The transformation of South Beach didn’t happen overnight. We saw the seeds of change planted in the late 1970s and into the ‘80s amid crime, squalor and poverty.
The first two renovated Art Deco hotels, the Cardozo and the Carlyle, reopened in 1978. Vacant storefronts and restaurants began to find new life as clubs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The older population began to move on. Redevelopment started moving in.
Many of us long for the days of the old South Beach, with its neighborhood bakeries, languid pace, shabby but genuine character, and the retired people who loved the place. They gathered each day on hotel porches, made their way to the beach across the street for some sunshine, then returned to their small rooms to cook dinner on a hot plate.
But by the 1970s and early ‘80s, South Beach, after its first heyday from the 1930s through the ‘60s, began falling apart. Structures started to decay under a building moratorium. Criminals moved in to enjoy the area, and rob and kill. Businesses started to exit, leaving vacant storefronts across Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue.
But then change slowly rolled across the southern tip of Miami Beach.
In a series of original stories and photographs from the time, the Miami Herald captured that ongoing, and often painful, change.
Now, for the first time since these stories were reported and written in the years of transition in South Beach, we bring them to you in full from the Miami Herald Archive.
Editor’s note: Some terms and descriptions for minority groups that were common in the 1980s could be considered outdated or offensive today. The following stories appear as they were originally published.
South Beach devastated
Published Aug. 29, 1982
By Michael Kranish
It was 1919 when visionaries took a sandspit called Miami Beach and turned it into High Society’s playground. Gregorio Medina, a young Cuban polo player, arrived on a trolley to entertain the millionaires. Five years later Allen G. Smith opened America’s leading Rolls Royce dealership.
Today Allen G. Smith, 93, repairs Silver Ghosts on Fifth Street in a long concrete-and-pine garage, a time capsule filled with luxury cars, 50-year-old tools and a thousand unmarked jars of nuts and bolts. Outside, Mariel refugees fix battered Chevies.
Gregorio Medina, 85, fears the dark. Each night he locks himself inside his small apartment near the old polo grounds.
“Otherwise they would kill you,” Medina explains in Spanish.
The two pioneers are simply on the wrong side of Miami Beach, the side that few outsiders associate with the neon glitz and glamour of Hotel Row. It is the south side, an unlikely collection of old buildings and older people, a landscape the hotelmen and politicians wanted to change – forever.
Upset that the last 30 years have turned the south side into a mecca for thousands of elderly poor New York Jewish garment workers, city fathers in 1974 decided to tear down South Beach’s decaying southern quarter, relocate the 6,000 residents, and restore the faded resort’s lost luster.
It was to have been the biggest urban renewal project in America.
Today, reality mocks the dream.
A lethal combination of political infighting, governmental indecision and 20 per cent interest rates stopped the project three times in six years. A much less dramatic plan proposed this month, which eliminates a network of Venetian canals and doubles the number of new condominiums, would take another decade to complete. It will be debated Wednesday by the City Commission.
But nine years of planning and delays have eliminated one debate: The once-stable though poor neighborhood has been devastated, a victim of its own government.
Collectively, South Beach today is the sickest, poorest and oldest population in America.
It is a 1.74-square-mile-world that runs beach to bay, 21st Street to Government Cut, 232 blocks and 103 alleys, densely packed with 50,000 people. Fifteen thousand of them are elderly Jews, including 10,000 Tsarist-era Eastern European refugees, the greatest such concentration in the world. They mix today, uneasily, with 13,000 Latin American and 6,000 Mariel refugees, with little more in common than their shared dependence on a government check.
To stop “unplanned development” in the redevelopment area south of Sixth Street, the city imposed a building moratorium in 1973. Major repair of old hotels and apartments was banned. Buildings slid into decay, forcing out the elderly renters, bringing in an underclass — criminals, dope users, the poor, unemployed Mariel refugees. Property values stagnated, increasing by only one-third the Dade average. Elderly condo owners couldn’t sell. The crime rate doubled.
The city in effect pulled out.
Miami Beach closed most of the parks. The city stopped the Pier Park dances that drew 1,000 nightly revelers. It refused to disburse federal low-interest property improvement loans. It denied free federal medication to many residents.
Now, like a miracle cure that induces only a worsening sickness, the government-fostered decay has infected the other three-quarters of South Beach.
“It’s a terrible thing, a tragic thing for these people,” says Miami Beach City Manager Robert Parkins, who assumed his post four months ago. “It’s the kind of thing that you look back on after nine years and say, ‘How could that have been allowed to happen?’ “
Rosine Smith, who has owned the Ocean Breeze Hotel on First Street for 20 years, dreamed of retiring there. Redevelopment changed her plans. She wanted out. But she couldn’t get out. She couldn’t sell the rainbow-colored hotel because of uncertainty created by redevelopment. She couldn’t make major repairs on her deteriorating building because that was prohibited under redevelopment. So it deteriorated further.
She could only rent to the lowest-paying tenants. In 1980 one of her guests tried to rob her. Armed with a hammer, he beat her repeatedly, pummeled her, tied her up, took her meager cash on hand, almost killed her. So she posted a sign on her door that lies “No Rooms,” bought a Central Florida mobile home and has vowed never to return to South Beach.
“I used to say ‘thank you God for letting me live in such a beautiful place as South Beach,’ “ Smith says, sitting in her new home in a sparsely populated town. “It breaks my heart what happened to the area. I blame redevelopment for ruining my retirement years.”
Property records show she is not alone. The sale of hotels and apartment buildings has virtually halted since 1976.
Not even the officially declared “historic” buildings have been spared.
Three of the four buildings that were to be preserved under redevelopment have suffered as a result of the 1973 moratorium.
Thrifty’s Supermarket, a veritable Macy’s of kosher food, which used to have a queue of 200 customers waiting outside in the morning, is today out of business.
Sam Picciolo’s Italian restaurant, which used to feed 1,000 diners a night, was forced to sell out and now serves only 50 a night.
Temple Beth-Jacob, the first synagogue in Florida, had 500 worshipers. Now it has 50, and is in danger of losing its minyan, the minimum 10 worshipers needed for services.
“We’ve always had a minyan since the synagogue was built in 1929,” said Rabbi Shmaryahu Swirsky, the fourth in a family of rabbis from Lithuania. “It was always the cradle of Jewish life on South Beach. Now we have fear, poverty, unbelievable conditions here.”
Only Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant, managed by Redevelopment Agency Chairman Irwin Sawitz, has prospered. But that is a credit to Joe’s national reputation, not redevelopment.
The city chose the area south of Sixth Street, where Miami Beach was born, because it had some of the oldest buildings in the city, and the poorest residents.
To condemn the 372 buildings, the city needed state approval, which could only come if the area were officially declared “blighted.” Over objections of many residents and State Attorney Janet Reno, the commission declared the area “blighted.”
That happened in 1975 with the leadership of then-Mayor Harold Rosen. He never thought redevelopment would take longer than a few years.
Today Rosen admits, “It wasn’t that blighted. That was just a word we had to use. Some parts of it were bad, but the majority was good. I think we just wanted to change the image. It was becoming a lot of small co-ops for the elderly and we didn’t want a retirement community for the elderly.”
Now, Rosen says, it is worse than he could have imagined. Now, he says, blight is not just a political appellation. It is reality. “Regrettably, there’s been a tremendous price,” he says.
Hardest hit by redevelopment are residents like Michael Ziebel, 88, a Russian emigre whose life parallels a generation on South Beach.
As a child, Ziebel fled Tsar Nicholas II and moved to New York’s East Side. In his way he achieved a sort of fame, a hat cutter so quick he was known as The Automobile. He worked, he married, he promised his wife he would retire to South Beach the day he was 65. He kept the promise.
“We left New York because the old Jewish neighborhood had changed,” said Ziebel, a man of sallow complexion and thick white hair.
The Ziebels loved South Beach, a Brooklyn by the sea, a walker’s and shopper’s paradise, a place with no fast-food restaurants or suburban-style shopping centers. It had New York’s urban ambiance and Miami’s palm trees, beachfront and sunshine.
Then Ziebel’s retirement, like that of 6,000 others in the redevelopment area, was disrupted by the city’s ambition to compete once again as an internationally famous resort.
His street, Meridian Avenue, once filled with elderly Eastern Europeans and neatly kept apartments, is now home to prostitutes and dope peddlers.
