In keeping with recent posts I’m following the trajectory my family took over the generations. This path isn’t unique. In fact, it’s merely one version of what the overwhelming majority of the American population experienced at the time.
My grandmother became a young widow when my grandfather died of multiple sclerosis. She left Brooklyn and took her two daughters (my mom and aunt) to live with family who had bought new homes with the G.I. Bill in Hialeah, Florida after World War II. One of my great uncles used his military training to take a job at the airport as an engine mechanic. Miami International is conveniently pressed up against Hialeah’s municipal border.
This is the tropical version of Levittown. Instead of imitation New England style homes these were imitation Spanish style homes with a tiny touch of modernism. These modest properties were a dream come true for people who had endured the Great Depression, managed through wartime rationing, and actively fought overseas. And if you came from New York with snowy winters Florida was paradise.
Hialeah began as a working class community and continues to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to genuinely affordable market rate housing in Miami. These post war homes accommodate extended multigenerational families. Nurses, teachers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, clerks, maids, and gardeners all live here and service the more expensive neighborhoods along the coast. The demographics have shifted over the decades from Irish, Italians, and Jews to Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and so on. But the general tone of the town has remained remarkably consistent. It’s solidly working class and family oriented.
A significant number of these homes are duplexes. For people who dislike high rise towers or corporate apartment complexes a humble duplex is as close as possible to a single family home. And the owner of a duplex has a more tangible and secure investment than what a volatile stock market might offer.
Transportation policy has always emphasized private cars. Public transportation exists and continues to be expanded, but the land use pattern and endemic culture encourages each adult member of the family to maintain a car if at all possible. Since many people live in each home there are de facto parking lots absolutely everywhere.
My mom was in school in Hialeah during the Cuban exodus away from Fidel Castro’s revolutionary policies in 1959. Miami was overwhelmed by a rush of Cubans seeking a safe haven. The Catholic church was a prominent institution for both Sicilians like my family as well as Cubans, but the two ethnic groups didn’t always see eye to eye. Looking back the conflicts were less about culture or language as the sheer numbers of new arrivals in a short time frame. Local schools were hastily fitted with temporary portable classrooms to accommodate the crush of new students. I find it telling that these “temporary” buildings are still in place sixty years later.
Hialeah never had a downtown and doesn’t seem to need or want one. Instead its civic and commercial life is a schmear of strip malls and parking lots strung out along arterial roads. It gets the job done and no one seems to care much one way or another. Compared to the northern versions of post war Levittown communities there’s a far higher degree of mom and pop economic activity in Hialeah, most of it associated with a more recent and dynamic immigrant population.
There’s a gap between Hialeah’s aspirations and its everyday reality. Its beautifully maintained country club inspired entrance is a token of a standard the town can’t quite pull off. Then again, it manages to be a completely livable place with a strong sense of community purpose that does a huge amount of the pragmatic heavy lifting in Greater Miami. I don’t necessarily want to live in Hialeah myself, but I understand the critical role it plays in South Florida. It’s not that different from the role it played in my grandparents’ day: entry level affordable housing, family focused community, stable institutions, and ready access to employment. How long this might endure is anyone’s guess.