Downtown: Miami’s Historic Center

Downtown Miami Courthouse

By: Dr. Paul S. George

As difficult as it is to imagine today, the Florida State Census in 1895 found just nine settlers living along the Miami River. But change was in the air for the isolated settlement of Miami, as railroad baron Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle, who lived on the north bank of the Miami River, reached an agreement paving the way for the entry of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway from West Palm Beach to Miami. When the railroad entered Miami in the spring of 1896, a rising city was already underway on the north bank of the Miami River along Avenue D, today’s South Miami Avenue.

Miami incorporated as a city on July 28, 1896, with an estimated population of 700. Today’s downtown, located on the north bank of the Miami River, hosted most of the population and grew quickly as migrants from other parts of Florida, the South, and even the Bahamas, were drawn to the picturesque settlement framed by the waters of the River and beautiful Biscayne Bay.

As the twentieth century unfolded, downtown grew as a retail, residential, institutional and tourist venue. The beautiful subdivision of Fort Dallas Park arose along the north bank of the Miami River, while Twelfth Street, today’s Flagler Street, became the center of retail activity. Downtown expanded primarily in a northeasterly direction surrounded as it was by water on three sides. To its northwest was the segregated neighborhood of Colored Town, today’s Overtown.

The real estate boom of the mid-1920s brought vast changes to Miami and downtown. Once a frontier town dependent upon tourism for its financial well-being, Miami was transformed into an emerging metropolitan area while its downtown grew in importance as a retail and resort center. Even the bust that followed in 1926, and the ensuing national Depression failed to halt the continued development of downtown Miami. A splurge of construction in the late 1930s resulted in several iconic Art Deco styled buildings.

In the aftermath of World War II, downtown boomed as never before as pent-up consumer savings fueled a nonpareil spending frenzy and new retail businesses opened at a record pace. Downtown peaked as a destination in the 1950s, with nine movie theaters in operation; superb waterfront attractions like Bayfront Park and Pier Five drew large crowds; and flourishing hotels headed by the McAllister and Everglades welcomed visitors from many places. The county’s largest religious congregations, led by influential clerics, were another part of the downtown mix. Nightclubs flanked bustling Biscayne Boulevard and operated in other parts of downtown. Parades brought hundreds of thousands of people to the quarter.

But the quarter’s success, ironically, helped fuel a decline as motorists, frustrated by rising traffic congestion and limited parking spaces, began looking elsewhere for stores and entertainment. “Elsewhere” meant a rising suburbia as former wetlands and pinelands far from the center offered new homes and shopping centers for the hordes of newcomers moving to Miami. Exacerbating the problems was the condemnation of many blocks of downtown real estate to make way for an extensive expressway system and as part of urban renewal programs, reducing significantly the quarter’s population base.

Downtown reached its nadir in the 1970s as visitors to the quarter fell sharply. The fine stores of yesteryear gave way to businesses selling cheap wares to Latin America and Caribbean tourists. By 6 p.m. nightly, the quarter became a ghost town. Numerous efforts to resuscitate it yielded only modest gains.

Downtown’s struggle to assume again an important role in the lives of Miamians and visitors has been long and frustrating, but it is now on the cusp of an enormous turn around consonant with the “rebirth” of downtowns throughout America. New housing accommodations are rising in many parts of downtown, especially along the Miami River, as young professionals and others, tired of long commutes and the sameness of suburbia, and Latin Americans, long used to living in the center city, are flocking to an area ideally located and one filled with possibilities for greatness.

Many more residential developments are in the planning stages. Miami-Dade College, Wolfson Campus, which opened in the blighted northern edges of downtown in the late 1960s, contains more than 25,000 students, while nearby Biscayne Boulevard is alive with new restaurants, a booming Bayside Marketplace, the American Airlines Arena, a revitalized Bayfront Park and the sparkling new Museum Park featuring two major museums set amid a waterfront space of profound beauty.

Just north of downtown stands the popular Adrienne Arsht Center, while the ambitious Miami Worldcenter, destined to become a mix of retail, commercial and residential centers, is poised to rise in a multi-block area on the northern tier. For the first time in more than a half century, the Florida East Coast Railway will be running passenger trains in and out of downtown on a daily basis.

Downtown is back! And its future prospects are filled with glorious possibilities.

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