Miami tries to overcome unappealing image

``Truthfully, Miami's not a bad place to live,'' wrote an Orlando Sentinel columnist recently, ``at least compared to other South American cities.'' Orlando was vying with Miami for the big-city badge of a professional basketball franchise. As it ended up, both cities will get one. But the sarcasm stung.

Miami is trying to keep one foot in step with booming Florida, while it moves increasingly to different rhythms.

American families no longer head for the big hotels on Miami Beach but pull off in Orlando at Disney World. Few Americans now retire here but rather head for central Florida or the Gulf coast. New growth, which once fell on Miami as effortlessly as afternoon rain, is steering to Orlando, Boca Raton, and the Cape Canaveral area.

Instead, Miami has become a second home for businessmen from Colombia and Brazil and a haven for Nicaraguan exiles. It is developing a cosmopolitan economic balance all its own.

High-rise condominiums stand half-built or half-sold along Biscayne Bay, bearing witness to the end of the real-estate boom of five years ago.

Yet urban Miami is showing signs of new life. In the subtropical village atmosphere of Coconut Grove, storefront land prices have surpassed those of Palm Beach's legendary Worth Avenue. Downtown, a new Caribbean-style market and gathering place opened this month around a bayside marina, bringing tens of thousands of people daily and fresh excitement to otherwise sparsely peopled streets.

Miami has some unusual economic shock absorbers, too. Economist Jan Luytjes of Florida International University (FIU) predicted a local crisis when Latin American money suddenly stopped flowing into Florida in 1983. But the crisis never really came.

Miami's high number of entrepreneurs - more per capita than any other US city, he says - absorbed the impact. So did an unusually strong underground economy. Between small service businesses making cash transactions, illegal aliens, Latin culture, and drug traffic, Dr. Luytjes estimates conservatively that 28 percent of local income is unreported.

The international trade is what most sets Miami apart from the rest of Florida, both in the character of the economy and the flavor of the city.

Manuel Lasaga, senior international economist at Southeast Bank, estimates that the Latin trade might take five or six years to regain the dominance it had here in 1980. But then, he says, it will be based on stable economic growth in Latin countries, not on volumes of flight capital and overvalued exchange rates, as before.

Miami, meanwhile, does not want all its eggs in the Latin American basket. It remains Florida's largest, busiest city. But jobs and companies are not flocking here they way they are to Orlando.

One reason is simply that Miami has become a major city, with major-city traffic, crowding, and real-estate prices. Another reason is Miami's reputation. The image is glamorous, thanks largely to the ``Miami Vice'' television series. But the glamour seethes with crime, discontent, and foreignness.

The Beacon Council, the Miami area's industrial recruiting group, is spending more than $400,000 on advertising to improve the city's image with business leaders in the Northeast.

``It's still hard for some companies to recruit people to Miami,'' admits John Stadler of Stadler Realty Company. But once prospective recruits arrive and look around, separating image from reality, they are easily sold, he says.

In fact, everyday Miami is not so exotic. Kendall, Miami's fastest growing area, is the quintessential middle-American suburb. Nearby is Dadeland, the nation's largest mall. Coral Gables is quiet, tree-lined affluence much like Pasadena, Calif., or perhaps Forest Hills, N.Y.

But teen-agers here, standing in a movie line to see ``Top Gun,'' will switch almost unconsciously between all-American Valley Girl English and rapid-fire Cuban Spanish. Increasingly, bank tellers and department store clerks must speak both languages well.

The growing Latin presence in Miami is a source of discomfort for many non-Latins, who find themselves the minority culture. Thomas Ferguson, president of the Beacon Council, sees provincialism. ``The `good old boy' network no longer works in this community. It's very easy to blame the Latins.''

``It's like spitting into the wind,'' says former Mayor Maurice Ferr'e.

Latins face their own cultural frustrations. Partly because of their successes economically, Cubans - who make up two-thirds of Dade County (Greater Miami) Latins - are integrating with unusual speed into American culture. ``Fast-forward assimilation,'' FIU sociologist Barry Levine calls it.

So while non-Latin Miamians worry that American culture is being washed away in a Latin tide, Latins see their own family, religious, and linguistic traditions eroding into the American mainstream.

Between 1980 and 1985, while nearly 900 people a day were migrating into Florida, the number of non-Hispanic whites in Dade County dropped by 115,000. Some economists see signs that white flight from Miami has played itself out, that young non-Latin whites are even growing in number. But the numbers don't yet show that.

Some would like to slow down these shifts. ``I hope a balance can be maintained,'' says Alvah Chapman, chairman of Knight-Ridder Company, which owns the Miami Herald. The best way to maintain an ethnic balance, he says, is to continue recruiting American companies, and their employees, into the area.

The Miami Herald itself has been a cultural battleground. It has been the nemesis of the Cuban community for years because of its editorial stands. The Herald tried to expand its readership up the Florida coast but was beaten back by fierce competition. ``They don't want to,'' says Mr. Ferr'e, ``but the Herald can't survive without making its peace with the Cuban community.''

Next: From ``Flipper'' to ``Miami Vice''

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