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Momento Miami

by Devender Sellars

I was born on Miami Beach amidst an intense hurricane season, a gas shortage and a hostage crisis, and the beginning of the boom to South Florida. My memories of my birthplace are through the eyes of a child — the bustling, suburban city compressed into bike trips to the pizza parlor to play Galaga, or orange slices after a soccer game. I had a happy childhood, wanting not for the basics in life, enjoying middle-class luxuries like music lessons, afternoons at private pools and a good education.

I left Miami when I was 13 years old, slowing being ejected from Florida, first to Orlando, then to Gainesville and then to Greensboro.

Traveling cross-country as a young adult, I realized the uniqueness of Miami that never struck me as a child. The cookiecutter cities were boring by comparison. A unique mix of exaggerated pastel façades, sunsoaked beaches and confused tourists stood apart from other places, on top of the mix of culture and transplants from New York, Cuba, Canada, Haiti and everywhere in between.

Florida is a state of transplants both far and wide, and Miami its hub, a place exotic and foreign, even to many who live there.

I recently traveled down that long stretch to the end of Intrerstate 95. The trip is a good two-day trek all the way down to Miami. Driving the streets felt so familiar and so foreign. Even knowing the way to the landmarks and places I spent my youth did not hold back the strangeness. My old block on 120 th Street had the same houses — small duplexes painted in pale pastels, placed close together and set back against a wide-split street with a generous median of grass and sparse trees. This was surely how the block looked when I was a child. And, yet the proportions were all wrong. The street seems so small. The trees so sparse. The neighborhood so strange.

From birth to the end of middle school, I lived in a city that I barely know as an adult. My memories as a child were formative in different ways. Even though I spent almost a third of my life in Miami, I really have more of a connection to my teenage years in other cities. Most people don’t have their childhood experiences split up so specifically. A birthplace set apart from what I know.

The subtropical city has become a hub of art and culture, food and fanfare. Wynwood’s design district stretches out for many blocks, endless art galleries only broken by bars or high-end boutiques. On South Beach, amazingly restored art-deco façades painted in pinks, teals and pale orange colors invite the sun to set on the wide beach opposite, with designer stores, tacky tourist shops and high-end dance clubs all on the same block.

My girlfriend astutely wondered why the original entrepreneurs built so many hotels in the deco style. As a child, this would have never crossed my mind — the buildings were just how they were. The city was just where I lived. As an adult, I looked at the geometric lines and pale colors wondering where the inspiration came from, and why the styles were chosen.

One structure in particular fascinated me. It was an outdoor performance space on North Beach, with a wide oval roof above the entrance. Perpendicular to the oval, a yellow “H” was embedded in the middle, reaching up to the sky. And to the side of that, a wave pattern atop the wall completed the look. After looking at this interesting building for a few minutes, I noticed the structure was surely new. Many other buildings in the area were newer, but built in a faux-deco style. The buildings were new with tones of old.

This feeling permeated my vacation — new mixed with old. Aspects of my childhood mixed in with the new details I never noticed. It made me grateful for the life I’ve been given, and those experiences on the horizon.

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