South Beach, Miami is an iconic symbol of waterfront luxurious holidaying, surfing and sunbathing. South Beach is the most popular beach destination in USA and one of the most popular beach destinations in the whole world. South Beach was not always a hot spot like it is today. In its early days it was a marshy land full of mangrove trees with no easy access from land because of Biscayne bay between South Beach and mainland Miami. However, some of the early forefathers while developing this island for agriculture realized that the island had the potential to become a tourist hotspot. This essay will discuss the history of Miami Beach and over the years how it has changed to become what it is today.
The Prehistory of South Beach
The first people to live in South Florida were the Tequesta Indians. They lived in this area till 16thn century until the Spanish usurped it. In 1821, USA took the land from the Spanish and Florida officially became a part of USA (MBHA, 2013). Some people from Bahamas also settled in the region in the early 19th century. During the Civil War some Seminoles arrived with multitudes of slaves. The Bahamians who stayed in Florida became the first permanent residents and they formed the first community of South Florida. However, the main change came when a widow from Cleveland, Julia Tuttle, purchased a big chunk of land in the north bank of Miami River. She convinced Standard Oil owner Henry Flagler to bring the railroad to Miami. The railroad was expanded to Miami in 1896 (MBHA, 2013). The city of Miami was established in the same year.
The Original Purpose of the Island
Figure 1: When John Collins Arrived to Miami Beach (City of Miami Beach Website, 2013)
South Beach remained a marshy area till late 19th century. In 1870, Henry and Charles Lum of New Jersey purchased the South Beach Island at a price of $25c for coconut plantation (Stofik, 2012). However, till 1886 they never visited the island. They built a beach front house in 1886 and started coconut plantation. The venture failed and they left the Island in 1894. They sold the island to a fellow New Jersey businessman John Collins who came to the island in 1896 (Stofik, 2012). He surveyed the area and found it suitable for agriculture. He soon discovered the source of fresh water in the island and planned to do avocado farming there. The farming venture was successful as he was able to farm both avocado and coconut in the island. The main problem he was facing was that of transportation. Miami city was not easily accessible due to Biscayne Bay separating the island from the city and the bay was not very suitable at that time for water transportation. He still went ahead with his idea of farming. In 1903, to make matters easier the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Atlantic oceanfront for easy passage for ships. This somewhat helped Collins in running his business. However, the farming business was not lucrative enough in the South Beach area. In 1912, Miami businessmen, the Lummus brothers, bought 400 acres from Collins to develop the region as ocean front single family residences (Stofik, 2012).
Figure 2: Opening of the Collins Bridge-1913 (South Beach History, 2013)
Collins started constructing a bridge between Miami and South Beach to facilitate that plan. With the financial support received from some local residences, he started building the bridge but the construction work had to be stopped halfway through the completion as Collins ran short of money. Carl G. Fisher who was a successful millionaire at that time made millions from Presto-o-lite and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He helped Collins with a loan of $50,000 which helped him in the completion of the bridge in 1913 (Stofik, 2012). At that time it was the longest wooded bridge in the world, accelerating the development of South Beach.
What Changed, Why Changed and How it Changed?
Collins envisaged South Beach area as a prospective farmland and Lummus brothers later wanted to build it as a residential area for medium income people. Carl G Fisher understood the potential of the area as a great tourist destination. He soon influenced Collins and Lummus brothers with his idea. Joe Weiss, a Jew waiter from New York, first opened a restaurant in Miami South Beach then known as Joe’s which is now known as Joe’s Stone Crab. The restaurant offered great sea food. W.J. Brown Hotel was the first hotel built on South Beach. In order to lure more investments the roads were paved and made automobile friendly. On 1st January 1915, with consolidated efforts from Collins, Fisher and Lummus brothers the Town of Miami Beach was created. Lummus brothers sold a part of their beachfront property to the Miami Beach which was then made open to the public. Fisher connected the Miami Beach through his Miami Beach Railway Company.
Figure 3: First board of governors, Miami Beach Chamber of commerce (City of Miami Beach Website, 2013)
Because of the presence of an array of fantastic hotels and restaurants and a salubrious weather round the year, an economic boom started in South Beach in early 1920s with a slew of hotels and casinos opening in the island. Carl Fisher opened the first casino on the island in 1920 and in the same year Fisher also opened Roman Pools and Casino followed by the opening of the Flamingo Hotel (Stofik, 2012). As South Beach was turning into a popular tourist destination, the city council tried to utilize the boom by selling lands for residential and commercial construction. Coral Gables were the first residential lots sold. Between 1920 and 1926 the city spent about $100 million for the development of the area and sold the lands for more than $250 million (Stofik, 2012). During that time almost all the American business tycoons including Harvey Firestone, Harvey Stutz, J.C. Penny, Frank Seiberling, Albert Champion, and Rockwell LaGorce owned homes at Miami Beach. Furthermore, the then president Warren G. Harding by staying in Flamingo Hotel generated huge publicity and interest in the Miami Beach area (Stofik, 2012). Though Miami was then more of a residential and vacation destination for rich people; nevertheless, the basic foundation of the explosion of tourists in Miami for the next three decades was planted.
