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T.D. Allman

Hunter Braithwaite

T.D. Allman. Photo: Cheng Zhong Sui.

In 1987 T.D. Allman published one of the definitive accounts of modern Miami. Miami: City of the Future was as unapologetic as it was prescient. Since then, he has written on many different topics, including another book on the history of Florida. Published this spring—Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State has received full-page reviews in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Both Finding Florida and Miami: City of the Future will be featured books at this year’s Miami Book Fair International.

Although much has changed since City of the Future was published, more has stayed the same. As the second edition of the book hits shelves more than a quarter-century later, the city remains as bound to the future as ever. Hunter Braithwaite called Allman in Paris on August 10th, 2013.

BRAITHWAITE (RAIL): How does it feel to have this book reissued? I couldn’t check it out of the library because they have it shelved in the reference section.

ALLMAN: I feel very happy about it. Basically, and this happens with everything I write— about Indochina, the urban crisis in the United States, the Energy Crisis, the Middle East—the press, the media, the politicians and the academics get so hysterically, inflexibly, dogmatically wedded to a false and trivial version of events. I feel I just have to go in and fix it. I don’t want to pick fights or anything, but at some point truth has a place as fact.

So back in 1980, when everybody called Miami “Paradise Lost,” I went down to Florida and saw all the things that made America America: sex, drugs, immigration, all these people coming to America, whether “real” Americans wanted it or not. What could be more American than that? Back then Miami and its people were considered beyond the pale, so far as nice Americans, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, were concerned. I saw Miami differently. As I said at the time, Miami was to the ‘80s and the ‘90s what Chicago was to the ‘20s or New York to the ‘40s or L.A. to the ‘50s. It was where all the things creating a new America converged, so I first wrote an article for Esquire magazine. That created a sensation. I mean it was just astonishing. And then I wrote the book. The more I went into it, the more it seemed Miami truly was the city of the future.

Now, Americans not only believe in the perfectibility of the future, they believe in the perfectibility of the past. But when I said the “city of the future,” they thought, “Oh wow, that’s good.” I don’t deal in things like good and bad; I don’t have a PR bone in my body. I describe things as they are. But it’s always good to be right! If you look around now at Orlando or The Villages, which were supposed to be Fortress America, insulated from the changes occurring in Miami, you see that they are turning into what Miami has been, though without beaches.

RAIL: Now did you say it was the “city of the future?” I ask because Chapter 5 begins with your meeting with Isaac Bashevis Singer. You start off by quoting him: “Miami is a place of the future. I write about a world that has disappeared in a world that is being born.”

ALLMAN: Now that’s interesting. I had forgotten that. I had a lot of time with Mr. Singer. It was one of the nicest periods in my life. I went off to Ethiopia one time and he said, “When you go to Ethiopia and you see danger, you go the opposite direction.” I replied: “That’s not how it works, Mr. Singer.” So I get back and he tells me, “Oh you made it back.” And he said something I still quote. We were walking from his place in Surfside to a coffee shop in the Bal Harbour shopping mall where he used to entertain people. The waiters hated it because he’d take up the table for an hour at a time and they weren’t getting many tips. I said, “Oh Mr. Singer, what’s it like to be an old man?” He said, “Oh Allman, oh Allman, what’s an old man? An old man is a young man in an old man’s body.”

In the original Miami book proposal I called it the city of the future, also in the original Esquire article, and then Singer says that and naturally I wanted to use it, had intended on using it as the subtitle from the beginning.

RAIL: Reading this book in 2013, what I’m really shocked by is how it’s so contemporary. Of course the restaurant names have changed, but I wonder, if Miami was the city of the future in 1987—and it still is a quarter century later, after the Berlin Wall, after the Internet, after the real thrust of globalism—how do these two futures differ, or are they the same?

