Los Angeles is sometimes characterized as “the first American city.”
Of course, Los Angeles emerged long after major cities in the United States, such as New York or Boston or even Chicago. But these older cities, particularly in the northeast, were in some ways made by Europeans, at a time when U.S. culture was in its nascent form.
The emergence of Los Angeles since the 1920s reflects a broad historical shift of the economic and cultural points of gravity in the United States from the East to the West, a process of gradual “de-Europeanization” and of Americanization.
California at large may be considered as terra firma of U.S. culture, and Los Angeles, in turn, as the symbolic capital of the region.
More than any other city, it has been argued, Los Angeles epitomizes American culture in terms of individualism, privatization, materialism, ownership, freedom, automobiles, movies and a chance at the American Dream.
Today, Los Angeles is home to many immigrants of diverse backgrounds, but when its population reached 1 million and it became the third-largest city in the nation some 75 years ago, it was a city made by and for Americans.
Los Angeles represents the evolution of the United States through the past 100 years: the American Century.
It is tempting to place Miami one step further in this evolutionary scheme: as the first global city in the United States.
Miami became a major city only some 30 years ago, when Miami-Dade’s population crossed the 1 million mark. Miami is a city made by and for transient populations from around the hemisphere, even the world.
The difference is underscored by the role of immigrants in Los Angeles and Miami.
For example, immigrants in Los Angeles are going through a familiar process of gradual assimilation and gradual upward mobility, the way it happened before in a city such as New York, with Italian, Irish, or Jewish immigrants.
Usually, it takes at least one generation for immigrants to get established.
Miami is unique, first of all, in the sense that no other major U.S. city has an absolute majority of recent immigrants.
While the absolute size of Los Angeles’ immigrant population is much larger than that of Miami’s, the latter is nonetheless more foreign. Miami has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any major city in the United States and the largest proportion of inhabitants who speak another language than English.
It is not only the relative size of the immigrant population that is unusual – so is its socio-economic status.
A relatively large number of immigrants in Miami are wealthy, educated, and possess considerable entrepreneurial skills and experience. This is not only true for the first waves of Cuban migration, but also for more recent migration from other Caribbean and Latin American nations, and elsewhere.
In Los Angeles, the upper and middle classes and the establishment are largely American, with relatively deep roots in the area.
Recent immigrants, for example, from Mexico, start at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and slowly work their way up.
In Miami, on the other hand, many of the wealthiest people, entrepreneurs, politicians, and real estate owners, are recent immigrants. Miami’s elite is a footloose cosmopolitan elite – like nowhere else.
Los Angeles is the ultimate American place, made in America, with a mainstream American culture.
On the other hand, Miami, to most Americans, appears a “foreign” place: hard to grasp and hard to say where it belongs. Perhaps that is because Miami is ahead of the curve, offering a glimpse of the urban future.
Miami: the first global city.
Jan Nijman is Professor of Geography and Regional Studies, School of International Studies, University of Miami.