Ziebel, like 1,300 other owners of modest condominiums, cannot sell. Most of the 1,400 renters in the redevelopment area have either fled or been forced out by Mariel refugees, who pool resources and live four to a room.
“It is like what happened to my New York neighborhood, only much worse,” Ziebel says.
It is the lament heard daily on the corners of South Beach: At Lincoln Road where the once-grand shops have been replaced with electronics stores. On Ocean Drive where the Art Deco hotels still have spectacular ocean views but have mostly small, unkempt rooms. On Washington Avenue, the Main Street of South Beach, where its 40 medical clinics outnumber the food shops.
Soon there will be only a sprinkling of old Eastern Europeans. Every day another one dies, moves away or slips into the anonymity of a nursing home.
Few outsiders realize the generation exists and soon it will have quietly passed from its unlikely setting two miles from Miami’s downtown skyscrapers.
“They’re almost all gone now,” says Rabbi Swirsky of Temple Beth-Jacob.
“Soon I will go, too. But I won’t leave until all of my people are gone. It’s really tottering now, tottering with one ‘t.’ Soon, when it’s tottering with two ‘t’s, I’ll go to Israel and some old rabbi will take my place. I can’t wait forever, and when they start tearing the buildings down, the temple will meet a sad fate.”
The elderly poor, their lives often confined by walking distance and monthly government checks, find richness in memories. They talk of the Old Country, they read Yiddish newspapers, they watch the change in the neighborhood and talk about the way things used to be.
Even the buildings, standing lot line to lot line, alley to street, tug at memories. The whimsical Art Deco hotels are designed like neon-lit cinemas, rockets and ships, named after presidents, dukes, monarchs, judges.
The memories are harshest in the redevelopment area south of Sixth Street. It was once known as the “Jewish Riviera” because city founder J.N. Lummus allowed Jews to live there in the 1920s. The landowners to the north, Carl Fisher and John Collins, posted signs that said “Gentiles Only.” It was a pattern that continued until the 1940s, the anti-semitism creeping to northern Miami Beach, attracting the old garment workers to South Beach, the only seaside resort in Florida to allow working-class Jews.
Now an eerie string of buildings resemble darkened theaters, their neon signs turned off. It all seems like a giant closed amusement park where the old people are suspended in fear at the top of a ferris wheel.
Many live in “pullmanettes” — tiny rooms with only a bed and a hotplate, some of which are in old streamline-design Deco hotels that state inpectors call “warehouses.”
Dr. Aaron Goldberg has seen thousands of South Beach elderly in his Washington Avenue office during the last decade:
“They are mostly indigent, elderly Jewish people who live in filthy, pathetic places, who are stuck, who can’t leave and they’re so frightened about the element out there that they lock themselves inside these tiny places in fear,” Goldberg says. “That’s South Beach.”
South Beach is the anomaly of South Florida, an urban place where few residents have cars: Although South Beach accounts for .178 per cent of the Metrobus service area, it provides 20 per cent of the system’s ridership. On South Beach the streets display the people rather than carry them along in a rush, and the people seem powerful and unified because there are so many alike. When South Beach is gone, and that time seems soon, its residents will again be invisible, scattered.
Today’s changing South Beach is often an odd and frenetic world of characters, like the old New Yorker who can always be seen carrying his violin but never playing it, the Cuban woman who sleeps on the beach and drags her belongings around in a big cardboard box, the dozen cat ladies who spend their nights feeding the 1,000 feral cats that haunt alleyways.
And there is Ice Cream Joe Savino, who made a good living selling Nutty Buddy cones in Lummus Park and decided to buy the Playhouse Bar right next to the Miami Beach Kennel Club’s dog track.
Now the dog track is gone, the beach parking lots are empty and Ice Cream Joe is lucky to get a dozen customers a night.
The streets are a parade of contrast. A Cuban transvestite nightclub stands next to a kosher deli. The shawl-wrapped Eastern Europeans stroll next to young men and women in clingy bikinis.
For some, the talk is not of Tsar Nicholas II, but of Hitler.
Max Silnicki, who runs the Washington Avenue Barber Shop, shaved the heads of 10,000 Jews in Nazi concentration camps before they were cremated. Now he trims the hair of a dozen, steady customers for $3 each, and has nightmares about Joseph Mengele, Hitler’s “Angel of Death.”
“It is a terrible thing,” Silnicki says. “I wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, thinking about how Mengele used to select Jews to die.”
Inside his four-chair shop, he used to have a shoeshine boy. Now a sign advertises “$1–Blood Pressure Checked.” Silnicki, who was uprooted by the Fifth Street expansion, vows never to leave his shop: “I’ve survived too much, for so long.”
In the summer, the northern area of South Beach throbs with Latins, on vacation from South America, from Union City, N.J., even from the working-class neighborhoods of Hialeah. For many shop owners in that end of the district, summer has become The Season.
Today, the ethnic mix is advertised in the windows. The signs say, “We speak Yiddish, We speak Hebrew, Se Habla Espanol.”
Washington Avenue has a row of open-air fruit stands, delicatessens and kosher meat markets, crowded with old people who haggle over the price of plums, pickles and pastrami. It is a rigid daily routine for the elderly, squeeze and test, try to save a few pennies.
And when the 25,000 Social Security checks worth $8 million are delivered each month, police say 80 pickpockets arrive to prey on the elderly. In the winter, many pickpockets take a profitable “vacation” from the Northeast, police say.
The fear is so pervasive on South Beach that the city has installed 200 rectangular boxes on streetlamps with a blue insignia: POLICE. The city’s 20 video cameras are shifted from box to box to confuse criminals. Miami Beach is the only city in the country to use the cameras. All of them are on South Beach. But none are south of Fifth Street, the largest part of the redevelopment area.
Everyone seems to know someone who has been mugged, and the story is repeated everywhere: An old woman wears a gold chain inscribed in Hebrew, L’chaim. To life. She is thrown to the ground, the chain ripped from her neck. The thief is not caught, and the story is told on a porch stoop to another woman.
“South Beach is filled with great victims,” said Officer Cornelius O’Regan, walking the Washington Avenue beat. “The old people are petrified of being hurt and the South American tourists aren’t going to return here to testify. The thieves know this.”
Sgt. Thomas Hunker has been on the South Beach beat for 10 years. He says a small group of Mariel refugees have pilfered anything “that’s not nailed down. The old people are scared out of their minds, and justifiably so.”
Officer O’Regan, who used to mow South Dade lawns so his parents could vacation on Miami Beach, walks South Beach and can’t believe this was the place they dreamed of.
“This place should be like Lake Tahoe,” he says, rounding the $13-a-night Drake Hotel, a blocky, chalk-white building badly in need of paint. “In Lake Tahoe, you could walk around at night, go to a club, go to gamble, go to a restaurant. It’s really great.”
South Beach was like that 25 years ago, he remembers. “Maybe Lake Tahoe will be like this in 25 years. Can you believe a place can change that quickly?”
Frances Mitnick lives at the southern edge of the redevelopment area, where she has owned the Calvert Hotel since 1946, owned it because this was the best place in Florida to have a small family hotel. Her part of Ocean Drive was once all Jewish and Italian, old people who would return year after year. She still won’t allow an unmarried couple in her rooms.
“We only take in select people, proper people,” she says.
A block from Pier Park where once 1,000 old Jews happily danced all night, the Calvert is now a backdrop for a passing parade of shirtless young men with radios, some wearing roller skates, some peddling dope, nearly always attracting the whirring blue lights of the police.
This year, for the first time since she bought the Calvert, Frances Mitnick locks the lobby entrance at nightfall, has hired a security guard, and latches her own door with a heavy metal chain.
Frances Mitnick, 81, Boston-born, fights back with $300 worth of silver and gold glitter, pasted on the lobby walls from floor to ceiling.
The rest is painted pink. The doors are pink. So are the walls, beds and sheets. Even the fans and refrigerators. It makes the hotel come alive, she explains.
“I’ll never leave my hotel,” she says, putting a pink flower in a pink flower vase. “When I first saw this block, I thought this was it: The best place in the world to live. How can I leave the place of my dreams?”
Change is arriving in South Beach
Published July 10, 1986
At the Park Retirement Home on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive, fragile-looking elderly residents sit in lawn chairs, staring at the beach and waiting out the day.
Next door at the Locust, James Cook discusses Cafe des Artistes, Ocean Drive’s newest mecca for the young and stylish.
Ceiling fans whir overhead in the lobby of the Locust, a freshly painted salmon colored apartment building near Ninth Street. The bar is varnished wood, the furniture wicker.
The ambience, Cook said, is Casablanca. “We have a piano player. We’ll have to get him a white jacket and an black bow tie and see if we can call him Sam.”
Cafe des Artistes, owned by Cook’s mother, Sandra Cook, is the fourth seaside eatery to open on Ocean Drive in the past year. Slowly, as historic Art Deco buildings are renovated, Ocean Drive’s porches are filling up with colorful cafe umbrellas and youthful crowds.
Six other hotels have been given zoning variances to open restaurants or bars. Their owners talk about serving Chinese and Italian food, oysters on the half shell, champagne by the glass — all in places that until recently were the preserve of the poor and the elderly.
“We early on identified the possibility of using these terraces as cafes,” said Miami Beach Planning Director Jud Kurlancheek. “We saw it as an entertainment district that would attract tourists and residents of the city and county.”
Ocean Drive’s nascent nightlife began last August, when a restored Carlyle Bar and Grill was reopened with soft lights and live jazz. The Carlyle was followed in April by the Waldorf Towers, where blues musicians play in the basement bar on weekends.
As of last weekend, beachgoers could drop by at the Leslie, another hotel owned by the Royale Group, for espresso and ice cream. The cafe’s manager, Leslie Filosa, said an opera singer and guitarist will stroll the porch at night.
Waldorf owner Jerry Sanchez said he soon will open restaurants in two hotels that he is restoring — the Breakwater and the Edison. He said the he will serve Japanese or Chinese food in one; Italian food in the other.
Tony Goldman, a New York restaurateur who last month bought two hotels, The Park Central and the Imperial, said he will open a bar that serves champagne by the glass late next year.
And Ocean Drive’s newest hotel owners, 24-year-old Tony Kay and his 23-year-old brother, Kent, are full of plans for the Clevelander, which they bought from Sanchez last month. They want to open an informal “fun bar” with beer and oysters on the half shell.
Sandra Cook bought and restored the Locust three years ago. Last weekend, she opened the Cafe des Artistes in the lobby of the Venetian-style apartment building.
For now, the restaurant will be open only on weekends. Sandra Cook said she wants it to be a place where people can stop in for a full meal or just a drink. James talks about adding a special menu of wines and Tapas — Spanish appetizers.
What with street’s ocean view and historic buildings, “I don’t think you can lose here,” Sandra Cook said. “In Europe, you see these places constantly dotting the coastline.”
But there are obstacles. Sam Hertzberg, an owner of the Tides hotel, said he would like to open and underground “speakeasy” with live music and an outdoor cafe. The problem: he can’t get a loan for the $500,000 project. If not for that, he said, “I would have opened yesterday.”
South Beach retirees begin to leave
Published July 6, 1986
In some of the same subtle ways that a marriage slowly sours, the union of Miami Beach and its retirees – once so tight you could hardly think of one without the other – is coming apart.
The signs: bitter arguments, snide remarks, the infatuation with someone younger. Things that happen with time, and when change comes between people.
The Beach itself has changed dramatically. An influx of younger Latins has transformed its ethnic face, the crime rate has soared and tourism has soured.
The elderly have changed, too. Their numbers – though still large – are dwindling. They are getting older, sicker and poorer, according to city statistics. As a result, they are more dependent than ever upon the city, even as the Beach’s tax base is shrinking.
In and out of government, official Miami Beach believes that its future lies with young professionals.
Robert Blum – voted Man of the Year by the Beach Chamber of Commerce – said recently that the large elderly population of the Beach is “a cancer.”
And Scott Ross, the publicist hired by the city to attract new blood to the beach, is targeting such groups as young lawyers and BMW drivers. He describes his work this way:
“My job is to create an image of the Beach that isn’t, ‘You crazy? What about the deterioration? It’s full of old people!’ “
Many of those old people feel betrayed.
“The famous line around here now is, ‘What do they want to do? March us all into the ocean?”’ said Mollie Siegel, 69.
They feel hurt.
“They figure we’re a damn nuisance,” said Leah Doherty, 91. “They make no bones about it. We’re the dinosaurs. They want the young. It’s disrespectful.”
They feel forgotten.
“I’d like to tell the gentlemen that we’re not dead yet,” said Rose Kurtz.
According to Steve Weisberg, who runs hot meals programs for the elderly at six Beach community centers, “The city’s constant emphasis on youth is sort of like rubbing salt in the wound for many of them.
“They’re coping with old age and being far from their families. They’ve outlived their savings. They’re always scared of crime. Then on top of that they get the message they’re not so valued anymore.”
The elderly think the message is clear.
Developers all along the Beach offer rent rebates to young people, usually so defined if under 50. Landlord Blum offers free strollers to pregnant tenants.
The exemplary ambulance service offered by the Beach – each ride staffed by a doctor – was provided free until recently. Now it costs $75.
The city recently created an official “Yuppie Board.”
Whatever the official motivation — and despite the fact the city still subsidizes dances, films, hot meal delivery and free medicine — some retirees see such actions as direct attacks.
“The city is failing us,” said Shirley Kaplan, 68. “First, it puts on parties for the young who don’t even live here and not for us. Second, it doesn’t go out of its way to protect us. Would it cost such an arm and a leg to have cops walking the streets for our safety?”
People have talked for years about the “love-hate relationship” between Miami Beach and its retirees. And for years people have worried over the incongruous fact that a city with one of the highest median ages in America was touting itself as “The Sun and Fun Capital of the World.”
So every now and then a drive has been started to bring young people to the Beach.
What’s different this time? For one thing, economic necessity appears to be on the side of the youth movement. The flow of new retirees to the Beach has essentially ended. Also, although they still have the strength to elect politicians, the elderly exercise very little day-to-day power anymore.
The result is that recently, Beach politicians have been able to make some significant changes in the law. The most serious: a virtual ban on board-and-care homes, at a time when the medical and housing needs of the elderly grow more acute by the day.
In 1983, state officials found that scores of Miami Beach retirement hotels were operating as Adult Congregate Living Facilities (ACLFs) — washing and dressing tenants, feeding them and handling their money, for example. But these hotels weren’t licensed. They couldn’t be regulated. Their tenants were unprotected.
So the state cracked down, and the number of requests for ACLF licenses jumped suddenly. Not because the hotels were changing their services or their clientele, but because they were trying to obey the law.
The city reacted dramatically. Commissioners worried that prime property would become wall-to-wall ACLFs. Tourists would be driven away. So the commission introduced a referendum to ban board-and-care homes on the waterfronts, on main tourism streets, or within 2,000 yards of another ACLF.
In effect, said Randall Berg, director of the Florida Justice Institute, the various provisions bar board-and-care homes from all but a tiny portion of the city. The Institute is challenging the ban in state and federal courts.
According to Yvonne Lee, chairwoman of the state’s Ombudsman Committee for Long-term Care, the hotels that want to get licenses are already filled with elderly residents. But without licensing, the hotels go unmonitored.
‘It makes no sense. No one can protect those people,” she said “If those hotels were ACLFs, we could do something.”
Since the ban, ACLFs have flourished throughout the rest of Dade County. Today, of 212 Dade ACLFs, only 11 are in Miami Beach.
Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, who was elected on the strength of elderly voters, says now that the ACLF ban is “an onerous ordinance, something I would not stand by. It has put a lot of fears in people’s minds.”
But he has not proposed changing it.
And at least one city commissioner, Bruce Singer, remains convinced it was a good idea.
“We had a city in cardiac arrest. When a person is in cardiac arrest, you do extraordinary things — including cutting their throats, sticking trachea tubes in them, things people can’t normally withstand,” Singer said. “I keep using medical terms here because we’re talking about the elderly and it kind of ties in.
“The ACLF thing — it was moving so fast one way we had to stop it cold, to keep the Beach alive. It was one of those dramatic measures to inject a breath of life.”
It’s language like this, about cutting throats, heart attacks and emergency surgery — and about cancer, at the extreme — that particularly offends some retirees. It does not show, in the words of Miami Beach attorney David Nevel, “a high level of sensitivity.”