The Art Deco District
Art deco is an architectural style extremely popular during the early part of the century. Art Deco architectural style of construction used to be considered as extremely ultramodern. Many critiques do not consider it as extremely good architectural art form. In 1925 Art Deco made its debut in Paris in an engineering exposition. With its stylistic tone, exotic motifs of flora and fauna based on geometric patterns it made a quick impact on many markets. Miami Beach was certainly no exception. In fact Miami Beach is considered to have the maximum collection of Art Deco houses and hotels in the whole world (Frommers, 2013).
Figure 4: Nautilus Hotel-1929 (City of Miami Beach Website, 2013)
During 1920s, 30s and 40s, a new group of people, mostly Jewish, came to Miami. These people were mostly business minded and saw the potential of Miami as the tourist hotspot. These immigrants constructed many small but ultramodern hotels, mainly themed across Art Deco forms, along the Ocean Drive and Lower Collins Avenue. Roney Plaza Hotel was one of the first Art Deco hotels opened in Miami in 1926. In 1938, Hotel Crescent which was designed by Henry Hohauser on the ocean drive is an example of “Nautical Moderne” style (Frommers, 2013). Now renovated, this hotel is still operating with the same grandeur like old times. McAlpin, designed by L. Murray Dixon situated right next to Crescent is based on a typical Art deco design. Raleigh Hotel, another masterpiece from the 1940s, which was designed by L. Murray Dixon and situated on Collins Avenue, also depicts the Art Deco form in its design (Frommers, 2013). Greystone, another hotel from the 1930s era is a part of the Art Deco district. Presently it is not under operation. During 1920s, 30s and 40s hundreds of Art Deco designed small and big hotels dominated the South Beach which was unique in the world. Even during Great Depressing, Miami tourism kept its head high as a preferred tourist destination for Americans, Europeans as well as the Central American people. Pan American Airways shifted its base to Miami and launched several direct flights to all parts of the world, helping the tourism industry thrive in Miami (Frommers, 2013). During World War II the area saw a decline in tourists but that was compensated by the US army camps. More than 100,000 army and air force officers were trained in the greater Miami area and they often were accommodated in the Miami Beach hotels and residential areas. Many army personnel loved the place and after the war many settled in Miami Beach and greater Miami region. The population of the region almost doubled during 1950s. On the other hand, after the Second World War Miami could not revive its tourism industry and many of the hotels were shut down due to financial distress and lack of customers. The Art Deco district saw a huge decline in business and investment. Due to the lack of customers hotels started selling their rooms to retirees and veterans for staying. Most of the Ocean drive and Collins Avenue became a housing area serving a low income group. The revenue went down so much that many hotels could not afford to maintain the hotels. The Miami tourism witnessed a free fall in 1950s and South Beach became a home for retirees and war veterans.
Crime in South Beach: From Jaywalking to Murder
During its heydays in 1920s to 1940s, South beach ocean drive and lower Collins Avenue were great for jaywalking and night life. Miami Beach was a safe place to even walk in the night. But things changed after the Second World War. Especially in 1959 after Fidel Castro took over Cuba more than half a million Cubans poured into South Florida region. Many refugees even settled in Miami Beach region. Because of the inflow of a lot of people and lack of jobs crime rate quickly went high. Hotel business was already on a decline. The population increase made the situation worse. Many hotels became spots for underworld activity and many other became dilapidated. Once vibrant beachfront became a place where night walk was almost equivalent to committing suicide. The murder rate in the city went up in 1960s and 1970s. Murdering the old people and robbing their money was not uncommon during that time (Miami Archives, 2011).
Mariel Boatlift and Its Impact
Mariel Boatlift happened when Fidel Castro announced that people wishing to leave Cuba could do so. The announcement triggered a mass exodus from Cuba. Many people poured into South Florida. Although Mariel Boatlift in 1980 is often cited as the reason for huge Cuban population increase in the Miami Beach region but it happened for a prolonged period of time. Actually the infiltration happened from early 1960s to early 1980s (Miami Archives, 2011). Hundreds of thousands of Cubans settled in South Florida. Later it was discovered that during Mariel Boatlift Fidel Castro government actually deported criminals and undesired people to USA. These criminals landed in Florida and developed a murky underworld of criminal activity.
Most of the hotels and dilapidated houses which were no longer in use became the place for underworld operation. South Beach from a tourist hot spot in 1920s, 30s and 40s turned into a place of notoriety and criminal activity during 1970s and 1980s. Many historic Art Deco buildings were destroyed by the developers during that period. New Yorker Hotel which was a symbol of Art Deco district of South Beach was completely destroyed. At that time it was unthinkable that South Beach could ever rise again as a beach vacation capital of USA.
Crime and Times Magazine Report
The crime rate during 1970s and 1980s in South Beach was rampant. Times Magazine in 1981 came out with a front page feature on Miami called ‘Paradise Lost’ (Miami Archives, 2011). It also came up with another feature on South Beach in 1981 called ