Published: May 2009
By Tom Austin
Looking beyond the sizzle of South Beach, <b>Tom Austin</b> discovers new hot spots—and old friends—as he tours the wildly disparate neighborhoods of his ever-evolving hometown.
When I was a high school kid in the early seventies, I knew Miami as an insular, culture-free zone of jeeps, camping in the Everglades, scuba diving, waterskiing, and poking around Biscayne Bay in boats. The geography of my own history, in fact, can be traced in an hour or two on the water. The family house is handy to the Coral Gables Waterway; south Coconut Grove and my first apartment are a minute or two north, followed by the bridge to the island of Key Biscayne, scene of countless teenage beach bashes. Just south of downtown is Brickell Avenue, once the site of drug-money banks and still dotted with the seminal Miami Vice whimsies of Arquitectonica, palm trees, and Jacuzzis plopped in the middle of condos and such. The river, where I worked for my father at Miami Shipyards, begins amid the office towers of downtown.
That long idyll in the natural world—the city as cozy village—ended when I fell into the wonderland of 1980's a-go-go life as the social columnist for the Miami Herald, just when the old WASP power structure, largely based in Coral Gables, was losing its grip on the town. Suddenly, a lot of people, really rich people with a hunger for recognition and home dry-cleaning plants as big as the average apartment, were demanding my attention. Later, I began covering—for both the alternative weekly Miami New Times and the glossy magazine Ocean Drive—the rough-and-tumble frontier of South Beach, a new Nescafé society that included gangsters, models, Eurocreeps, drug addicts, drag queens, and celebrities gone wild.
Like many other Miamians, I left Coconut Grove in the early nineties, as the chain stores and theme restaurants moved in, and lit out for the fresh untainted territory of the Beach. Now, the same gentrification-run-amok scenario is happening all over again, though the fame and whirring pop of South Beach is still the engine that drives the rest of the city. Recently, the first wave of generic degeneracy and fast money has given way to a new era of sophistication. Next month, for example, the second installment of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair hits town. The city is changing before our eyes, and the changes go far beyond South Beach. Miami is now as much South American as it is North American, a blur of cultures that has frappéed itself into a new order of contemporary civilization, a place that's as fluid—socially speaking—as the water that surrounds it. All kinds of people have crossed my path over the past two decades of reporting, and each of them, in one way or another, embodies the very different neighborhoods that make up the elusive chimera that is Miami. As always, it all begins in South Beach.
Sixteen years ago, Michael Tilson Thomas, a former protégé of Leonard Bernstein's, jump-started an international training orchestra for conservatory graduates called the New World Symphony. Based in the Lincoln Theatre on the pedestrian mall of Lincoln Road, the symphony recently commissioned Frank Gehry to design a performance hall and a high-tech broadcasting center called Soundspace around the corner. Tilson Thomas, who is also the San Francisco Symphony's music director and the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony, has a worldly perspective on the town: "When you live here for a long time, you forget what a wonderful party South Beach has become—body-builders on their way to the gym or a pre-disco nap, Orthodox Jews, rollerbladers, drag queens promenading past traditional families. I also revel in the amusing discontinuity of these elite artists who perform with us—Pinchas Zuckerman, Sir Neville Marriner, Meredith Monk—stepping out afterward into this vibrant atmosphere. We've even had a few dance parties at Crobar."
Perhaps only in Miami would someone so impossibly cultivated take in a night of techno music, and South Beach is an even more fluid, madly mixed cauldron of humanity than the rest of the city. This is also a neighborhood lousy with lame tabloid publicity, endless sound bites of stupidity—fun, sun, Puff Daddy!—played out in the dark world of nightclubs. But the true celebrity in town is waterfront land, known as wet lots. Tilson Thomas is part of that Fame Aquacade, living on North Bay Road with his long-term companion, Joshua Robison, alongside neighbors made for the tabloids—Lenny Kravitz, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, among others. Up the road a bit is a supremely beautiful private house built by developer Carl Fisher, who created the first real estate boom with saucy bathing beauties, photo ops, and tabloid pioneer Walter Winchell. Since the 1920's, Miami's heat has been invented and reinvented countless times—but, of course, that doesn't make it any more or less real.
