I don’t live in Miami anymore, but my longing for the city has consumed me ever since I left last year. The appeal of urban life has only grown stronger each month since the onset of the pandemic, and I’m aching to return to the restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues I’ve so dearly missed throughout quarantine. I know I’m not alone in this desire for the energy of downtown: the excitement in the air in my personal urban backyard is palpable as tourists, college students, and teens make their way back to the city.
But alongside this vibrant social scene exists a harsh reality of displacement and affordable housing loss for community residents—one that is seldom acknowledged by Miami’s most loyal partygoers and frequently forgotten by tourists amidst the spectacle of the city’s nightlife. As Miami’s party hubs gain popularity, so too does our culture of worshipping luxury development, accepting the deterioration of historic communities, and internalizing the disparity between urban lifestyles as the norm.
For decades, the construction of the city’s opulent buildings and the speculative investment in the areas around them has increased rent, displaced long-time residents, and bolstered the profits of wealthy developers at the expense of communities like Liberty City, Little Haiti, Little Havana, and more. Housing insecurity has only worsened since the onset of the pandemic: tens of thousands of residents have lost their jobs and are expected to be heavily burdened by the cost of rent. This trend goes far beyond Miami. In New York, a fifth of tenants could not pay rent last September. In Los Angeles, the construction of the city’s “hipster haven” coupled with speculative buying has poised residents for an affordable housing crisis.
As much as I hate the title “hipster,” I’ll admit I was exactly the type of person that Miami’s hipster venues aimed to attract when I moved to the city over a year ago. Local politics was the last thing on my mind as I worshipped the city’s alien architecture, its sleek cafes, and its beachside party life. During the day, I remember making my way to the city center to gawk at the luxury mall built at its heart. At night, I would head to a party or one of Miami’s infamous bars, lured by the thrumming base emanating from their windowless walls and the promise of passing intimacy I could find within them.
I only slowly began to see Miami’s history of racist and classist violence, which has created communities segregated by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The modern consequences of redlining—the practice of labeling minority and low-income neighborhoods as “high-risk,” excluding them from homeownership, and leaving these zones prone to neglect—revealed themselves in every new locale I explored.
At night, the legacies of this past could be hidden by the foggy air, glowing light pollution, and otherworldly aura that hung above the rooftops of my favorite city spots. But during the day, the sun’s glare showed me the dual nature of the city. The first time I visited Miami’s club avenue in the morning, the street looked so different that I didn’t recognize it. Located on the city’s edge, the road marked the boundary between the looming skyscrapers of central Miami and a series of dilapidated buildings and rubble piles that laid at its outer fringes. Blankets strewn over the pavement next to me served as beds for people who lived on this road.
I noticed a similar scene of luxury development and community neglect wherever I went: the hospital downtown where I volunteered, the metro stations where I boarded the train into the city, and the neighborhood right next to my university. This duality permeated so many of Miami’s most loved districts from Wynwood to Miami Beach—a fact which shouldn’t have come as a surprise given that these communities were, in part, created through the same destabilizing processes of speculative investment and gentrification. Economic inequality eventually felt like a fixture of urban life that I expected to interact with daily.
Obviously, the mere admiration of the city’s vibrant entertainment scene—a feeling that is hard to shake off even after understanding its consequences—doesn’t necessarily cause gentrification. The process is much more systemic and determined by local policy. But if city newcomers want to confront gentrification, they must acknowledge that the denial of safety, security, and shelter to their neighbors cannot, should not, and does not have to be the norm for any longer.
Unfortunately, that acknowledgement is not common enough. For the class of gentrifiers that move into cities—a class I was a part of when I moved to Miami and which college students often comprise—urban locales are often treated as little more than places to experience entertaining worlds beyond our native suburbs. We lament the existence of inequality and displacement but herald policy that “develops” our new communities, a language that reeks of racist undertones and a colonial mindset.
Recognizing our apathy toward the problem, acknowledging our internal biases, and advocating alongside community members for policy solutions are steps we can take to inhibit gentrification and alter the trajectory of our communities. Local residents don’t need us to save them: they learned long ago that they had to fight against the forces of gentrification to preserve their communities and culture. But it would certainly help if newcomers worked alongside them, understood the history of their struggles, and deconstructed these harmful mentalities.
By Leena Yumeen
Visual by Vy Nguyen