Florida City: A Brief History - South Dade News Leader: Florida City

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Florida City: A Brief History

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Posted: Monday, December 8, 2014 10:49 am

  FloridaCity was envisioned by its owner-developer MiamiLand and Development Co. at the turn of the 20th Century as an upscale retirement community with an agricultural theme. Northern retirees would purchase a small acreage on the East Glade and grow tropical fruit or vegetables, others would do the manual work, and the owners would live in the adjacent town of broad avenues and streets with their homes well landscaped. A wide canal provided passage from Biscayne Bay to FloridaCity.  Two additional towns were envisioned, one on the Bay and one midway.

  Despite infusing large sums of money into the project and seemingly inventive marketing the company did not sell enough acreages and lots and it failed. The community and political leaders of this early version of FloridaCity were mainly highly educated professionals from DetroitMichigan.

  A visionary Scicilian (they did not call themselves Italian-Americans then as they identified with their home area or district in Italy first) James Sottile purchased the mortgages on the debt of the ML&D Co. on nearly 30,000 acres of land extending from what is now US1 to Biscayne Bay. His vision was to drain the land and lease it to primarily Italian-American farmers using a system in use in Sicily. He invested heavily in digging drainage canals and is establishing roads to connect and delineate the land. Large pumps were used to move the water very effectively. He called his new company South Dade Farms.

  He marketed mainly to Italian-Americans already engaged in agriculture in the north.  An article in the magazine Farm Journal reported: “South Dade Farms is the brainchild of James Sottile, an Italian immigrant who saw a chance to combine American production methods with the Italian farm tenant system. Sottile and his sons have built up holdings of over 5,000 acres of citrus and 10,000 head of cattle on 30,000 acres of pasture.” He ended up owning nine banks also.

  Not long after the arrival of James Sottile on the scene FloridaCity morphed into an Italian community with it political leadership moving from older retirees associated with ML&D Co. to Italian Americans.  The new farmers were very industrious and sacrificing and later prospered greatly. Sottile was also very generous, donating land for the State Farmers’ Market, farm worker housing near the Base and the land for Homestead’s BayfrontPark.

  Names we are all familiar with dotted the landscape both politically and socially. One family would become the largest landowner in Miami-DadeCounty. Gradually they discontinued farming up north during the summer months and started farming in other parts of Florida and the Carolinas. Their sons and daughters went to college and brought that knowledge back home into family businesses.

  The African American population of FloridaCity also grew and prospered but at a lower level. They farmed, bought land and built homes in FloridaCity. They also used education as a spring board for success. For many years the black population of FloridaCity was great enough to influence the local elections but it was not until 1976 that University of Miami Law School student Otis T. Wallace, while working days full time and going to law school at night, organized a voter registration drive. Perhaps sensing this turn the mayor and commission appointed a black commissioner. Law student Otis T. Wallace was elected in 1976 with the largest number of votes for a commission seat. In 1984 FloridaCity elected its first majority black commission. In recent years FloridaCity has prospered with the arrival of some major retailers. This surge in economic development success is attributed to the welcoming policies of the FloridaCity government and to geography. 

  In its early days FloridaCity residents feared that the City of Homestead would incorporate FloridaCity into Homestead against its will. However in the last decades the two cities have worked harmoniously on issues of common interest while still competing for new businesses.

  Bob Jensen is Vice President for Community Liason at First National Bank of South Florida, President of the FloridaPioneerMuseum, and a retired Navy Commander.

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