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More like Buenos Aires than Boston, it's perhaps DOWNTOWN MIAMI that shows the city at its most Latin. Downtown divides into distinct halves: big business and big buildings line Brickell Avenue south of the Miami River, while the commercial bazaar around Flagler Street to the north hums with jewelers, fabric stores and cheap electronics outlets. Latin culture is comfortably dominant here - from office workers grabbing a midmorning cafecito , or Cuban coffee, from tiny streetside cafés to the bilingual signage in almost every store. If at first it may seem overwhelming, persevere: downtown is compact, holds two of Miami's best museums and provides the clearest idea of Cuba's continuing influence on the city.

Flagler Street is downtown's loudest, brightest, busiest strip; at its western end is the Metro-Dade Cultural Center , an ambitious attempt by architect Philip Johnson to create a postmodern Mediterranean-style piazza. Art shows, historical collections and a library frame the courtyard, but Johnson overlooked the power of the south Florida sun: rather than pausing to rest and gossip, most people scamper across the open space toward the nearest shade. The center's Historical Museum of Southern Florida at 1010 W Flagler (Mon-Wed, Fri & Sat 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-9pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5, $6 combination ticket with Center for Fine Arts) provides a comprehensive peek into the region's history. It has a strong section on refugees and immigration since 1960. A few yards away, the Miami Art Museum of Miami-Dade County houses a strong collection of post-1940 art, and showcases outstanding international traveling exhibits (Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, third Thurs each month 10am-9pm, Sat & Sun noon-5pm; $5, $6 combination ticket with Historical Museum; tel 305/375-5000).

Beside Biscayne Boulevard (part of Hwy-1), on the eastern edge of downtown, is the Bayside Marketplace , a large pink shopping mall enlivened by street entertainers and food stands. Across Biscayne Boulevard, the Freedom Tower , built in 1925 and modeled on a Spanish bell tower, earned its name by housing the Cuban Refugee Center in the 1960s. Between December 1965 and June 1972, ten planes a week brought over 250,000 Cubans allowed to leave the island by Fidel Castro. While US propaganda hailed them as "freedom fighters," most of the arrivals were simply seeking the fruits of capitalism, and, as Castro astutely recognized, any that were seriously committed to overthrowing his regime would be far less troublesome outside Cuba.

Fifteen minutes' walk from Flagler Street, the Miami River marks the southern limit of downtown. Around 1900, the millionaire oil baron Henry Flagler extended his railroad, which had opened up Florida's east coast, to reach Miami from Palm Beach. His Royal Palm Hotel (on the site of today's Hotel Inter-Continental ) did much to put Miami on the map. One of the landowners was William Brickell, who ran a trading post on the south side of the river, an area now dominated by Brickell Avenue - the address in 1910s Miami. While the original grand homes have largely disappeared, money is still the avenue's most obvious asset: its half-mile parade of bank buildings is the largest grouping of international banks in the US. The rise of the banks was matched by new condominiums of breathtaking proportions (and expense) but little architectural merit.

 

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