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Sunday, October 31, 2010



Istan -- Founded in 1448 as a Moorish outpost, Istan’s winding streets and whitewashed houses reflect its colorful history, which was rich with viniculture and silk production. Yet to be overrun by tourism, it lends itself to quiet exploration.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Saturday, October 30, 2010



La Linea de la Concepcion -- This Spanish city bordering Gibraltar tends to be forgotten in the shadow of the Rock, yet it has mysterious beauty all its own. The Arabic essence is palpable, and daydream but a little, and you’ll swear you’re walking the streets of Tangier.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Friday, October 29, 2010



Antequera -- This marvelous city is known as the heart of Andalucia because of its central location between Málaga, Granada, Córdoba and Sevilla. Here the contemporary and ancient mix seamlessly in this modern city whose outskirts feature well-preserved Bronze Age tombs.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Thursday, October 28, 2010



Zahara de la Sierra -- Zahara is arguably the crown jewel of Andalucia’s white towns situated on mountainsides. Even from a distance, the remains of its 13th century Moorish fortress hypnotically draw one’s gaze. Explore the town’s narrow streets, then relax with a cold Cruzcampo at cafe in a plaza by the cathedral.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



Ronda – Perched in the mountains over the River Guadalevín, Ronda enchants like a town from an ancient fairytale. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles fell under its spell, marvelling at the natural beauty as well as the captivating ruins of Celtish, Roman and Moorish origin.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010



Benaladid – Despite the superhighways, the cookie cutter housing developments along the Costa del Sol and WiFi, quaint vestiges of Old Andalucia remain to be discovered by those who look for them.

Editor's note: For the next 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real Alcazar, Sevilla


Real Alcazar, Sevilla – Explore its corridors and listen carefully: you can hear the many stories the Real Alcazar has to tell. Tales of its origin as a Moorish fortress centuries before the first millennia, of its transformation into an opulent palace by Pedro the Cruel, of its reincarnation through Gothic elements added in the Middle Ages.

Editor's note: For the next 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Sunday, October 24, 2010



Cadiz – To know Cadiz, you must walk the streets in this city, the oldest in Western Christendom. Peer into courtyards ornamented with Arabic tiles and you can almost picture Phoenician merchants, Berber spice traders, and sailors readying for ocean voyages to the New World.

Editor's note: For 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Corrida de Toros, Sevilla


Corrida de Toros, Sevilla – Here, in one of Andalucia’s most prestigious bull rings, the ghosts of Manolete and Joselito still thrill to the cheers of the crowds who attend this iconic spectacle of all that is Spain.

Editor's note: For the next 13 days, we will showcase the fine art photography of Steve Wright -- focusing on the region in Southern Spain known as Andalucia.

Friday, October 22, 2010



We first visited Miami in 1997.

The thermometer read 4 degrees Fahrenheit when we lifelong Ohioans boarded a flight to MIA to visit South Beach, the Magic City and take a brief Caribbean Cruise before flying back home to the frozen water pipes and gray skies that awaited back in the Buckeye State.

Like so many Ohioans before -- the Knight, Firestone, Brickell, Cox, Tuttle families -- the sea, sun and sand proved too enchanting to resist.

By 2000 (we moved in on the fabled Bush-Gore election day), we were renting in South Florida and figuring out how to recreate ourselves among the diversity and opportunity of 21st century Miami.

An award winning veteran reporter with the Columbus Dispatch newspaper in Ohio, I turned on the charm and soon was providing writing and editing services to a university, a famous planning firm and a former mayor.

My wife Heidi, an Ohio State Law School graduate and longtime lawyer for the State of Ohio, found her dream job with Miami Beach as the City's first full-time Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator. Heidi has used a wheelchair for mobility since age 9.

In 2002, I shuttered his boutique communications business when a friendship with Miami City Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez turned into a nearly 8-year stint as Sanchez's Senior Policy Advisor.

We bought a 1922 house in the heart of Little Havana. We live just blocks from Calle Ocho and have been active in the preservation of William Jennings Bryan Park.

Three years ago, Heidi was honored to accept an executive position with Miami-Dade County as the Director of the Office of Americans with Disabilities Act Coordination.

Can you imagine a couple of Midwesterners in their late 30s up and moving to Miami with no jobs, no insurance and no connections – then within a few years cumulatively holding prime positions with Miami Beach, Miami and Miami-Dade County? -- I still marvel to myself

"What could be more gratifying than giving up everything you know and adopting a hometown that rewards you with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in public service?" asks Heidi.

Today is my birthday.

I have re-opened Steve Wright Communications, Inc. and have concentrated my practice on providing editorial services for planning, architecture and engineering firms as well as transit and other public agencies.

I continue to write about Smart Growth, New Urbanism and Sustainability for several of the leading magazines, newspapers and websites in the U.S.

I love helping clients tell their story about building better cities for a changing America.

Thursday, October 21, 2010



by Heidi Johnson-Wright

Five books that changed my life:

1. The First Circle by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

2. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

5. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Other favorites:

Snakelust is a collection of short stories by Kenji Nakagami, translated by Andrew Rankin (Kodansha International, $23)

In this collection of seven short stories, Japanese author Kenji Nakagami has written about restless, tortured souls, men and women who feel doomed by uncontrollable, unchangeable circumstances. Nakagami, who died of cancer in 1992 at age 46, had a gift for creating works of stark, fragile beauty. Perhaps the most moving – and disturbing -- story in the book is Gravity’s Capital. Incredibly beautiful and profoundly sad, powerfully erotic and mystically spiritual, it’s a tale that will leave only the most jaded reader unmoved.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a novel by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, $23)

Japanese author Haruki Murakami has been quoted as saying: “I like ‘stories of abnormal things happening to normal people.’”
That statement perfectly encapsulates Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami ’s seventh novel to be translated into English, it’s the tale of three people, seemingly normal on the surface, their lives intertwined through friendship, business and love.

