The Miami Beach portrayed in the new big-budget action film The Specialist is a city on the cutting edge of all that is trendy, fabulous and chic. Only a few years ago, Miami Beach was falling apart, with crackhouses lining the sidestreets, and with so many poor and elderly residents that it was called “God’s waiting room.”
Now, in a blockbuster movie, we see Sylvester Stallone dashing around on screen, stylishly blowing the place up. Southern Miami Beach, or South Beach’s undeniable chicness is partly due to a truly unique atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation. This is what first made the area attractive to a group that would be a driving force behind its rejuvenation: gay men.
“When you have an area of impoverished ethnic minorities, there’s less of a middle class morality to confront the influx of gays and lesbians,” says Eugene J. Patron, a columnist for TWN, a local gay newspaper.
“Everyone is essentially an outsider to the social and political mainstream.” Local residents, mainly elderly Jews and Mariel Boatlift Cubans, were indeed perfectly accepting when gays from New York, Philadelphia and other cities began to move in and renovate the city’s once grand art deco treasures.
“The early influx,” says Tim Barnum, President of the SoBe Business Guild, an organization of gay-owned or “gay friendly” businesses that has seen its ranks grow from 10 members three years ago to over 150 today, “was made up of gays who saw a style they liked here, that could be fixed up and changed. If the old City of Miami Beach had its way, this whole place,” he said, pointing to the sidewalk cafes and art galleries lining Lincoln Road Mall, “would be gone – flattened – with some high-rise buildings around the edges.”
The high-rise buildings were headed off at the pass when the Miami Design Preservation League succeeded in having the entire Deco District granted landmark protection by the federal government. The largest landmark area in the nation, the Deco District’s unique hotels and apartment buildings have now been renovated with a decidedly colorful flair; the facades painted with pastel pinks, blues and greens that make for a walk into the roaring 20’s or an unguided tour of the very best in American Kitsch, depending on your views.
Prices were such that people from New York, who would spend summer weekends at The Hamptons or Cherry Grove, Fire Island, saw the economic sense of buying or renting relatively inexpensive apartments in South Beach, in which they would spend winter weekends. “We had New Yorkers realizing that they could rent an apartment here for a year for what was two months’ rent in New York,” says Barnum. “So we got a lot of gay New Yorkers coming down to dance a couple of weekends a month.”
And with the cheapest beachfront property in a major metropolitan area in America, South Beach attracted a fledgling art and culture crowd. Younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by the recession, found cheaper studios and apartments, and an affluent, educated and art-conscious audience.
Then came the SoBe Boom. As South Beach began to be rediscovered by international fashion magazines, models started popping up everywhere. The beautiful people crowd had deemed the place to be “fabulous”. Hurricane Andrew, which devastated most of South Florida in the winter of 1992-1993, proved to be an economic boon to the Beach as displaced Floridians took up temporary residence here. And as more and more people began relocating, investment began to pour in as never before.
‘You feel the tolerance’
The result is a charming city with a sense of inclusion that is palpable at every turn. Like a large, accommodating restaurant, South Beach provides everyone with what they want without offending anyone else. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, Fabulous to pedestrian – the answer is “Why not?”
“You feel the tolerance here,” said a local resident, who moved to South Beach from Germany a year ago. “Somehow the people who live here have achieved what others fail to.”
One place this tolerance was apparent was at the opening of what is being billed as the nation’s largest gay-owned and operated resort, the 226-room Shore Club, which had a ribbon cutting ceremony on October 7. Like South Beach, this hotel doesn’t write off one group to accept another, as evidenced by some interesting demographics in the party attendees: there were as many small children running through the crowds as there were drag queens, and several elderly women were dancing up a storm outside the resort’s ‘Love Lounge.’
And as anyone walking down Lincoln Road Mall during a monthly “art gallery walk” can attest, anyplace where drag queens and body-building in-line skaters mingle with elderly Jews and young couples with children could hardly be called a “Gay City.”
“It certainly is not,” said Michael Aller, Miami Beach’s Tourism and Convention Coordinator. “At one time we had almost an absence of schools, and today we’re bursting at the seams!” The newly-built South Pointe Elementary school now has 700 students; Nautilus Middle School has 1,620 students, and North Beach Elementary’s more than 900 students have created the need to build an extension to handle increasing demand.
The Magic’s in The Mix
“The Magic’s In The Mix,” gushes a publicity kit from SoBe Business Guild. But it’s more than a throwaway tag line; “The Mix,” as some locals refer to it, is probably the city’s biggest asset and best attraction.
Maintaining this harmonious conglomeration of races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation is the new priority of community leaders on both sides of the political fence. Miami Beach’s City Commission in December 1992 passed unanimously an Equal Rights bill, protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And Unidad, an Hispanic political group which represents the sizable Hispanic community here, works closely with the Dade ActionPAC, the political arm of the local gay community – in fact, Unidad is actively seeking support from the gay and lesbian community here to aid in the political empowerment of the local Hispanic community.
Managing the Success
With successful gentrification, which is what’s happened here, displacement is inevitable.
“Whenever you’ve got this much investment and this many new people coming in, there’s got to be some displacement,” said SoBe Business Guild President Barnum, during an interview at a Lincoln Road Mall coffee house. “And the face of the beach is changing. This restaurant’s rent has gone from $1,500 a month a couple of years back to $6,000 a month today, and they’ll probably have to close soon.”
For many young people, both gay and not, Miami Beach had been a magnet because of low rents and ample employment opportunities. But with property values and rents rising 25% over the last year alone, those who once saw the Beach as a Mecca are now looking elsewhere.
Big money has discovered the beach, and the temptation to capitalize on a Disney-like scale may prove to be too much to turn down. German developer Thomas Kramer’s high-profile purchase of South Beach’s low-rent district known as South Pointe – and the subsequent displacement that the purchase caused – has alienated him from almost every local political group. Even his moneyed co-residents of the exclusive Star Island, just off South Beach, bitterly fought Kramer’s plans to build a Xanadu-like summer home there.
In addition, a controversial casino gambling proposal would bring a free-standing casino to South Pointe, which would affect all residents across the board. Proponents say that the casino would bring much-needed jobs to the community, while critics say that it would adversely affect the quality of life that South Beach’s residents have worked so hard to create.
But at least for today, South Beach’s “mix” seems to be healthy. At the opening of the Shore Club, which was formerly a hotel for Jewish retirees, two elderly women sat on folding chairs by the poolside, holding their purses and smiling. They were gently tapping their feet to the driving disco beat and watching the predominantly gay revelers dancing and watching an elaborate show featuring drag queens and a fireworks display.
“We’re all having a wonderful time,” said one, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. “It’s so nice to see all these people enjoying themselves.”