By Paul S. George
Downtown Miami marks the birthplace of the City of Miami, one of America’s most beguiling cities. The quarter also represents the most important sector in the county in terms of its history, architecture and archaeology. Downtown’s borders are fluid on its northern flank, ranging as far north as N.W./N.E. 11th Street, since that area and its environs have undergone intense redevelopment in recent years. But the eastern, southern and western borders are determined by Biscayne Bay on the east, and the Miami River, which brackets it on the south and west.
Thousands of years before incorporation, a large Tequesta Indian village covered a significant portion of today’s downtown. Later, Jesuit missions, an Army fort, and a scattering of settlers came to that area. Most important of the latter was Julia Tuttle, modern Miami’s “Mother”, who enticed oil and railroad baron Henry M. Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway to the Miami River, birthing modern Miami in 1896.
Early Miami’s retail, financial, institutional, entertainment, and, to a degree, residential base was downtown. From almost the beginning, today’s Flagler Street was its center. It was the first street to become electrified, to welcome the telephone, to host an early trolley car route, and to serve as the seat of government and justice.
Downtown’s dominance extended into the post-World War II era, an expansive period that witnessed the quarter’s broad expansion, especially in the retail sector. Downtown could claim nine movie theaters, signature buildings with a wide array of architectural styles, venerable houses of worship, a beautiful waterfront park, restaurants and nightclubs, and one of America’s premier department stores.
But the same era saw the rise of suburbia with its attendant shopping centers and malls, which severely weakened downtown as a destination. For the past fifty years, this quarter has struggled with that reality, but recent residential construction has brought many new residents to the quarter, and with them the prospect for a brighter future.