But state Rep. Mike Friedman, who has lived in Miami Beach since childhood, says that such strong language is not meant to frighten the elderly. It’s just the way people on the Beach talk.
“Miami Beach was built on outrageous statements made by thoughtful people,” he said. “It was built as a resort — it depended on promotion. This place is a huckster’s dream. So people have always said outrageous things. Why should this year be different from any other?”
What is being promoted is a vision of the Beach somewhat at odds with the current reality. A vision of Chablis on the porch of the Carlyle Hotel, Nautilus machines at a pastel gym called Fifth Street Fitness, parasailing, volleyball and the Fontainebleau Hilton.
All this in a city where nearly 40,000 people receive a total of more than $18 million in Social Security retirement benefits each month. Where people over 65 make up more than half the population. Where, by the city’s own estimate, only a few thousand young professionals now live.
Most of the Beach’s elderly citizens neither fight the future nor embrace it. The possibility of a younger, richer Beach seems so distant, they would just as soon ignore it.
“We’ll be dead, all of us, by the time this place is reborn, so they might as well not push it in our faces too much,” said Leah Doherty.
For them, being jilted by the Beach is just another in a growing list of painful changes: The crime, the neighborhood deterioration, the economic slump, the loss of health, the depletion of savings.
But occasionally, a few Beach retirees find a way to battle back. A pink-and-green Styrofoam sculpture in the lobby of the Carriage House — placed there by Robert Blum to change the “God’s little waiting room” image — was beaten repeatedly by a 101-year-old man wielding his cane, then finished off by a band of vandals last spring.
Though they are nostalgic for the Miami Beach of old, most retirees understand the need to court new residents. Indeed, some of them eagerly anticipate a flood of new, young people. Like Sylvia Bezinover, 83.
“I say, ‘Bring on the young.’ I myself don’t like people my age. I guess they just lose something. They become self- centered,” she said.
It’s just that none of the elderly wants to be forgotten, nor huddled out of sight. Not yet.
“Now, they’re looking for young people. Which is fine,” said Sonia Wincor, 77.
“But how about a little respect?”
From Kendall to Miami Beach?
Published Feb. 4, 1985
After decades of selling itself to Northern snowbirds, Miami Beach may soon begin advertising in a new market: Kendall.
Because the western part of that sprawling South Dade suburb is bulging at the arterials with monied, young professionals.
Because many of those suburbanites commute up to 45 minutes each way to jobs in downtown Miami, a 10- or 15-minute drive from Miami Beach.
And because Miami Beach — suffering one of the worst economic slumps in its history — is embarking on what City Manager Rob Parkins calls a “critical change in direction:” stumping no longer just for visitors but for year-round, wage- earning residents, preferably young and well-educated, preferably with growing families and rising incomes.
For years, Miami Beach has depended largely on tourism, ignoring property taxes as a prime source of municipal income, Parkins says. Likening the city to a corporation with two divisions, he says, “The city of Miami Beach has concentrated its efforts on one division of the corporation.”
Now, after four years of declining tourism and 18 years after the last hotel was built in the Beach, resort tax revenues are no more than an economic “buffer,” Parkins says. The key now is to rebuild the city’s property base. “We’re refocusing our energies toward what is our major division,” he says.
The city’s new approach is a radical break with more than a decade of planning, when redevelopment was equated with building luxury hotels for tourists. Redevelopment hopes are now pinned to gentrification, the movement by the middle class to resettle and reclaim deteriorated urban neighborhoods.
Through a combination of private initiative and public encouragement, the Beach’s southern third — the run-down 1.7- square-mile area where more than half the city’s elderly live — will become the next trendy address for Dade’s young professionals, city officials hope.
But gentrification faces major obstacles. Even the current infusion of $60 million in public bond money for improvements and the pending $68 million bond issue to double the size of the Miami Beach Convention Center are only “a reasonable start,” says Assistant City Manager Dick Fosmoen. The rehabilitation itself will be expensive, and its success will depend on wooing private investors and overcoming a half-decade of adverse publicity.
This year, Miami Beach and the Miami Beach Redevelopment Agency are spending $390,000 on public relations campaigns aimed at stimulating real estate development and resettlement. Included are:
* The $45,500 project that targets Kendall as prime territory for recruiting new residents. Pollsters asked 351 people in downtown Miami and Kendall 80 questions including how they like their homes, how much time they spend commuting and how they view Miami Beach. The City Commission is scheduled to consider the findings this month and decide whether to pay for an advertising campaign.
* A $58,000 program to attract developers and investors to South Beach. A public relations consultant has just completed an 8 1/2-minute film, whose working title is South Pointe, a Renaissance for Miami Beach. The city has invited 600 developers to view the island’s southern tip, at their own expense, in March. Officials say they hope 30 to 40 will show up.
* A $257,000 public affairs budget, up 64 percent from last year, aimed at generating positive news stories and boosting public confidence in the community, particularly South Beach.
Apace with the PR campaigns are a number of city redevelopment efforts.
Work on an $11 million marina and a $3.5 million park for South Beach already has begun. Construction of a new $20 million police and courts center is scheduled to start this month. A $22 million renovation of the Theater of the Performing Arts, and $9.5 million worth of street, water and sewer improvements in South Beach should begin in April.
The hope is that the work will spark private investment. “We’re putting public money into the area so it will look good to investors. The real investment will come from them,” said Assistant City Manager Fosmoen. There are early signs that the efforts are paying off.
A group of more than 60 business executives from both sides of Biscayne Bay has mobilized as the Rediscover Miami Beach Committee to help make the Beach’s future a priority concern of Dade County’s business leadership.
Two developers who have created chic new housing in run- down sections of Washington, D.C., and Boston say they also want a part of the city’s youth movement.
Robert Holland, who restored 15 apartment buildings over eight years in Washington’s Georgetown waterfront, Capitol Hill and DuPont Circle neighborhoods, discovered Miami Beach two years ago while scouting for property in Coconut Grove.
Holland pronounced the Grove overbuilt and overpriced. And while sipping Perrier on the porch of the Carlyle Hotel, a showpiece of the Beach’s Art Deco District, he decided to invest in the aging resort town.
Last year, Holland Development Services bought eight Deco- era apartment buildings around Flamingo Park for $3.5 million. Typically, Holland represents five or six investors, who buy each building, pay for its rehabilitation and rent out the apartments.
Among Holland’s purchases is the infamous Habana Hotel, at 1308 Drexel Ave., a $10-a-night rooming house considered a “shooting gallery” for drug users by city police. Holland says he needed to buy the Habana as a starting point for upgrading the surrounding Flamingo neighborhood.
Two of the buildings have been renovated so far; the company says one is 75 percent occupied and the other 85 percent. Average age of the tenants is 29.
“We’re trying to attract young people to live on the Beach,” Holland says. “The old people with memories of the Beach are dying out and not being replaced. If you don’t get young people you’re going to wind up with a ghost town.”
This year, Holland says, he will spend $6.1 million to buy and renovate nine additional buildings in the Deco district. He hopes to charm young professionals with sherbet-colored exteriors, landscaped courtyards, high ceilings and hardwood floors.
“Old Miami Beach is getting younger every day,” the company advertises.
Don Meginley, who spent three years rehabilitating 20 buildings in Boston’s South End, has agreements to buy 14 buildings near Flamingo Park. He says he said he will spend $6 million buying and renovating them.
But seasoned building rehabilitators are not the only investors in the Beach’s southern third.
In 1983, Brickell Avenue lawyers Marty Ergas and Neil Berman bought the 54-year-old MacArthur Hotel, gutted by arson and closed for a year.
Deco Plaza, a salmon and gray apartment and shopping complex at the eastern foot of the MacArthur Causeway, opened recently after a $1.7 million renovation.
While Ergas says they aren’t turning away elderly apartment hunters, a free membership in Club Z, the upscale Beach disco, comes with each rental contract, a clue to the pitch Deco Plaza is making to potential tenants.
City officials say they expect real estate investment in the Art Deco District and South Beach to increase dramatically once Charles Cheezem breaks ground for the $200 million South Pointe Tower — a complex of four condominium towers, a luxury hotel and retail center — on the 18.5-acre site of the old Miami Beach Kennel Club on the city’s southernmost tip.
