Italia Spring 2020 Ineffable Miami: Coral Gables by Molly Schantz

Molly Schantz is a Sophomore at the Honors College of Florida International University. She is majoring in Political Science on the Pre-Law track. After she graduates from FIU, she would like to go to law school and eventually practice environmental law. She has always believed that travel and cultural experience is the best way to get an education and being in a class where she can learn about topics outside of her major while also being outside a classroom is her ideal honors class. Molly is currently enrolled in the Honors College Italy Grand Tour Redux course and will be graduating in the spring of 2022.

Geography

Coral Gables City Limits, Photo from SmallWorldMaps.com

Coral Gables is a city on the eastern side of Miami-Dade County. It is a residential area that neighbors South Miami and Coconut Grove. The city begins at Red Road to the West and ends around Douglas Road. It is bordered on the North by Tamiami Trail/8th Street and the southernmost point is just North of the Deering Estate. Coral Gables is the home of the University of Miami as well as a multitude of desirable neighborhoods. It is also home of many multinational business headquarters and tourist landmarks such as the Biltmore Hotel.

History

Coral Gables, Photo from the Hotel Colonnade

Coral Gables was founded and developed by George Merrick in the early 1920’s. Merrick had inherited the land from his father when they were citrus groves at the time. He began to develop the groves into one of America’s first planned cities. By 1926, Coral Gables covered 10,000 acres of land and over $100,000,000 had been spent on city development. 

George Merrick, Photo from Florida Photographic Collection

George Merrick first served as the county commissioner for District 1 in 1915, where he truly made his mark by leading road construction in South Florida. Some of the most notable projects he worked on was the construction of Tamiami Trail and South Dixie Highway, also known as US-1. The projects would later be crucial in his creation and planning of Coral Gables. After his time as commissioner, he began designing the city of Coral Gables. His true passion was design and aesthetic which is why even today, Coral Gables has strict zoning and design policies and many of the buildings follow a very similar aesthetic. 

Merrick started with the 3,000 acres of land that his father left to him. He designed residential neighborhoods that catered to the growing upper middle class. Within 3 years he had designed and developed 1,000 mediterranean style homes that complimented the architecture of the historic Biltmore Hotel. He began to incorporate spanish-style architecture in his designs after that to add some diversity. The spanish-style roofing that you see on most of the homes in Coral Gables today is attributed to this. 

Coral Gables began to expand rapidly, especially with the addition of the University of Miami in 1925 which Merrick donated 600 acres to. Unfortunately the success and expansion of Coral Gables came to a halt in 1926 due to the Great Miami Hurricane and the Great Depression.  Merrick could not continue building Coral Gables as he went into debt and was asked to leave the Coral Gables Commission. 

While George Merrick is rightfully credited with the creation of Coral Gables, it is important to remember the historical context in which it was built as to not idolize him and recognize the origins. Merrick built this city with the intention of housing upper middle class white families and was even credited with saying that an ideal Miami would have all of the black people removed from the city limits. The demographics of Coral Gables in 2020 are much different than Merrick would have wanted, but it is still known as a wealthy residential part of Miami-Dade county.

Demographics

Based on 2019 Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau:

50,999 people are residents of Coral Gables. 51% of residents are female and over 50% of residents are between the ages of 18-65. 58.9% of residents identify as hispanic or latino and 34.4% identify as white alone. 39.3% of residents identify as a person not born in the United States and there are 1,202 residents that identify as veterans. There is an average of 2.59 persons per household since many are families with children. 96.1% of residents ages 25+have a high school diploma and 65.5% of those residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median household income for the residents of Coral Gables is $100,000 which attributes to the city’s stigma of being catered to the upper middle class. 

Interview of Susan Becker, Coral Gables Resident

Susan Becker, picture courtesy of her daughter, Julie Becker.

Susan is a Miami native. She attended Coral Gables Senior High School where she met her husband Irwin, another Miami native. They raised three children in South Miami and moved to a condo in the Gables in 2002 and have been there ever since.

