Hialeah, Florida, now and then and then
If I were to tell you that Hialeah, Florida is the fifth-largest city in Florida, smaller only than Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, and bigger than Orlando or Ft. Lauderdale, you might imagine a big city with tall office buildings and “good” shopping and dining. And I would have misled you.
Hialeah has the second-largest Cuban-American population in the US (second only to Westchester in Miami-Dade County), and your grocery store cashier is more likely to tell you the total cost of your groceries in Spanish than in English, but my remedial Spanish is good enough for grocery numbers.
The difficulty of Hialeah, and for me, what makes it seem especially different from the rest of Miami, is that within its limits, the street numbers change completely. There are exceptions (Coral Gables, for example), but most of Miami addresses are based on a tidy NW, NE, SW, SE grid of streets and avenues. Once you enter Hialeah, though, its own numbering kicks in and, if you are like me, you may get lost.
I lived in a house in one of Hialeah’s outlying zip codes for a while (its address conformed to the “normal” Miami addresses), technically a neighborhood in Miami-Dade County called Palm Springs North, but when asked I didn’t say that I lived in Hialeah. I shopped and ate and lived, really, in the adjacent neighborhood of Miami Lakes. Miami Lakes has, of course, lakes and, among other attributes, a faux-old-fashioned Main Street, with restaurants and country clubs centered around Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Now Hialeah is the place of a lot of “former” things in my life and memories: the former home of Hialeah Race Track (with its gardens and racing horses), the former Hialeah Speedway (for racing stock cars), the former home of my grandparents.
I went to a small wedding once at the crumbling Hialeah Race Track, but spent more time one night in 2006 at Hialeah Speedway, which had by then closed for good. To get there, you drive through a neighborhood of warehouses–not exactly an industrial park but a hodge-podge of boxy buildings of varying ages, shapes, and color schemes. Tenants were mostly mom-and-pop businesses like Ollet Carpet and Vertical and El Sol de Hialeah. A sign read “Miami en sus manos.” Most of the signs are in Spanish.
We parked under a bright security light and crossed the street to the only space not built up with warehouses: a square piece of property surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped chain link fence which was falling down in enough places that we could step over it easily. No signs said “Hialeah Speedway.” The only sign was a 4′ x 8′ for Centre-Line Real Estate, “Space Available,” on the Northeast corner.
We walked around the 1/3-mile oval, too flat and too short to be an interesting race track anymore, running our hands over the grooves in the concrete wall worn by cars it saved from going into the stand. We walked on the speed bumps on the inside of the track. I stood on the starting line, painted with black and white checks. I imagine one of the nights I went there when it was still open, the concession and never-ending exhaust smells, the people taking their kids or their dates out for an all but extinct kind of entertainment, watching the cars drive around the little circle until the last event of the night, the wonderfully named “RUN WHAT YOU BRUNG.”
We passed no one as we walked back to the car.
Long before I lived there or went on a field trip to its speedway, I visited my maternal grandmother there. In 1970, it was an ethnically mixed neighborhood, my Italian immigrant grandmother living next door to her Cuban immigrant neighbor, whom my mother called “Tata.”
When you walked into their house (Hialeah address, 780 E. 7th Street) you passed my grandfather in his green naugahyde recliner on your way to the kitchen, the most important room. There was always a coffee percolator on the counter, with coffee that cooked all day. The table by the window held a plastic napkin holder and a plastic ashtray and a bottle of Revlon Red nail polish.
The appliances were pink, and the refrigerator was frig on top, freezer on bottom, which I used to my advantage to reach the ice cream sandwiches I couldn’t get to on my own at home. The sink had special handles which my grandmother got from the hospital where she worked as a clerk and my grandfather, a union plumber, installed.
I can still smell the smoke and Chanel No. 5, the beer and the orange blossoms from the open windows. I can hear the roar of the football game on TV on Sunday afternoon.
Hialeah reminds me that there’s much more to writing about place than numbers, population or zip codes. Sights, sounds, past, present, smells, memories, crumbled buildings next to what replaced them. People dead and alive. You need all of them when you write about place.