Cheezem has until May 31 to exercise his option to buy the $11.6 million tract, and critics fear he won’t take that step in the current, sagging condominium market.
But project director Glenn Johnson says the company already has 130 deposits for condos in the first 208-unit tower. The project will be built, Johnson says, “no two ways about it.”
But whether gentrification will revive the city’s economy remains to be seen. The efforts now planned will affect only a fraction of the city’s housing. While virtually every major project targets South Beach, deterioration has begun in Normandy Isle, to the north.
“Fifty percent of the population lives south of Dade Boulevard. It’s the oldest area in the city and the area that’s most in need of improvement,” says Fosmoen.
Furthermore, the gentrification campaign faces major obstacles.
Ninety-one percent of the city’s housing stock consists of rental apartments or condominiums. A quarter of the apartment units in South Beach and the majority in the Art Deco District are in buildings erected before World War II; many are deteriorating.
Apartment buildings in the city’s southern part were intended primarily for seasonal tenants or for one- or two- member households of elderly. Many of the units are small, and rehabilitation will mean extensive work, knocking down walls to create the larger apartments that young families need.
“It is more expensive. You’re changing hotels into apartments, gutting them,” Holland says. “There was more of a conversion atmosphere in Washington, Boston and New York — superficial rehabilitations.”
he Beach also will have to compete in Dade’s glutted condo market. One recent study estimated that the county already has between 5,000 and 6,500 new condos that have never been occupied. The study by Louis Goodkin Research Inc. estimated that it would take from 4 1/2 to 17 years for the market to absorb that backlog.
It may be, though, that the city’s own high vacancy rate will prevent gentrification from causing the shock that it has triggered elsewhere, when poor but stable neighborhoods are swamped with middle-class settlers, rents soar and existing residents are forced to move.
“If the city policy is to woo developers at the expense of the elderly, they’re making a serious mistake,” preservationist Barbara Capitman says. “You can’t care so much for old buildings and not care for the people who have lived in them so long.”
But Parkins says there’s plenty of room in the Beach for those who may be displaced. “I would say she’s absolutely right, if we were running a vacancy rate less than 10 percent,” he says. “We have vacancies in buildings as high as 60 percent, an average of 25 to 30 percent. The elderly can live elsewhere on the Beach.”
But, he concedes, it will be hard on the poor.
“If anyone will suffer, it will be low-income individuals who used to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $128, including utilities,” Parkins says. “When that building is replaced with a new one, rents can be $500 to $600 a month.”
Those problems, however, are well in the future. For now, gentrification depends on the city’s ability to attract settlement from young wage-earners, many of them living elsewhere in Dade.
While there are apparently some who will move to Miami Beach for a quicker commute, others say the city simply isn’t ready to serve large numbers of new residents.
A retail study completed in November found that the city’s merchants continue to cater to tourists, despite their dwindling numbers, and neglect the needs of year-round residents.
The Beach is glutted with souvenir shops and rental car outlets, the study found, but lacks auto and household supply stores, bookstores and service stations.
“You seem to have a 10-year lag. You have not responded to the evolution in the marketplace,” says Morton Yulish, a consultant who helped prepare the study.
That lack of amenities is important to the middle-class families the Beach hopes to draw. “I don’t like driving in stop- and-go traffic for 45 minutes. I really dislike it immensely,” says Neil Alper. “But it’s worth it because of what I have in Kendall.”
Alper, 37, was born at St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach and spends each day at a family-owned jewelry shop on Arthur Godfrey Road. But he says he has no intention of uprooting his wife and 10-year-old son from their home of 14 years to move to Miami Beach.
“A lot of young people with young children live in Kendall. There are a lot of shopping malls accessible to us, movie theaters, restaurants, service-oriented facilities. Everything that a family could want or need has developed in Kendall,” Alper says.
Others however, are apparently willing to pull up stakes.
Robert Warren, a native of Miami Beach, used to commute each day from his home in Kendall to his Brickell Avenue real estate office. It took 45 to 55 minutes on expressways, he says. Shortcuts sometimes took longer.
“It seems like everybody knows the same shortcuts,” Warren, 34, says.
Lisa Warren, a 32-year-old homemaker, found Kendall “dull” and “materialistic.” The houses — and neighbors — all seemed alike, she says.
“I found it crowded and too many people the same age. In Kendall, everyone was young. I couldn’t get baby sitters because everyone was using the same baby sitters,” she says.
“I didn’t like the competition. It was always ‘My kid’s in this program or that program,’ or who has the latest electronic equipment in their house.”
The Warrens moved from South Dade’s Snapper Village to a house on the Beach last summer. Now it takes him 15 minutes to get to work.
He likes the shorter commute. She likes the diversity of her neighbors, having stores within walking distance and the ocean only a five-minute drive away. Lisa calls the city “neighborly.”
Two months ago, the Warrens had their second child and Miami Beach gained a new citizen. The Warrens are precisely the sort of transplants the city wants.
Publicist Scott Ross, who oversaw the marketing survey, hopes it will prompt the City Commission to approve an ad campaign.
He envisions commuters on South Dixie Highway glancing up at a billboard that states: “While you’re stuck in traffic, I’m home playing ball with my kids. We live on Miami Beach.”
“We’re developing a game plan,” Ross says. “But it remains up to the commission and private sector whether it’s ever implemented.”
South Beach and Scarface
Published Jan. 26, 1984
Al Side sat in the Byron-Carlyle theater and watched in horror. Two Colombian drug dealers had just dismembered a man with a chainsaw and a second man was to meet the same fate.
For Side, the horror was double. The most violent scene in Scarface was unfolding in the apartment building he had inherited from his uncle.
“When my uncle told me they’re filming Scarface at his hotel, I thought, ‘Hey, great,’ “ Side said.
“Then I saw the movie …. I had no idea they were going to do that thing with a chainsaw. Could you believe it? It was awful, sickening….”
That’s the general reaction to Scarfacel among the hotel owners whose properties were used in the film: revulsion at the gore, optimism over the chance to show off Miami Beach to a national audience.
Although the 23-unit Sunray Apartments is nearly empty, in the month since the movie’s premier, the building has attracted dozens of curious who daily park their cars and take pictures of the decaying two-story building at 728 Ocean Dr.
“I don’t know what it is,” Ontario tourist Jeff Syracuse said, “but I just wanted to see it. Is that it? I was fascinated by the movie.”
In the remake of the Al Capone movie, Al Pacino plays Tony Montana, a Mariel refugee who becomes a major drug dealer.
When Miami politicians last year objected to the portrayal of Cubans, filmmaker Brian DePalma bragged he could make the film without Miami’s help.
So DePalma went across the bay to Miami Beach and to his studios in California. He made a deal to film at Side’s hotel, Bebe Pearlman’s Beacon Hotel and Stephen Muss’ Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel.
In a pivotal scene, Montana and two partners arrive at the Sunray Apartments.
The camera sweeps past the aqua Carlyle Hotel, the restored landmark of the Art Deco district, then pans down palm-fringed Lummus Park, finally focusing on the Sunray.
Montana and a partner, Angel, are supposed to make a cocaine buy at apartment No. 12. The Colombian sellers want the money. When Montana refuses, a Colombian strings up Angel in the bathroom. With a yellow chainsaw, he hacks off Angel’s arms and legs. Blood spurts against the window. Montana is next.
But just as Montana’s arms are about to be sawed off, his machine-gunning partner bursts in and rescues him. In the ensuing chase onto Ocean Drive, a Colombian is shot dead. From the porch of the neighboring Beacon Hotel, elderly residents scream in horror and leap from aluminum beach chairs for cover.
“I thought it was a great movie,” said Bebe Pearlman, who owns the Beacon. “It turned out great. I thought it was good publicity for us. They showed our beautiful beach. People shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
“That’s right,” agreed her husband, lawyer Sam Pearlman. “I’m surprised people in Miami didn’t want it filmed there. We’re from Chicago and familiar with Capone, so this doesn’t bother us. When the original Scarface was filmed, no one in Chicago raised a fuss, so why should we?”
Later in the movie, Montana and his friend meet at the tropical lagoon pool at the Fontainebleau.