Molly: What first attracted you to Coral Gables?

Susan: Location, location, location. It was easy access to everywhere; the airport, downtown, Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne (which is where my husband was working at the time.

Molly: In your opinion, what has changed the most within Coral Gables since you have lived here?

Susan: Population density. It feels like the population has at least doubled since we first moved here. There is a lot of congestion now.

Molly: If you could change anything about the city, what would it be?

Susan: Honestly, the synchronization of the traffic lights. I know it sounds trivial, but it feels like only in Coral Gables, none of the traffic lights coincide with one another. It causes a lot of unnecessary traffic.

Landmarks

The Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel, photo from Booking.com

The Biltmore Hotel is part of the Bowman-Biltmore Hotels chain. The name is derived from the Vanderbilt family and their Biltmore Estate which is now a mass tourist attraction in Asheville, North Carolina. The hotel was built in 1926 by John Bowman and George Merrick. At the time it was built, it was the tallest building in Miami, modeled after Giralda which is the medieval tower of the cathedral of Seville. The Biltmore Hotel was a place of luxury since its grand opening gala. It exemplified George Merrick’s aesthetic dream of mixing Italian, Spanish, and Mediterranean architecture with the lush landscaping abilities of the South Florida climate. In 1996 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. To this day it remains a high end hotel to host tourists and important figures that come to Miami from all around the world.

Venetian Pool

Venetian Pool, photo from coralgables.com

George Merrick designed the Venetian Pool to be a community hangout for residents that would go along with his idealistic small-town paradise that he had created for the City of Coral Gables. It was originally a rock quarry, but transformed in 1924 and renamed the “Venetian Casino” where it is reported that A-list visitors and celebrities would convene at when they were in town. The pool as we know it today, was created in 1989 as the need for a neighborhood casino became minor and a pool seemed to fit the family-centric lifestyle of the city. Some of the original limestone from when it was a rock quarry still makes up the surface of the pool. The Venetian Pool is the only pool on the National Register of Historic Places which makes it a hot tourist destination and makes quite a bit of revenue for the city every year. Admission fees range from $8-$13 and the pool is also available to rent for birthday parties or special events. They also have the Venetian Aquatic Club which offers swim classes and lifeguard certification and first aid courses.

The merrick house

The Merrick House, photo from Miamism.com

The Merrick House is the childhood home of George Merrick, the creator of Coral Gables. George Merrick’s father owned citrus groves behind the home. Those groves are the first pieces of land that Merrick used to build the City of Coral Gables. The house is now on the National Registry of Historic Places and offers tours to visitors of the home and 14 rooms inside. The house has been refurbished to its 1920’s state and filled with furniture and artwork that the Merrick family originally owned. General admission is $5 and tours are offered three times per day. Tourists can also schedule private tours with at least a two weeks notice. The house is closed to the public for the time being in cooperation with the Stay-At-Home order in place, but as soon as the order is lifted I would be interested in taking a tour after doing this research on George Merrick and his family.

Green

Coral Gables has more green spaces and a larger Parks and Recreation Department than I had first assumed. According to the Coral Gables Parks and Rec open space inventory, there are over 50 open green spaces within the city limits. Most of the land past SW 88th Street that is encompassed by Coral Gables is green space. For a comprehensive list of green spaces, visit http://www.CoralGables.com and see the Community Recreation department. I’ve highlighted some of the largest green spaces and my personal favorites below.

Granada golf course

Granada Golf Course, photo from CoralGables.com

The Granada Golf Course was designed and opened in 1923, before Coral Gables was even a city. Granada is the oldest operating nine-hole golf course in all of Florida. Anyone is allowed to play, but residents/members of the golf course get cheaper play rates. The golf course is 6,700 yards of green space and has a 1.8 mile radius. While it serves as a golf course year-round, it has been serving as a space for outdoor recreation during this pandemic. Hundreds of residents can be seen everyday creating their own outdoor gyms on the course or biking and jogging on the outskirts of the green. It is interesting to see how a privately owned golf course has become a public recreation park during this time of isolation and hardship.

