profile scalps and saw the cocaine trade diverted through Mexico and the ever-contentious Southern border. Moreover, globalisation and a boom of immigrants – not just from Central and South America but from the economically depressed northern US states as well – has seen a more positive economic tailwind in general, bringing with it the comfort and stability that upward mobility provides.
That globalisation is clearly on display in the Lincoln Mall that runs through the thin island of Miami Beach like a lively and mercantile artery. You would be hard-pressed to see more international tourists in one location anywhere else in the United States, as the alfresco cafes and restaurants buzz with laughter and myriad languages. The rhythm of Latin music and waft of cigar smoke are ubiquitous, reminding you that Miami belongs not only to the US, but to the rest of the Americas also.
When I was working on ‘The Hill’ in DC, a young Republican staffer from Tallahassee informed me there was “no such thing as Florida” – an odd statement from someone who works for a Floridian Senator and seemed immensely proud of his state.
“Everything north of Tampa is ‘Southern Georgia’,” he explained. “Everything south of Tampa is ‘northern Cuba'”.
While the sandy-haired speechwriter was gilding the lily ever so slightly, the point was well made. Southern Florida, or at least Miami, is the de facto capital of anti-Communist Cuba – a city that may ultimately be as significant in the island’s history (and future) as Havana itself.
As Latin America continues to cast off the shackles of its socialist inclinations – as we have seen recently in Venezuela and Argentina and will hopefully see in Cuba before long – Miami’s appeal and importance will continue to boom, a crossroads between the English and Spanish-speaking worlds, between ‘Georgia and Cuba’.
And for visitors, it will likely continue to be a spellbinding place, full of colour and life and some of the greatest people-watching available on the planet (its violent past and sinful underbelly notwithstanding).
It seems Pacino was right: when you “fuckin’ wit’ Tony Montana”, you are indeed “fuckin’ wit’ the best”.
A still from the marketing campaign for GTA Vice City. Source: DeviantArt
Published on 14 March 2016.