Editors’ Note: The Summer 2021 issue, which includes the following portfolio by photographer Anna Maria Barry-Jester and poet Erika Meitner, went to press on June 22, just two days before the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium in Surfside, Florida. The tragedy has resulted in ninety-four deaths as of this writing, and has prompted intense scrutiny over building and oversight practices nationwide. While the investigation into the exact cause of the accident is ongoing, the conversations the catastrophe has provoked—about the wisdom of overdeveloping American coasts, about whether private ownership should be exempt from public oversight—speak to the tensions at the heart of Barry-Jester and Meitner’s project. In photographs, poetry, and rigorous reporting, Barry-Jester and Meitner explore the precarity hidden within luxury, and the always-shifting relationship between the natural and the built environment.
Starting in November 2017, on the heels of the devastation of Hurricane Irma, photographer Anna Barry-Jester and I set out to conduct a long-term lyric investigation, in verse and photography, into architecture, urban landscapes, and global warming in the city of Miami, Florida. We hoped to record the ways in which rising water and extreme weather continue to alter the built environment and human geography of the city.
When it comes to the economic repercussions of storm surges, flooding, and sea-level rise, 2020 modeling shows that Miami is the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world, with $400 billion in assets at risk by 2040. According to the 2018 US National Climate Assessment, global average sea levels will likely rise another one to four feet by the end of this century, which would put large areas of the city under water. Miami-Dade County itself relies on projections that place sea levels at approximately two feet higher by 2059, and continuing to rise beyond that. Consequences of this are already apparent: frequent flooding in coastal and inland areas, saltwater intruding into the drinking-water supply, and increasingly unusable roads and septic systems. And although its nickname is the Magic City, Miami can’t make the water disappear.
At the start of this project, we were interested in the ways in which architecturally significant buildings in Miami seemed like filtered selfies of our late-capitalist society as a whole: beautiful, shiny, and only partially tethered to reality. How do we parse the cognitive dissonance of award-winning architects, who are ostensibly concerned with sustainability, designing showpiece waterfront skyscrapers, cultural centers, condominiums, and hotels so defiantly in the face of their unquestionable vulnerability? Like many artists addressing the climate crisis, we struggled with ways to document slow and incremental change that’s difficult to see.
“Climate change may be too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration, yet we have entered a time in human history when the wild has become the norm,” writes Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement, and part of the reason Anna and I chose more lyric modes of documentation for this project was the impossibility of a linear narrative, of straightforward representation. How could we present something that’s long-term and large-scale dramatic, but harder to see in smaller daily moments, and almost impossible to photograph: raised roads in Miami Beach leaving sidewalks and storefronts below grade, or giant pumps that move water from the streets back into the Bay that simply look like large metal boxes? What language should we use to describe the paradox of a city in a time of sea-level rise, lying just feet above sea level, that’s also built on porous limestone—where rampant development means that multimillion-dollar waterfront houses and condominiums are still going up all along the shoreline?
Anna and I have different connections to Miami, though we both share a deep obsession with, and love for, the city. Like many Jewish Holocaust survivors, my grandparents took solace in warmth and community, and one of the places they found joy was with other survivors wintering in Miami: the old Delano and Saxony hotels, the shops and restaurants on Washington and Fourteenth, and later, in Hallandale. As a child, I spent holidays with them on the beaches of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Anna worked in Miami for Univision from 2013 to 2014, producing Spanish-language news on health issues impacting Latino communities, and again in 2017 when she was a Knight Chair in journalism at the University of Miami, spending part of her time in South Florida investigating FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Anna’s images were mostly made with a Rolleiflex—a medium-format film camera held at waist level, which shows images in reverse through the viewfinder, requiring a slow and considered process to make photos that focus on content and metaphor, rather than movement and action. Anna told me that everything about using the camera was a meditative balancing act of getting the image square and straight—but also that the muted 1980s color palette felt, to her, like Miami at dusk: a relief from the intense heat of the day—those brief moments where the air is exactly skin temperature.