The book begins as a smartly-written realistic tale of relationships, people and life’s complexities, then morphs into a story of suspense laden with metaphysical and psychological implications

Sultry Moon is by Mempo Giardinelli, translated from the Spanish by Patricia J. Duncan (Latin American Literary Review Press, $13.95, trade paperback)

In Sultry Moon, Giardinelli expertly explores the darker side of human nature with this tale of a man who walked the straight path all his life, then leapt into the void in the course of one evening. As the novel unfolds, it becomes an origami flower made of human skin – expertly crafted and terrifyingly beautiful.

The Intuitionist is a novel by Colson Whitehead (Anchor/Doubleday, $19.95)
Cops, private detectives and spies make great protagonist since adventure and entanglements seem built in to their occupations.
Add elevator inspectors to the list.

In his brilliant debut novel, The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead turns the decidedly unsexy world of shafts, overspeed governors and buffers into a vortex of intrigue and a microcosm of good vs. evil.

Still more must reads from Latin America to Manhattan:

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende
Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

First Love & Look for My Obituary: Two Novellas, by Elena Garro; translated from the Spanish by David Unger

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
From editorial review:
”There are very few classics in the field of pop culture--the academic stuff tends to be too dry and the fun stuff is too quickly dated. This book by Luc Sante is the exception--in fluid prose liberally sprinkled with astute metaphors, Sante tells the story of New York's Lower East Side, circa 1840-1920. The personal histories of criminals, prostitutes, losers, and swindlers bring to life the social and statistical history that the author has meticulously researched.”

Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
From editorial review:
”One of the best-known experimental novels of the 1960s, Beautiful Losers is Cohen’s most defiant and uninhibited work. The novel centres upon the hapless members of a love triangle united by their sexual obsessions and by their fascination with Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk saint.
By turns vulgar, rhapsodic, and viciously witty, Beautiful Losers explores each character’s attainment of a state of self-abandonment, in which the sensualist cannot be distinguished from the saint.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic: Authentic Stimuli for all the
Senses Awaits Visitors to the Oldest City in the New World


Hotel Dona Elvira, 207 Padre Bellini, can be reached by phone at 809 221-7415 or online at: Rates range from $70 for a loft-style room for one person to $129 for a luxury suite fit for a king at queen. Your stay includes a spectacular tropical breakfast from the B&B’s little restaurant that also is worth checking out for lunch and dinner. Spanish classes can also be arranged through the couple that owns and lovingly operates the Dona Elvira.

El Conuco, 152 Calle Casimiro, 809 686-0129, in the upscale Gazcue neighborhood west of the Zona Colonial. With its countryside décor, buffet, dancing and nightly shows, is one of those restaurants that looks like it exists only for tourists – but the locals far outnumber the visitors every night. The best advice is to go for the buffet and sample typical Dominican takes on fish, beef, chicken, vegetables, salad and more.

Adrian Tropical, Avenida George Washington, 809 221-1764, serves succulent comida criolla at a perfect waterside location. There are multiple levels of seating – indoor and outdoor, to get a good view of el mar. The grilled boneless chicken breast is outstanding.

La Panaderia, 251 Calle Isabel la Catolica, 809 221-7878, creates heavenly confections for earthly prices. The tiny café also has great light sandwiches. Anything with chocolate or dulce de leche is to die for. And remember gringo brethren, don’t just as for directions to “the panaderia.” Every bakery and supermarket with baked goods is a panaderia.

Panteon Nacional, Calle Las Damas, was built as a Jesuit monastery in the early 1700s and restored by the dictator Trujillo in the 1950s. Don’t miss the changing of the guard and look for the chandelier – it was a gift of fellow dictator Franco from Spain. Trujillo dreamed of resting forever in this temple of national heroes, but he as assassinated in 1961 and his family fled in exile to Paris, where he was buried.

Mercado Modelo is NOT on the itinerary, but it is a good landmark to head for on the way to the adjacent open-air produce market stands along and on side streets of Avenida Mella. Go early to drink in the best atmosphere.

The Ministry of Tourism website is Spanish-dominant, but it does have a button for information in English at:

Dominican Republic one has much more information in English, plus several ongoing chats that cover the most intimate and interesting of topics:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic: Authentic Stimuli for all the
Senses Awaits Visitors to the Oldest City in the New World

It turns out that the neighborhood around the Dona Elvira is quiet because it is, well, quiet. The streets are safe and the property presents that urban best of both worlds situation of being close enough to the bars and action, but far enough away to get a good night's sleep for that pre-dawn walk along the cliffs above the ocean.

The bed and breakfast is in a building that dates back to the 15th century. The 14 rooms range from two-tiered domiciles that blend dorm-room lofts with Andalusian-style charm to a grand suite with all the amenities and an outdoor, but screened for privacy, Moorish bath.

By the way, the power goes out every night from about 4 a.m. till 9 a.m., but you learn to blast the AC from bedtime till government-mandated blackout time. Also, like every place other than the cookie cutter large casino-hotels outside the Zona Colonial, the hot water at Dona Elvira has to run about five minutes before it truly produces agua caliente.

But the power outages and other infrastructure challenges remind you that you are smack dab in the old quarter of the oldest city in the Americas -- and you are experiencing it first hand.

Remember, stay out light at the cafes and taverns, get up early for the morning sun and sleep in the afternoon when the sun is most intense and the air conditioner can run full blast. Even if you don't have a Cervantes-like command of espanol, you can honor mother Spain by partaking of a mid-day siesta.

One can't miss experience worth getting up at dawn for is an early weekday morning stroll through the open-air markets on Avenida Mella nearby (but not to be confused with the tourist trap) Mercado Modelo. This is a feast with your eyes experience.

You can certainly buy fruits and vegetables, but this is not a tourist city marketplace with more prepared gourmet food stalls then actual farmers hocking their bounty. The tourist trap to avoid is indoors at the Mercado Modelo, where fake botanica herbs, fake cigars, fake aphrodisiacs, fake amber and other fakery are sold to suckers.

In the open air, vendors use anything from cloth spread out on a sidewalk to ramshackle stands made of scrap wood, corrugated metal and other salvaged materials to display fresh from the field grapes, corn, peas and a wealth of tropical fruit.

The experience is one of the most vivid and vibrant in North America. The people and their clothing are colorful. The fruits and veggies glow in the rising Caribbean sun. The chipped-paint colorful buildings, the ready to tumble down vending stalls, the coolie hat-wearing farmers knelt down over their harvest displayed on the sidewalks make for a feast of the eyes -- if not the stomach

Monday, October 18, 2010


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic: Authentic Stimuli for all the
Senses Awaits Visitors to the Oldest City in the New World

A sunrise visit to the Malecon gives the perfect insight into the textured mix of beauty and ugly that is Santo Domingo. The sun, pure red, rises of the Christopher Columbus monument and dances along the blue Atlantic till it falls right at your feet.

Statues and monuments are all around, but most are in various states of disrepair and, no thanks to vandals and graffiti, worse for wear. More than a few ne'er-do-wells lounge on these faded icons, but seem non-threatening.

The sound of the waves crashing against the shore -- before the city has woken up and created traffic noises -- is divine. But look down to the shoreline and an embarrassing mass of garbage will be churning in the saltwater and piling up on the craggy beaches -- creating a sort of Lord of the Flies city for dozens of dogs who scavenge through the mounds of refuse.

Thelonious Monk composed a seemingly paradoxical song titled Ugly Beauty. Perhaps this is what he had in mind.

But do not despair. Santo Domingo may not have the wealth to fix all that is broken, but it is wealthy beyond compare in texture. Texture is a photographer’s word and Santo Domingo will burn up the memory card in your digital camera faster than a photo safari.

Everywhere there are lush, vivid textures. The streets have colorful buildings. Partially restored colonial masterpieces stand next to art deco apartment houses in need of a paint job.

The food is quite inexpensive and unless you fall prey to buying pizza or chicken from a franchise place on the faded but enchanted El Conde pedestrian shopping street, you will not have a bad meal in Santo Domingo.

Every street has a personality (and ten thousand tons of electrical wire overhead. It is impossible to snap a picture of a beautiful person looking back at you from her balcony -- without seeing a tangled mass of power lines in the viewfinder. Take the photo anyway -- those frayed wires add the kind of authenticity that has been sanitized out of too much of this world.)

And while we're on the subject of Caribbean power supplies, let's get back inside those Castillo-sized doors and into the mystical tranquility that awaits in the Dona Elvira's courtyard, café and rooms.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic: Authentic Stimuli for all the
Senses Awaits Visitors to the Oldest City in the New World

By Steve Wright

You were promised a bilingual driver in a luxury car.

You are picked up in a Mercedes – albeit one with bald tires and a severely cracked windshield – by a driver who, unimpressed with your command of Spanish, pops in a homemade tape of Billy Joel and REM songs to shut you up.

You fly along a dimly lit highway that hugs the deep black, barely moonlit waters of the Atlantic Ocean. You arrive on a street so quiet on a Friday night, that you wonder if the neighborhood is safe.

Your driver tosses down your bags and you are banging on a castle-size set of doors, praying that as the hour passes 10, that someone is on the other side and they have a room waiting for you.

If this kind of entry into an impoverished Caribbean nation gives you chills, stop now and book a trip to a soulless all-inclusive that will homogenize your island experience to the point where you'll forget whether you're in Jamaica or St. Johns.

If your heart pulses for excitement in a largely safe, but challenging and exciting city -- come along. A 50-something Spaniard sporting a raggedy gray mane of hair and satiny soccer pants has opened the door to Dona Elvira, our base of operations for 48 hours in the oldest city in the Americas.

Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, is so authentic, it will make you forget that far too many ports in the Atlantic have been dulled down to cruise ship-friendly rows of T-shirt shops and worse.

The Zona Colonial, where the lovely Dona Elvira is located, has its tourist traps and post card shacks. But the beauty is that the touristy stuff is the exception, not the rule.

Skip the fake Haitian starving artist galleries and sink into a real experience at a colmado -- a little corner shop. They are at almost every intersection. They still stock groceries, but as smallish supermarkets have taken hold, the little markets have transformed into social centers.

Throughout the day, people escape the sun and humidity for the shaded respite of the open air colmado. Presidente, the Dominican beer available in the states -- but somehow 10 times icier and fresher on the island -- is the beverage of choice.

Presidente also flows like water at the dozens of open air cafes that tumble over the rocky coast cliffs along the Malecon. At night, the neon-lit cafes tempt you with the scent of pollo o pescada ala plancha -- chicken or fish on the grill -- and sounds of happy people staring out into the vast, midnight blue ocean.

Most cafes spill over a half dozen levels of the rock they are built on, making for lots of little coves for everything from clusters of lovers to plotters. Surviving the dangerous crossing of the racetrack (there are perhaps two crossings guarded by traffic lights) -- that is a roadway between the Zona Colonial and Malecon is a life-affirming accomplishment that makes the cerveza taste all the better.

Saturday, October 16, 2010



The Feast of the Goat is a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

By Heidi Johnson-Wright

A Mario Vargas Llosa book is a delicious treat to be savored by anyone who loves inspired, engaging writing. The treat is even sweeter for those of us Vargas Llosa fans who have come to love the Peruvian author’s alchemic gift for uniting vivid, captivating detail, characters one can practically hear breathing and good, old-fashioned storytelling.

Throughout his career, Vargas Llosa has skillfully crafted works that explore such subjects as the comedic (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), the sinister (Death in the Andes) and the erotic (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto). Sometimes he employs a microcosmic tale to represent macrocosmic issues. In The Storyteller, Vargas Llosa detailed one man’s quest for identity in order to explore the larger issue of acculturation and the marginalization of whole peoples.

In this novel, he is once again ambitious in scope, and he once again succeeds by steering clear of heavy-handedness and never forgetting the importance of the story at hand.

In The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa delves into the nature of power: power of one man over many, power bastardized and corrupted into tyranny, and the inner power of those who want freedom so badly they will kill the tyrant, risking all they hold dear.

Vargas Llosa’s characters are based on or inspired by real people; his stage, the Dominican Republic, both before and after the 1961 assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The book is framed and interspersed with the story of Urania Cabral, a Dominican native turned New York lawyer for the World Bank. She is outwardly successful, but an emotional train wreck. When Urania is not traveling the globe on noble, weighty business, she spends her time obsessed with the dark history of Trujillo’s repressive regime and its indelible imprint on the Dominican psyche.

The story opens with, after a 35-year absence from her homeland, Urania returning to confront her father: a frail, sick old man who was once an influential member of Trujillo’s inner circle. In Vargas Llosa’s sensual descriptions, we sense the trepidation and ambivalence Urania feels about coming home again.

“Her nose registers a range of odors as great as the endless variety of noises hammering at her ears: the oil burned by the motors of buses and escaping through their exhausts, tongues of smoke that dissipate or remain floating over the pedestrians; smells of grease and frying from a stand where two pans sputter and food and drinks are for sale; and that dense, indefinable, tropical aroma of decomposing resins and underbrush, of perspiring bodies, an air saturated with animal, vegetable, and human essences protected by a sun that delays their dissolution and passing. A hot odor that touches some intimate fiber of memory and returns her to childhood, to multicolored heartsease hanging from roofs and balconies, to this same Avenida Maximo Gomez.” (p. 10)

Woven in amongst the story of Urania’s need to exorcise ghosts from her past are disturbing flashback portraits of Trujillo and his cronies during the height of their reign. Vargas Llosa brilliantly conjures them before us, balancing their evil, charismatic, larger-than-life quality with their human failings of chemical dependencies and bad bladders. Most remarkable is Trujillo himself, an undeniably brilliant statesman who crafted a Stalin-worthy cult of personality while keeping his enemies and people in check with repression and torture.

“The man who, according to popular legend, did not sweat, did not sleep, never had a wrinkle on his uniform, his tuxedo, or his street clothes, and who…had, in effect, transformed this country. Not only because of highways, bridges, and industries he built, but also because in every sphere – political, military, institutional, social, economic – he was amassing such extraordinary power that all the dictators the Dominican Republic had endured in its entire history as a republic…were pygmies compared to him.” (pp. 81-82)

Equally unforgettable is Trujillo’s senior henchman Colonel Johnny Abbes Garcia, a venomous maggot of a man who could star in a thousand nightmares. Vargas Llosa makes us shiver each time he appears.

“They said a lot of things about Abbes, especially about his cruelty. It was an advantage for somebody in his position. They said, for example, that his father, an American of German descent, found little Johnny, still in short pants, sticking pins into the eyes of chicks in the henhouse. That as a young man he sold medical students cadavers he had robbed from graves in Independencia Cemetery.

Even with such fertile ground to exploit, the most compelling parts of The Feast of the Goat are the chapters depicting Trujillo’s assassins, set just before and after the killing of “the Goat.” Vargas Llosa delivers sympathetic, intimate portraits of the handful of men whose lives had been directly tainted by Trujillo yet took action not so much for themselves as for, what they believed to be the good of the Dominican people.

“The moon, round as a coin and accompanied by a blanket of stars, gleamed and turned the crests of the nearby coconut palms silver; Antonio watched them sway to the rhythm of the breeze. In spite of everything this was a beautiful country, damn it. It would be even more beautiful after they had killed the devil who in thirty-one years had violated and poisoned it more than anything else it had suffered in its history of Haitian occupation, Spanish and American invasions, civil wars, battles among factions and caudillos, and in all the catastrophes – earthquakes, hurricanes – that had assailed Dominicans from the sky, the sea, or the center of the earth.” (p. 78)

While the graphic passages of torture are difficult to read, Vargas Llosa does not include them gratuitously. His message is clear: knowledge and truth are power, ultimately more powerful than any tyrant, real or imagined.

Heidi Johnson-Wright resides in Miami, FL where she treasures the sea, sunshine and Cuban coffee.

Friday, October 15, 2010




Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is so many things he is best described as a modern-day Renaissance man.

Politician, playwright, art, film and literature critic and essayist, he is perhaps best known as one of a handful of novelists that have brought contemporary Latin American literature to the forefront internationally.

Always fascinated by Latin American culture and literature, I remember years ago picking up a copy of Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a humorous and semi-autobiographical novel brimming with eccentric characters and plot lines that blend fantasy with reality. From the first chapter I was hooked on the book and on Vargas Llosa the writer.

I read the author's Death in the Andes on a plane ride from Ohio to Miami. All I need do is summon the memories of that trip and I am once again transported into the sinister, unsettling tale of mysterious murder: a sort of primitive Blue Velvet set in the Peruvian mountains.

I still remember recouping from surgery one summer and devouring The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, a sophisticated dirty book in the finest sense of the term.
With fondness I recall reading The Storyteller, a riff on culture, identity and anthropology. The colorful fables Vargas Llosa intersperses throughout the storyline are stunningly, achingly beautiful.

