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The Definition of Downtown PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
May 2016

A search for the boundaries of Miami’s core

Tbigstock-Miami-5080098here is a great line on a notecard in Birdman: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” But what about a place?

Can a name on a map really define the character of a locale? Can a brand create a new identity for a place that’s been there for decades?

I’m thinking through these questions, and surely looking much more confused than the two tourists who’ve approached me have reason to expect.

So I’m standing on the corner of 14th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, and these out-of-towners have ventured a few blocks from the Biscayne Marriott to explore the Magic City on foot. As tourists are wont to do, they’re asking a local for guidance.

“Do you live here?” says one in a flat Twin Cities accent. “We’re looking for a cool place to hang for a bit, with a bunch of bars and restaurants.”

“Yeah, where’s downtown Miami?” the other adds.

As I fill the air with a doubtful “ehhhh…” the pair start eyeing me with the kind of look tourists often get in Miami, perhaps wondering if anyone in this city speaks English.

Little do they know the devilishly complicated nature of that simple question: where’s downtown?

I admit it. Even though I live in a condo on NE 15th Street that’s clearly separated from Miami’s central core and classified on real estate maps as Omni, I generally tell people who ask that I live downtown. As someone who has yet to shake off his Brooklyn hipster sensibilities, I simply refuse to say that I live in an area christened after a failed mall.

But, of course, I don’t really live downtown.

Brian Eckerd, walking his dog in front of 900 Biscayne Blvd., would say that he does. “I have essentially the biggest park in Miami outside my door, and also everything else that’s 24/7,” he says.

Eckerd argues that a clear distinction should be made between the parts of Miami that never sleep and the rest of the city’s dense but mostly residential skyscraper districts north of 15th Street and in Brickell.

To him, downtown is from the Miami River north to I-395 and from the I-95 overpass east to the bay.

I ask Eckerd, who’s lived at his condo for two years and works in construction management, if that view isn’t at least partially skewed by real estate brokers who, for the past few years, have been trying to sell “Downtown, the Brand” to wealthy condo buyers.

“Everything basically exists in Miami because real estate made it,” he agrees.

Mika Mattingly, a commercial real estate broker and self-described “deal queen” of downtown Miami, partly validates that view. When I ask her what she considers to be downtown Miami, at first she whiffs the answer.

“From 12th Avenue,” she says, making a half-decent pitch that those acquiring real estate in Miami have to understand that when you’re talking about downtown today, “you’re talking about the environs that feed into it.”

Moments later, perhaps remembering that I’m not someone looking to turn my rubles into property, she gets real. She says the actual footprint of Miami’s downtown core, from I-95 to the bay, probably doesn’t extend north of NE 5th Street.

“You’re talking about a critical mass of density,” she says, explaining that north of the Freedom Tower, “it’s just not the same -- it’s doesn’t bring it all in like downtown.”

If Mattingly’s mental map is all about density, Aramis Lorie, an events impresario and arbiter of downtown cool who lives at 50 Biscayne, draws the same boundaries with an argument that leans toward culture.

Lorie’s downtown is one of swanky, gritty, character-filled hangouts: good times and good food inside an otherwise neglected historic building at Soya e Pomodoro; the subversive power-player feel of the new Langford Hotel; dodging the aggressive panhandlers to share a bottle of wine with friends at niu Kitchen.

“Above 5th Street, it’s conceived to be like, ‘We’re downtown but we’re kind of detached,’” Lorie says. “[Residents] are in their towers and get in their cars and drive away. South of that downtown, I tend to feel like you have younger-minded people that want to just connect in a vibrant, organic level, in a city where there’s always something happening.”

On the opposite end of the scale from Mattingly, at least some listeners to 93.5 FM in Miami have probably rolled their eyes at an ad airing for Bleach Hair Addiction, a salon that unabashedly claims to be located “in Midtown Shops in downtown Miami.”

Somewhere in the middle, the official line from the city’s Downtown Development Authority defines the Central Business District as running from I-95 to the bay, from the river to 9th Street (with a 12-block cutout of the area that lies west of NW 1st Avenue, lying in Overtown).

The DDA as a taxing district includes boundaries deep into Brickell, as well as north to NE 24th Street, beyond what anyone would dare call downtown.

As quite literally the owner of downtown’s brand -- DWNTWN, trademarked on May 14, 2009, according to the patent office -- the DDA finds itself normally pulled to give the imprimatur of downtown on most of the area it touches. But not always.

In a survey sent out in late February to its mailing list and addressed to downtowners writ large, for example, the DDA found respondents in ZIP code 33131 took umbrage at being called “downtowners.” Not an insignificant amount wrote back offended they’d been lumped in with what, from their perch in Brickell Key, must seem hoi polloi north of the river.

Lorie, the events and music promoter, said he understands why that attitude exists. “Brickell is very polished, very big-name, brand-focused,” he explains. “To Brickellites, downtown is the dirty brother, the black sheep of the family. But I definitely think, developed right, it could be the artsier, cooler brother.”

Which brings me right back to the tourists on 14th Street. After doing a mental checklist of some of the spots I’d choose to hang out in when someone asks me to meet downtown -- my friend’s bar, Elwood’s, whatever the latest pop-up is at Bayfront Park, the rooftop at the Epic -- I decide that maybe what they’re looking for isn’t really there. Maybe where Miami’s downtown lies is just one of those things where, if you have to ask, you’ll never really know.

Pointing to the Metromover stop, I start explaining, “So there’s this place called Mary Brickell Village....”

 

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