Don’t Miss This Wonderful Miami History Class
Dr. Paul George points to a tombstone the city cemetery. Many of Miami’s original movers and shakers are buried here.
One of the best things I’ve done in my life is to take Dr. Paul George’s Miami and South Florida history course at Miami Dade College. I have an academic background as far as postgraduate work at the doctoral level, but few, very few learning experience in my life have been as enjoyable as taking a class for the sheer pleasure of learning. Doing something because you want to, not because you have to, without the pressure of grades, has made me a fan of this kind of adult education. Dr. George’s class is open to all adults, even those who are not seeking degrees.
I took the course last spring and wish I could take it again, and may even do so in the future. You can never, ever learn enough about South Florida history, as Dr. George would happily attest. Anybody who scoffs at the idea of Miami and South Florida not having a so-called “real” history better not get into a debate with Dr. G, as students affectionately call him.
Don’t mess with Dr. George when it comes to Miami history. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to learn beyond all these shiny new towering buildings.
ABOUT DR. GEORGE
Dr. George has published several books and worked as an educator for decades. In addition to teaching at Miami Dade College, he offers tours through the Historical Museum of South Florida and is a contributing editor to the institution’s publication, Tequesta. Although he is an eminent historian, forget the idea of a stodgy old professor. Dr. George is extremely approachable and caring. His warm, affable personality, as well as his passion and enthusiasm for the subject, make him a favorite among students and history buffs.
Last spring, the museum organized a roast to honor Dr. George’s 20th anniversary working as the museum’s resident historian. Over two hundred fans were present and far from being a roast, it was a genuine show of admiration.
Dr. George is one of those rare souls you meet who deeply love what they do, and it shows. His lectures and tours are never boring because he never gets bored with the subject. He doesn’t just dish out facts, but weaves a story that makes South Florida come alive. You could easily call this class romancing Miami, even though, of course, none of it is fictional.
Our class consisted of about two dozen students, mostly women. Only a few were actually college-aged and degree-seeking. The rest ranged from teachers—those seeking credits for recertification – to Historical Museum of South Florida staff. Still others were working or retired professionals who simply love the topic of Miami and South Florida history. Many of those in class, including myself, had taken Dr. George’s museum tours in the past and just wanted to learn more.
Over the course of four months, we attended lectures and took several tours designed exclusively for the class. Tours are covered by tuition, which is quite a bargain considering that similar tours through the museum cost about $45 a pop for non-members. (I paid $240 for tuition as Florida resident—do the math.)
Dr. George’s syllabus approached history chronologically—from the pre-Columbian Tequesta populations – to the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He also tied in recent history or current affairs whenever it was relevant. This was particularly inevitable when touring downtown and passing by the towering, half-empty condos, product of Miami’s recent real estate bust. Although the course focuses mainly on Miami, Dr. George connects Miami to Broward, West Palm Beach, the Keys and the Gulf Coast. Fort Lauderdale’s history is particularly important in relation to Miami.
THE WALKING TOURS
My favorite part of the class was the tours. The first one we did, which focused on the origins of Miami, was absolutely magical. (See below for two video clips from this tour.) On a cool January evening, we met at the river walk behind downtown’s Hyatt Regency hotel for an open-air lecture. We were in what once was pioneer Julia Tuttle’s riverfront swampy empire. Sneaking behind Bijan’s, site of Fort Dallas Park, we saw the yellow clapboard cottage that once housed workers during the building of Miami’s first railroad. (The cottage was actually moved from a different location further inland.)
Then just a block away, we stopped at the exact spot where Miami was born. A royal palm tree planted by artist Xavier Cortada, the Incorporation Palm, commemorates the moment when original settlers met to incorporate the city 1896. (You’ve seen this palm before elsewhere—it’s the symbol on the City of Miami’s official seal.)
Afterward, we headed back to the river walk, climbed a slight slope next to the Hyatt up to the Brickell Bridge (yes, there’s a path there … who knew?) and crossed over to Brickell Park. Here we learned all about the family that dominated the south bank of the river, trading with Indians and building an empire of its own. And of course, from the bridge, we looked over to the Miami Circle, a 2,000 year old archeological site.