Winner of many accolades, including Spain's Cervantes Prize and the National Book Critics Award, as well as losing candidate in the Peruvian presidency race in 1990, Vargas Llosa is not shy about offering his penetrating insights on everything from literature to politics.

We met at the Miami Book Fair International. Established in 1984, this world-renowned annual event celebrates books, reading and writing against the backdrop of Miami's richly diverse community. For eight days each November, internationally acclaimed writers read from their works, speak and interact with the public at lectures and question-and-answer sessions. In addition to the literary programming is a mammoth three-day book fair of several hundred national and international exhibitors, including the world's largest publishing houses.

In 2001, the fair featured Vargas Llosa, as well as Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Laura Esquivel, Rabbi Harold Kushner and scores of other writers, both established and new to the literary scene.
In past years, the stellar lineup has included Edward Albee, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Saul Bellow, Oscar Hijuelos, Stephen King, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.

It is especially fitting that Vargas Llosa made a stop in Miami to promote The Feast of the Goat. Feast is a fictionalized account of the real-life reign of the oppressive, ruthless Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961.

With its large Cuban exile community, as well as communities of immigrants from other Caribbean and Latin American countries, Miami's residents are particularly sensitive to the issues of political oppression and the abuse of power.

One need only visit the coffee windows and cafeteria counters of this city to find those who have risked all to come here. Some have come by plane, others by boat and still others by crudely constructed vessels that seem to have been blessed by divine intervention to have made it across the Straits of Florida to this place whose tropical breezes whisper promises of a better life.

Promises that are believed in so fervently that one little boy's personal family tragedy had the power to polarize observers on an international scale.

In Miami, the personal is often the political.
Vargas Llosa meets me in the cavernous lobby of the downtown Hotel Inter-Continental. He is dressed in gray sport coat, gray trousers and a striped dress shirt sans tie, looking not unlike a courtly college literature professor. In his mid-60s, his striking profile and distinguished salt and pepper hair can still turn women's heads.

"It is a pleasure," he says, as he smiles warmly and shakes my hand.
Though having just arrived from the airport -- having flown from New York City where he's been promoting the book -- he is pleasant and focused, adept at putting others at ease.

He explains that The Feast of the Goat had its genesis more than a quarter century ago when Vargas Llosa visited the Dominican Republic on a film project.

While there for several months, he heard numerous stories and anecdotes about Rafael Trujillo. And though Latin America has never been in short supply of dictators, Trujillo's was the "most emblematic of dictatorships," particularly in scope and grotesqueness. He was virtually unparalleled for his brutality, corruption and human rights abuses. "Trujillo created an opera in his real life. He was the director and the Dominican people were the actors."

This grand drama, this theatricality of the regime encouraged Vargas Llosa to fantasize about writing the novel. "A novel is not a book of history, " he says.
And in keeping with his oft-repeated philosophical belief that novels should enhance and amplify life, not merely recount it, he has taken some liberties with history. But he quickly adds that "with essential facts, I have been loyal."

It was important to Vargas Llosa to not portray Trujillo as a monster from the get-go, but rather as a human being who lost his humanness as he accumulated power. He strongly believes that such a transformation is fueled by "the complicity of the people," and by "the abdication of the right to resist."

He becomes even more emphatic at this point, and one catches a glimpse of the personal passion that sparked him to run for president of Peru. "Humans must resist (tyranny), especially at the beginning. Later it is harder to resist once the system is in place. But it is always possible."

He clarifies: "I'm not in favor of violence, but some dictatorships leave no margin. In some cases, as with Trujillo's assassination, violence can be justified."
When asked about what it was like to research and write the passages on the torture of the captured assassins, he wrinkles his face and says, in his charmingly accented English, "It was -- how do you say? -- nauseating."

Yet he knew he couldn't avoid it, given that violence was an essential character of Trujillo's regime. The challenge was gaining the acceptance of readers without turning them off. This he found very difficult.

The conversation turns to the book's female protagonist, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of Trujillo's ministers and a victim of Trujillo's political and personal barbarity. Vargas Llosa explains that, although Urania was an invented character, what happened to her happened to many Dominican women. "Women were the worst victims of the dictatorship," because they were also often victims of machismo.

In his research, Vargas Llosa uncovered true stories of Dominican families making gifts to Trujillo of their young daughters when the dictator would visit different regions of the country. Trujillo also used sex as an instrument of power to humiliate and degrade his collaborators, sometimes openly sleeping with their wives as they chose to look the other way. In this way his minions proved their loyalty.

Though Vargas Llosa has sworn off ever running for political office again, the subject naturally comes up when discussing statecraft. He has said in the past that he failed as a politician because he was too honest. "During my presidential campaign, I didn't lie. I would tell [the people] exactly what I was going to do. It was very unpolitical; it made me vulnerable. [The opposition] used my frankness to destroy my candidacy," he relates, without even a trace of bitterness.

In regard to the writing process, the topics of his books often concern things that have touched his life, though he does not go looking for them. "I don't choose my subjects; I am chosen by them." When that happens, he feels "a curiosity, an entusiasmo," he says, using the Spanish cognate.

Before he even begins to write, he has been working on mapping out episodes and character/plot trajectories. When the writing starts, he works hard, remaining very disciplined. "Each novel is an adventure."

He says passionately: "I don't like the feeling of emptiness when you finish a book," a process than can take several years. To cope, he accumulates projects and immediately jumps into the next one. "I don't like to be nostalgic about projects."

So what does the future hold for Mario Vargas Llosa?

"I want to keep writing -- I enjoy it enormously. I have never felt the emptiness which paralyzes some writers. I have much more projects than time," he explains.

Native Ohioan Heidi Johnson-Wright resides in Miami, Florida where she treasures the sea, sunshine and Cuban coffee.

