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."