South Beach, a confectionary wonderland of Art Deco that went through a rough period of squalor and crime after the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980—an era when the local gas station kept roosters for cockfights—has grown beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ambitious developers. One of the pioneer hoteliers, Chris Blackwell, has put his properties up for sale, but the savvy Andre Balazs recently bought and is revamping the Raleigh and the Lido Spa. Jason Pomeranc's Sagamore Hotel has a first-rate art collection, and Ian Schrager's Delano and Shore Club are still the houses that boldface built, full of MTV fame and miles of models, the plankton of South Beach. For me, every square inch of this place is tied to memories of odd encounters and an accumulation of moments with assorted residents: lunch with cyber-gossip Matt Drudge at the News Café and parties with former New Yorker editor Bob Gottlieb; Nam June Paik by the pool of his modest Ocean Drive apartment; Rupert Everett flexing in a narcissistic trance over dinner at the Raleigh; Iggy Pop, the road warrior of rock, lurching into the movie theater on Lincoln Road with his six-foot-tall girlfriend. The town has lost some edginess, though it's still given to the bizarre: Cuban rafters landed recently near the old Gianni Versace house and promptly joined the endless party at the Clevelander.
As with most sprawling American cities, downtown is more an arena of ambition and finance than a place where the middle class lives, though that's beginning to change. It's flanked by Overtown, a collection of shotgun shacks created in 1910 for the black workers, mostly Bahamian, who built Miami. Somehow or other, the city's cultural efforts downtown—the Miami Heat's enormous, vaguely confrontational waterfront complex and another, neglected stadium a few blocks west; Bayside Marketplace, an outdoor mall; a new children's museum—are all supposed to revitalize Overtown. To that end, the city fathers have also given away 24-hour licenses to nightclubs close to all the high-culture outposts, and now that section of town has become a mutant strain of honky-tonk Kryptonite that handily beats out the ordinary 5 a.m. decadence of South Beach.
As it happens, Overtown was the center of nightlife long ago, with Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway playing the Sir John Hotel; in the fifties, black singers would perform at hotel showrooms on segregated Miami Beach and be forced to stay in Overtown hotels. To the north is Liberty City, a landscape as bleak as Mars, a neighborhood the boomtown mentality forgets—until the odd riot erupts. But even here, there are glimmers of hope: just past the Dark & Lovely Beauty Salon is the Bahamian Pot restaurant, where patrons hunker down over pork chop sandwiches and collard greens. Owner Trudy Ellis is a Bahamian transplant who arrived in Miami as a teenager, and says: "I don't forget where I came from, and I've come a long way."
Little Haiti is right next door, a blur of color out of Salvador Dalí, with huge, hyper-real faces painted on the sides of shops—Party Girl Wigs, Four Saisons Discount Store, Friendship Unisex Barber Shop. On 54th Street is the Haitian meeting point: Chef Creole, a take-out joint with oxtail, salted fish, and the best possible conch fritters.
This is the favorite restaurant of DJ Suicide, a.k.a. Jaques LaLanne, who came to Miami as a six-year-old boy in 1976, long before the era of boat people and detention camps on Krome Avenue. Over a plate of conch, Suicide points to a photograph of hip-hop star Wyclef Jean on the wall of fame: "Wyclef has really done a lot for helping other Haitians get over, and there's more pride now, like when I'm spinning at MVP and yell something out in Creole. It's not like back in the day when Haitians would get beat up for nothing."
After a late lunch, we wander over to a small strip mall, a primal world frequented by older Haitians. The Temple du Voodoo, painted with an all-seeing, vacant evil eye, has an adjacent operation, the St. Gerard Botanica. A GOD BLESS AMERICA sign is juxtaposed with sequin-covered wine bottles for rituals, candles for hopeful lovers, and a rich unearthly funk from all the herbs. Botanicas are as common as churches in Little Haiti, but everywhere we go, all-American hip-hop provides the sound track, a force of cultural assimilation that even manages to blend the great melting pot of Miami.
From the perspective of his one-bedroom boathouse at the dead end of Matheson Drive, Finlay Matheson can afford to laugh about the moral order of modern Key Biscayne: "Some of my nicest neighbors have had their houses seized by the government." The island is home to a motley assortment of white-collar criminals, exiled dictators, and the rest of what constitutes regional society, though such perfectly respectable people as Andy Garcia live a few houses down. The Matheson family's roots in Miami go back to the turn of the 20th century: they donated the green vastness of Key Biscayne's Crandon Park to the county, among other property. Just out the canal on his boat, Matheson can see the island off Key Biscayne where his great-grandfather kept a simple weekend retreat. It's now occupied by the take-no-prisoners fortress of some prominent Colombians, the biggest house in a neighborhood given to nouveau extravagance: one resident dresses up his staff to match his Christmas tree every year, colors coordinated.
Until recently, Matheson lived in the old boathouse, though he and his wife, Joanie, are now in the midst of building an adjacent one-bedroom home: a 4,000-pound engine from his collection of vintage steam engines and tractors will be on display in the living room. The new place is a lighthearted affair, though Matheson Drive is redolent of bleak history. Across the street, from a modest bungalow on Biscayne Bay, Richard Nixon plotted Watergate, with another bungalow and a helipad serving as command headquarters for the Secret Service. The agents' house was eventually sold and torn down, then replaced by a modern palace that was later acquired by Pablo Escobar's pilot, and, naturally, was also used by Al Pacino's character in the movie Scarface before being seized by the U.S. Marshals Service.
A short boat ride away is the terminally real bar Jimbo's Shrimp, beside a lagoon where Flipper, CSI: Miami, and countless fashion spreads have been shot. James Luznar, who once appeared in a Buffalo jeans ad with a model, opened the place in 1954 on city-owned land as a haven for shrimpers and whoever else might want to drop by. Over the years, the bar's cockeyed cartoon universe has grown to include a psychedelic, non-operational school bus, wild roosters, boccie ball courts, old drunken rednecks watching outdoor televisions, and a dog named Aussie that can fetch a beer out of an ice chest. To Matheson, it's heaven on earth: "This is my favorite place in town— Key Biscayne at its best."
Across town in south Coconut Grove, a lush and plush tropical neighborhood that clings to a determined charm, a wild peacock is strolling by a weathered turn-of-the-century plaque honoring William J. Matheson. Since then, the downtown Grove has become a romper room of pop-up architecture and depressing theme bars. But the circa-1916 Kampong—the mythic private estate we'd all sneak into at night as teenagers, beaching our boats for make-out sessions—is now a public National Tropical Botanical Garden. The architect Lester Pancoast had the good fortune to live in what he calls the Garden of Eden during the 1950's and early 60's: his wife, Hélène, is the granddaughter of botanist David Fairchild, who built the place. Pancoast's father, Russell T. Pancoast, was the founding architect of the Beach, and the younger Pancoast designed his own perfectly pitched Grove home in the sixties.
Strolling around the eight-acre Kampong compound, Pancoast points out the poinciana limbs that have crossed a driveway, rooted, and grown straight up again. This is the best of Coconut Grove, a natural wonder, and Pancoast can be forgiven a note of melancholic nostalgia: "I miss the intimacy of the old Grove, all the artists and eccentrics we knew."
At lunchtime, Cuban homeboy Adrian Castro, an Afro-Caribbean poet, herbalist, acupuncturist, occasional schoolteacher, and priest in the Santeria religion, is plucking the two chickens he killed this morning in his backyard: "After the ebo, the ritual, we eat what we kill." Castro is a babalawo, higher up the spiritual food chain than an ordinary santero, and he picks up extra money doing divinations for the troubled in his shrine room, which is equipped with fruit, cooked food, and other offerings. The tidy house with rows of books, a big television and a computer, the wife with a corporate job, and everything else about his suburban circumstances oozes the eerie ordinariness of Mondo Miami: a man who's been part of the art scene for years, making white-wine conversation like everyone else, turns out to be sacrificing chickens and other domestic animals in his yard.
A drive around Little Havana, which includes pockets of Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Panamanians, and just about everything else, tends to ratchet up the surreality. From the car, Castro points out the secret society of likely Santeria initiates, dressed entirely in white and wearing beaded bracelets. After buying some cigars on Flagler Street at Tabacos Maribel, a shop plastered with pictures of the owners' grown-up daughter and a poster (created of superimposed images) of Bill Clinton holding a gun to Elian Gonzalez's head, it's time to stock up at Botanica Nena. Among other items, the store sells dried fish heads for deity offerings, horsehair tails for shrine decorations, and various sculptures of Indian chiefs, slaves, and Moors.
