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.