Eve Siebert is a second year Honors College student at Florida International University, graduating in Spring 2021. She is majoring in psychology with a focus on behavior analysis, and is interested in working with children with autism and other developmental disorders. She was born in raised in Broward County, Florida and currently lives in Miami. She hopes to explore the cultural roots of Miami through her Miami as Texts written below.
“Multicultural Segregation” by Eve Siebert of FIU at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Most Miami locals know Vizcaya as an ideal spot to take beautiful photos or host an event. Often, little thought is put into the history or significance of the beautiful museum and gardens. Prior to this visit, I knew almost nothing about the estate and just thought of it as a beautiful Miami landmark- nothing more nothing less. Now I see it as a place of great depth, with conflicting ideals.
Vizcaya was first conceptualized in 1910 by James Deering and Paul Chaflin as a grand mansion inspired by multicultural influences. The art, architecture, and landscaping design draw from French, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Spanish, and Egyptian styles. Vizcaya seamlessly blends these cultures to form one cohesive idea. With its lovely pastel colors, vast gardens, and stunning oceanfront view, it is truly a splendid spot.
Despite it’s overwhelming beauty, though, there are secret dark undertones that lay within the history of the estate. The Deering family clearly came from great wealth- that much is obvious to anyone. Wealth of that magnitude may give way not only to immense beauty, but also immense disparity. This is best exemplified by those who originally built and maintained the lands.
Approximately ten percent of the population of Miami at the time is said to have worked on building the mansion. These people were mostly from Afro-Caribbean cultures, and were mostly lower class. Despite relying on these people to create and maintain Vizcaya, James Deering knew he wanted to also keep them out, so much so that he attempted to build a moat around the grounds. When the moat failed, he filled it with cacti. A clear line was drawn in the sand- the poor were not meant to enjoy the beauty of Vizcaya. Those who were allowed in, as servants and workers, were to be made discreet. Deering even had the servants quarters floored with cork to keep the sound of footsteps to a minimum.
Regardless of its flaws, Vizcaya is a unique personification of Miami culture. In all its beauty, all its multiculturalism, and all its segregation, Vizcaya is both exquisite and imperfect. It is neither all good nor all bad. Like most things in life, it lies in a gray area. It is, however, the perfect introduction to the complexity of Miami culture and history.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Eve Siebert at MOAD
The Freedom Tower is culturally and historically significant to Miami in many ways. It represents Cuban immigration, Operation Peter Pan, and the “American Dream” ideal. Originally constructed as a home for The Miami News, this landmark has always remained an integral part of Miami culture.
Now owned by Miami Dade College, the Freedom Tower houses the Museum of Art and Design. Our class visited the museum and viewed the “Kislak Center: Culture and Change in the Early Americas [Ongoing]” exhibit. This exhibit houses artifacts from indigenous people all over the Americas, as well as maps and writings from European conquerors. Not surprisingly, these European documents tend to romanticize the role of Columbus and those who followed him in conquering and colonizing the Americas. As in many cases in history, we see the use of religion as a justification for human atrocities.
However, one thing that stuck out to me was the manifestation of what the colonizers sought in America: gold. The indigenous people had no idea of the value the “Old World” had assigned to this substance which they had in abundance. To them it was simply a beautiful material from which they could make jewelry and other artifacts. Little did they know, it would essentially lead to their destruction. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s well-known poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. In the Americas, this line was literally true.
The only reason gold has any value behind it is because humans have collectively decided to assign it value. It does not feed us, provide us shelter, or have any practical use. Yet we massacred entire populations over it. The horror and the beauty of this exhibit served as a reminder to me to assess my values. Is money worth people’s lives?
“Natural Beauty” at Deering Estate
Deering Estate is another historical site, similar to Vizcaya. One of the main differences that stuck out to me while reading this walking tour was the focus on nature preservation versus maintenance of more manicured gardens. While Vizcaya is absolutely stunning, and it does have some elements of a natural landscape, it is very clearly designed and maintained by human input. The lands at Deering Estate however, are more free-growing and natural. Deering Estate has nature preserves, fossil sites, and Biscayne Bay estuaries that are beautiful in there own, untouched ways.
