There’s this one shot in Haddon Hall, a new book of images from the photographer Naomi Harris, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It seems unremarkable: just an older gentleman sitting on one of those uncomfortable plastic-banded chairs. It’s sometime in the 1990s. He’s dressed neatly: blue slacks, tasseled loafers, and a cardigan. There’s something funny about his reading material: a newspaper with a mushroom cloud in some desert and “Millenium: Survival Guide 2000” underneath it. It’s sunny because he’s in Miami and that’s sort of the city’s thing. But there are also a lot of signs of decay around the guy: cracks in the sidewalk, scuff marks on the furniture. It has this deep paradise falling apart quality, only the guy, who is at least 80, seems at peace with everything decaying around him. And why wouldn’t he be? “Name one place in America where people on a fixed income could afford to live like that today,” Harris asked me in a recent phone call. I had no answer. Miami was really it. And while Harris says it’s hardly the city she lived in and photographed a quarter of a century ago, to me, there’s no place that has remained so constantly itself.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in and out of Miami. Whenever the topic of Florida comes up, I usually weigh in with “Florida is one thing. Miami is another,” and then try to defend the city that I’ve come to love. But lately, even as the weather turns to fall everywhere else, I can’t help but see the Miaminess of things all over.
The Miami thing is tough to pin down because it’s not really about a particular sound or look—it’s not the artists and anarchists of downtown New York in the late ‘80s, nor the Bistro Vibes of Los Angeles in the mid ‘90s. At the risk of sounding like somebody who has been abducted by some sun-drenched cult, it is really a state of mind. A sort of bliss when nothing is truly blissful—not unlike that old guy in the Harris photo reading about a possible apocalypse in his little decaying corner of the world. It’s the Miami of Harris’s Haddon Hall, but also the city portrayed in a new photography book by the photographer Godlis, focused on his trip there in 1974; and while Gillian Laub’s lauded new book and show Family Matters is focused on her clan from the suburbs outside of New York City, one of the standout shots, of her liver-spotted grandma’s hand grabbing her husband’s tight animal print bathing suit-covered “tush” by the pool is instantly recognizable to anybody who grew up visiting their grandparents condo in Miami. It’s A24 movies drenched in neon. It’s the beautiful but baffling feeling of a reunited Jen and Ben holding each other while looking out at the water in their rented mansion. It’s young snowbirds flocking to the southernmost Carbone outpost while there’s still a pandemic. It’s famous interior designer Lenny Kravitz.
That last one might seem the most off, given that people might not think of Lenny Kravitz as a guy you call for home decor advice. But with his new collaboration with CB2, the guy shows that he’d got a pretty good eye with a collection full of jaguar prints, velvet and plenty of stuff that looks like it could show up in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie set in the 1970s. According to Kravitz, the collection is inspired by his travels across the world, but his design skills have been honed in Miami over the last decade—from his Florida Room in the Delano Hotel to the Paramount Bay condos, which went into a $262 million foreclosure before Kravitz jumped on board, eventually finishing the project and selling something described as “blending resort-life with urban cool.” Nothing sounds more ideal these days.
Of course, condo units starting out around $700k and selling for close to four million are hardly part of Harris’s old weird Miami. They’re indicative of the “new” Miami, another metropolis that cleaned up, built up, and kicked out a lot of what made the place cool and interesting in the first place. But while Kravitz’s tastes might be globally influenced, it’s hard to escape the Miami vibes of a beautiful cocaine white sectional or wood and metal dining chairs designed by Lenny Kravitz. Self-serious kitsch has always been a hallmark of Miami, and even as the city gets bigger and more expensive, and welcomes all manner of crypto weenies and finance dingbats, the tacky cool vibe will always remain. (In fact, those crypto guys will definitely contribute to it.) It will always be part of the allure. Miami doesn’t feel like any one place; it is a blend of cultures coming together at the end of America. There’s definitely a metaphor there, but it never felt quite as relevant as it does these days. Maybe we aren’t at an end, but it feels like we’re stuck waiting around for…something, but we aren’t sure what. Nothing feels certain. In a way, that’s also very Miami, where an sense of uncertainty is built into the place that feels like it’s dangerously close to sinking into the ocean.
Flux often works against other cities, but in Miami’s case, it keeps the weirdness flowing like endless cups of Café Bustelo. “The population turns over frequently,” says Miami native Alfred Spellman. “Few who live here are from here and few who live here now will be here ten years from now.” Spellman is partners with director Billy Corben in the production company Rakontur. Together, they’ve been telling stories of the city’s seedier side for the last 20 years. Their filmography includes documentaries on the city’s club scene, the rise and fall of the University of Miami’s football team, and, most notably, the cocaine trade. This past August, Netflix started streaming their latest installment, the six-part docuseries Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami. Spellman believes that Miami’s reputation as a place for transients makes the place what it is. “We’ve always been a magnet for dreamers and schemers and swindlers and fast-buck artists.”
That might not sound very complimentary, but there’s an honesty there that’s been lacking in our modern culture. Miami holds a grip on many of us in the same way Joan Didion’s “Golden Dream” of Southern California did for other people—the perfect balance of light and utter darkness. Some of us have a personal connection to the place, either as our own home or the place we went to visit our grandparents who spoke better Yiddish or Spanish than English. There will always be books or movies set there, and photo books like Haddon Hall or Godlis: Miami will always work because Miami is a beautiful place. More than that, the city is where we want to be when it feels like there’s nowhere better to go. It’s a place where we can be that old guy in the photo from the 1990s, just sitting around while a possible calamity is on the horizon.