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Tropic Magazine (1967-1996)

Before the international art scene unapologetically swallowed several Dade County neighborhoods whole, this place was actually known for its lack of enlightenment. There was even a bumper sticker popular amongst local drivers and readers of Tropic Magazine: “HONK IF YOU HATE CULTURE!” At the time, the city was a kind of Wild West of the Deep South, and Tropic walked the line between the kind of drunken gonzo irreverence that spoke to the dropped out Parrothead white people living here then and actual hard-hitting journalism. This earned it not one but three Pulitzer prizes during its short thirty-one year tenure as the Sunday magazine accompanying the Miami Herald, including one in 1980 to Madeline Blais for “Zepp’s Last Stand”, a 5,000-word essay where Blais followed a World War I veteran from Miami to Washington, DC as he faced a military tribunal to overturn a fifty-year-old dishonorable discharge due to pacifism. It was the second Pulitzer to ever be awarded for feature reporting. 

A Tropic Magazine cover of a sunburnt woman's back that says TROPIC in sunscreen lotion and "How hot is too hot"imagined for Booklandia by artist Sara Sarmiento in 2024
A Tropic Magazine cover imagined for Booklandia by artist Sara Sarmiento in 2024

Tropic was full of stories like this that captured the characters of the city as it came of age from a small tourist economy with a serious reputation for drugs and violence to the cultural capital it is today, where people honk for all sorts of terrible reasons but probably never because they hate art and culture. It was the kind of freewheeling journalistic environment that has been mostly hunted to extinction by capital interests, where writers had the chance to research in-depth stories over time with little oversight and play with what news should even be in a place as strange as Miami, where Christmas is marked by lizards dropping from the sky and Easter by the pre-summer increase in floating white boxes of powder off the coast of the Beach.

Hard-hitting coverage of the very real and not ridiculous storylines that played out around greater Biscayne Boulevard in the 1980s got the Tropic treatment. In January 1982, their New Year's edition featured a profile of a raid on one of the Miami Dolphins’ personal drug dealers, with the following line:  “He rode in Lear jets and limousines, sold cocaine by the suitcase full, killed animals and drank their blood. He vowed to die fighting, like Dillinger.” It gave writers an unprecedented opportunity to shed the dryness of traditional journalism and write really funny reflections of this place that still hold up in 2024, though you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of this treasure trove of local history today. Operating out of a dirty room in the back of the old Miami Herald building where staff did their best to be forgotten by the greater editorial overlords, Tropic published fiction as well as nonfiction columns and investigative pieces, under the keen eye of Gene Weingarten who would eventually leave this sorry town to win his own Pulitzers at The Washington Post. 

Weingarten had an incredible talent for finding burgeoning humorists and giving them the right balance of mentorship and freedom to create hilarious work and should be credited with giving us an entire generation of South Florida novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Paul Levine. When Weingarten left Miami for the Post after Tropic’s abrupt closure in the late 1990s, he brought editor Tom Schroder and humor columnist Joel Achenbach with him, and exported a little of the magazine’s signature irreverent humor style to the political swamp of the north. The Washington Post has unfortunately never written pieces like Tropic’s 1983 Interview with Governor Bob Graham:

BARRY: Why does Florida need both a Senate and a House? 

GRAHAM: Well, because if we had only one, they could probably get their work done in about three point one seven eight days per year, and there are scores of people whose living depends on their being up here for 90 days. It's actually a form of an employment plan….

Some of the best writing in the magazine came from columnist Dave Barry, who was imported from  another notoriously strange place (Philadelphia in 1982 to provide some outside context to Tropic’s coverage of the vortex that swirls underneath the city and makes us all act like this all the time. Barry took to the role well, and has since published more than thirty books, many of which attempt to make sense of this place or the choices he has made since that fateful visit.

Weingarten found Barry after he wrote a humor column about natural childbirth that ended up syndicated nationally, including in the Miami Herald. At the time, Barry was freelancing for local papers and writing for companies up north, but eventually he ended up joining the core staff of writers for the magazine. When I asked Barry about his time with the magazine, he told me, “Tropic always backed me up, no matter how weird the project. They let me write longer and weirder and more weirdly detailed stuff than I ever could have at any other paper, which led to everything else I did.” 