We took three joint research trips to Miami over three years (November 2017, June 2018, and June 2019), as well as additional individual trips, to visit and photograph disappearing beaches, flooded streets, art installations, waterfront luxury condos and hotels, construction sites, demolition sites, flood mitigation efforts, and cultural and historical sites. Much of the material we’ve collected for this project is based on synchronicities of encounter. We rode public transport and walked much of the city on foot to find as many situations to photograph and people to meet as possible. We spoke to anyone who would speak to us: architects and construction workers building significant projects by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Bjarke Ingels on waterfront properties; houseboat residents and others displaced by Hurricane Irma; city workers and academics who told us about Miami Beach’s efforts to raise roads and install pumps throughout the city; lifeguards and beach residents who shared information about coastal restoration efforts; and security guards and police officers who described confrontations with unhoused people, who are being pushed into ever smaller areas of the city.
We are keenly aware of the unequal racial and economic impacts of environmental catastrophe combined with aggressive development—including the displacement of low-income and minority communities as a result of gentrification. This excerpt from our larger project focuses on the built environment, and the human desire to live in the now. In “Lyric Poetry and the Problem of Time” David Baker writes that “poetry wishes….to delay, to defer, to remind—to create a companion world where the reader may linger before the inevitable ending.” Nothing about this project is timeless, and in these photos and poems we hoped to create a stopping place where readers can wonder with us: How do we capture or understand this large-scale terraforming along the coast—the desire to push infrastructure as we know it so far that it is no longer viable, remaking the land into our own glittering, ephemeral image?
For Those in Peril on the Sea (Bruce’s Story)
When we saw the boat graveyard in Dinner Key Marina, behind the tall chain-link with no trespassing signs bolted to it, Anna had to photograph it even though the light was all wrong: midday harsh, short shadows, everything blown out and overexposed. We had already moved the car from our metered spot, so I stayed back in the driver’s seat to avoid paying for parking twice. I listened to Zeta 92 with the windows down and watched the recreational boaters in their deck shoes and fiddled with my phone and when Anna finally came back she told me about the sailboats lying naked on their sides, cracks in their keels, covered in barnacles and dried mud. The crushed masts and rusted engines. The cabins filled with broken dishes and moldy cushions. She said she met a guy named Bruce, with incredibly lush and flowing 1970s movie-star hair—like David Cassidy in the early years but blonder. Like Farrah Fawcett. Bruce lived on his boat for the last twenty years in the Marina—there’s a big community there of “live-aboards”—but his boat sank during Hurricane Irma and the Coast Guard dredged it out and put it on a barge. He told Anna that they cut all the boats in half and put them in a dumpster in pieces and brought the dumpster back to the Marina, where the boats they salvaged from the sea and sidewalks and pool decks and waterfront yards are still sitting halved and displaced in the Seminole Boat Ramp parking lot, behind the Coast Guard fence. Bruce said he was on CNN with photos of his boat sinking during the storm. Afterward, when the electricity was out, it meant that the elevators weren’t working in his girlfriend’s building, so he had to walk up twenty-seven floors. His toe, which had a cut on it, got infected and had to be cut off. He lost his toe to the hurricane. Algún día (Someday) was the name of his boat. He used to rent it out for photo shoots because it had a busty mermaid on the front. The first photo shoot on it was with Sofia Vergara, before she was famous, for the first edition of Maxim Latin America. He told Anna the shoot took twice as long as they said it would, and Sofia said to him, You’ve been so patient—I’ll take a photo and sign it for you. But when I asked Anna to show me her photo of Bruce, months later, when she had the film from her Rolleiflex developed, mostly because I wanted to see his amazing hair, the frame of him had vanished from the roll.
When the cathedrals were made of plastic
my hands, I didn’t know what to do with them.
They roved and roved my body like benevolent
mosquitoes or drones or skiffs trawling the bay
at sunset. Air is 830 times lighter than water—
even when the Earth was formless and empty,
even when the Earth was absence and salt.
To execute an intention means to abolish
a desire, means this scripture is a form of
reckoning—a recovery of my body & your body
as concrete, as forms of unchecked development.
Look, I refuse to break with the numinous universe
when I cross the eruv: string drawn across the tip
of South Pointe Park bounding the community
whose edges murmur What have we survived &
how are we held to account? Open up
for me, you say, but what you mean is, Be the
undulating skin wrapped around scaffolding
inhaling / exhaling, catching anything loosed
by construction. The most beautiful thing is to be
un-present; to be extended, not in breadth,
but more & more upwards. Everything depends
on the tower crane, on where you stand &
the long shadow of a building—not a dwelling,
not a cave. Winch me up. I can taste your
certificate of occupancy, your semen & spit—
my hands moved upon, my mouth swept.
