Miami Beach's transformation in the past 15 years has been astonishing and, on the whole, quite wonderful. In the early 1980s, South Beach was mired in a state of decrepitude, exacerbated by a building moratorium that persuaded landlords that there was no need to fix any leaky pipes or crumbling plaster. It was falling apart piece by piece.
The demographics were dicey. The Mariel boatlift from Cuba had given Castro a chance to empty his jails, and some hardened thugs wound up on South Beach. Most of the residents were retirees, the seriously old, people in their eighties and nineties. As a reporter on the Beach, I had to check the police blotter every day; again and again the reports told of some octogenarian slammed to the sidewalk in a strong-arm robbery. My colleague Mike Kranish captured the whole situation in a long, harrowing Miami Herald story with the unforgettable headline, "South Beach: Where Dreams Die."
And yet...we adored the place. South Beach was truly enchanting, a kind of fairyland of Art Deco hotels, interesting characters, flashy operators. You had to love a place that had trilingual no-parking signs, in English, Spanish and Yiddish.
The Deco hotels were the definition of sublime. They had individual quirks and architectural signatures, but they also had a certain consistency of tone, a levity, a playfulness, with pastel colors, neon signs, curvilinear shapes, eyebrow ledges, porthole windows, and towers like rocket ships or radio transmitters. This was a resort district as a child would sketch it, full of neat shapes and flourishes, and -- best of all -- built on a human scale. There were no 2,000-room monstrosities here with 30-story atriums. The hotels were like modest-sized ocean liners, inviting you to climb on deck and have a cocktail, and stare at the ocean just beyond the skinny coconut palms that couldn't stand up straight and swayed in the breeze like drunks.
In the early 1980s South Beach was full of promise, but no one knew if that promise would be fulfilled. For a long time a single hotel, the Cardozo, offered a little night life on Ocean Drive. When the artist Cristo decided to wrap the small islands in Biscayne Bay with pink plastic, he and his artist minions headquartered in the Victor, and briefly prefigured the scene to come. But still, the revival was painfully slow. In the mid-1980s you could rent an ocean-view apartment on Ocean Drive for 400 bucks a month (provided you didn't mind finding a vagrant asleep in your car the next morning).
Then it just exploded. The chart for nightlife on the Beach would show a J-curve, the line turning vertical in the late 1980s. Suddenly every Deco hotel had a finger-snappin' bar full of European models on roller blades. A bit further north, on the desolate Lincoln Road Mall, some artists opened galleries, and an independent bookseller, Books & Books, set up shop. Gradually the mall, too, was transformed, to the point where it is now a thoroughfare of elegance, full of expensive restaurants with outdoor tables, less frenetic than Ocean Drive but still intensely fashionable.
But now comes the next transition. People are on the verge of panic. Moving in just lately, over on the west side of the mall, is none other than....The Gap.
And Starbucks! And Banana Republic! And a multiplex theater!
And look down on Ocean Drive, there's another Starbucks, and a Johnny Rockets, and a T.G.I. Friday's. Good gosh, these things are chains. This is corporate fabulosity. And the rents are going up (as in San Francisco) and now the artists may be priced out of the very place they rescued.
"What I hate is, it's losing its authenticity," one gallery manager told me.
But then again, that gallery had been around for only a couple of years. Where is the baseline for the authentic? I would bet some of the old retirees -- wherever they've gone -- would have a different definition of the authentic South Beach.
And there are those of us who miss the days when this was all a matter of dreams and hope and fantastic possibilities -- when we could imagine that we had, ourselves, discovered this secret, strange world of beauty and magic.
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