Matheson hammock park

Matheson Hammock Park, photo from Trip Advisor

Matheson Hammock Park opened in the late 1930’s and has since become one of the most treasured county parks in Miami-Dade. It marks the southernmost part of Coral Gables and spreads across 630 acres of the coast of Miami. The design of the park is very intentional so that an individual or family could spend an entire day there doing different activities. There are hiking trails, biking trails, and natural swimming pools that are safe to swim in. There is also the full service Matheson Hammock Marina where visitors can rent canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards. They also offer powerboat lessons. The park includes Matheson Beach and a fishing pier as well as picnic benches and grills. It is a good distance from central Coral Gables and wasn’t created by George Merrick to be a part of his utopic city. It actually had nothing to do with Merrick at all. William Matheson donated the first 85 acres to begin the project and William Phillips put the park into fruition.

Fairchild tropical botanic garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, photo from FairchildGarden.org

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens opened in 1938. Dr. David Fairchild was a renowned plant explorer and scientist and chose to retire in Miami in 1935 after a long prestigious career. Combining the brain power of Fairchild, environmentalist Robert Montgomery, county commissioner Charles Crandon, and architect William Phillips, the Fairchild Gardens were born. Many of the plants featured in the gardens were collected by Dr. Fairchild during his travels. Major expansions of the garden happened post World War II, but the first few years were dedicated to building up the plant species diversity and using the acreage available to showcase tropical plants year round. In 1984 the garden became a member of the Center for Plant Conservation. After hurricane Andrew in 1992, the garden’s mission shifted slightly and has since been focusing on the preservation of native plants in South Florida as well as the identification of invasive species and how they arrive here. The Fairchild Gardens are also located in the southern part of Coral Gables, right across from Matheson Hammock Park. The gardens are another example of a successful part of the city that was not created by George Merrick and exemplifies the diverse landscape within the city limits of Coral Gables.

Transportation

Coral Gables Trolley

Coral Gables Trolley, photo from CoralGables.com

The Coral Gables Trolley is a free transportation service. The trolley began its route in 2003, managed by the Miami-Dade County Half Penny Transportation Surtax, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The trolley has two main routes. One goes up and down Ponce De Leon Boulevard, starting at the Douglas Metrorail Station and going all the way to Flagler Street. The other is the Grande Avenue Loop Route which starts at the Douglas Metrorail Station and has four main stopping points which create a loop and ends back at the station. Both routes run every 15 minutes from 6:30am-8:00pm Monday through Friday. In 2017, the trolley service began operating on holidays excluding Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. According to CoralGables.com, the trolley provides free transportation to around 5,000 people every day.

Freebee

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Freebee Trolley in Coral Gables, image from ridefreebee.com gallery

Freebee is a transportation service company based in South Florida. It is an app that allows you to request a ride similar to Uber or Lyft, but minus the cost. Freebee is completely free for riders as the company has partnerships with the cities that it serves. The City of Coral Gables partnered with Freebee to offer more environmentally conscious transportation methods and reduce traffic congestion in conjunction with the free trolley service. Freebee is more accessible than the trolley as it operates on weekends, but the hours are 10am-10pm every day.

Both the trolley and Freebee are innovative and beneficial to the environment and the city, but I believe they should be implemented in neighborhoods where free transportation is more of a necessity. The demographic of residents in Coral Gables is not one of poverty or misfortune. Most residents have cars and have the income to afford personal transportation. In regards to environmental impact, it is crucial to have carpool services and green transportation services no matter where you are, and I hope other cities and counties take notice of these transportation methods and implement them where they are needed and less as a luxury service.

Food

The majority of the dining options in Coral Gables are high end restaurants that cater to the upper middle class, as the neighborhood was originally intended. There are some fast casual chains opening up every once in a while, but the general trend is upscale dining experiences. In general, Coral Gables lacks the Hispanic flare of Miami that most other neighborhoods are identified by and this is prevalent in the style of restaurants. The lack of Latin food doesn’t have to discredit the local restaurants that do exist in the Gables.

Orantique on the mile

Orantique on the Mile, photo from Urban Dining Guide

Orantique is a family-owned Caribbean restaurant opened in 1999. The Hutson family opened the restaurant to create a fine dining Caribbean experience. The inspiration comes from owner Cindy Hutson’s travel experience in the Caribbean. Known for its unique cocktails and island decor, Orantique stands out from many of its surrounding restaurants. It is one of the only Caribbean restaurants in Coral Gables yet the owners are American. The restaurant has fantastic reviews, I just found it interesting that it may be branded as authentic simply because there is no comparison within the area. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they are closed and I wasn’t able to try the food, but as soon as they reopen I plan on trying it out. My grandparents who are residents of Coral Gables speak highly of Orantique so I will take their word for now.

Threefold CAfe

Threefold Cafe, photo by The Hungry Post

Opened in 2014 in Coral Gables, Threefold has become a staple in Coral Gables. It is trendy, family friendly, and partners with other local Miami businesses such as Zak the Baker. Since they opened in the Gables, Threefold has opened two other locations in Miami. This is one of my personal favorite places to eat in Coral Gables. The food is really consistent and most of their food, including the coffee, is locally sourced which I appreciate. My family all the way from my grandparents to my baby cousins like going to Threefold as they have options for everyone. Threefold Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch, but not for dinner as they close at 4pm daily. I am a big avocado toast fan and I highly recommend trying theirs, it is amazing and they use bread from Zak the Baker.

Caffe Abbracci

Group photo of Nino, Eduardo, Mauro and Loris
Caffe Abbracci Owners, photo from CaffeAbbracci.com

Caffe Abbracci is one of the most well known local establishments in Coral Gables. Opened in 1989 by Nino Pernetti, Caffe Abbracci serves authentic Italian meals to regular locals as well as guests from all over the world including three U.S. Presidents and two sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justices. Nino Pernetti started as a barista in his hometown of Lake Garda, Italy. He traveled around the world to 15 different countries working for hotels and restaurants before he landed in Miami to which he claims is the most international city in the world and thus the perfect place to have a restaurant. Caffe Abbracci has 16 employees that have been there since the start in 1989 which contributes to their success and consistency. This is my grandparents favorite restaurant to order take-out from which has really come in handy during the Stay-At-Home order imposed by Governor Ron Desantis. Before the pandemic, I would always see the restaurant packed with people every night and I hope things return that way once life is back to normal.

Businesses

Commercial development in Coral Gables began to boom in the 1950’s with the addition of Miracle Mile. Also know as “the Mile”, it is essentially a strip of restaurants and commercial businesses that cater to residents and tourists alike. At the time of major construction in the late 50’s and early 60’s, many of the original architecture guidelines were broken and high rises were built and store fronts we constructed without the consistent mediterranean architecture of the residences first designed by George Merrick. Some of the businesses have been around for 50+ years while others are up and coming trendy companies that are appealing to the younger population of Coral Gables.

Actor’s playhouse at the miracle theatre

The Miracle Theatre, photo from Cinema Treasures

The Miracle Theatre first opened in 1948 in Coral Gables. It was a neighborhood movie theater with 1600 seats. It went through multiple name changes, but remained successful as a movie house up until 1990 when the City of Coral Gables purchased the theatre and began renovations to make it into a performing arts center in conjunction with a local theatre company called the Actor’s Playhouse. In 1995, the movie theater permanently closed and became the Actor’s Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre. As commercial movie theaters became more and more popular, the success of a neighborhood movie theater decreased so I believe transforming it into a performing arts center was appropriate for the time. The one thing that to this day hasn’t changed, is the iconic art deco “Miracle” sign out front of the theatre.

