(Originally published on MOLI, 3/18/8)
Yesterday I was complaining to my friend Laura Quinlan that I hadnâ€™t been out of the country in a couple years. â€œYou live outside the country,â€ Laura said. â€œJust go to your local supermarket [Bay], and youâ€™ll feel like youâ€™re in Latin America.â€
Itâ€™s true: I can eat at one of the little luncheonettes across from Bay and, from its aroma of onions and beans and cilantro to its ragged furniture, feel exactly as Iâ€™ve felt in Puerto Rico, or on any Caribbean island. Fans barely keep the tropical air moving, and Iâ€™ll be lucky if the waiter speaks English. Itâ€™s one of the running jokes about Miami: â€œItâ€™s such an interesting city, and so close to the U.S.â€
I lived in the East Village a dozen years before I moved to Miami Beach in 2001, and thereâ€™s a worldly electric buzz about New York that I will always miss, and relive in my dreams. But for all the cultural mix that I enjoyed in the subway and Central Park, in Miami, I deal daily with people from other parts of the world to a degree I never did in Manhattan. As Iâ€™ve written before, rappers call it da Bottom, but for southern hemisphere dwellers, itâ€™s the top of Latin America. Europeans love us, and youâ€™d be surprised at the number of Asian communities there are in Miami.
That said, there are days I feel like Iâ€™m in the middle of nowhere. The average musical tour stays hours away, if it ventures into Florida at all. Thereâ€™s no dedicated indie cinema. If I didnâ€™t belong to a book club, I could go weeks without discussing literature. Thank god I get The New York Times delivered daily.
That cultural isolation and sometimes backwardness are disappearing rapidly, and itâ€™s thanks to pioneers like Laura. For 20 years, her nonprofit group the Rhythm Foundation (run with her husband James and many others throughout the years) has brought the worldâ€™s top musicians to Miami, from Sun Ra to Bebo Valdes to Kraftwerk to Gilberto Gil, to hundreds more in between. You can see this amazing history on the walls of the cifo Art Foundation in downtown Miami (one of the sites of the new Miami renaissance), in blown-up photos, old flyers from the amazing Cameo, and Miami Herald articles.
Quinlan, the Bill Bragin of Miami, runs the foundation from the bottom up, always working the neighborhoods and businesses where an artistâ€™s constituency is based, staying well in tune with the areaâ€™s ever-changing, growing diversity. Sheâ€™s not alone: Tigertail Productions and the Miami Light Project are other well-rooted arts institutions that have drawn on and nurtured the cityâ€™s deep and wide cultural base (and that are run by super-smart women). Now top-down organizations like Art Basel and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts are trying to tap into what these trailblazers have spent decades building, Basel with resounding success, the PAC still struggling to find itself.
Far from feeling cut off from the world, I feel in the middle of it during weeks like this. My calendar is booked, including several world premieres: Jay Z and Mary J Blige kick off their tour at the American Airlines Arena Saturday, indie songstress Kimya Dawson performs March 25 at Shake-A-Leg Miami, Pink Martini plays with the new Miami Pop Orchestra Friday at the Arsht (the show is copresented by the Rhythm Foundation), the survivalist dance-music gathering Winter Music Conference runs March 25-29, and the Miami City Ballet premieres Nightspot, an opera composed by Elvis Costello, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, and costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, March 28. Shwew.
Miami is a unique spot geographically: Itâ€™s a gateway, a refugee town, a port, a stopover. The crime rate sucks, the real estate market is particularly catastrophic, and we have an ever-growing traffic problem. But not only do we have the most beautiful turquoise water and pink buildings: We have a distinct, emergent artistic vocabulary that can now brag of decades-old tenacity. I donâ€™t have to leave the country to sample Brazilian, Argentinean, Greek, Colombian, Cuban, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, and Peruvian culture: Itâ€™s all within blocks of me. Even though I live on an island.