South Miami: A Small Town Inside a Big City

I originally wrote the piece below for a college class, so the date of this post matches the day the assignment was due.

South Miami has a strong environmentalist community that I found really interesting and weird and sort of inspiring. In light of the city council’s vote to secede from the state of Florida, citing “environmental concerns and claims that Tallahassee [the state capital] is unresponsive to the threat of climate change,” I’m posting this today, October 24, 2014.  

South Miami is a small town inside of a big city. It encompasses an area of 2.3 square miles and about 11,000 residents and has the same sunny weather and Latin flavor as the metropolis at large. However, this city within a city has its very own brand of colorful politics and citizen activism, most of which centers on issues of community development. As Gray Read, wife of mayor Philip Stoddard, said “We have a couple of real loud-mouths…Sometimes things get a little out-of-hand.”

The notoriously heated politics at City Hall mostly revolve around the tug-of-war between business-friendly development and “smart growth” policies. City commissioner Bob Welsh, known by most as “Bicycle Bob” due to his habit of riding his bicycle around the city distributing flyers to area residents containing information about his outspoken views on community issues, described the city’s politics as a “down-and-dirty fight” between homeowners and corporations.

“It’s hard to find a balance,” said Welsh. “Our development plan is to have the big, tall business center around the metro station [on Sunset Drive] and have it slope down outwards toward where people live, but [developers and businesses] are always trying to rezone everything and make the whole city a business district…It’s hard to keep everybody happy.”

The biggest “fight” in recent years has been Florida Light & Power’s proposal to expand the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and install high-transmission power lines that would follow the path of US-1 through the heart of South Miami. Mayor Philip Stoddard, a biologist and former professor at Florida International University, rode the issue to victory against twelve-year incumbent Horace Feliu in 2010 on a platform of consisting mostly of environmental and social issues.

The socioeconomic barriers to communication were a significant challenge faced by Stoddard’s campaign. The city is split about evenly into thirds – one third white, Hispanic, and black – who generally live in the north, central and southern parts of the city, respectively. The median household family income hovers around $50,000, well above the national average of about $30,000. However, South Miami has a poverty rate of 19%, which is also significantly higher than the national average of 15%.

The soft-spoken, but authoritative mayor related his success in office to his experience as a teacher and scientist, saying, “I’m good at showing people the facts, most politicians are good at telling lies.” Stoddard fended off many rumors during both campaigns that were later proven false and says that he tried to focus his campaign on facts and science rather than attacking his opponent’s character.

“I don’t have any higher political ambitions,” said Stoddard. “I just want to do the right things for my family and my community.”

Stoddard, who recently won reelection, has been investigating the issue and organizing and educating his neighbors about the negative aspects of Florida Light and Power’s plans for years and made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign as well as one of his priorities in office. Opponents of the plan say that it would have harful effects on the health of citizens living near the path of the power lines as well negative effects on area property values.

South Miami is part of a “Green Corridor” that also includes the communities of Cutler Bay, Coral Gables, Palmetto Bay, and Pinecrest. These communities are working together to promote initiatives such as Property Assess Clean Energy, or PACE, funding, which provides low-interest loans to homeowners to make environmentally-friendly modifications to their homes, such as installing solar panels and high-efficiency air-conditioning units. Activists and community leaders are also working to promote the incorporation of bicycle paths and sidewalks to reduce automotive traffic, tree-planting initiatives, and support for farmer’s markets into their neighborhood development

Renee Joslyn, a ten-year resident of the city, said that she moved her family to South Miami from Kendall because she wanted to raise her children with an appreciation for nature that she said she could not find in her former neighborhood.

“People [in South Miami] care about the community. There’s less concrete and more trees. I can have my garden and take my kids bird-watching. You just can’t do that anywhere else around here,” Joslyn said.

Josyln makes jellies and jams from the berries she grows in her backyard garden and sells them at the farmer’s market managed by Earth Learning, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting sustainable urban agriculture in South Florida.

Lydia Mackie, a South Miami resident who supported Stoddard for mayor, is the manager of the market. Her job consists of reaching out to the community to increase participation on both the supply and consumption side of the operation, with a special focus on finding local farmers and bringing their products to the market at prices that are affordable for citizens of even the lowest-income levels. The market works in coordination with state agencies and accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, providing matching funding for the first ten dollars spent at the market.

“A lot of the time, lower-income people will go to McDonald’s and buy a hamburger with basically no nutritional value for a couple dollars when they could come here and buy fruits and vegetables that are healthy and organic and grown right down the street,” Mackie said.

The University of Miami’s main campus lies on the northeast edge of the city limits and according to Read, an architecture professor at FIU, the Cambridge Lawns residential area surrounding Broad Canal (sometimes called Brewer Canal) was recently designated as a historic district.

“There’s kind of a mix of Mediterranean revival, mock Tudor, and mid-century Modern homes up there,” Read said.

South Miami has something for everyone. There are plenty of shops and restaurants along Sunset Drive and US-1, both of which run right through the center of the city and there are a number of small parks for more environmentally-conscious residents to spend their leisure time. Despite the constant tension between business and the environment, the city seems to be finding a good balance of each.

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