As a kid I remember seeing performances of Annie and The Wizard of Oz at the Actor’s Playhouse and I have wonderful memories of the place. Not only do they offer performances, but the Actors Playhouse offers a full schedule of Theatre Conservatory classes as well as their youth summer camp (which, yes, I also attended as a child and played the Cheshire Cat in a rendition of Alice in Wonderland).

Books & Books

Books & Books, photo courtesy of Books & Books

Books & Books is an eclectic independently owned bookstore located in Downtown Coral Gables. Mitchell Kaplan opened Books & Books in 1982 with the purpose of creating more than just a bookstore. The historical context of Miami at the time of its opening is interesting to look at. Immigration was booming and hundreds of thousands of families were left living in tent cities attempting to integrate into society and immigrant children were not acclimated into the current education system. From the beginning, Kaplan had free and public poetry readings and literature events within the bookstore which created a name for Books & Books as being a community space and cultural hub. Books & Books is one of the few places in Coral Gables that does not signify the luxurious upper class nature of the city. It is simply a place where you can read books, buy books, see monthly art exhibits, hear authors read their books, hear and perform poetry, and much more. It is also one of the only places in Coral Gables that offers free live music. Books & Books is one of my favorite places not just in Coral Gables, but Miami as a whole.

Bellissima Bridal

Miami's 18 Best Bridal Stores for Wedding Dresses and Accessories ...
Bellissima Bridal, photo from Racked Miami

There are tons of bridal shops in Coral Gables, it almost feels overwhelming. I wanted to highlight Bellissima Bridal because they are a family-owned company that has been designing and selling wedding dresses and formal attire for over 75 years. Up until 2007, they operated without a true storefront, but the Coral Gables location is there only bridal salon. They pride themselves in being a family company as well as the clients they serve internationally. Bellissima has employees that are fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in order to accommodate to their may clients that come to visit the shop from all over Latin America. Bellissima Bridal is a great example of a growing business in Coral Gables that caters to the ever-expanding tourist industry, rather than just residents.

Summary

Miami carries a heavy stigma worldwide of what it should be; diverse demographics, world renowned night life, skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and beaches. While some areas of Miami do include all of those things, it’s important to recognize the cities and neighborhoods within it that don’t fit the stereotypes. Coral Gables is essentially a utopian small-town that clashes with all different spectrums of Miami. It is nothing like Midtown or Miami Beach while it is equally nothing like Homestead or Westchester.

Coral Gables has been an up and coming neighborhood ever since it was created and has been successful in living up to its name- The City Beautiful. Some things that Coral Gables does well that should be a model for other communities is definitely the transportation services and green spaces. The implementation of a free trolley and a free ride-share service has benefitted Coral Gables environmentally and with street congestion. Free transportation lifts a financial burden off many people which would be beneficial no matter what neighborhood you live in. Coral Gables is home to many national landmarks as well as lush green spaces within its residential and commercial areas. The inclusion of Matheson Hammock Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens make Coral Gables a popular destination for tourists and also a neighborhood in high demand for residents and future residents.

Within all its luxury and aesthetic uniformity, it’s important to look past the beauty and attraction of the city and consider its problematic uprise. Coral Gables was created with the intention of catering to wealthy people and upper middle class families. It was also created with the intention of pushing black people out and essentially “purifying” the demographics of the residents. This gentrification is deeply rooted in history and hard to change. I think it’s interesting that George Merrick has so many namesakes and people visit his childhood home to learn about him when he would be considered very problematic by todays standard. He created his ideal community which excluded so many people in the surrounding communities and to this day, Coral Gables is not very accepting of those same people. There will always be “rich” and “poor” neighborhoods everywhere, but it is unfortunate that Coral Gables was created with the intention of gentrification of the area. It is a high end neighborhood set right in between areas that my mom wasn’t allowed to ride her bike around as a kid because it was considered the ghetto or a “bad neighborhood”.

Despite the discrepancies in its formation, The City of Coral Gables is a beautiful neighborhood with important historical context and I recommend taking a visit to see what it’s all about.

Citations

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