ALLMAN: I don’t think they do differ. I said I would never re-write this book because it was a document of the time. But I think the forces that made Miami are, in a sense, greater than ideology, they’re greater than nations, and they are still at work, not just in Miami, but everywhere. So they turned out to last longer than the Berlin Wall. Those forces which I have identified are basically summed up in the word globalization and continue to be the dominant force in the world today. You know the problem with the nation state is it’s too big for the small problems and it’s too small for the big problems.

I would like to emphasize that when I said Miami was a city of the future, that doesn’t mean that it encompasses everything. One of the failures of Miami that has continued straight up into the present with the current governor and what he’s trying to do, is that Florida, unlike some other states, has never valued education as highly as it should. And you see it today. Miami is the least-educated major metropolis in the United States. Now part of that is because of its very large immigrant population. It’s also because the commitment to intellectual excellence is not there at the societal level. I have very friendly relations with institutions like Miami-Dade College, Florida International University. They are doing the best they can to help assimilate and raise up an immigrant population. The University of Miami is a respectable institution. I don’t want to downgrade these efforts. But it’s not like Berkeley or what you find in Connecticut, New York, or New Jersey, or Iowa, or Ohio.

RAIL: I agree. And it’s not just higher education. In the acknowledgements you thank Mitchell Kaplan. I would like to go out of my apartment and walk to a bookstore, but I don’t live that close to Books & Books. So it’s a fundamentally new model for a city.

ALLMAN: Absolutely! What he’s done is quite admirable, but sadly it’s an exception, and not just in Miami. The rest of the country is becoming just as negligent when it comes to valuing the printed word. We just had the recent thing where my Harvard classmate Donny Graham sold off The Washington Post. He inherited it as a trust and sold it because it was no longer easy to make money. One reason The Guardian newspaper, in Britain, is such an important force in the world today is that it is not a for-profit enterprise.

One of the things where Miami is a city of the future is what happened to The Miami Herald. It’s bought out by this mega-company, McClatchy or whatever it is. The land is worth a quarter of a billion dollars, a half billion, but they say that the paper doesn’t make any money. And in the forced move of The Miami Herald out into the Everglades, or what I call the Everglades…

RAIL: …Doral?

ALLMAN: …You see the very marginalization of knowledge and inquiry in a society. That’s a very sad story which Miami has come to encapsulate. And then there is a good one: American assimilation. We don’t need a British Council, we don’t need La Maison Française overseas. The force of American culture is stupendous.

RAIL: In the book, some of the descriptions that you’re most passionate about are those of architectural facades. You say, “…and so in Miami, a place lacking social and aesthetic terra firma, the role of architecture has always been to act out in plaster, glass, and concrete that most essential Florida impulse which is the actualization of fantasy.”

ALLMAN: I had a thought about that the other day. My house in France overlooks a medieval square. This square was laid out in about 1180 or 1190. Various sections of my house go back eight hundred years, others are newer. We had a Shakespeare play the other night. We have a symphony orchestra. We have dinners in the square. You see how something that was laid out in medieval times continues to influence how people behave today.

I am afraid that the legacy of the motorcar and the freeway will last a long time too. We’re not going to get rid of the harm that has been done with an architecture scaled to the motorcar rather than to the individual human being very quickly or easily, even if we significantly modify our forms of transportation, and there don’t seem to be many signs of that. Hundreds of years from now, our lives could continue to be misshapen because of autoroutes and things like that. It’s sobering to think of that.

The great advantage of Miami is that it is broken up by waterways. I just spent some time in Los Angeles. There you have a metropolitan area with twelve million people with, effectively, no transit system at all. They claim to have one, but they don’t. There are a few buses lying around. I think Miami’s transit system could be more effective, but at least there’s water. That helps a lot in making people behave more rationally, as you see in New York or Hong Kong or Sydney.

RAIL: Speaking of water, it’s perhaps an unfunny joke that one of the first mentions of a Miami landmark is the Atlantis by Arquitectonica, and right now a lot of the current discourse surrounding the city is that it’s going to be underwater very soon. How do you see Miami’s future being affected by climate change?

