On a cool, cloudy night, a former mayor recalled the sunny city of his youth.
Manny Diaz, who served as mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, spoke Monday night to a room of sixty about growing up — and later governing — in that city.
Described as the “King of Miami” by Eugenie Birch, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, Diaz came to Penn to promote his new book, “Miami Transformed.”
The book, which includes a foreword penned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was published as part of IUR’s ongoing book series, “The City in the 21st Century.”
The books in the series have been accompanied by lectures, which, according to Birch, aim “to share with our community here at Penn what these people have to say in hopes of inspiring the same kind of leadership amongst our students and our community.”
Susan Wachter, Birch’s fellow co-chair of the Institute, added that the lectures furthered IUR’s goal of “fostering a dialogue, from academia to the field and the field to academia.”
While the “Urban Book Talk” series has showcased many prominent figures in its history, last night the focus was on Diaz.
The former mayor was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to Miami when he was 6 years old. A lawyer prior to his election as mayor, Diaz went on to become chair of the Conference of Mayors of the United States.
He opened his talk by touching on the sustained racial tensions in Miami, which initially motivated him to run for mayor. He recalled working on a particularly polarizing immigration case while still a lawyer. The case, he said, ultimately led to protests across Miami and divided the city’s residents.
“I thought we had made a lot of progress. The level of bitterness and hatred was shocking,” he added.
Diaz also discussed the reforms he implemented during his term.
He explained how his background as both a Cuban immigrant and a private practice lawyer heavily influenced his decisions as mayor. Seeking to bridge the gap between various ethnic groups in Miami, Diaz worked to develop impoverished neighborhoods and make the city a place where companies would want to do business.
In addition, Diaz shared his views on the development of infrastructure, the looming environmental crisis and reforms of the Miami police department.
Throughout the talk, Diaz often returned to the role of local as opposed to national government. He believes that local government is more intimately involved in the immediate community.
He cited, for example, that while the federal government did not enact the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 1,100 mayors implemented it within their cities.
“The mayor’s agenda is America’s agenda,” he said. “It’s not just an ideological issue. These are our neighborhoods.”
Juan Visser, a College sophomore from Miami, said the talk was “not just about Miami.”
He added, “As an aspiring city planner it was something that I took a lot away from. As an immigrant myself, Diaz has been a source of inspiration for me.”