This evening I took part in Miami Critical Mass, an 11.9 mile bike ride starting at Government Center downtown and wending through Allapatah, Wynwood, Little Haiti, and Midtown. I’m not a hard-core cyclist — I borrowed an ungainly Globe hybrid — and I haven’t biked around Miami since my days of terrorizing North Miami Beach with an empty milk carton wedged alongside my BMX’s front wheel.
It was a trip cruising the streets with a hundred-odd fellow riders, passing through neighborhoods I’ve only driven through or, in some cases, never seen (can’t tell you the last time I was alongside the Miami River). For the most part we overrode the rules of traffic, blocking intersections and running red lights as a single, ostensibly indestructible column of whirling legs. The good will of onlookers, conveyed in smiles and waves and cheers and shouted inquiries about what we were up to, felt strange in a city not known for brotherly love. We rode down some gritty streets, the kind of ruinous drags that your average middle-classer encounters only when lost, and yet an innocent warmth prevailed between the riders (a mixed bag) and the spectators (ditto).
For me, having grown up in a very different part of Miami, the inescapable question was: “Where am I?” My childhood landmarks were supermarkets, mega malls, 24-theatre cinemas, indoor basketball courts. But here was the other-side-of-the-tracks cliché substantiated: crowded barber shops, rusty junk heaps, corner groceries, cafeterias with red, white, and blue non-American flags on their signage, storefront churches, gleaming chrome hubcaps hung four across the facades of loud-colored buildings like the international clocks in the lobbies of expensive hotels. It was a Miami I’ve always known to exist but with which I’ve had little meaningful contact.
I’m not naive enough to believe this evening’s bike ride changed that. I was literally rolling through, moving quickly and safely in numbers through places which, for the most part, did not feel like home. For one thing, there were the colors. Red stores, purple houses, orange apartment buildings. There were the people on the street. Not homeless, just hanging out in front of their homes rather than barricaded inside of them. There were the businesses, housed in grungy buildings and representing a single person’s or a single family’s stake against hardship. And there was the motif of violence: the Pitbull billboard with the slogan, “One bullet kills the party.” The bright-yellow pawnshop with the two rows of automatic weaponry stenciled in thick black paint out front.
No high-rises, no ads for plastic surgery, no hospital billboards boasting ER wait times of under ten minutes, no Don Shula. None of the hallmarks of my neck of the woods.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about “authenticity.” These neighborhoods are just different (to differing degrees) than where I grew up. Nations unto themselves. And yet all lie within the official outline of a place called Miami I call home.
Miami Critical Mass takes place the last Friday of every month. This was my first time, but Robby’s done it once before and says the route this time was different. Of course, the demands of physical exertion require him to shut down other faculties, like memory, so for all I know it might have been the same route turn for turn. I plan to do it again next month, if only to try out the $3 burgers at BAR (formerly PS14), the last stop on the route before its return to Government Center.
Until then, here are a few more photos Robby took on the trek.