My maternal great-grandfather’s brother, John Tatem Wofford, homesteaded in Hallandale in the late 1800s when it was still a part of Dade County. Early in the 20th Century, he and his family moved to the wilderness of what became Miami Beach to construct one of the Beach’s first hotels, the Wofford Beach Hotel, at 24th and Collins.
The Woffords were among the first to be buried in the Miami City Cemetery, resting near the Burdine family crypt.
About 1915, my paternal grandmother’s brother, Jacob Decker, and his wife, Addie Mae, moved into a home at 2353 NW 28th St., then known as the Allapattah Prairie. Uncle Jake died in 1971 and Aunt Mae lived there until the early 1980s, when she moved to Naples. Their house still stands. I was born into the Central Florida branch of my family, so I never visited Miami until my teenage years.
In my mind’s eye, I had painted a vision of Miami Beach as a tropical Disneyland, helped along by the intro to The Jackie Gleason Show. On my first trip up Collins Avenue, I was very surprised to discover supermarkets and even a McDonald’s existed there! Miami Beach’s late publicist Hank Meyer had done his job on me quite well.
On my first trip to Miami in 1976, I drove all night from Daytona to get here. I-95 at the time ended in Vero Beach, where you picked up U.S. 1. to the east or Florida’s Turnpike to the west.
I arrived in town about sun-up. That memory of driving into Miami Shores with the majestic Royal Palms lining Biscayne Boulevard is one I will never forget. Today as a Miami Shores resident, I relive that moment each time I drive south on Biscayne.
I arrived just in time to witness all of our growing pains. From the laid-back metropolis of the late 1970s, we came through riots, the Mariel boatlift, the Dadeland Mall Shootings and Hurricane Andrew.
That said, many wonderful things have happened along the way. The birth of the Miami Beach Art Deco District, Christo’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Boulevard MiMo and its surrounding neighborhoods, Midtown Miami and the Design District, Art Basel — and people living downtown again!
At 25, I bought my first home, a little cottage at 1011 NE 72nd St. The house was small, but I had a wonderful unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach. I could sit on my front porch and watch the time and temperature change on Lincoln Road.
No one in 1984 was sure what would become of the East of Biscayne neighborhoods. Many thought I had made a terrible investment by buying there.
That same thought raced through my mind on August 23, 1992, with the prospect of being washed away by a 16-foot storm surge from Hurricane Andrew.
Our neighbors to the South took the hit that was originally predicted to come ashore in North Dade. That neighborhood today is known as the Bayside Historic District and I’m proud to have played a role in seeing it historically designated.
In the early ’90s, I moved to higher ground in Miami Shores.
In 1978, I started in banking as a teller at Chase Federal Savings and Loan Association in Surfside and moonlighted at Burdines on 163rd Street to make ends meet.
It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when banks actually had to pay people a higher salary if they would agree to work on Miami Beach. Jokingly called ‘Combat Pay,’ it was because the mostly elderly population of the Beach could be quite demanding at times.
My having grown up around many elderly people served me well. After a 10-year government career stint with Dade County, I joined Northern Trust Bank, where I’m proud to say I’ve been for the past 16 years.
Along the way, there have been many changes to Miami. Gone are The Miami News, shopping at Burdines, Jordan Marsh, J. Byron’s and Richards, the Orange Bowl and its parade, a meal at the S&S; Diner on Northeast Second Avenue when the Cavallaris family still owned it. They’ve all been replaced by new ‘rocks’ and institutions along the way.
And yes, those tall Coconut Palms are still my favorite trees and they surround my MiMo home in Miami Shores.
Miami isn’t for everyone. Many will never understand why we choose to be here nor what is this great magnet that keeps us from leaving. Much more than the balmy weather, I think we all have a pioneering spirit that drives us to embrace diversity and combat adversity. We would die of boredom otherwise.?