The Magic of Wet Foot, Dry Foot

How US-Cuban Policy Helped Fuel the Magic City in the 2nd-half of the 20th Century

People know that Miami is also known as the Magic City, however, most do not know the reason. Over 110 years, the city grew from just 1,000 residents to 5.5 million, which some deemed magical growth. In the second half of the 20th century, much of that growth can be attributed to migration related to varying US-Cuban policies. This growth in real estate, labor, and consumers created the city that we have today. No matter how you may feel about the end of the Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy, we must acknowledge the important effects this and other policies have had on our city’s urban development.

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Population change in Miami from 1970 to today (Gray areas represent US recessions)

There have been 4 distinct waves of Cuban migration to the United States: (1) Directly after Castro’s uprising (1959), supporters of the Batista government and anti-socialists fled, totaling around 250,000 people before the US imposed its blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2) In 1965 the Cuban and US governments reached an agreement to allow families of those who are already in the United States to be offered residency. This program brought 300,000 Cubans to Miami from 1965-1973. (3) The third migration, known as the Mariel Boatlift, occurred in 1980 when the Castro regime allowed family members of Cuban residents from the US to visit their families in Cuba. The sight of these well-off family members gave them a promise of a better life which caused many to want to flee. The demand was so high that Castro allowed 125,000 to leave via boat. (4) The fourth and final wave occurred in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union sent Cuba’s economy reeling.

Each of these waves, I believe, has helped to create entirely new neighborhoods of Miami. The first wave of Batista supporters settled in what was then West of Miami, today is known as Little Havana. This is one of the densest areas of Miami, with most lots hosting multi-family buildings that were continuously densified as families were slowly reunited. When going into these apartments, one can see that they began as spacious 2/2 units, but slowly were converted to have 3-5 bedrooms to house generations in the same unit. Little Havana began as a walkable city, with access to parks, food, and street life. Today it still captures its original scale and walkability.


After this first wave, many moved to Hialeah, Westchester, Sweetwater, and West Miami. Before large waves of Cuban migration, Hialeah was a playground for the elite, with an infamous racetrack visited by the Kennedys, Churchill, JP Morgan, and more. Today it is Florida’s 5th largest city and a working-class community that continues to grow. It is one of the few industrial communities in the country that is still successful. Hialeah and Westchester can be characterized by more single family homes with large multi-family complexes throughout. They are much less dense than Little Havana but have smaller lots than many other areas of Miami. Sweetwater was a town of 3,000 residents, and a retired midget community before 1970. After the second and third migrations, and the creation of FIU, the Dolphin Expressway and the Palmetto Expressway, its population soared. Today it has a population of over 20,000 and rising. The area has a mix of multi-family and single family homes on smaller than average lot sizes. This scale and good city maintenance allow the neighborhoods to be fairly walkable. Today a lot of the city is also inhabited by transient University students.


20+ Unit Multi-Family Building in Little Havana

The story of Miami can be told through the stories of immigrant families. Most of our families came here fleeing something in hope of something new. We created neighborhoods that learned from the quirks of the places we fled, and we all got mixed up into the great Miami melting pot. 51% of Miami’s population today is foreign-born, and we must understand how their migration affected the growth of the city we see today.

This article speaks about the 20% of Miamians who come from Cuban descent. However, Miami is also made up of thousands of Haitians, who fled economic turmoil; African-American southerners who worked in the booming hospitality industry that created the city; Venezuelans and other South Americans fleeing political and economic unrest; And white northerners who came down to find fresh air and peace at the turn of the century. Miami Urban growth and US-Cuba policy have been tied together for over 5 decades, and perhaps that will not stop with the change of this immigration policy, but this marks the end of an era for a remarkable 100 years of Miami. Let us make sure to not forget the positive impact that immigration has had on the City and its maturation.

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Wikipedia Cities: Sweetwater, Hialeah, South Miami, Little Havana, and Westchester