Many first-time visitors to Miami Beach are surprised to discover that the place is not an eponymous strip of golden strand, but a completely separate island. Tall and narrow, it lies off the coast of the South Florida mainland facing hard onto the Atlantic Ocean and leaving in its wake the calm waters of Biscayne Bay. Except for its northernmost tip, the island is blanketed by the neighbourhoods of North Beach, Middle Beach and South Beach which together make up the City of Miami Beach.
After clearing the land of mangrove swamp, the first bridge connecting Miami Beach to the mainland was completed in 1913. Two years later, the construction of Brown's Hotel near the southern tip ushered in a decade of prosperous tourism bolstered by wealthy industrialists from the north and Midwest who erected their gracious winter homes along its bucolic shoreline. But the great hurricane of September 1926, which wiped out virtually every standing structure, put paid to this flourishing boom.
Undaunted, Miami Beach soon reaffirmed its radiant reputation as a new influx of post-Depression investors began constructing mostly small-scale stucco hotels and rooming houses for seasonal rental. The US’s entry into WWII saw this newfound “Tropical Art Deco” district commandeered by the US Armed Forces and adapted to its need for both barracks and littoral training grounds.
Once peace was declared, the buildings of South Beach were returned to civilian use and, over the next ten years, Jewish retirees from the north began flocking to the area, augmented in 1959 by middle-class Cubans fleeing the Marxist revolution back home. All too soon though, the opulent hotels and apartment blocks being constructed in Middle Beach, as well as the establishment of resorts such as Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach further up the mainland coast, began sapping the upwardly mobile visitors and wealthier inhabitants, relegating South Beach to the island’s poorer denizens who were witness to its rapid deterioration. Crime arrived in force in 1980 as President Carter’s open-arms policy towards refugees from Cuba was manipulated by Castro – who used the opportunity to empty his jails and mental asylums – the detritus of the Mariel boatlift washing up in the island’s southernmost district.
This was the South Beach to which my two business partners and I travelled six years later, intent on cobbling together a quick and inexpensive editorial for Select Magazine. Yet this dusty and derelict resort, we perspicaciously grasped, was about to undergo its fourth revival in under seventy-five years – fuelled by the very industry in which we toiled.
The production of fashion catalogue shoots and advertising campaigns invariably requires certain intractable elements in order to be deemed financially viable, the most vital being good light, a plethora of location opportunities and cheap digs to accommodate the large teams. South Beach supplied all three in spades. The world of commercial photography had already become an irrefutable beacon for the smart-set in decreeing where the next global playground would be and, in 1986, it pointed its finger unwaveringly at South Beach. (As it had at Andalucía a decade earlier and would again, at the Cape of Good Hope, in the late-‘90s.)
A DECADE OF THE
by Johno du Plessis
Within eighteen months, the crumbling Century Hotel, built in 1938 by Henry Hohauser, was purchased and refurbished – at that stage one of only a handful of gussied-up edifices lining the beachfront on Ocean Drive. Ameliorated by the propaganda we were equipped, via the pages of our own publication, to foist upon the photographic and advertising industries in Europe and the US, the hotel quickly established itself as the Beach’s de rigeur destination for production teams flying in from far and wide. In 1989, the building alongside was acquired and tuned into the Century Restaurant (plus some extra suites); a little later one across the street which afforded direct access to the beach was leased and became the Century Beach Club, adding a further dozen-or-so rooms to the existing stable.
century beach club
During this period, South Beach managed to retain much of its sluggish backwater notoriety, particularly in the low-season months (which in those days spanned March through October) when it promptly reverted to its erstwhile somnolent and sun-dazed mood. But, over time, the assiduous restoration of one seafront hotel after another, the opening (and closing) of restaurants serving cuisines beyond those of the ubiquitous Cuban bodegas and Jewish delis lining Collins Avenue, the emergence of shops, bars and danceclubs catering to the glitterati who began flocking from the world’s colder climes for a twirl in the sunshine, the inauguration of model agencies, production companies, film-processing laboratories and the like to service the burgeoning photographic trade, sounded South Beach’s inexorable slide towards year-round gentrification.
That short span of years from 1986 to 1991 represents South Beach’s apogee. It was a place like no other on earth, a dumping ground for an eclectic melange of transported souls: moribund Jewish widows with deep tans and lilac hair; thuggish Marielitos manoeuvring their growling coupés through the quiet streets; pioneering arrivistes creating their little businesses and forging the area’s nascent rejuvenation; gaggles of models working fleetingly on some photo-shoot; AIDS-sufferers intent on living out their final days free of the stresses of city life; hipsters from New York all carapaced in black, looking like dung beetles in a tropical garden; down-and-outs who found the climate more sympathetic to a life without shelter.
Hotel tariffs began climbing and parking became increasingly problematic. The constant crowds made shooting on the beaches and pavements difficult for the photographic crews. Global fashion chains started opening outlets along Collins Avenue, sweeping all before them. The end of the century was, for us, the end of the Century too. We gladly sold the business on to those steely-eyed developers, panting in the wings, who could not wait to transform what had once been a truly unique resort into a disconsolate, Deco-ish Disney-by-the-Sea.
In March 1996 The Birdcage opened in cinemas across the US and though it featured Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the story’s main protagonists, the true star of the movie turned out to be South Beach itself. This exaggerated depiction of the sybaritic shenanigans taking place along Ocean Drive struck a chord with the lumpenproletariat, a prurient fascination that was firmly validated by Gianni Versace’s audacious murder on the steps of his beachfront villa three years later. The death knell had been rung and as the hoi-polloi began streaming in, determined to grab its share of the razzmatazz, South Beach steadily desquamated the eccentric cache it’d so diligently earned over the prior decade.