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Miami Vice Versa

Saving South Beach

By M. Barron Stofik

University Press of Florida, 336 pages, $27.95.

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Miami’s South Beach neighborhood is an urban icon. Bringing new meaning to the term multicultural, South Beach is one of the only places in the United States where a twenty-something can have morning coffee with Grandma and her bridge friends in an Art Deco Starbucks, sitting next to a drag queen, while Latin rap music thumps from a white SUV with silver spinning rims on the corner, fashion models stumble along still in their club clothes, tourists window shop with credit cards cocked, undercover cops keep everything in check, and the sun rises to full blare over the bright blue-green water and sandy ocean shore.

It wasn’t always this way, as M. Barron Stofik tells us in “Saving South Beach,” her new book about the neighborhood’s fall and rise. Past chair and president of the Dade (Miami) Heritage Trust, Stofik believes that by preserving the past, especially its Art Deco buildings, South Beach secured its future.

With apartment buildings and hotels in middle Miami restricted to “gentiles only” until the 1950s, Jewish retirees and “snowbirds” re-created the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the area below Lincoln Road. Living on pensions, Social Security stipends, and some savings, grocers, garment workers and grade-school teachers found places in South Beach that they could afford, warmed by ocean breezes and located near kosher markets, delicatessens and synagogues. But as discrimination in housing diminished, the more affluent Jews gravitated to hotels and condominiums farther up the beach. South Beach became “God’s waiting room,” with elderly working-class Jews subsisting in small apartments, equipped with hotplates, sitting by day on folding chairs on porches shielded from the sun, and then retreating to shabby lobbies to pass the time before they went to bed. In 1975, although 80% of the buildings were in good or excellent shape, the City Commission of Miami Beach declared the district south of Sixth Street “blighted.” Government condemnation, the mayor acknowledged, was the best way to consolidate enough real estate to attract major developers. In 1979, politicians reinforced South Beach’s reputation as a seaside slum by settling thousands of refugees from Fidel Castro’s Mariel Boatlift, including drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill, in vacant apartments and in hotel rooms.

By then, according to Stofik, the four-way struggle to “revitalize” the area — involving historic preservationists, developers, government officials and residents — was under way.

South Beach was undergoing a distinctive form of gentrification, a process familiar to such other historically Jewish neighborhoods as New York City’s Lower East Side and the Fairfax-Melrose District of Los Angeles. The forces at play are similar, as demographic change, progress and modernity battle old traditions and landmarks of the past. As Stofik shows in “Saving South Beach,” it’s a delicate mix that can work, though often with varied results.

Change was “inevitable,” Stofik suggests, and “corrective capitalists” held the trump cards for the “extreme make-over” of South Beach. Given a finite amount of desirable real estate, landmark structures were “worth more dead than alive.” Caught in the tug of war between developers and preservationists, elderly residents were left to fend for themselves. South Beach remains a work in progress, but Stofik concludes that it was “saved,” emerging in the 21st century as “SoBe”: a “walkable, human scale” district, “the hippest hangout on earth.”

Stofik gives much of the credit to two preservationists, one a purist and the other a pragmatist. Through the Miami Design Preservation League, the former, an ailing middle-aged widow named Barbara Baer Capitman, almost single-handedly kept up the pressure to create an Art Deco district in South Beach. The latter, Nancy Liebman, a former teacher and former chair of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board, viewed preservation as a tool “to improve a living city through guided capitalism.” The odds were stacked against the two women. Preservationists could not count on support from the masses, many of whom dismissed “Deco Schmeco.” Moreover, developers — and the municipal officials in bed with them — often circumvented “the meager controls for its new historic districts.” Guidelines did not regulate interiors; nor did they always prohibit demolition. The New Yorker and The Senator were among the splendid hotels that perished in the “battle between architectural integrity and the almighty dollar.”

The preservationists spun their wheels until they sold developers on the idea that historic districts enhanced economic revitalization. Not coincidentally, the Capitman and Liebman families made major investments in Art Deco hotels. Inevitably, Stofik implies, the original vision of an area redesigned primarily for older folks was supplanted by gentrification and by “the prospect of cafés and restaurants appealing to the young, the cosmopolitan, and the wealthy.” Along with Liebman, Stofik believes that the choice was half a loaf or none — and she applauds the league’s success in rescuing dozens of iconic buildings and entering almost half the district into the National Register of Historic Places.

The half-loaf, moreover, required a sensational, natural setting and some serendipity. In 1984, civic leaders, the chamber of commerce and travel agents warned that the television show “Miami Vice” would remind potential tourists of the city’s soaring murder rate. No one, not even the preservationists, foresaw that “Miami Vice” would become a megahit, focusing attention on, of all things, the area’s Art Deco architecture. Fashion photographers from around the world began flocking to South Beach for its luminous natural light, brilliant blue sky and spectacular scenery. When legendary designer Gianni Versace was murdered in front of his mansion, Casa Casuarina (once known as the Amsterdam Palace), the site became yet another popular tourist destination. And, Stofik implies, Michael Tilson Thomas brought the New World Symphony to South Beach because that’s where his patron — Israeli-born Carnival Cruise Lines founder and megaphilanthropist Ted Arison — wanted it based.

It took a village, then, to “save” South Beach (along with some significant compromises). Renovation, restoration and reuse, Stofik concludes, constitute the vanguard of sustainable design: “But that lesson is hard to learn.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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