A Footprint in Florida's Sand

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, January 3, 2006


By M. Barron Stofik

University Press of Florida. 303 pp. $27.95

Three decades ago, almost no one went to the place the world now knows as South Beach. The beach itself was spectacular, but the cityscape was dilapidated and uninviting. I lived across Biscayne Bay in southwest Miami, and it never occurred to me to go to that part of Miami Beach unless it was to eat at Joe's Stone Crab, the famous old restaurant. Otherwise, the area of Miami Beach south of Lincoln Road was known, as M. Barron Stofik puts it, as "a seaside Hebrew home for the aged," populated by "more than fifty thousand residents, most of them senior citizens, and most of them Jewish."

For a neighborhood that was substantially geriatric, it was modestly lively, with delicatessens and casual restaurants and apartment house front porches where people gathered to gossip, play bingo and watch the passing scene, but it wasn't a place that anyone on the outside much wanted to visit. Its little art deco hotels and apartment buildings had a certain charm, but just about all of them had fallen into severe disrepair. Both the city government and private developers thought the area should be razed.

In 1975, the city's redevelopment agency made public a $365 million project that would be "the most costly private construction urban renewal undertaking in America." It would include "nine luxury hotels, exclusive island residences, impressive offices, a convention center, a sea habitat attraction, a marina, and more than twenty-five hundred residential units, all of them expensive." As for "the six thousand residents, mostly elderly Jews . . . no plans were included to house or relocate them."

Then a woman named Barbara Capitman went into action, and everything changed. A middle-aged widow still shell-shocked after her husband's sudden death, she remembered the South Beach she'd visited as a young married woman and thought it should be brought back to life. In 1976, she held a meeting called "An Inquiry into the Restoration of the Art Deco Miami Beach Hotels of the 20s and 30s," from which emerged "a ragtag circle of artists, elderly women, art collectors, young gay men, architects, and designers." They organized themselves into the Miami Design Preservation League and went to work.

It took years and it wasn't easy, but the South Beach we know now -- the South Beach of "Miami Vice," of the New World Symphony, the Bass Museum and the Miami City Ballet, of Gianni Versace and Calvin Klein -- is what they wrought. Ocean Drive, a dump when they got underway, is now a round-the-clock parade of pecs, abs, boobs and bare flesh, the best show to be found -- and by far the oddest -- in a state that offers thousands of shows. It's utterly outre, yet I feel completely comfortable having Sunday breakfast at the News Cafe with my grandchildren -- and they think it's the greatest thing they've ever seen.

The story of what happened between the mid-1970s and today is what Stofik tells in "Saving South Beach." The book is part of the estimable Florida History and Culture Series published by the University Press of Florida, a collaborative effort by 10 of the state's public universities, "an eclectic but carefully crafted set of books that will provide the field of Florida studies with a fresh focus and encourage Florida researchers and writers to consider the broader implications and context of their work." Stofik, who lives in Connecticut but has been very active in Florida preservation organizations, isn't the most riveting prose stylist and includes a good deal more detail than will interest most readers, but the story is exceptionally interesting and has -- as she is at pains to point out -- implications that go far beyond the boundaries of the square mile that is the Miami Beach historic district.

Getting South Beach declared as such in 1979 by the Interior Department was Capitman's first major victory, but it was merely the beginning. Demolition permits already were pending for several of the beach's more interesting art deco buildings, and the forces for wholesale redevelopment hardly had thrown in the towel. Beyond that, South Beach was under pressure from other quarters. The huge outpouring of refugees from Cuba, the Marielitos, had clogged the beach with impoverished people, many of whom had been released from prison by Fidel Castro, who had decided that Florida was the best place to dump them. Crime was high and the economic profile of the area was low.

Progress occurred, as it so often does, in fits and starts. A decade after formation of Capitman's committee, "the revival of South Beach was still quite fragile." Local banks were reluctant to invest -- most of the seed money came from elsewhere -- and lawyers were crawling all over the place:

"The investments came with risk. The city prescribed the most meager of controls for its new historic districts. There were no comprehensive use guidelines to prevent the area from being overrun with tacky souvenir shops and noisy bars. Design guidelines didn't regulate interiors. Old zoning laws often were in conflict with the intent of a historic district. The preservation board served only an advisory function. There was minimal protection against owners impetuously demolishing a building. The code enforcement department seemed to prefer pushing demolition to encouraging renovation. Most of the National Register district was not covered by any local controls. The business owners and residents -- old and young -- were being pulled along with the flow. Although city hall had come a long way, it was clear that the focus was on the economics, not the aesthetics."

A few notable buildings, among them the Senator, Biscaya and Revere hotels, didn't make it. But a great many were restored and reinvigorated. The National, where my wife and I stayed a couple of years ago, is a superb example of how restoration can combine with adaptation to create a building that is historically valid while providing services and amenities that today's customers expect. By the same token, the nearby Loews, an entirely new building (and by South Beach standards a large one), fits unobtrusively in among the art deco buildings while adding some 800 rooms to the beach's supply.

What happened in South Beach has happened elsewhere, including in some neighborhoods in Washington, though with variations appropriate to each locale. There were frequent arguments within the Miami preservation movement between the absolutists and the realists, but by and large the realists won: "Trying to embalm an entire privately owned neighborhood in a bygone time had questionable economic viability and ran contrary to the direction of preservation nationwide, which was to recycle buildings, giving them new uses while maintaining the significant architectural elements that made them special." That is exactly what ultimately happened in South Beach.

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