In a city resisting change, he pushed the vision of modern Miami as gateway to Americas

If you’re an old-timer in Miami, you know the joke.

Have a park or a street named after you while you’re alive, and the next time you make the news, it’s because you’ve been indicted or are going to jail.

“You gotta die before they name something after you,” Maurice Ferré tells me.

But his jovial tone betrays that he’s thrilled: Miami’s waterfront Museum Park is being named Maurice A. Ferré Park after the visionary former six-term mayor of the city.

And now, while he’s here among us to relish the moment.

“I guess the way they see it, I’m close to that anyway,” Ferré says, only half-joking. “I’m 83 and I have an aggressive cancer.”

He’s a fighter, always has been, and that’s what he’s been doing with the disease. On Thursday, when commissioners are expected to give the naming final approval, Ferré plans to stand before the City Commission to speak words of gratitude.

His nomination for the honor already worked one miracle. The naming was approved — unanimously — on first reading on Nov. 15. Even his former foe, Commissioner Joe Carollo, had nice things to say about him.

“I was very touched by it,” Ferré says.

People are calling Ferré “the father of modern Miami” these days — and it’s no exaggeration.

Eyes were on New York, not the Caribbean and Latin America, when Ferré, born to aristocracy in Puerto Rico and educated in U.S. prep schools, began making his mark on Miami as a young businessman in the 1960s, when the city began receiving the first waves of Cuban exiles.

His industrialist father, José Ferré, belonged to the right establishment clubs and in 1965 developed what was then the city’s tallest building, New World Tower (now restored 100 Biscayne). Soon after, the son, a University of Miami finance graduate working in the family business, entered politics.

He was elected to the Florida House in 1967 — and became Miami’s first Hispanic and the country’s first Puerto Rican mayor in 1973.

“I wasn’t elected by Hispanics, though,” Ferré remembers. “The Hispanic vote was less than 5 percent…. I was part of the Anglo world because I was white and aristocratic and all the other stuff that makes America such a complicated hybrid place…. I wasn’t ‘a Hispanic leader’ and that gave me the flexibility to do things and see things.”

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October, 1977: The unveiling of the Ponce de Leon statue in front of the Miami Public Library. Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre is in the center foreground.

State Archives of Florida

He was mayor until 1985 during a decade of racial and social upheaval and fast demographic change resisted by the Anglo establishment — including the Chamber of Commerce and the Miami Herald, Ferré reminds me.

The business community “thought that Miami had to look north, not south,” Ferré says. “My position was that this may be so, but geography says otherwise. You can overcome many things but you can’t overcome geography. Miami’s destiny is tied to our geography.”

He saw the potential of the Brickell Avenue district — where his father had acquired the homestead of Dr. James M. Jackson, the Jackson of public hospital fame — to become an international banking center. And he also saw the need for the city to acquire as much waterfront land as possible for the public’s enjoyment and he brokered deals. Among the projects he spearheaded were Bayside and Bayfront Park.

“The redevelopment of downtown began with his ideas,” said Carollo.

And he added: “You can’t say Miami without saying Maurice Ferré. I can’t think of any official that’s made more of an impact than he has.”

Ferré regrets that some of that waterfront has gone to housing concrete structures like the American Airlines Arena — people watching Heat games don’t enjoy water views — but at this stage in his life he doesn’t want to criticize too much and make friends like Heat owner Micky Arison mad at him.

Yet, prodded, he will say he hopes the Maurice A. Ferré Park — where the County Commission wants to build two more museums, one Cuban-exile, another African American — “stays green.” I couldn’t agree more. And on the issue of whether the park’s name should be expanded to Maurice A. Ferré Museum Park to keep the location’s brand, as some have suggested, Ferre says he has no opinion.

“Whatever members of commission think it would be,” he says.

Either way, his champions are raising money through a fund set up at the Miami Foundation to erect a gate with his name at the park or mark his legacy with a sculpture or monument commissioned to a Miami artist.

Ferré isn’t interested in talking about any of that.

He is, however, tickled by Carollo’s appreciation.

“Things never stop to amaze in Miami,” he says. “This is so Miami.”

He breaks into Spanish: “Los enemigos ahora somos amigos.

Enemies are now friends.

“That’s why we all stay here,” he says. “It’s a crazy place full surprises. So, pa’lante!”

Onward, he urges.

For his own Miaminess, and so much more history, this is an honor well deserved.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago