City of Miami

Miami is an international city at Florida’s southeastern tip. Its Cuban influence is reflected in the cafes and cigar shops that line Calle Ocho in Little Havana. On barrier islands across the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay is Miami Beach, home to South Beach. This glamorous neighborhood is famed for its colorful art deco buildings, white sand, surfside hotels and trendsetting nightclubs.

Wynwood Arts District, featuring dozens of galleries and hundreds of graffiti murals, and Pérez Art Museum Miami draw contemporary-art connoisseurs, as does the internationally renowned Art Basel Miami Beach festival in December. The Design District attracts trendy folks with boutiques and restaurants. In Coconut Grove, there’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a circa-1916 Italian-style estate surrounded by lush landscaping. On nearby Key Biscayne, spacious Crandon Park features a quiet beach with private cabanas. For alligator-seekers, Everglades National Park is less than an hour’s drive away.

When to visit

With its subtropical climate and many beaches, Miami is a year-round destination. Peak season is Jan–Apr. Rains are heaviest during hurricane season (Jun–Nov), but showers, often brief, can occur at any time. Celebrities and the contemporary art world come for Art Basel Miami Beach and its numerous satellite art fairs and events (early Dec), and Food Network chefs are the draws at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (Feb).


The Miami area was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous Native American tribes. The Tequestas occupied the area for a thousand years before encountering Europeans. An Indian village of hundreds of people dating to 500–600 B.C. was located at the mouth of the Miami River.

In 1566 admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida’s first governor, claimed the area for Spain. A Spanish mission was constructed one year later in 1567. Spain and Great Britain successively controlled Florida, and Spain ceded it to the United States in 1821. In 1836, the US built Fort Dallas as part of its development of the Florida Territory and attempt to suppress and remove the Seminole. The Miami area subsequently became a site of fighting during the Second Seminole War.

The Miami area was better known as “Biscayne Bay Country” in the early years of its growth. In the late 19th century, reports described the area as a promising wilderness. Miami was officially incorporated as a city on July 28, 1896 with a population of just over 300. It was named for the nearby Miami River, derived from Mayaimi, the historic name of Lake Okeechobee.

In 1891, a Cleveland woman named Julia Tuttle decided to move to South Florida to make a new start in her life after the death of her husband. Though she was having financial difficulties, she purchased 640 acres on the north bank of the Miami River in present-day downtown Miami. She tried to persuade railroad magnate Henry Flagler to expand his rail line, the Florida East Coast Railway, southward to the area, but he initially declined. In December 1894, Florida was struck by a freeze that destroyed virtually the entire citrus crop in the northern half of the state. A few months later, on the night of February 7, 1895, the northern part of Florida was hit by another freeze that wiped out the remaining crops and the new trees. Unlike most of the rest of the state, the Miami area was unaffected. Tuttle wrote to Flagler again, asking him to visit the area and to see it for himself. Flagler sent James Ingraham to investigate and he returned with a favorable report and a box of orange blossoms to show that the area had escaped the frost. Flagler followed up with his own visit and concluded at the end of his first day that the area was ripe for expansion. He made the decision to extend his railroad to Miami and build a resort hotel.

On April 22, 1895, Flagler wrote Tuttle a long letter recapping her offer of land to him in exchange for extending his railroad to Miami, laying out a city and building a hotel. The terms provided that Tuttle would award Flagler a 100-acre tract of land for the city to grow. Around the same time, Flagler wrote a similar letter to William and Mary Brickell, who had also verbally agreed to give land during his visit.

While the railroad’s extension to Miami remained unannounced in the spring of 1895, rumors of this possibility continued to multiply, fueling real estate activity in the Biscayne Bay area. The news of the railroad’s extension was officially announced on June 21, 1895. In late September, the work on the railroad began and settlers began pouring into the promised “freeze proof” lands. On October 24, 1895, the contract agreed upon by Flagler and Tuttle was approved. With the railroad under construction, activity in Miami began to pick up. Men from throughout Florida flocked to Miami to await Flagler’s call for workers of all qualifications to begin work on the promised hotel and city. By late December 1895, seventy-five of them already were at work clearing the site for the hotel. They lived mostly in tents and huts in the wilderness, which had no streets and few cleared paths. Many of these men were victims of the freeze, which had left both money and work scarce.

On February 1, 1896, Tuttle fulfilled the first part of her agreement with Flagler by signing two deeds to transfer land for his hotel and the 100 acres of land near the hotel site to him. The titles to the Brickell and Tuttle properties were based on early Spanish land grants and had to be determined to be clear of conflict before the marketing of the Miami lots began. On March 3, Flagler hired John Sewell from West Palm Beach to begin work on the town as more people came into Miami. On April 7, 1896, the railroad tracks finally reached Miami and the first train arrived on April 13. It was a special, unscheduled train and Flagler was on board. The train returned to St. Augustine later that night. The first regularly scheduled train arrived on the night of April 15. The first week of train service provided only for freight trains; passenger service did not begin until April 22.