A Tropic Magazine cover  of Mangoes AT RISK Do you know where your mangoes are? imagined for Booklandia by artist Hadi Salloum in 2024
A Tropic Magazine cover imagined for Booklandia by artist Hadi Salloum in 2024

One of the longest running projects at Tropic was the Tropic Hunt. Renamed the Herald Hunt, it outlived the magazine by more than fifteen years, and even spawned a brief Washington, DC spinoff. Inspired by Mel Fisher’s pirate dreams or just the good old-fashioned tradition of a tropical treasure hunt, Barry and others created elaborate Miami-themed puzzles for readers to solve, including anagrams pulled by biplanes, secret messages written in water-soluble ink, and yoga instructors spelling out clue words with their bodies. With thousands of participants from across Dade County participating in costume, the project became – like much of Barry’s oeuvre – a love letter to this swamp and the strange people who choose to inhabit it. 

In 1987, the Sunday magazine of the New York Times printed a longform article with one of their classically even-handed headlines: “CAN MIAMI SAVE ITSELF: A CITY BESET BY DRUGS AND VIOLENCE”. Given today’s reality, the conditions described in the article don’t even sound so bad. “Housing prices are moderate,” they say. They write of a “racial mix” practicing Santeria and Voodoo in an attempt to stoke fear  but time has proven these elements the beating heart of the city. In a place whose economy depended on already falling Northern tourism dollars to survive, the piece was both popularly derided and feared by politicians. 

Barry boarded a flight for New York, and took to the streets there to find the real story: “CAN NEW YORK SAVE ITSELF?” To answer this question, he visits a version of Times Square without a Disney store where films like Sex AliensWet Adulteress and Sperm Busters–many of which were cultural imports from the thriving adult film scene in Miami–play on a loop. He discusses the 1985 public murder of the New York City subway commissioner and visits the garbage barge before concluding, “New York economy continues to be robust, with the major industry being people from New Jersey paying $45 each to see A Chorus Line”. Today, anyone can take out their phone and turn these sorts of scenes into funny content – but the kind of impact this had sitting on people’s doorsteps on a Sunday morning is difficult to recreate now. To date, Barry is the only humor journalist to ever win a Pulitzer for commentary for this piece.

A Tropic Magazine cover in the style of Islandia that looks like Stiltsville in black and white imagined for Booklandia by artist Stephanie Silver in 2024
A Tropic Magazine cover imagined for Booklandia by artist Stephanie Silver in 2024

In 2023, when the Nation published “Should We Start Preparing for the Evacuation of Miami?”, there wasn’t even anyone left to make fun of them. Barry retired in 2005, and Tropic had been cut and mostly forgotten in a budget-pressed transitionary period at the Herald in the late 1990s. It’s hard to even find mention of it on the internet now, but its journalistic legacy looms large; one of the top results is an op-ed written by Weingarten after Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post claiming that the billionaire purchased the third-largest newspaper in the US as revenge against Weingarten for Tropic not publishing a story about him winning a Silver Knight Award in 1982 as a senior at Miami Palmetto High School. 

Despite the realities of life in 1980s/90s Miami, Tropic’s sense of humor and subject matter seem like they are from a lighter time in history. It’s hard to imagine a politician sitting down for an interview like Governor Graham’s today, and even the journalistic freedom enjoyed by the staff seems like a relic of a bygone era. If to love a place is to know it, Tropic gave South Florida its first opportunity to be seen, and the work printed within its covers is still arguably some of the best longform writing about this place around, if you can find a physical copy at the HistoryMiami or MDPLS archives. There are a lot of great local writers making work about this place, and there are a few publications investing in that work (this publication, of course, included). But what Tropic really shows is what happens when a place invests in its stories and gives writers the resources to take a longer view and show the critical reality of a place. It’s hard not to wonder what it would be printing now.

Francess Archer Dunbar (b. 1998, Miami) is a writer and poet. Educated at Grinnell College in Iowa, she grew up in one of the last family-owned surf and skate shops in Dade County. She has served on the screening committee for the Miami International Film Festival and is a member and former intern of the IS Projects printmaking studio. She works year-round for the Miami Book Fair and as an assistant creative writing teacher with the O, Miami Poetry Festival’s Sunroom program in public schools.

Below is a digital flipbook version of three issues of the original Tropic Magazine. If you have some at home we will digitize! Enjoy!


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