In particular, the waterfront features of Deering Estate struck me. I love kayaking, and now I know I have to try kayaking there! Also, the boat basin, with its ocean wildlife, sounds incredible. It’s amazing to me how beautiful nature can be when left to its own devices.
All of this connected back to one focal point for me: the Tequestas. A civilization we know little about, they are our geographical ancestors. Part of me can’t help but wonder- how did they survive in the brutal Miami environment without modern conveniences or more permanent settlements? The Deering Estate gives an idea of that.
The Tequesta Midden gives a peek into the lives of these native people. You can see the tools they made from shells, and imagine what their lives were like. It’s really amazing to be able to feel a connection to a people who were made extinct long before you were even imagined. It’s also heartbreaking to remember why they no longer exist.
“Ugly History of a Beautiful Place” at South Beach
Regrettably, despite living in Miami for the past few years and being from Broward County, I have only visited South Beach a handful of times. While I have always loved the Art Deco, the restaurants, and of course the beach, the traffic and tourists were sometimes a turnoff for me, and I didn’t always make the effort to visit there. I can promise that once COVID-19 passes, I will be visiting far more often.
South Beach is one of the most well known beaches in the world. It is famous for its wide boardwalk, Art Deco style buildings, and beautiful beach. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the architecture of South Beach, and the historic preservation of its unique style. I had no idea that the Art Deco of South Beach was so unique! I also had never heard of the Betsy Poetry Rail, and that is somewhere that I definitely would love to visit.
However, as usual, when learning about the history of a place, you often learn some dark things. I had no idea about the severity of Jewish discrimination in Miami. It’s easier to forget the ugly history of a beautiful place.
Additionally, I was completely under the impression that Miami Beach was relatively uninhabited prior to development, and that the natural landscape was severe. Reading this, I almost feel guilty for thinking this way. I had no idea the island was home to so many before us. First the Tequestas, then the Seminoles, then a multicultural civilization of blacks and whites. As we often see in history, development can give way to beautiful new things, like the Art Deco and sandy beaches. But at what cost? Who is to say that South Beach today is better than what it was in the past? I’m sure the inhabitants of the past would not.
“Convenient Antiracism” at HistoryMiami
One of the first things that struck me while reading the walking tour of HistoryMiami Museum was how far back Miami’s history really goes. In my 13 years of Florida public schooling we learned about the history of Florida, but it always started around the time of Ponce de Leon. Of course I knew that native civilizations came before the European colonizers, but I always had the impression the South Florida had a relatively limited history. Something about the ever-evolving culture and modern buildings of Miami doesn’t scream “Historic” to me. But after reading this walking tour I feel that I have a better idea of the true history of Miami: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The next thing that stuck out to me was the lie of multiculturalism; while Miami has always been a multicultural city, it has not always been accepting of all cultures. Far from it, in fact, Miami has a history of discrimination and racism just like any other American city.
The phrase that came to mind for me was “convenient antiracism”. The part of history that best highlighted that for me was in 1896, when black men were allowed to vote to incorporate Miami as a city, and then immediately returned back to their oppression. That’s the thing about discrimination- oppressors have the power to choose when it’s most convenient for them to give others rights.
Miami, like every American city, has its dark moments in history. We cannot glorify the past, but we should not disparage it either. The heartbreaking, ugly, and hidden bits of history are what have culminated and led to what Miami is today. Integrating history with your present views of a place is the best way to understand it for what it really is. I have enjoyed learning about Miami in a way that I have never had the opportunity to do before this class. My perspective has changed greatly, but I am happy to say that despite its flaws I still think Miami is a beautiful, if misunderstood, city, and there is no place I’d rather be.