You are inextricably altering the façade
of whatever you touch, says the city to us, like
god who created 310 worlds before this one
with fluttering & hesitation over the face
of the deep since what does it mean not
to inhabit but to cross the threshold of this
void, this jewel box, this whole Earth just once.
Watch It Come Down
this whole city a sexy elegy a last
gasp a constant fountain the kites
of kitesurfers arcing across the sky
at dusk leaning into the wind & filling
with breath your mouth not rattle
of dying but ecstatic something a
sharp intake your tongue my neon
lips trace of Jameson the bar-
tender near the golden mammoth
skeleton in a glass case on the
beach the bartender named Beauty
who ladled me Cucumber Rosemary
Gin Punch the bartender at Mac’s
Club Deuce cash only Miami your
bass that follows us everywhere
your scrolling LED billboards on
boats trolling the coast your restless
ocean’s hum & crash like the always
air conditioners relentless diesel
generators like lush wind rushing
off the waves I want to send you
this ocean this golden hour it is
winter where you are the sun cuts
between beachfront condos turns
high-rises into jewel boxes look at my
glittering fingers brush the sun on
half-naked bodies on blushing concrete
the water glowing the water rising
the water lapping the curbs pooling
by grates the post-sex cigarette butts
& unrolled condoms floating down-
stream with no stream the guys out
each morning & evening drinking from
paper bags metal detecting in the sun
with shovels tearing up the road to
raise it & install drains demolishing
an old bank to build luxury condos a
seawall a barrier another buffer or here:
our bodies two buildings two portholes
twin lookouts two eyes or apertures or
Rare Moments Are Few
(One Thousand Museum)
I believe in the idea of the future.
— Zaha Hadid
the most prestigious new
residential address sensuous
curves of the exoskeleton
crystalline glazing of the
façade revolutionary design
a celebration of excellence
sophisticated taste pushing
the limits audacious expression
of architectural innovation un-
paralleled views spectacular
views utterly breathtaking
panoramic views coveted
property a continuous piece
of contemporary sculpture
from podium to crown fluid
iconic bold physical statement
an unprecedented level of
service extraordinary amenities
a six-star lifestyle museum-
quality interiors grand sense
of arrival exceptional privacy
exceptional elegance a truly
secure living environment
atmosphere of an exclusive
club the luxury of abundant
space dramatic entry bank-
quality vault residences starting
at $4.7 million bespoke scenting
available at an additional fee
Thumbs-Up for the Mothership
after Dawn DeDeaux & Lonnie Holley
Never mind the beach erosion or over-building,
the sewage containment issues or sunny-day
flooding—there’s the Gospel of Saint John:
Everyone who drinks of this water will be
thirsty again. At Our Lady of Charity shrine
in Coconut Grove, old Cuban men take in
the sun on stone benches beside teen girls
posing for crop-top selfies along the sea wall
which stretches into shaded mangrove swamps
near Vizcaya. A father fresh from Mercy Hospital
maternity wing holds a sleeping red newborn in a
yellow dress aloft for a photo by the lapping Bay—
blessing of water and salt, seafoam and spit.
The shrine invites visitors to enter the Virgin’s
heart, take shelter under her mantle—Holy
Mother of God, outfit manifest in architecture
with steeple rising, brown and conical, from
a white base that sits fourteen feet above sea level.
Inside: a mural where Mary hovers over Bahía
de Nipe cradling her child, a waving dark-haired
baby Jesus, while water roils and breaks behind her.
Outside, on the flat horizon of Biscayne Bay there’s
a family of three in a small craft right off the shore
possibly in distress—each time they pull-start the engine,
the bow of their motorboat rises up and the stern
sinks, taking on water. Their young daughter—
she’s maybe ten or eleven—bails with a bucket while
her parents fight, their faces churning like the sea
in a ship’s wake, their boat sputtering on the current.
Water is nearly incompressible in liquid form:
kinetic, undulant, it caresses whatever it touches,
wears away, rots, dissolves bonds, drowns sorrows
and many bodies, but still we gather with
infinite momentum at points where land
meets oxide hydrogen with concrete or sand
or whatever else girds these manmade shores
of speculation and refuge. Water as sustenance,
leisure, escape route. Our Lady of El Cobre.