From there, traveling with a lingering aroma of peach-scented jinx-removal spray, I drive past the Las Palmas motel with its little neon hearts, a Forever Liza show at Teatro de Bellas Artes, clattering dominoes at Maximo Gomez Park, the brimming-with-calories-and-jollity El Rey de las Fritas and King's Cream, specializing in coconut ice cream served in the shell. It's like being in the middle of a Hitchcock dream sequence made by Busby Berkeley.
Pressing against the Everglades, the fringes of Miami have become a roiling backwater of tract houses and strip malls, an ugly sprawl that rivals Los Angeles. But Coral Gables remains eminently civilized, and Mitchell Kaplan's Books & Books, housed in a 1926 Mediterranean-style building, has become the epicenter of the downtown Gables and the local literary scene. Kaplan is also the co-founder of this month's Miami Book Fair International. Originally a Miami Beach boy—he owns another Books & Books on Lincoln Road—Kaplan now lives the family-man life in the Gables and South Miami: "For me, this area is really about places like the Venetian Pool, which is a great meeting ground for the community—the kind of thing we've tried to do at the bookstore."
To Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, the enormous Biltmore Hotel is the fountainhead of a grand but pedestrian-friendly city: "In the twenties, George Merrick created beautiful public spaces, and the different exotic communities he built, such as Chinese Village"—a small cluster of themed houses on Riviera Drive—"are a prototype for New Urbanism, balancing the civic and private realms."
Plater-Zyberk and her husband, Andres Duany, were early partners in Arquitectonica before founding the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1992, a national advocacy group of architects, town planners, and environmentalists dedicated to fighting the great blob of suburbia. Their firm has designed more than 200 new and revitalized neighborhoods around the world, including Seaside, Florida, which was put to good use in The Truman Show. These days, Plater-Zyberk finds herself in a City Beautiful that is at risk of being squandered: "Coral Gables is still one of the most beautiful towns in America. If only we could elevate the rest of Miami, make some of these more ebullient expressions of 21st-century architecture take a silver bullet."
Micky Wolfson's apartment at the Palm Bay Club is a few blocks north of downtown Miami and just across the bay from his old stomping grounds in South Beach. "I had hoped to live in quiet exile here and reinvent myself, but I find myself pursued by youth and fashion," he says, laughing. Wolfson's credentials as a prodigal native son are impeccable. The downtown campus of Miami-Dade Community College was named after his father, a co-founder of the media conglomerate Wometco; Ricky Martin now lives in the old family mansion on North Bay Road.
After inheriting a chunk of the family fortune in the mid eighties, Wolfson lived like the Duke of Miami Beach in his ancestral house, and built a museum in South Beach—the Wolfsonian—for his art collection. Lately, Wolfson is "ferreting out the next great place" off his stretch of Biscayne Boulevard. Though still the haunt of prostitutes and last-chance motels like the Stardust, the boulevard has been turning a new trick or two lately. Jim Clark of Netscape is a partner in a waterfront condo. The Upper East Side—a loose concept that includes the Wynwood arts district and the design district—has been tarted up with lounges, galleries, gay bookstores, self-conscious restaurants, and the inevitable Starbucks. "Like everyone else," says Wolfson wryly, "I've been threatened by the revolution of chic in this neighborhood."
As the sun sets over a frontier city and the nightly dance of light begins on the great buildings of downtown, it's sweet-home Miami once again. And Wolfson, as usual, is right on the mark: "No matter what you do, Miami keeps shifting faster and faster. There is no future here—we're all in the future now."
Miami is served by its own international airport; Fort Lauderdale's airport is a 40-minute drive away. November is the beginning of high season, and advance reservations—particularly on South Beach—are advisable.
WHERE TO STAY
Biltmore Hotel A four-star, four-diamond, National Historic Landmark property, gracefully dominating the skyline since 1926. DOUBLES FROM $259. 1200 ANASTASIA AVE., CORAL GABLES; 800/727-1926 OR 305/445-1926; www.biltmorehotel.com
Delano Nothing quite beats the Delano, either for aesthetics or celeb encounters—where else can you find yourself talking with Lou Reed by the pool?DOUBLES FROM $325. 1685 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 954/252-3416.