“This is paradise,” the two Cubans agree, as the camera pans by the recently expanded beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
“I haven’t seen the film yet. I heard it was one of the most violent movies ever made, and I stay away from those kind,” Fontainebleau spokeswoman Julie Simon said. “But I’ve seen the outtakes of scenes filmed at the Fontainebleau and I think it shows the hotel in a good light. I haven’t heard anything negative.”
Back inside the Beacon Hotel’s lobby, Doras Simon, 73, is a resident authority on the filming of Scarface.
“We get hundreds of people who get out of their car and take pictures,” Simon said, interrupting her knitting. “I take some people up to the third floor of the Beacon to show them the window where they filmed. They had a stuntman, you know. It wasn’t Pacino who fell from the railing.”
But Simon, who can describe the film’s shooting, hacking and screaming in detail, has not yet seen the movie.
“No,” she said in a confiding voice, “I’m not going to see it. I heard it wasn’t too good.”
Art Deco revival
Published: Jan. 15, 1984
On Collins Avenue in Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, many of the curving, eclectic hotels of the 1930s are moribund in an institutional shade of gray.
Then you move on to Ninth Street, and a pleasant surprise.
There, amid six oatmeal-colored buildings, sits the Lafayette Hotel, a virtual ice-cream cake decorated in newly applied pink, aqua and turquoise. Little details come alive — the vases etched in the roof, the dolphins carved in the porch.
“You didn’t even notice this place before the hotel was painted last year,” resident Dale Stevens said. “It was just gray and dull. Now we get a lot of tourists coming who take pictures of the Lafayette. Who would have believed it a year ago?”
In Miami Beach’s square-mile historic district — being celebrated today during the sixth annual Art Deco Weekend — the Lafayette’s splash of color is still a rarity. It seems to hint, however, that the once-vibrant Deco neighborhood is reawakening from the ruinous slumber of South Beach.
Those trying to hurry along the Deco district’s rebirth are finding it a slow, frustrating process. They have met with mixed success and more than a little skepticism from some long-time district residents.
And still, when the sun is just right, Ocean Drive’s hotels seem caught in a time capsule of the 1930s. Framed against the palm-fringed shoreline, they curve and sweep and soar.
At the Carlyle Grill, young diners order crepes and watch the parade of strollers. At the Victor Hotel, where elderly retirees from New York are vacationing, the young organizers of the Art Deco Weekend spruce up the lobby with potted palms. At the Tides Hotel, a melange of old and young check in for the night.
Miami Beach’s Deco district rose in a flurry from 1936 to 1939 to accommodate middle-class vacationers from the Northeast.
The Deco buildings inherited their fantasy flair from architects influenced by the streamlined design of locomotives and New York City’s landmark Chrysler Building. The square-mile district of 800 buildings is believed to be the largest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, as North Beach developed with hotels and condominiums, the Deco district changed character, filling with retirees on fixed incomes who found comfortable refuge in the small rooms. By 1970, most of the hotels had converted to retirement homes.
Then in 1976, artists who wanted to preserve the Deco legacy declared it an historic district. In 1979, the federal government agreed, and the battle to preserve the Deco district began in earnest.
Preservationists, afraid that significant architecture may fall to the wrecking ball, have alleged that Miami Beach’s historic-preservation ordinance essentially allows demolition without city approval.
The Metro-Dade Commission agree and has challenged the Beach law in court in an effort to get it strenghtened.
While the dispute rages, those looking for the born-again Deco district can head for the pink-and-aqua Carlyle Hotel, where artists and authors fill the outdoor cafe on Sundays to hear jazz.
A year ago, the Carlyle catered to the elderly at $15 a night. Today, it is a restored, $65-a-night “Deco experience.” The new owner, Cavanagh Communities Corp., hopes to restore seven hotels and create a “mini-Latin Quarter” of cabarets, cafes and nightclubs.
A block west on Washington Avenue, New York City lawyer Stephen Pastore hopes his $5-million disco “Z” will be the district’s next popular haunt.
The old Cinema Theater, surrounded by health clinics, is being converted into a disco that resembles a cruise ship ballroom. It will open as South Florida’s biggest nightclub disco next month.
“This neighborhood doesn’t bother me at all,” Pastore said. “Every successful nightclub in New York is in the worst neighborhood. South Beach isn’t a bad or high-crime neighborhood. It’s a nothing neighborhood. It’s a ghost town after 7 p.m. It’s a whole lot of old people.”
Pastore says that means there is little competition for parking and little worry about crime.
He envisions South Beach becoming an enclave filled with artists and young professionals living the island life amid the metropolis of Greater Miami.
“I can just feel it coming,” City Planner Sandy Youkilis agreed. “By 1990, this will be the Greenwich Village and SoHo of the South.”
The district hugs a square mile, from Sixth to 23rd streets, from Ocean Drive on the Atlantic Ocean to Lenox Court near Biscayne Bay. Hotels line the ocean shoreline; apartments and condominiums surround Flamingo Park.
But of 800 buildings, fewer than a dozen have been truly renovated. Even the Lafayette caters only to retirees.
The 64-year-old Stevens, who moved into the Lafayette last year, is typical of the Deco district: Of 29,218 residents, almost 20,000 are age 60 or older.
Developer Ron Molko knows the problem of selling the district’s potential. A year after renovating the Kress Building that adjoins the Z disco, his planned mini-mall of Art Deco boutiques is empty. But he believes he will lease it after Z opens.
On showcase Ocean Drive, aside from the Carlyle and Cardozo, which is closed for renovation but expected to reopen in February, there are just three apartment houses with mostly young residents. One complex, the five-story Ocean Walk apartments, may be a symbol of the future, preservationists believe.
It was converted two years ago into a beige-coated condominium. When buyers couldn’t be found and the bank took over the building, new developers painted it pink and aqua and rented it.
In just six months, all but one of the 33 units have been filled. Except for one 80-year-old woman, all the residents are under 51. They are doctors, salesmen, restaurant managers, artists and students.
Bill Douglas, 50, who shares a two-bedroom, $600-a-month oceanfront apartment, sits on his couch and marvels at the ocean view. But he also points up the district’s problems. The two main shopping streets offer little for him. Washington Avenue has its open-air fruit stands and ubiquitous health clinics; Lincoln Road Mall, once the Fifth Avenue of the South, has lost most of its high-quality stores and has a 25 per cent vacancy rate.
So Douglas shops at Aventura, banks in Bal Harbour and eats in Miami. Once a month someone breaks into his car.
“We feel like we’re in an island because we are the first here among all the old people,” he said. “I don’t really know people in other buildings. The neighborhood will change, but it will take time.”
Next door is the 72-unit oceanfront Winter Haven Hotel. Owner Mary Josielewski rents her small rooms only to retirees.
“I would love to renovate, but you can barely make it here,” she said. “I can’t afford it. I would like to bring young people here.”
The residents can’t afford it either. According to the 1980 census, about 70 per cent earn less than $10,000 per year; only 5 per cent earn more than $25,000.
On recent tour of the district, preservationist Margaret Doyle told a University of Miami architecture class that one of the finest examples of Deco is at 701 14th St. The two-story apartment house, with pink stripes that race around the facade of pink keystone and white stucco, curves around an immaculate courtyard dominated by a date palm and strangler fig tree.
“These newer buildings are ugly,” Doyle said. “But look at the detail in this Deco building, the seagulls on the address plate, the pink keystone. Look at the courtyard, where people can sit and talk… . It’s a beautiful example of Art Deco.”
Inside is Esther Schwartz, 79, who has owned the building since 1945.
“Art Deco, what is that?” she said. “I don’t know about that. I don’t have anybody rent here because it’s Art Deco. I get people here who want to mess the place up. I was just broken into. This area used to be nice; it’s not anymore. If things were a little better, I’d sell it and run away.”
Outside the Tides Hotel, Thomas Tuamey, a 61-year-old retired New York City fire fighter, quietly regards the 10- story, 115-room structure. It has been 35 years since Tuamey was a bellman here.
“This is unbelievable,” Tuamey said, looking up at the hotel and then down Lummus Park.
“Everything looks exactly as it did 35 years ago, except there are no people. The hotels used to be filled and the streets used to so jammed with people you couldn’t walk.
“If they could get the people back, it would be just like it was 35 years ago. Now that would be beautiful.”