Back at the Hyatt, we stood before the enormous towers of the recent Met development. At the time of the tour, an empty construction site—future home of Met 3—marked the spot for Henry Flagler’s 19th century extravagant Royal Palm hotel. When there was barely anything here, Flagler built a railroad and they did come – wealthy socialites from the northeast to stay at this luxurious property by the Miami River. It is really amazing to see these new behemoth condos and think about them in relation to all that has already been built here.
My summary here doesn’t do justice to the tour, which actually took three hours and could have taken twice as long, as far as historical details are concerned. (See below for some video clips from this particular tour.)
Some members of the class, gathered in front of Gesu, Miami’s oldest Catholic church, located downtown.
During the rest of the semester, we also toured downtown and Brickell by foot and the metromover; the former provides a great way to get a bird’s eye view from the train and platforms. What with the river tour I had taken a year prior, my appreciation of the area came full circle. I get immense satisfaction when I go to a high-rise downtown, look down and see Miami’s history laid out before my eyes. Knowing who, what, when and why as you drive through Miami’s historic districts just makes it all the more interesting to live here.
Other tours during the semester included the Miami cemetery, Little Havana (that was actually two different tours, there’s a lot of history there), the South Beach Art Deco district and the riverfront area by the Miami River Inn and Lummus Park.
Dr. George didn’t just talk about people, places and events. His knowledge of geology and architecture put an interesting spin on the drama of history. For example, learning about the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, which is an elevation of limestone above sea level, made me realize that Miami is not really flat. You can see a great example of limestone right by the stairs at the Brickell metrorail station. (Yes, they actually built around the huge slab of rock.)
A beautifully preserved Mediterranean style home in Little Havana.
The beautiful, gilded elevator doors of the Alfred I. Dupont building in downtown Miami.
Dr. George’s ability to point out architectural details forever changed the way I see Miami’s historic neighborhoods. From materials, to styles, to ornamentation – there was much to see where my eyes formerly took details for granted. The Little Havana tour, which featured several well-preserved historic homes, was particularly interesting considering that many homes there are currently run-down versions of their former architectural glory, but not all is lost.
The best part of all is? Even when the class was over, I kept looking. I’m always looking out for the details and enjoy learning something new everyday.
IN THE CLASSROOM
Dr. George gave us handouts and those of us who weren’t taking the class for credit had the option to purchase two of his books. One was a pictorial history of Little Havana, published by Arcadia in the Images of America series. The other was a detailed, comprehensive history of Miami’s oldest Catholic church: The Gesu in Miami: A Story of God’s People in a Subtropical Metropolis 1896-2006, published by Fort Dallas Press. (Ask Dr. George if interested in purchasing a copy.)
This is the kind of class where you really don’t need to worry about digesting all the information all at once, and as a non-degree seeking student, you certainly don’t have to read everything right away. One of the greatest pleasures of this class was just listening passively. If you feel you are too busy to take a class, no worries; all you really need to do is show up to class, listen and learn. It is not at all a stuffy and stressful academic environment. Plus, you can make new friends, as I did. Our semester ended with a nice group dinner at Perricone’s.
A video clip from our origins of Miami tour by the river. Learn why this city is called Miami. Location: river walk behind the Hyatt Regency hotel.
A video clip from our origins of Miami tour by the river. Learn about the Brickell Key bridge. Location: Brickell Bridge.
INFORMATION AT A GLANCE
Please contact Dr. George if you’re interested in registering for the class. He can personally walk you through the process. Remember, you do not have to be a degree-seeking student to enjoy this class! It’s open to all. If you miss the first class, don’t worry; that’s mostly orientation.
Dr. Paul George, (305) 237-3723.
This fall, class begins Thursday, August 27 and ends in December. Class meets weekly on Thursdays in the evening from 5:40 to 8 pm.
Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, Downtown Miami
Tuition is about $250 for non-degree seeking students who are Florida residents. Handouts and tours are included. If you are a non-degree seeking student, you will not have required reading, but Dr. George’s books are available from him at cost.
Free parking is available at the Wolfson lot with student ID or proof of registration.
The classroom is located within walking distance from the College Station metromover stop.
Most tours meet off campus. You will need your own transportation to meet the class group at specified locations.
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