Downtown’s Growing Pains

Amal Solh Kabbani and Raul Guerrero

Art Basel and the Miami Book Fair turn downtown into a cultural destination, evidencing its resurgence from a commercial center to a community. For us, residents and businesses, these events are a distraction from our growing pains.

Safety is foremost. Steps away from one entrance to the Book Fair two men laid across the sidewalk in drunken stupor. Farther down, petty criminals passing as homeless verbally assaulted neighbors and visitors, validating the theory that disorderly behavior is contagious. That criminal activity around the homeless has drastically increased in recent months is no figment of the imagination, as authorities and homeless advocates sometimes suggest. Last September, a homeless man shoved and killed downtown resident Tom Lang while he strolled along iconic Flagler Street.

Of course there is more to homelessness than meets the eye: social and economic disparities, inadequate housing and a healthcare system allowing psychiatric patients to roam the streets. But the need for long-range planning shouldn’t shield negligent short-term actions. The simple presence of beat police officers patrolling the neighborhood, for example, is a proven deterrent for much of the harassment inflicted on a neighborhood with a population that now surpasses 30 thousand (Central Business District and the Arts and Entertainment District.) 

Downtown is contained within one single square mile—the same square mile where the original city of Miami was built. One would think that a relatively small district, and a district representing a predominant percentage of the City tax-base, warrants constant patrolling.

“Decreased POLICING has resulted in aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness and criminal activity. It’s too obvious,” said J.J. Diaz, owner of the pet shop Animals Crackers. Shortage in manpower is often cited by Police and City leaders for the decreased patrolling. One resident, the mother of school children, constantly accosted by panhandlers, found it hard to believe there was a shortage of police officers. From her window she sees dozens deployed for every event in the Arena. Let alone ULTRA. 

Urban Cholesterol

The second threat: motorists. Closing some streets for the Miami Book Fair disrupted the reign motorists hold over pedestrians. Hundreds of people walked and biked liberated from what Brazilian architect Jaime Lerner calls urban cholesterol—the excessive and perilous automobile use in our arteries. One of the streets closed was NE 2nd Avenue, where motorists travel at speeds surpassing 40 and 50 miles per hour. And NE 2nd Avenue crosses through MDC Wolfson Campus and residential towers lodging an increasing number of families with children.

Noted urbanist Victor Dover commented: “Public policy, and actual actions, in street design and enforcement should prioritize walkers at the top of the hierarchy, followed by people in bikes, transit passengers, and then cars and trucks. Speed kills. Slow is beautiful. The design speed is more important than the posted speed. At high speeds little mistakes cause giant injuries.”

Community of Opportunity

In The Well-Tempered City, an insuperable guide for fine tuning our cities, Jonathan F. P. Rose explores the concept of community of opportunity. Community, he observes, derives from the Latin cummunitus. Cum meaning “together,” and munus “gift.”  Opportunity, comes from the Latin oportunus. The Latin root ob denotes “in the direction of,” and portus “port or harbor.” Opportunus describes the wind that took travelers to their destination, the safety of home. Taken together, community of opportunity refers to the gift of being together and returning home to a safe harbor. Rose adds that a community should be safe from physical and social threats.  

Cultural events, hopefully, will inspire all stakeholders to champion safety for residents and visitors, and solidify our beautiful historic downtown as a preeminent cultural destination.  

Raúl Guerrero is the director of the Downtown Arts and Science Salon, and author of Women Loved Dr. Böll, a novel set in Downtown Miami.  Amal Solh Kabbani, President of the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance.