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Spatial Politics in Metropolitan Miami: Cuban American Empowerment, Municipal Incorporations, and Cultural Production


This dissertation examines the political tensions between metropolitan planning and immigrant incorporation in Miami over the past 50 years. I develop a planning history encompassing the transformation of metropolitan planning in Dade County from the early 1960's to the post-Cuban period in contemporary times. By combining the historical analysis of planning documents, data from interviews with different actors shaping planning practice - metropolitan planners, community development practitioners, residents and artists - and participant observations of charrettes and grassroots mobilizations of local residents, I analyze how immigrant empowerment influenced the work of metropolitan planners and currently yields political practices through the deployment of discourses that uphold cultural production as a place-making strategy.

By developing the concept of spatial politics, I argue that an analysis of urban space is crucial to understand immigrant incorporation and empowerment in American Cities. I define spatial politics as the practices and tactics carried out by social groups to achieve political empowerment in the City. By tracing the effects of immigration in the history of metropolitan planning in Miami, I consider how spatial politics is exemplified by linkages between planning, community development, and political mobilizations carried out by social groups competing for political control in an urban context transformed by the status of immigrants as the social majority.

In Chapter One, I introduce the physical context of metropolitan Miami. I provide a mapping of Miami's urban geography, government structure and socio-demographic composition. I continue by developing the narrative of a participant observation based on a contentious policy measure voted upon in 2010 that aimed to give control of planning decisions to local community groups: Amendment Four. The Amendment Four debate illustrates the underlying tensions of Miami's urban politics as it is defined by claims and counter-claims defined by ethnicity and the experience of immigration. I continue by explaining the need to explore the relationship between immigrant incorporation and urban planning through an analytical lens that considers the empowerment of immigrant groups.

In Chapter Two I draw on archival evidence from Dade County's Department of Planning and Zoning and carry out a review of Miami's architectural, urban design and urban history literature to develop a history of metropolitan planning in Dade County. I argue that Miami's urban historiography has mostly emphasized developers, architects and entrepreneurs as the main actors of urban transformation. Due to this tendency, the relationship between social history, immigration and planning has remained mostly unexplored. By considering the work of metropolitan planners from the introduction of the "Home Rule" Charter and the Two-tier System of governance through the development of Miami's first set of comprehensive development master plans, I analyze how demographic change and immigrant influx were important factors in planning practice. From its inception, metropolitan planning was envisioned as a tool for regional management in behalf of the public interest. Its goal was to facilitate the management and distribution of resources through a centralized system of government exemplified by two tiers; an upper tier for regional issues and a lower tier for local issues. The two-tier governance structure, however, led to the political under-representation of residents of unincorporated areas, who did not have the direct representation of municipal representatives. This condition would have consequences in the following decades as demographic growth and immigrant political empowerment transformed the city's political status quo.

The demographic growth of Hispanics resulting from immigration led to the political empowerment of Cuban Americans during the 1980's. In Chapter Three, I explore this particular period by combining archival evidences from Dade County's Department of Planning and Zoning, interviews with retired planners and practicing community development specialists, spatial analysis of demographic data, and a review of civil rights legal history. I consider how the work of metropolitan planners was influenced by the electoral empowerment of Cuban Americans at the municipal and county levels. I begin by reviewing of the existing literature on Cuban American incorporation in Miami to argue that it has remained a-spatial. The political, economic and cultural tensions that affect urban space have not been considered in the incorporation of Cuban Americans. I continue by arguing for the consideration of Cuban American spatial politics through three phases - crisis, community development and empowerment - and four types of practices - planning, electoral, discursive, and allied. During the refugee crisis of the Mariel Boatlift, metropolitan planners produced demographic data that facilitated the planning agenda of a burgeoning Cuban American community development system focused on public policy, economic development and housing. This planning apparatus facilitated the concentration of electoral voting blocs in Miami's ethnic enclave of Little Havana, which mobilized to elect Cuban Americans at the municipal and county levels by generating discourses upholding the positive economic contributions of Cuban Americans in Miami. A decade after the Mariel Boatlift the demographic changes brought forth by crisis and continuing immigration led Cuban American and African Americans to ally and join suit against Dade County in the Meek v. Metropolitan Dade County lawsuit. This coalition argued for a change in the composition and number of county commission seats given the socio-demographic make up of Dade County. The lawsuit's decision changed the numbers and re-drew commission district boundaries, establishing a new political order in Miami based on minority power. Metropolitan planners were protagonists in this process by providing demographic data and mapping alternatives for the new commission districts.

In Chapter Four I connect archival data from the Dade County Planning Department and the Miami Herald - Miami's most prominent news daily - with interviews of retired planning practitioners to consider how communities of interest countered the empowerment of Cuban Americans. Beginning in 1991 with the municipality of Key Biscayne, a wave of grassroots incorporation efforts led by ultra-local neighborhood groups swept throughout unincorporated Dade County. These mobilizations were based on the perception of donor communities that metropolitan government was inefficient inadequately used taxes for the local service provisions of recipient communities - residents in unincorporated Dade County. Miami's Cuban American community considered the rebellion of municipal incorporations a backlash to their political gains. Fearing the prospect of political and economic fragmentation, metropolitan planners attempted to resolve the problem of political under-representation and economic imbalance embedded in the Two-Tier system by establishimg community councils. Community councils were envisioned as units of local government that would to bring government closer to the people by giving local residents control over zoning issues and budgetary decisions. Nevertheless, community councils became training grounds for ethnic leadership across unincorporated Dade County. As the decade of the 1990's ended the evolving process of spatial politics was defined by a new political geography exemplified by newly minted municipalities.

In Chapter Five I turn to Miami's recent history to consider how the practices of cultural producers- developers, artists, art collectors, and community development specialists - offer a new field of spatial politics. I carry out participant observations between two sites - the District of Wynwood in the City of Miami and the Municipality of Opa-Locka in northwest Dade County - to explore how art is used as a tool of urban revitalization through the deployment of collective and individual discourses formed by notions of community, identity and multiculturalism. I develop the first part of this analysis in the art district of Wynwood where I consider the collective mobilizations of urban developers, gallery owners, artists and art collectors against big development as well as the individual practices of artists who negotiate their immigrant identity to access resources and social capital in Wynwood's artistic milieu. I continue by turning to Opa-Locka's, where a robust community development system led by African Americans uses a discourse of pan-african multiculturalism to revitalize impoverished areas of the municipality.

I finalize the dissertation by providing a brief call for the need to consider the figure of the empowered immigrant to re-evaluate the role of urban planning in immigration debates. Urban planning practice has traditionally been defined by an assimilationist ideology underlined by the imperative of adaptation and incorporation into the mainstream of society. Because of this undercurrent, the political agency of immigrants in American cities remains under-studied and bound by a framework of identity politics, cultural rights, and national citizenship. The case of spatial politics in metropolitan Miami, however, offers an example of the urban citizenship that organized immigrant groups can develop through the claim, control and transformation of urban space.

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