The Raleigh The hotel where modern South Beach began is now being recalibrated for the chic by the Mercer's Andre Balazs. DOUBLES FROM $275. 1775 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 800/848-1775 OR 305/534-6300; www.raleighhotel.com
Sagamore Hotel A stunning all-suite property, the Sagamore has an amazing contemporary art collection and cutting-edge furniture. Massimo Vitali's Pic Nic Allee, in the lobby, sets just the right note of fun and sun. DOUBLES FROM $275. 1671 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 305/535-8088; www.thompsonhotels.com
Shore Club Ian Schrager has fabulous-ized the place beyond reckoning, with Nobu, Ago, and the Sky Bar making the hotel a major social scene. DOUBLES FROM $325. 1901 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 877/640-9500 OR 305/695-3100; www.shoreclub.com
WHERE TO EAT
Bahamian Pot Open during the day only, and specializing in conch. LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 1413 N.W. 54TH ST., MIAMI; 305/693-5053
Café 71 The best of the Upper East Side hipster palaces; nicely rendered lamb chops and a sympathetic atmosphere. DINNER FOR TWO $60. 7100 BISCAYNE BLVD., MIAMI; 305/756-7100
Casa Tua This season's hot new date restaurant: a beautiful garden and perfect tuna tartare, but a bit of an attitude problem. DINNER FOR TWO $180. 1700 JAMES AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 305/673-1010
Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market Nothing quite beats a simple fresh fish sandwich, served right on the Miami River. LUNCH FOR TWO $38. 398 N.W. NORTH RIVER DR., MIAMI; 305/375-0765
Jimbo's Shrimp One of the best down-home beer joints/shrimper hangouts in America, open during daylight hours. LUNCH FOR TWO $16. VIRGINIA KEY BEACH, KEY BISCAYNE; 305/361-7026; www.jimbosplace.com
SushiSamba Dromo A blend of Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian cuisines, with stylish sushi—the toro is first-rate—and plenty of people-watching opportunities. DINNER FOR TWO $70. 600 LINCOLN RD., MIAMI BEACH; 305/673-5337
Hoy Como Ayer The regular turf of Albita and the place for Cuban music. ADMISSION PRICE VARIES. 2212 S.W. EIGHTH ST., MIAMI; 305/541-2631
WHAT TO DO
Fairchild Tropical Garden An institution of lushness since 1938, dotted with lagoons and named after botanist-explorer David Fairchild. ADMISSION $10. 10901 OLD CUTLER RD., CORAL GABLES; 305/667-1651; www.fairchildgarden.org
Kampong of the National Tropical Botanical Garden David Fairchild's 1916 home, an Oriental-themed whimsy with a collection of exotic plants, is the old Grove as it should be. Open for tours and by appointment. ADMISSION $10. 4013 DOUGLAS RD., MIAMI; 305/442-7169; www.ntbg.org
Venetian Pool A 1920's wonder, carved in coral rock, that never changes. ADMISSION $6. 2701 DE SOTO BLVD., CORAL GABLES; 305/460-5306 or 305/460-5357; www.venetianpool.com
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens James Deering's grand 1916 Italian villa is still the house to see in Miami. ADMISSION $10. 3251 S. MIAMI AVE., MIAMI; 305/250-9133; www.vizcayamuseum.com
The Wolfsonian Founded by collector Micky Wolfson, a museum of decorative and propaganda art. ADMISSION $5. 1001 WASHINGTON AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 305/531-1001; www.wolfsonian.org
Books & Books Mitchell Kaplan's center for the city's literary life. 265 ARAGON AVE., CORAL GABLES; 305/442-4408
Botanica Nena One-stop shopping for all your Santeria needs. 902 N.W. 27TH AVE., MIAMI; 305/649-8078
Genius Jones Owned by Daniel Kron and Geane Brito, this design store for hip children and adults features Keith Haring toys, Karim Rashid plastic chairs, clothing, and high-tech strollers. 1661 MICHIGAN AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 305/534-7622