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Taxi to the Bright Side PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
April 2013

A cab ride through Chicago suggests Miami has a long way to go, and a lot to learn

OPix_Cult_Following_4-13n a recent trip to Chicago, I found myself riding with a particularly chatty cabbie, one who delighted in trumpeting the Windy City’s offerings. Rather than talk to me about the Bulls or Da Bears, where to get the best deep-dish pizza, or even where I might hear some Chicago blues, though, he stuck to more prosaic subjects.

“Chicago has the best public transportation of any city in the world,” he said, as we drove across town. Aside from the city’s elevated train system (the famed “El”), he noted, “there are multiple bus lines running in each direction. If you miss your bus, all you have to do is walk two blocks and catch another one.”

My cabbie also talked schools. Conceding those in Chicago proper were going through tough times -- more than 50 are slated to close owing to a budget crisis -- he nevertheless raved about the schools in neighboring ’burbs like Naperville and Hinsdale. “Some of the best you’ll find,” he told me, before depositing me at my destination.

The encounter made me laugh, not because it’s unusual to meet a cabbie with an outsize attachment to his hometown, but because I imagined what a similar conversation might sound like in a Miami taxi: “Miami? Oh, man, we’ve got the best beaches anywhere. And the hottest parties.” Beyond that, it would be a fairly quiet ride. (Unless the subject of, say, strip clubs came up.)

Why is that? Well, it might be because, unlike Miami, Chicago has things like efficient public transportation and a vibrant parks system -- the city recently committed to rebuilding 300 playgrounds -- and these inspire a certain civic pride. In Miami we also have civic pride, of course, but it’s largely limited to the weather, for which we take an inordinate amount of credit. Eighty-degree days in December? Can’t get those up north.

Many will proclaim, somewhat defensively, that you can’t compare Miami to Chicago. Chicago was founded in the 19th Century; Miami didn’t become a real city until the middle of the 20th Century. Hey, we’re still in the process of becoming a real city.

Some of that is fair (historically undeniable, even), but consider that a number of Chicago’s impressive achievements have come in the past 15 to 20 years, among them the transformation of a section of downtown’s Grant Park from a moribund train yard into one of America’s great public spaces, Millennium Park.

Fifteen years ago, Miami also had a moribund train yard located close to its downtown. Instead of building a park, we built a mall and called it Midtown Miami. It’s nice, it’s convenient, but it’s still a mall.

So, yes, Miami is young, but like parents always tell their kids, you can only use that as an excuse for so long; at some point, you have to start taking responsibility for the choices you make.

For those who don’t think Chicago is a good comparison because it’s too historic and too big a city -- though, ironically, some people here never tire of talking about Miami as if it were Manhattan South -- take a decidedly smaller urban center: Pittsburgh. (The population of Pittsburgh is 307,000 to Miami’s 408,000; Pittsburgh’s home county, Allegheny, has 1.2 million residents to Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million.)

Pittsburgh, one could argue, didn’t have the advantage of being a new city. Thirty years ago, it was just the opposite: a crumbling one, dependent on an industry, steel, in precipitous decline.

Today Pittsburgh is widely considered one of America’s most livable cities -- by some estimates, its most livable -- thanks to a boom in its science and technology economy, anchored by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University.

Pittsburgh reinvented itself, and not in the past 50 or 60 years, but in just the past few decades. I’ve been there; Pittsburgh has great museums (including the Andy Warhol), terrific food, and a thriving nightlife scene.

I’ll also add it managed to build what may be the prettiest Major League ballpark in America, PNC Park, in 2001. And it did so for $216 million, approximately $284 million in today’s dollars, or about half what Marlins Park cost.

But that’s Miami for you. We like to do things in a big way, often to our detriment. Why have a centrally located park when you can build a whole “Midtown”? Why not spend half-a-billion bucks for a baseball stadium? (And while we’re at it, some might say, why not build a $200 million art museum, and worry about the art later?)

Miami could learn a lot from big cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Pittsburgh -- namely, how to prioritize and invest in those things that actually translate to a higher quality of life: education, urban infrastructure, public transportation, and green spaces. Or we can keep trying to impress everybody by building “world-class” (our favorite adjective) this and thats.

It’s the former that would give our cab drivers something to talk about.

 

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