Gulf Coast - Trade
The coastline of the Gulf of Mexico has only a few good-quality harbors suitable for large-volume trade activities. A shallow, emergent coastline containing many high-action beaches, much of the coast itself is either backed by extensive swamps or partially shielded behind offshore bars. If passage can be made through gaps in the sand bars, protection from rough seas is gained. Coastwise shipping uses this protection in the intracoastal waterway system. However, since most bays behind the bars are too shallow to provide good anchorage for ships engaged in transoceanic trade, most of the larger ports have developed on the edge of large river estuaries along the coastline or a short distance inland from the mouths of rivers emptying into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.
Each of the bays providing good harbor facilities is the outlet for a river draining a part of the interior, but these rivers vary greatly in navigability. All assisted early settlement expansion, and some are still navigated by small barges. All have had their access to the continental interior strengthened by rail connections with major inland markets, or the river flowing into the coastal harbor has been improved for better navigation. Jacksonville, for example, was an early terminus for railroads entering Florida from Georgia. It also was the main focus for a hinterland that extended westward into the state's "Panhandle" and south into the agriculturally rich central highlands. A result was that Jacksonville was well established even before highway connections reinforced its locational bases for growth.
New Orleans is in a class by itself in terms of accessibility. It formerly was both a control point and a shipping focus for the entire Mississippi River system. The Mississippi was navigable (with caution) by shallow draft paddle-wheel steamers far to the north, well into the agricultural heartland. The river's main tributaries extended the single waterway system both westward into the Great Plains and eastward into the manufacturing core. New Orleans' site, within a large river meander and on the low-lying river delta only a few meters above mean sea level, meant that flooding was an annual threat often realized. But the city's situation was of such tremendous advantage to all associated with trade that its population grew early in the 19th century and has remained large.
New Orleans' French colonial heritage is consciously maintained in the city's French Quarter. And a distinctive mix of local Creole, Cajun, and European cuisines, a wealth of jazz and performances, and 18th-century architecture have drawn millions of tourists to the city. A visitor to New Orleans may be surprised by the heavy barge and ship traffic on the river (it is the busiest port in America) and by the heavy industry supported by this traffic.
The other major city in the western portion of the Southern Coastlands, the largest in the entire region by 1970, provides a contrast with New Orleans. Houston, Texas, is a new city in many ways. It was not originally a port city but has become one through construction (beginning in 1873) and repeated improvement of the Houston Ship Channel across shallow Galveston Bay. Its port connections became more important to growth in the late 1940s with the rise of the local petrochemical industry.
The main themes that characterize the Southern Coastlands can be found uniquely represented in the unparalleled cultural transformation of the greater Miami, Florida, region.
Through the 1950s, Miami's attractions were treated as passive characteristics of place. It was enough to enjoy what was there. The city's weather was warm throughout the winter; its coastal location provided easy access to long beaches and warm tropical waters; the harbor required only modest improvement to ease the travel of cruise passengers from America to the Caribbean islands nearby. It was not until the 1960s that the region's location at the southern extremity of the continental margin led to the full integration of Miami into a hemispheric system of finance and commerce.
Key to the change in Miami's use of its location was Cuban immigration. Between 1959 and 1981, the Latin American population of the greater Miami area (about 85 percent of which is Cuban) grew from 25,000 to almost 700,000. The Cuban population was absorbed relatively quickly into financial, commercial, and retail activities. The rapidity with which large numbers settled in Miami created its own "instant" market. Businesses in other parts of the United States that wished to expand their activities into Latin American markets began to move at least part of their domestic operations to Miami to employ the Spanish-speaking Cubans. The trans-Caribbean business contacts brought with the Cuban refugees were also attractive to Anglo business interests. Multiplied many times in many ways and over several decades, this pattern has opened up Miami's natural geographic orientation toward the south.
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