Miami Book Fair International takes place November 14-21 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010



Oscar Machado, a Hialeah resident for four-plus decades, a University of Miami Architecture professor and a consultant to the annexed territory master plan of Jaime Correa & Associates, is enthusiastic about the city’s future.

He notes that Hialeah has excellent fixed rail transit in the form an Amtrak station; a Tri-Rail station, which connects the city to Broward and Palm Beach counties; and four MetroRail stations, which provide rail transit to Downtown Miami and the University of Miami.

“Until recent times, so much of Hialeah’s development has been about the car. The city experienced its most rapid development in the car era,” Machado said. “That kind of development forgets about the public realm. It forgets to provide shade and benches and safe sidewalks.

“Now we are re-planning downtown and planning a new growth area that will feature the classic urban pattern, which is what you have to have to be sustainable,” he said. “That is why the Hialeah annex territory is one of the last great chunks of land in South Florida that could set the tone for good urban development all over the area and state.”

“There’s always been a stigma about living in Hialeah,” Machado said. “The new area is about creating an opportunity for the city to come to terms with its ultimate destiny. This is an opportunity to change the mindset about Hialeah forever.”

Machado said watching Hialeah’s Mayor Martinez produce rapid results during more than two decades in office has made him a fan of the strong mayor system helmed by a mayor with a strong personality.

“Every project that happens in Hialeah goes through the mayor. There is no city manager to slow things down,” Machado observed. “There is a very aggressive urbanist in charge – and good things happen. A strong mayor allows the process to be streamlined.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010



Shoma Homes, a leading single-family homebuilder in South Florida, has 70 acres within the Hialeah annexation area and it plans to break ground in early 2005 for its Bellagio development there.

“Incorporating good urban design will enhance the quality of life of the residents in that area. They’ll be able to have place where they could live, work and play and it will all be contained in one neighborhood,” said Felix Lasarte, an attorney for the Akerman Senterfitt law firm who represents Shoma.

Lasarte said people will be able to move into a mix of single-family and townhomes in Bellagio. He praised Hialeah for its bold plan to convert rough acreage into a master-planned Traditional Neighborhood Development.

“The city’s taking a cutting edge approach to development,” he said. “We welcome the city’s approach because we think it’s going to create a better overall community. We’re excited about it.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010



Hialeah Mayor Julia Robaina is a Realtor and developer specializing in condo conversions in urban areas throughout Florida.

“When most cities look at revitalizing an area, the developers come calling for tax abatements and the cities grant them. We said we are not going to grant tax abatements, but we said we are going to invest in the developments,” he said.

“Our investment was infrastructure: we put in better water, sewer, sidewalks, streetscapes, traffic circles, street trees – right up to the developer’s door. That way, if the developer succeeded, his development would provide the tax boost needed to pay off that infrastructure cost over time. If he went belly up, we still had the improvements in place for the next guy to succeed in downtown Hialeah – and we weren’t on the line for tax abatements,” Robaina said.

In the annexation area, Robaina said the city’s aim is a master plan that is restrictive in demanding pedestrian pathways, green space, mix of housing types, retail that has good urban qualities and flexibility allowing developers to serve the needs of the community they are building for.

“The best thing you can do for an investor is deliver predictability,” he said. “If you say the maximum density for townhouses in this area is X number of units and the max for apartments in this spot is X, the developers know what they can build. And they know that someone else can’t come in after them and get double the density or build something not as high quality as what they developed.”

Monday, October 11, 2010



The two town centers could have up to roughly 450,000 square feet of commercial space.

Design guidelines will make sure the town centers will take an urban form; something like Boca Raton’s famed Mizner Place, rather than a suburban strip center form. The town centers could possibly feature live-work units to add a bit of residential to the mix.

“One of the benefits of master planning for a huge area – an area larger than the entire neighboring town of Miami Lakes – is that we could look at water retention regionally,’” Correa said. “Water retention, a very big issue in South Florida, is too often handled on a lot-by-lot basis. Here, we were able to make canals that are beautiful, that will have green space and walking paths along them.”

Back in downtown Hialeah, Correa is anticipating additional phases that will upgrade the streetscape.

“A surface parking lot in front of City Hall will become a plaza with decorative pavers, trees and a gazebo,’’ he said. “Palm Avenue will have an arcade built over its shops on the east side of the street and a row of bougainvillea that will act as an arcade on the west side.”

Sunday, October 10, 2010



Jaime Correa, a University of Miami professor and head of Jaime Correa & Associates, designed the master plan for the vast annexation territory. He was already familiar with Hialeah because he was the principal architect of the city’s downtown revitalization plan created by his former firm of Correa Valle Valle.

Correa drafted a plan with a net density of no more than six units per acre, with a total residential build out of roughly 4,000 units. The western part of the annexation tract has a quarry on it that will continue as an industrial operation with blasting for 15 years.

Because of that, the western half of the vast territory is slated for light industry and commercial development. The eastern half will have a mix of residential, park, school and neighborhood commercial uses.

“The guideline for the residential is to have three housing types: townhouse, detached single family and apartment. The rule is that there would have to be at least 20 percent of each type – so you could build no more than 60 percent single family, because you would have to leave room for 20 percent each of townhouse and apartment,” Correa explained. “That way you have a diverse, interesting mix of housing. You have the rural edge with single family houses and you have the urban center with apartments and townhouses.”

The commercial uses will be near the center of the development, so they can be reached both by the neighborhoods to the east and the worksites that will develop to the west.

Saturday, October 9, 2010



Toward the end of his 24 years in office as mayor, Martinez spearheaded a downtown plan that created town houses, condominiums, mixed use and a parking garage to take the place of ugly surface lots.