On July 28, 1896, the incorporation meeting to make Miami a city took place. The right to vote was restricted to all men who resided in Miami or Dade County. Joseph A. McDonald, Flagler’s chief of construction on the Royal Palm Hotel, was elected chairman of the meeting. After ensuring that enough voters were present, the motion was made to incorporate and organize a city government under the corporate name of “The City of Miami”, with the boundaries as proposed. John B. Reilly, who headed Flagler’s Fort Dallas land company, was the first elected mayor.

Initially, most residents wanted to name the city “Flagler”. However, Henry Flagler was adamant that the new city would not be named after him. So on July 28, 1896, the City of Miami, named after the Miami River, was incorporated with 502 voters, including 100 registered black voters.[22] The blacks provided the primary labor force for the building of Miami.[citation needed] Clauses in land deeds confined blacks to the northwest section of Miami, which became known as “Colored Town” (today’s Overtown).

Miami experienced a very rapid growth up to World War II. In 1900, 1,681 people lived in Miami, Florida; in 1910, there were 5,471 people; and in 1920, there were 29,549 people. As thousands of people moved to the area in the early 20th century, the need for more land quickly became apparent. Until then, the Florida Everglades only extended to three miles west of Biscayne Bay. Beginning in 1906, canals were made to remove some of the water from those lands. Miami Beach was developed in 1913 when a two-mile  wooden bridge built by John Collins was completed. During the early 1920s, the authorities of Miami allowed gambling and were very lax in regulating prohibition, so thousands of people migrated from the northern United States to the Miami region. This caused the Florida land boom of the 1920s, when many high-rise buildings were built. Some early developments were razed after their initial construction to make way for larger buildings. The population of Miami doubled from 1920 to 1923. The nearby areas of Lemon City, Coconut Grove, and Allapattah were annexed in the fall of 1925, creating the Greater Miami area.

However, this boom began to falter due to building construction delays and overload on the transport system caused by an excess of bulky building materials. On January 10, 1926 the Prinz Valdemar, an old Danish warship on its way to becoming a floating hotel, ran aground and blocked Miami Harbor for nearly a month. Already overloaded, the three major railway companies soon declared an embargo on all incoming goods except food. The cost of living had skyrocketed and finding an affordable place to live was nearly impossible. This economic bubble was already collapsing when the catastrophic Great Miami Hurricane in 1926 swept through, ending whatever was left of the boom. The Category 4 storm was the 12th most costly and 12th most deadly to strike the United States during the 20th century. According to the Red Cross, there were 373 fatalities, but other estimates vary, due to the large number of people listed as “missing”. Between 25,000 and 50,000 people were left homeless in the Miami area. The Great Depression followed, causing more than sixteen thousand people in Miami to become unemployed. As a result, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was opened in the area.

During the mid-1930s, the Art Deco district of Miami Beach was developed. Also during this time, on February 15, 1933, an assassination attempt was made on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Roosevelt was giving a speech in Miami’s Bayfront Park, Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian anarchist, opened fire. Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was shaking hands with Roosevelt, was shot and died two weeks later. Four other people were wounded, but President-elect Roosevelt was not harmed. Zangara was quickly tried for Cermak’s murder and was executed by the electric chair on March 20, 1933 in Raiford, Florida.

Also in 1933, the Miami City Commission asked the Miami Women’s Club to create a city flag design. The flag was designed by Charles L. Gmeinder on their behalf, and adopted by City Commission in November 1933. It is unknown why the orange and green colors were selected for the flag. One theory is that the colors were inspired by the orange tree, although it should be noted that the University of Miami was already using the colors of orange and green for their sports teams since 1926.

By the early 1940s, Miami was still recovering from the Great Depression when World War II started. Though many of the cities in Florida were heavily affected by the war and went into financial ruin, Miami remained relatively unaffected. Early in the war, German U-boats attacked several American ships including the Portero del Llano, which was attacked and sunk within sight of Miami Beach in May 1942. To defend against the U-boats, Miami was placed in two military districts, the Eastern Defense Command and the Seventh Naval District.

In February 1942, the Gulf Sea Frontier was established to help guard the waters around Florida. By June of that year, more attacks forced military leaders in Washington, D.C. to increase the numbers of ships and men of the army group. They also moved the headquarters from Key West to the DuPont building in Miami. As the war against the U-boats grew stronger, more military bases sprang up in the Miami area. The U.S. Navy took control of Miami’s docks and established air stations at the Opa-locka Airport and in Dinner Key. The Air Force also set up bases in the local airports in the Miami area.