ALLMAN: I have a friend who has a lovely place on Miami Beach facing Biscayne Bay. When it floods, the water doesn’t come over the sea wall, it comes up from underneath the house and the garden. In my new book, I have this quote from Henry James. He calls [the Florida coast] “a fearful fraud… a ton of dreary jungle and swamp and misery of flat forest monotony to an ounce or two of little coast perching place—a few feet wide between the jungle and the sea.” If you go and look at the state parks, you see that truly is what it was—swamps, with a little bit of beach. Another line that I use in the new book is from the great physicist Richard Feynman. He said “nature cannot be fooled.” On the other hand, with Miami’s capacity to sell itself, maybe it really will become the new Venice.

RAIL: To go back to a phrase from an earlier question. “The actualization of fantasy.” When you initially came down here, when were your assumptions about the place most directly challenged?

ALLMAN: I never go into a story with preconceived notions. Whether it was Laos, where my career started, whether it was Miami, Colombia, or the Middle East. I just go and experience the place. This is how I operate. People are always saying, “Well, you always scribble notes on envelopes. What’s your angle?” And I say that I never have an angle. And then they say I always sound opinionated. I’m not! When I finally reach my conclusions, there’s a difference between judgment and opinion that is increasingly lost in our society. It’s the value of judgment.

I have been surprised once in my career. I had an interview with Muammar el-Qaddafi. We met in his bunker. As I looked around, I thought, “Well everybody is right about this guy. He really does want a nuclear weapon.” I gave him a softball question. I said, “Would you like to assure the American people you don’t want nuclear weapons?” He said, “They’re very hard to get, very difficult to manufacture.” And he went on for twenty minutes.

RAIL: So how was your Miami book received?

ALLMAN: People loved the book. First of all, every ethnic group said, “You describe us as we are, thank you very much.” There were one or two people who just didn’t like the idea of somebody upsetting the norm. There is this tendency to want Miami to be the America they think exists in Kansas. Of course, that doesn’t even exist in Kansas. They get irritated when people say, “Look, this is very different.” I have to say, I have no complaints about Miami. From day one, my book was not a book that had any interest in pleasing anyone. I have that line in there where I say John Kennedy and Castro were the creators of modern Miami , but I’ve never had one Cuban of any kind criticize the book, and I’m very grateful for that.

RAIL: You’re in Paris right now, which Walter Benjamin said was the capital of the 19th century. Do you think Miami can claim the 21st?

ALLMAN: No, not at all. Miami is both aberrant and paradigmatic. Miami is an example. Sometimes it’s a symptom. And I don’t view Paris as the capital of the 19th century, London or maybe Manchester was. The 18th century, going up through Napoleon’s defeat, was the French century; the 19th century was the British century, the 20th century was the American century, and the 21st century is the Asian century.

It was about a year ago I was on this bridge in a taxi, stuck in traffic in a place called Samut Sakhon about 40 miles outside Bangkok. Normally this would have been Bangkok traffic. I was sitting on this bridge for two hours in a traffic jam, watching the people go by. I thought wow, this is it, we are in the Asian century. We keep talking about the recession. There is no recession! There is a fundamental restructuring of the world economy.

RAIL: Earlier you mentioned the shortcoming of the nation state, that it’s not large enough to take into account the big changes. More than the place itself, does the way that we’re living in Miami—the international flux, the condos—represent a new global standard?

ALLMAN: Remember that Miami doesn’t produce much of anything, including original ideas. So it’s not a capital in the way that L.A. was with the film industry or Chicago was. As I said, it’s more an exemplar. But, of course, Bombay, Bangkok—they all want to live as they do in Miami. I have been spending a little time in Bangkok recently and I had a very interesting experience. I left Bangkok in February and flew straight back to Miami for the launch of the new book, Finding Florida. And I had the feeling, “Isn’t it nice and cool in Miami?”

RAIL: It is (laughs).

ALLMAN: That’s another point I make in both my books, that it gets cold in Florida, that it gets cold in Miami, which again, people don’t like to accept. So I like the cool season in Miami.