He and the city council also backed a plan to convert the city’s main drag – Palm Avenue -- from one-way to two-way traffic. The new Palm Avenue also has street trees, traffic calming devices, wider sidewalks and a general atmosphere that encourages pedestrian activity.

To accommodate people who want to build new houses and to add to the city’s tax base, Hialeah’s leaders worked to annex a three-square-mile area that will be home to 4,000-plus residential units, two town centers, parks, light industry and schools during a 15-year build-out that will add population to Florida’s fifth largest city.

“We want to create a new town using the new urbanism,” Martinez said of the huge area recently annexed to his city. “We want to create an area where people can walk to things. In sprawled suburban development, you forget who your neighbors are, you know? Everything is about getting in the car. We wanted to create a more humane city, a place where people could walk to a park and get to know their neighbors.”
“We have to create an area that is appealing to young professionals. In Hialeah, a lot of our young people were moving out. A lot of our professionals went elsewhere to build their dream homes,” he continued. “Now we are creating a place where people can stay in Hialeah -- where they can live, work and play.”

Martinez said the annexation area, he has dubbed it Hialeah Heights, will undergo a transformation even more amazing than the downtown Hialeah revitalization that has seen vacant lots turned into townhouses, condominiums and mixed use infill development.

“We are going to take a place that is a dumping ground for trash and abandoned cars – and a place of rock quarries – and turn it into a place with all varieties of housing, all kinds of different architecture, two town centers to shop and a major park,” Martinez beamed. “We are going to create a new town that will serve as a model for other cities in Florida and the nation.”

Friday, October 8, 2010



Gus Gil is another developer who decided to invest in Hialeah’s reinvigorated downtown.

His Palm Avenue Plaza development, with 30 condominiums and ground floor retail, is the first mixed use building in Hialeah’s central business district.

In a downtown that was dominated by dollar stores and vacancies not long ago, Gil just leased some of his retail space to Quiznos Sub.

“(Hialeah has) done a fantastic job bringing in New Urbanism,” he said.

“But the key factor is reclassifying the zoning to higher density in the areas you are trying to revamp – it’s the only way people get motivated to sell their property, allowing new developments to come into the area.

Higher density is not always a bad thing if done correctly, by taking into account the new impact to the area's infrastructure, schools, traffic and recreational facilities.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010



Hialeah is not the kind of place one thinks of when ticking off Florida’s prime examples of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. It doesn’t have the New Town appeal of the famed Panhandle city of Seaside or the Manhattan-like mixed-use urbanism of a Miami Beach.

For most of its eight-decade existence, Hialeah’s claim to fame has been its gorgeous thoroughbred racetrack and endless tangle of factories and blue-collar subdivisions.

The tens of thousands of working class Cuban-Americans who populate it coined a phrase to describe Hialeah: “agua, fango y factorias” – “water, mud and factories.”

So how could it possibly be that this industry-lined city of drained swampland be a hotbed of Smart Growth in two forms? How could Hialeah be leading the way toward walkable, mixed-use communities in both its revitalized downtown and a newly annexed area that will supply at least 4,000 residences to the built-out city?

Part of the answer lies in one Raul Martinez. Martinez, who served for nearly a quarter of a century as one of the few strong mayors in a South Florida region dominated by the city manager-weak mayor form of government.

Martinez, forceful, bombastic, brilliant and controversial, spearheaded both urban infill and greenfield smart growth in his beloved Hialeah.

“The problem with so many charettes, with so many planning sessions is you end up only with plans on the shelf. I like action, I like results. I made up my mind we were going to get a plan and then build it,” said Martinez, who was termed out of office in 2005.

“As soon as we had a master plan for downtown, a young developer built 300 townhouses. He took a risk, but he made some money on it, too,” he recalled.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010



With micropolitans now being officially recognized by the federal government and some of them gaining population at remarkable rates, it might lead one to ask if the urban revival phenomenon is for real. Are people really returning to the cities?

According to Robert Lang -- a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who also was the director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech as well as an associate professor in Urban Affairs and Planning. director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech -- the revival “was much more real in the 1990s than it is now.”

“The 1990s were the best decade for American cities since the 1940s. The 1970s were the worst. (The numbers) will never look as good as the ‘90s,” he said.

Even so, Lang questions how census statistics are interpreted. He posits the possibility of undercounting, that the government should be looking at household occupancy rather than sheer numbers.

“Cities have been losing families and gaining educated singles. Cities are getting richer. The trend in the hot coastal cities and hot Midwestern cities is that the cities are losing the poor and gaining the rich,” Lang said.

Carol Coletta, host and producer of the nationally-syndicated public radio show Smart City and president of CEOs for Cities, agrees.

“Visit the center of most any big city in America, and you’ll find new residential construction underway. Much of this development would have been unimaginable just a dozen years ago. In fact, throughout the 1990s, the Census Bureau continued to insist that cities were in decline. But the presence of construction cranes told a different story. So did the 2000 Census. People were moving back into city centers for the first time in decades, and that trend has only accelerated in the first half of this decade,” said Coletta.

Coletta believes that “who” is more important than “how many.”

“The success of cities is no longer tied to population growth. Instead, the education level of its citizens is now the single largest driver of economic growth. As America’s college-educated 25 to 34 year-olds snap up new urban condos and rediscover the appeal of city living, they are becoming the new ‘competitive advantage’ for cities,” she said.

Another trend is that of empty-nester Baby Boomers downsizing and returning to the cities where they can enjoy cultural and other opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

Coletta believes that both trends show no signs of slowing.

“Talented people tend to attract other talented people. So once development achieves critical mass, the trend becomes self-reinforcing,” said Coletta.

“’Is the urban revival for real?’ Absolutely. The only question that matters for any city is ‘How do we get our share of the talented people who are driving this urban revival?’”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010



Paul A. Sears, Dean of College of Business at the University of Findlay and previously Dean of Ashland University’s College of Business and Economics, believes that the success of micros can be a two-edged sword.