Culture clash in South Beach
Published Aug. 29, 1982
At the once-swank Primrose Hotel, Russian refugees recline on the porch, playing pinochle, watching the night traffic of Collins Avenue rumble down South Beach. In the lobby, Cuban refugees straddle chairs by a window scene of etched-glass flamingoes, playing dominoes.
Outside, Louis Sadt is free of Tsar Nicholas II. Inside, Arturo Guevara is free of Fidel Castro. They came to America for the same reasons.
But the Primrose is more a cauldron of prejudice and misunderstanding than a melting pot. The Jews are leaving. The Latins are moving in.
“This used to be a nice Jewish place until we got the element in here,” says Sadt, smoothing his worn blue pants and dotted-blue shirt. “Now it’s half Latin. It’s very bad.”
The group of 1960s and 1980s Cuban exiles inside say they get along well with the old Jews. But a 19-year-old Mariel refugee, Damien Rubiolo, is leaving for California because things are “too weird, there is too much hatred on South Beach.”
The tension is apt to grow. For every elderly Eastern European resident who dies or moves out, a Latin takes his place.
In the Cambridge Hotel, an old, three-story Spanish-style building in the midst of a residential area, lives a refugee who escaped Cuba and into a U.S. Navy base on Guantanamo. Squalor beats a cell
Juan-Antonio Pinel-Carrero, 46, is thankful to be in a small roach-infested room with his eight church-donated shirts, four pairs of pants, Goya red beans, an apple, a rotten lemon and an open can of sardines.
“I am living well here,” he says in Spanish, fingering a 50- cent San Agustin cigar, making some congri (rice and red beans) on a hot plate. “I have nothing else to eat, so what am I going to do? But I am happy I’m not in a jail cell in Cuba.”
Down the third-floor hallway, another Mariel refugee has sprayed away the odor of urine with an economy-size bottle of Lysol. On the roof, a three-year-old boy from Chile plays with a toy submachine gun, pointing it at anyone who comes within range. On the second floor, an old man lives in a tiny room with only a television set. The man, the only elderly Jew in the Cambridge, won’t let anyone in because “I’m 99 per cent dead, so go away..”
Across Meridian Avenue is the mostly Jewish Beach Manor Apartments, where most residents have lived for 10 years, and the co-op president says, “This used to be great. Now it’s a jungle out there, a wilderness.”
This clash of immigrant cultures is played out daily on Drexel Avenue. The Habana Hotel was all Jewish. Now it has poor Cubans, Americans and Peurto Ricans. It generates constant police calls, and when the police arrive even for a minor disturbance, they come six cars at a time. A “POLICE” television camera posted on a streetlamp constantly surveys the Habana’s porch.
Next door is the once-Jewish and now Haitian- and Cuban- filled Windsor Plaza. Jewish enclave remains
And next to that, at 1330 Drexel Ave., is the Cibro Apartments, whose 12 tenants still are Jewish, five of them 1900-era emigres from Hungary.
“I won’t walk in front of them,” says Anna Korn of her new neighbors. “Everything has changed. They used to have all Jewish people.”
It is not just the elderly Jews who want to leave Drexel Aveune.
A recently arrived guest at the Habana is Alfredo Valentine, 24, aka Slick, a tough-looking Puerto Rican with brown hair, mustache and tattoos. He was “vice president” of a New York City gang, and had dreamed of coming to Miami Beach all his life.
Now, he says, alternating his words with drags on a marijuana cigaret while the five Hungarian women watch, he is leaving after a two-week stay because “this place is nothing like I imagined it. It’s too weird, too dangerous.”
The old Jews, who sound like Slick when they kvetch about South Beach, live in co-ops, condominiums and hotels like the Golden Dreams, which now has a “No Trespassing” sign that is posted next to its name. Across the street, Mariel refugees live in tiny bath-less rooms in the David’s Court, a Spanish-style building that housed the first synagogue in Dade County in the early 1920s.
Many of the older Cuban refugees have reacted like thier Jewish counterparts. Near the David’s Court, two Cuban businessmen are leaving, disgruntled with the change, the loss of business, the image. Exile buys restaurant
In July 1981, Osvaldo Bayona, a Cuban exile who lived in New Jersey for 17 years, bought a small restaurant in the middle of Espanola Way, built in the 1920s as a two-block “Spanish Village.”
Bayona bought the restaurant for $60,000. He says 30 percent of the clientele carry weapons, and he has to call police every day to stop fights. For the last two months he has been trying to sell the business for $43,000.
“I prefer to lose part of the money and leave here,” he said, puffing a long cigar. “You can’t live in a place where you have to carry a revolver.”
South Beach began its transformation in 1970 when the Latins started coming and the Jews stayed away. The redevelopment moratorium brought the neighborhood to a standstill in 1973, leaving small apartments empty and landlords looking for tenants. The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought a new class of renters and a doubled crime rate.
On the once-grand Lincoln Road Mall, once lined with primarily Jewish Fifth Avenue-type shops, only four of the original 150 shops remain. Most of the others are owned by Latins, many of whom say business is off. Some stores sell electronics equipment, beach gear and brass knuckles.
“Lincoln Road used to be the place that the Jews would promenade in their most elegant evening clothes. Now all you have is schlock shops and funny looking people,” Hannah Levous, 85, says.
To the tradition-minded elderly, the contrasts shout from every corner.
On Washington Avenue, the H & M Stein Deli and Kosher Restaurant is next to the Tijuana Cat, a Cuban club for transvestites and gays that features a drag queen contest at midnight.
Further south on Washington Avenue is the R & R restaurant, which advertises “Fried Plantains, Borsht Plate, Matzoh Ball Soup…Special, Especial.” Nearby, the Paramount bakery sells Kosher Cuban Bread and Large Knishes.Richard’s Fruit Center, bought from a Jewish man by a Puerto Rican man six months ago, where the mariquitas plantain chips share shelf space with Manischewitz matzoh.
In most Dade neighborhoods, it wouldn’t be unusual to find the streets empty at 6 p.m. But South Beach was always filled with elderly walkers until midnight because these were a people whose lives depended on their feet.
Today old people rarely walk the streets of South Beach after dark.
Says Police Department spokesman Thomas Hoolahan: “You’ve got to remember that when these old people retired here 15 years ago, police were instructed to stop any black person on the street and question him. That tells you how much things have changed.” Police still check
In one respect, things haven’t changed. Police frequently stop any Hispanic-looking person on the street, asking for identification. On a recent four-hour foot patrol, officers Cornelius O’Regan and Kevin D’Avignon stopped four Hispanics and one black for questioning. None was arrested.
“They looked out of place,” O’Regan explained.
Wilfredo Rosabal knows this. He is a Mariel refugee, and he agrees that some of his fellow exiles have committed crimes. But he says, and police agree, many of the worst have been put in jail, or have left, and the crime rate has dropped. But all it takes is one purse-snatching, and the fear fills the condos and retirement hotels.
Rosabal makes a meager living by working four hours a day at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but he is satisfied and wants to stay. Like many refugees, he finds South Beach more attractive than Hialeah or Liberty City.
“This is like my neighborhood in Cuba,” he says.”But the Jews don’t even talk to us. The police treat us badly, very badly. They humiliate us.”
Jose Rios is proud that he has never been stopped by police. While the 50-year-old Mariel refugee lives in the decaying Cambridge Hotel, he keeps his room spotless; he dresses in the gymwear garb of the Flamingo Park jock.
Rios spent 20 months in a Ft. Chaffee detention center, and was released after graduating from a 15-hour “Cross Cultural Orientation” class, where he was taught manners and “not throwing garbage in the street.”
Like most refugees, Rios, who recently lost his job as a cook when the restaurant in which he worked closed, says the elderly Jews shy away from him, clutching their purse when he passes. “It makes me sad,” he says, looking out his third-floor window at an all-Jewish apartment house.
Like many refugees, he keeps a picture on the wall of his mother, who has remained in Cuba. He treasures a postcard from her.
“Dear Son,” it says…I hope you welcome the New Year 1982 with much health, luck and spirit so that I can feel at ease. Happy year-end and a prosperous New Year, from your Mother.”
On the back, the card says in Spanish: “Made in USSR.”
For Rios, his monthly $119 government check has stopped. He can’t find work. He makes $3 a day washing cars. It has not been a propserous New Year on South Beach.
Rios is not unusual; jobs are hard to get even for longtime residents, nearly impossible for most refugees.
