Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
South Florida is a Land of
Great Extremes

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000

South Florida thinks it's a thousand different places -- and in many ways it is. It's super-rich and super-poor: Just try to find a bigger American income gap than Palm Beach versus Belle Glade.

It's three counties whose economic development arms have been notorious for poaching companies from each other; a recently-proclaimed cease-fire has yet to prove its durability.

It's plagued by a balkanized news business, say critics, because so many stories -- unless they're on corruption or a disaster -- fail to cross county lines. (And when it comes to Cuba-related news, say many, English and Spanish-speaking media routinely depict quite different worlds).

And for undisguised alienation -- "we're not like them" talk -- South Florida offers perhaps the most county-to-county, group-to-group divisiveness of any major region in America.

As visitors, we were several times treated to South Florida's unique humor "What are the two land features on Earth so prominent astronauts can see them from outer space?" Answer: "The Great Wall of China and the Broward County line."

Or Miami residents going to parties in Broward or Palm Beach only to be greeted by a presumably good-natured "Welcome to the United States!" Yet as vivid as South Florida's differences are, it is also one region. Its 4.7 million people share one environment, one narrow sliver of land wedged between the Atlantic and the Everglades. Hundreds of thousands of them cross county lines for work, education or recreation every day. Transportation systems -- roads, rails, ports, airports -- are inextricably intertwined.

And South Floridians share more: a startling opportunity.

Opportunity knocks

As we wrote last week, entrepreneurs exploiting an Internet gateway role for the region, along with the growing base of Latin- and Caribbean-oriented entertainment products and a vast array of services, represent a radically expanded way for this region to make its living.

But can South Florida turn its remarkable diversity to advantage?

The region has been, and remains, subject to powerful forces of migration.

Will Broward and Palm Beach become as multi-ethnic as Miami-Dade today? Projections are hard to find -- or trust. What we know is that the momentum, as this global century dawns, is toward dramatically more mixed ethnicities.

A generation ago, Miami-Dade's only significant ethnic split was black-white. Latest estimates suggest the county is now 56 percent Hispanic. Nothing exempts Broward (now 13 percent Hispanic) and Palm Beach (10 percent) from that same velocity of change in the years ahead.

It is unlikely that either Broward or Palm Beach will ever have the high numbers of Cuban migrants. Even in Miami-Dade, the Cuban share of the Hispanic population has peaked as more and more migrants, from every nation from Columbia to Venezuela to Nicaraugua, pour in.

This means everyone -- Cuban-Americans included -- need to be ready for a century of hemisphere-wide ties, thousands of daily contacts to the Caribbean and Latin America by dozens of ethnic and nationality groups.

With such a diverse and volatile society, can South Florida gain the consensus it needs to move ahead economically?

We believe it can -- but only if makes its multicultural society into a strength.

That means abandoning fear or distrust of neighbors beyond the gate or across the tracks. And increasing understanding that appreciation of each other cultures is critical to bridging social chasms.

Divergent people forge a common destiny, a viable region in the new world economy, by talking. By rubbing shoulders. By getting to know each other. Below the radar line of popular media coverage, a lot of that shoulder rubbing is occurring in South Florida today. The community foundations, many nonprofits and faith communities have pushed hard to encourage tolerance and respect.

But too few government leaders have risked their political capital, or business leaders their prestige, either to decry ethnic divisions or to champion a region-wide vision that would highlight South Floridians' deep common interests. It's been done before

Check out other great North American regions -- from New York to Dallas-Fort Worth, Toronto to Atlanta, Chicago to Seattle. All have their history of ethnic, income, city vs. suburb differences -- some quite deep. But all have found ways to develop more mature ways to dialogue and collaborate. Take the San Francisco city-state's four-year old Bay Area Partnership begun by a regional business group and a federal official. The partners include the United Way and business-led Bay Area Council and no less than 10 county governments, 15 nonprofits, and another 20 state and independent agencies, universities and school districts. The 46 most impoverished neighborhoods, city and suburban, have been pinpointed for breakfast and extended school-day programs. A "Capital for Communities" program provides a bridge between CDCs -- community development corporations -- and mainstream financial circles. Performance benchmarks are now used to gauge Bay Area-wide changes in health, child care, transportation, work-force development.

Does this mean there's gushy love among the Bay Area's ethnic, nationality, income groups? Of course not. But the partnerships do represent a strong start at understanding, and mutual respect. We received many thoughtful letters from readers suggesting South Florida's sun and surf tradition and hedonistic appeal, plus a constant flow of newcomers from divergent cultures, make shared civic life an almost unnatural act. There's at least a grain of truth in the description of South Florida culture we received in a letter from Peter Forrest, a Miami-Dade County resident:

"South Florida's historically been a transient, escapist place drawing the loosely connected, disaffected, (exploitative), socially weary from the rest of the U.S., and now the world. Beginning with Henry Flagler, Florida has attracted the snowbirds, bankruptees, divorce seekers and refugees from society. These were not the builders and contributors, although there were stable and contributing people among them. Miami itself began as a wild and lawless place populated by rogues and drifters. The tradition continues to today where we find the rules of civil behavior and social responsibility largely missing." It would be fair to reply, though, that the entire United States was initially settled by the misfits, social or religious, from European and other cultures. In time, misfits often become community pillars. Miami-Dade today is clearly more tumultuous, its civil society tenuous, than Broward or Palm Beach Counties, precisely because its migration is so massive, so diverse.

Today thousands of South Floridians clearly yearn for stable communities. In their own lives and associations, community groups, charities, churches and synagogues and mosques, they're seeking to build them.

Good example, mate

And while many South Floridians seem to dread rapid ethnic change, there are world models of where diversity was embraced, with immense shared benefit. Take Australia. Like pre-Cuban Miami, this community was once a place of bland white homogeneity except for its black folks -- Aborigines. Then, in the 1970s, "white Australia" shifted course, opened its immigration gates. Sydney in particular became a rich mélange of peoples from such far-flung spots as Lebanon, Chile, Greece, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. Roughly 15 percent of the people of New South Wales (Sydney's state) now speak a language other than English at home -- most commonly Italian, Greek, Arabic, Lebanese, Chinese or Spanish. Today, leading Sydneysiders not only acknowledge rising multiculturalism in their city-state and across Australia, but celebrate it as a force behind their economic success.

Sydney leaders now boast that their city-state has 40 percent of Australia's speakers of Malaysian, Japanese and other Asian languages.

The model for South Florida is compelling: celebrate, build on your diversity for a successful new century. Tom Watkins of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County puts the case another way. If South Floridians would only "open their eyes and join forces across gated communities and provincial city-county lines," says Watkins, "immense creativity, synergy, energy and possibilities could be unleashed."