“The biggest challenge that I see for micropolitan communities is getting used to the idea that they are playing a leading role in their geographic area. I think the citizens of these communities are so used to thinking about larger metropolitan areas as playing the key roles that they simply are not yet comfortable with the idea that they are key players in the economic landscape of their region,” said Sears.

“People in the community desire growth and expansion but within the established guidelines and standards which have been in place for many years,” said John C. Hovsepian, President of Ohio Tool Works Corporation, a manufacturer of heavy industrial honing equipment, tooling and abrasive related products, located in Ashland.

Hovsepian also cites a “lack of flexibility in work force thinking” as a challenge to be overcome in the small town atmosphere of micro communities.

Monday, October 4, 2010



Halfway between the Ohio big cities of Cleveland and Columbus, Ashland celebrates its small town roots. The Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center and Outdoor Drama is in the works as a tribute to the folkloric figure who passed through this land of rolling hills and beautiful hard wood trees. Those who drive through the city today still see members of the nearby Amish communities and their horse-drawn buggies.

These bucolic images are as integral to Ashland’s identity as the advantages it offers to businesses and developers. Existing warehousing, manufacturing and distribution facilities are available. Considerable infrastructure and zoning are already in place.

The area’s manufacturing base in such industries as plastics, machining, tooling, fabrication, printing, rubber and chemicals means a ready-made network with local suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. The city has wisely created an enterprise zone and tax incentives, as well as an Economic Development Department to attract businesses.

“Ashland is the poster-child for a small, Midwestern city with a strong agricultural sector but also an impressive collection of manufacturing firms,” said Evan Scurti, Director at Ashland Area Council for Economic Development.

Scurti listed development measures that have been taken to shape Ashland’s micropolitan future.

“City-county cooperation to create our Economic Development Department. in 2003, and to work together on the creation of our first business park; strong Economic Development/Ashland University Business School partnerships, i.e. seminars, business counseling, etc. and much more regional partnering with other small towns,” he said.

Sunday, October 3, 2010



In contrast with Mt. Airy, Sheridan, Wy. is a micropolitan located very remotely from a major metropolitan area. Salt Lake City, Utah sits nearly 400 miles away.

But that’s not stopping city dwellers from the East, California and Colorado from moving to this mountain community of just over 26,000 people,

“We don’t have enough houses to sell to interested buyers,” said Sheridan Realtor Vickie Farrington, who handles primarily residential sales.

“Prices are going up, but it’s still much cheaper than the big cities,” she said.

“People want to escape the big city. This is a quiet community with little crime. People leave their keys in their cars. They don’t lock their houses. And it’s inexpensive to live here,” said Farrington.

Saturday, October 2, 2010



Realtor and developer Burke Robertson grew up in Mt. Airy. He left for a while, living in more urban areas, but came back to the city because he saw the potential here, which he terms “limitless.”

“Because of technology – fax machines, the Internet – you can live anywhere. I know a New York City mortgage broker who lives here. Another guy publishes three trade magazines that are printed in Philadelphia and his graphics guy lives in Vermont,” said Robertson.

“The downside of technology is that it makes things impersonal,” he said.

“But in a community like Mt. Airy, when you go to the grocery store you see the same people all the time. You speak to them because you see them, even if you don’t know their names. That’s not something that happens in urban areas.”

Robertson believes that the area will continue to grow as a mature community, drawing fifty-somethings who are still vital and active but are looking down the road to retirement. The city appeals to people who are moving an existing business or are looking to make a career change.

“Micros must avoid mistakes such as strip center development and contributing to traffic congestion. And you need a central core, a people place,” he said.

Brookshire echoes similar sentiments. He believes that the challenges for micros include “the competing desires to develop the community further and add to the tax base versus the desire to retain the elements that make the community special; the need to enhance services to the population on a limited tax base and the recognition that there continues to be a shortage of high paying, high quality jobs for our residents.”

Brookshire neatly summed up the essence of the “micro mystique” that draws businesses and residents alike.

“A small town atmosphere where you can walk down the street and be recognized is important…It’s about the quality of life in a community such as ours.”

Friday, October 1, 2010



Mt. Airy, NC sounds like a fictional town from the golden age of television: an honest-to-goodness downtown with a Main Street, proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a still-thriving drive-in movie theater and other quaint touches such as a building bedecked with an authentic antique Coca-Cola sign.

Indeed, Mt. Airy, was the boyhood home of actor and small town America icon Andy Griffith. The town’s tourism website address is But to dismiss this city as a sleepy little backwater would be a serious mistake.

“Mount Airy has long been the economic hub for the county,” said Don Brookshire. back when he was City Manager of Mt. Airy

“In the past this meant that it was both a retailing and manufacturing center that brought workers in who would shop in our area. Beginning in the late 1990s, the city began to feel the impact of the global economy with the loss of several thousand textile and furniture manufacturing related jobs. At the same time, the community was seeing the decline in the major agricultural crop of the region, tobacco,” said Brookshire.

But Mt. Airy, located 85 miles from Charlotte with a micropolitan area population of 71,000, found a way to adapt. Now the downtown is focused less on retail and more on tourism. It’s capitalized on being the hometown of not only Griffith, but also Eng and Chang -- the world’s most famous Siamese Twins – and country singer Donna Fargo.

And located in the Blue Ridge foothills, the town is attracting hikers and bikers looking to explore the surrounding natural beauty.

“We have a diversified local mix of business and industry that offers both the old and the new. The serene and bucolic downtown is separated by about a mile from a thriving street that is bounded by numerous chain and franchise establishments that offer all that can be found in most cities of a larger size,” said Brookshire.