In addition, many military schools, supply stations, and communications facilities were established in the area. Rather than building large army bases to train the men needed to fight the war, the Army and Navy came to South Florida and converted hotels to barracks, movie theaters to classrooms, and local beaches and golf courses to training grounds. Overall, over five hundred thousand enlisted men and fifty thousand officers were trained in South Florida.[30] After the end of the war, many servicemen and women returned to Miami, causing the population to rise to nearly half a million by 1950.

Following the 1959 Cuban revolution that unseated Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power, most Cubans who were living in Miami returned to Cuba. Soon after, however, many middle class and upper class Cubans moved to Florida en masse with few possessions. In addition, the school systems struggled to educate the thousands of Spanish-speaking Cuban children. Many Miamians, fearing that the Cold War would become World War III, left the city, while others started building bomb shelters and stocking up on food and bottled water. Many of Miami’s Cuban refugees realized for the first time that it would be a long time before they would get back to Cuba. In 1965 alone, 100,000 Cubans packed into the twice daily “freedom flights” from Havana to Miami. Most of the exiles settled into the Riverside neighborhood, which began to take on the new name of “Little Havana”. This area emerged as a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, and Spanish speakers elsewhere in the city could conduct most of their daily business in their native tongue. By the end of the 1960s, more than four hundred thousand Cuban refugees were living in Dade County.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Attorney General’s authority was used to grant parole, or special permission, to allow Cubans to enter the country. However, parole only allows an individual permission to enter the country, not to stay permanently. To allow these immigrants to stay, the Cuban Adjustment Act was passed in 1966. This act provides that the immigration status of any Cuban who arrived since 1959 who has been physically present in the United States for at least a year “may be adjusted by the Attorney General to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence” (green card holder). The individual must be admissible to the United States (i.e., not disqualified on criminal or other grounds).

The Mariel Boatlift of 1980 brought 150,000 Cubans to Miami, the largest transport in civilian history. Unlike the previous exodus of the 1960s, most of the Cuban refugees arriving were poor, some having been released from prisons or mental institutions to make the trip. During this time, many of the middle class non-Hispanic whites in the community left the city, often referred to as the “white flight”. In 1960, Miami was 90% non-Hispanic white, but by 1990, it was only about 10% non-Hispanic white.

In the 1980s, Miami started to see an increase in immigrants from other nations, such as Haiti. As the Haitian population grew in Miami, the area known today as “Little Haiti” emerged, centered on Northeast Second Avenue and 54th Street. In 1985, Xavier Suarez was elected as Mayor of Miami, becoming the first Cuban mayor of a major city. In the 1990s, the presence of Haitians was acknowledged with Haitian Creole language signs in public places and ballots during voting.

Another major Cuban exodus occurred in 1994. To prevent it from becoming another Mariel Boatlift, the Clinton Administration announced a significant change in U.S. policy. In a controversial action, the administration announced that Cubans interdicted at sea would not be brought to the United States but instead would be taken by the Coast Guard to U.S. military installations at Guantanamo Bay or to Panama. During an eight-month period beginning in the summer of 1994, over 30,000 Cubans and more than 20,000 Haitians were interdicted and sent to live in camps outside the United States.

On September 9, 1994, the United States and Cuba agreed to normalize migration between the two countries. The agreement codified the new U.S. policy of placing Cuban refugees in safe havens outside the United States, while obtaining a commitment from Cuba to discourage Cubans from sailing to America. In addition, the United States committed to admitting a minimum of 20,000 Cuban immigrants per year. That number is in addition to the admission of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

On May 2, 1995, a second agreement with the Castro government paved the way for the admission to the United States of the Cubans housed at Guantanamo, who were counted primarily against the first year of the 20,000 annual admissions committed to by the Clinton Administration. It also established a new policy of directly repatriating Cubans interdicted at sea to Cuba. In the agreement, the Cuban government pledged not to retaliate against those who were repatriated.

These agreements with the Cuban government led to what has been called the Wet Foot-Dry Foot Policy, whereby Cubans who made it to shore could stay in the United States – likely becoming eligible to adjust to permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act. However, those who do not make it to dry land ultimately are repatriated unless they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Cuba. Because it was stated that Cubans were escaping for political reasons, this policy did not apply to Haitians, who the government claimed were seeking asylum for economic reasons.

Since then, the Latin and Caribbean-friendly atmosphere in Miami has made it a popular destination for tourists and immigrants from all over the world. It is the third-biggest immigration port in the country after New York City and Los Angeles. In addition, large immigrant communities have settled in Miami from around the globe, including Europe, Africa, and Asia. The majority of Miami’s European immigrant communities are recent immigrants, many living in the city seasonally, with a high disposable income.

Flag of Miami

also see Miami Beach


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