In the last six months, 1,300 Mariel refugees, all South Beach residents, have walked into the Minority Outreach employment office at the Sixth Street Community Center, which is headed by Cuban-born Hector Garcia.
Garcia, who arrived in the early 1960s, could place only 122 of the refugees in jobs; only 40 held them for more than a month. He doesn’t know what happened to the other 1,260. ‘They expect paradise
“I’ve begun to think only 20 per cent of these refugees want to work,” says the usually upbeat Garcia. “They’re different from when I came here. They expect paradise. I wonder how they eat and pay rent.”
At 2 a.m. the next morning, two young refugees sit outside the Shoreland Hotel and wonder just that.
Alberto Alvarez is saying: “There is work but you have to look for it.”
Rene Rodriguez argues: “Go to the unemployment office and try to get a job, go ahead.”
The men return to their $150-a-month rooms, which barely have room for a single-size bed and a dresser.
A block away is the Corsair, is the southernmost hotel on the Gold Coast.
The sleek green-and-white hotel next to Pier Park used to be owned by Juan Favole, a 1960s Cuba exile. He has seen the fear of prejudice of South Beach from both sides.
When the Mariel refugees wanted to check into his hotel in May 1980, he decided to shut down and sell out.
“I sold it because the refugees came,” says Favole, adding that he doesn’t think all refugees are bad, but that the worst ended up at the Corsair. “The Mariels, the great majority were thieves and murderers. I said, I’m closing.” New business fizzles
But Favole didn’t lose faith in South Beach. With some partners, he bought The Famous Restaurant, where for years elderly Jews had gone to linger over cabbage soup and a bottle of seltzer water. The original owner, Morris Lerner, sold out last year because he was ill and his business was dying. Favole thought he could resurrect it.
At first, the old customers returned. But soon they stopped coming. Al Gelfond, 71, a former bagel baker from New Jersey, was the typical customer with the typical explanation.
“Since when does a Cuban know how to make a corned beef sandwich?” asked Gelfond, who has decided to leave his 12-year residence on South Beach and move up the coast.
The Famous closed again in June. “Let’s face it,” Favole said, “the Jewish people with money have moved north and the rest of South Beach is on a fixed income. They didn’t take to us. I guess a Chinese restaurant has to be run by a Chinaman.”
Outside, two groups of young Cuban men walk by. “Gangs,” Favole says, spitting out the word. “It’s the pulse of this area. This should be a tourist resort, and in five seconds we’ve seen two gangs. I’m a 50-year-old man and I won’t wear a watch here.”
This stretch of Ocean Drive, from Fifth Street south to Biscayne Street, was once filled with retired Italians.
Today most of the Italians, like those at the Villa Luisa, have been replaced by Mariel refugees, many of them gays. Castro exiled a large homosexual community during the boatlift and many have concentrated on this block. Men dress as women
It is common to see striking young men stroll the street in woman’s clothes. A man wears a blouse and velvet tights. Another wears hot pants and pink lipstick. They go to the Tijuana Cat on Washington Avenue or The Turf Pub on Ocean Drive, a once-popular English-style restaurant that is now a self-described gay club.
This is a world frequented by Bruce Dailey, an American- born gay black man who lives at the Corsair.
“I’d say 85 per cent of the Cuban males down here are gay,” says the baby-faced Dailey, wearing a black bikini and oversized sombrero. “It’s a little world and the only way out is to go back to Cuba or go to the police, so it’s a dead end; they stay and hustle. A lot of them tell me it was taboo for them to be gay in Cuba; they had to pretend to be straight. So, now, they really go wild.
As Dailey speaks, a 1960s Cuban exile named Maria Santiesteban emerges from the nearby Co-op Beauty Shop on First Street. She has owned the small place for 15 years with her husband. “This used to be a gold mine before Mariel,” she says in Spanish, and Dailey doesn’t understand. “My business has gone down. All we get are blacks and queers.”
So it is in this neighborhood of transition and distrust, of blacks and whites, Cubans and Russians, Jews and Catholics.
It is the torn world seen daily by Police Inspector Ken Glassman, who grew up on South Beach and now commands the night shift. He is disillusioned by the inability of people — most of whom have been through revolutions and discrimination themselves — to get along. A babel of complaints
“In one night at Flamingo Park,” Glassman says, “I’ll get a call complaining about the young Cubans gathering together. Then I’ll get a call complaining about the young Russian cabdrivers. Everybody’s complaining about somebody. What I’ve learned is that people have a hard time accepting change. People are clannish. They like to be among their own. If they aren’t, then they’re threatened.”
Flamingo Park, a large swath of greenery and tennis courts that is typically filled with young Latin soccer players and old Jewish pinochle players, is now surrounded by the new residents of South Beach.
They are almost all lower-middle income, the remaining elderly Jews, the newly arrived Latin families. And there are elderly Cubans. Most of them left Havana in the early 1960s, went to work in Miami or New Jersey or New York, and have retired to Miami Beach in a pattern similar to old garment- factory Jews.
In 1976, Hispanics accounted for 17 per cent of the city’s public housing for the elderly. The trend is clear: Today, the figure has jumped to 55 per cent, making Hispanics a majority for the first time.
Likewise, the small hotels and apartments are quickly becoming mixed. Seven years ago, the 14 apartment houses now owned by real estate agent Phil Zipes had a 95 per cent Jewish clientele. Today, it is half Jewish, half Latin. Families move in
The new Flamingo Park neighborhood is a mixture of old Spanish-style and 1930s-era Art Deco buildings. It has about 20,000 rental apartments and is attractive to young Latin families for the same reasons it was attractive to old Jews: It has relatively low rent, nearby parks and shopping, and the beach.
“We like the area, we like the young families,” says Damien Burgos, 26, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic. His 13-year-old stepdaughter loves the park, the ocean and the friends who share her heritage.
While many Jewish and some longtime Cuban-owned businesses are moving out, some new businesses have taken their place. Typically, they are owned by young Latins. The most successful stores cater to the daily needs of local citizens, who have no cars and no nearby shopping centers.
The Sunshine Valet was owned for 20 years by transplanted New Yorker Benjamin Glickman, now 69. His customers, elderly Jews, slowly disappeared. He sold out to transplanted Paraguayan Edgar Tauber, 32. Tauber had looked all over Dade and Broward counties and bought on South Beach because “the rent here is 60 per cent less.” Today, Sunshine Valet’s 800-garment conveyor belt is filled with jackets from the young Latin clientele. “We are satisfied,” he says.
Virtually every store on this two-block strech of Washington Avenue, between Sixth Street and Eighth Street, has similarly transferred from old Jews to young Latins.Latins learn English
Their customers are the new South Beach residents, who are from South and Central America as frequently as they are from Cuba. A cross-section gathered recently at the Ida Fisher Community School to learn beginning English in a four-hour night class with teacher Tom Murray.
The class: seven Cubans, five Colombians, four Peruvians, three Nicaraguans, two Panamanians, two Hondurans, two Puerto Ricans, two Dominicans, one Salvadoran and one Argentine.
All 29 students say they left their homelands seeking better fortunes in America. Two have cars. Only eight have jobs. All want to learn English to get a better wage.
A few blocks away, the Primrose Hotel is virtually invisible in the three-story, neon-bathed anonymity of Collins Avenue. On the street, there are some Mariel refugees who live at the edge of South Beach, a drag queen on his way to the Tijuana Cat, four police cruisers, an alchoholic, and some young patrons of Dave’s Spanish and American Restaurant.
At the Primrose, three Russian refugees sit on the porch, watch the traffic and plan their move. Joe Klein, 86, and Louis Sadt, 84, have got it all worked out. As soon as their lease expires, they will move to another hotel where they are no Latins.
Inside, Felix Martinez, 44, a chef, says, “This is like a nice, big family in this hotel. We like the old Jews. We get along very well, very nice. We like living together by the beach.”
The three old Jews outside don’t hear him; they are too busy planning their departure. The four Cuban domino players nod and say how much they like South Beach and the elderly Jews.
The manager, Pujol Osvaldo, takes off a Jewish tape, The Best of Mirian Kressyn, and puts on a Latin tape, El Trio Epoca de Oro. The Golden Age Trio.
This story was originally published May 4, 2022 10:10 AM.