La Ermita de la Caridad. Mother of Charity who
walked the road of stormy seas. In the shrine,
under the altar is a stone cast with water
brought from Cuba on a raft on which fifteen
refugees perished in the ocean trying for
Miami’s freedom. If they had arrived in
this country alive back then, they wouldn’t
have been sent back.
An Enhanced Lifestyle
To try to get better angles of the Coconut Grove Bank building before it came down we ignored the sidewalk scaffolding to get closer to the tie wires attached to the last wall standing until a man named Tex in a hardhat said to us apologetically that we had to get back. “They’ll come from OSHA and then they’ll write you up just like that—a five thousand dollar fine,” he said.
The bank needed to make way for the last tower of the luxury condos being built, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The sales posters plastered on the sides of the plywood fence told us Park Grove offers an unrivaled trifecta: a wild and verdant landscape, the clear blue of Biscayne Bay, and year-round sunlight and warmth. The sales literature said: An ambience that is as luxurious as it is relaxed. The pinnacle in serene waterfront living. Tower 1 prices start from $4.2 million and Tower 2 prices from $2.25 million, just steps from Biscayne Bay—the ultimate nexus of the city and sea.
Miami is a low-lying city, with an average elevation of just over six feet; many parts of the Bay side rise only two to three feet above sea level. Miami also sits on a plateau of limestone formed by layers of porous sediment that allow water to rise up from the ground below. Scientists often compare this limestone—composed partially of ancient fossils of sea creatures—to swiss cheese.
A senior architect from OMA who worked on the Park Grove project told me this: “We created a whole new ground floor datum at plus twenty-five feet. It’s a five-acre ‘amenity plinth.’ In New York City now we have to provide emergency egress twenty feet above sea level—for boat rescues.” In New York City, during Hurricane Sandy, the combined height of the normal ocean tide and the storm surge reached a record of 11.3 feet.
Park Grove’s amenity plinth includes: five acres of private gardens, aromatherapy / steam rooms / sauna, twenty-eight-seat private screening room, wine-tasting room with private wine storage, five-hundred feet of Bayfront pools, indoor and outdoor yoga, and a children’s playroom.
When we moved to the median on Bayshore Drive for a wider view, the construction foreman crossed over toward Anna and me, and we thought we had somehow gotten in trouble, but Johnny just wanted to chat—told us he had been working construction in Miami since the ’80s, after high school. We explained that we had no luck getting into Grove at Grand Bay—the luxury condos next door designed by Bjarke Ingels—and Johnny said, “Once we finish, I never see the project again. After we TCO the project we can go in, but after that, I never go back. Even the security guards—they wouldn’t let me in. And I’ll say, Remember me? I trained you. And they’ll be like, Sorry Johnny.” He waved his hands at the site. “This was the last undeveloped stretch in Coconut Grove. You can’t count on Miami politicians—they’ll sell everything.”
A TCO is a temporary certificate of occupancy, which can be acquired when a building is still under construction but a certain number of floors are deemed habitable and can be occupied or sold. To receive a TCO, all “life safety construction items” must be completed.
On some Miami streets prone to flooding, elevated pumping stations the size of small semis force water back into Biscayne Bay. When Anna and I went to the Pérez Art Museum, at dusk on the plaza in Museum Park, we stumbled on a performance artist in white Gucci swim trunks directing three women in heels and black evening dresses who were each aiming the shaft of a yellow industrial rotary lobe flow diesel pump the size of a Honda Civic into Biscayne Bay. Every pump was drawing water from the Bay and ejaculating it back into the Bay. The diesel engines were so loud that another woman in a sequined dress was handing out earplugs to spectators.
At the same museum, there was a kinetic sculpture by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto called Penetrable BBL Blue 2/8 (1999) with instructions that said, “You are welcome to gently interact with this artwork.” The piece was made with hundreds of strands of thin, deep-blue PVC tubing hanging from metal piping. To enter Penetrable is to be overwhelmed by stimulus, engulfed by touch—there is blue everywhere the eye can see in aisles, in hanging lines that hold our bodies. We enter the piece willingly—its delicate and responsive components react to us and we are encompassed—like the body in water, like the body entering or being entered by another body, like any kind of external stimuli.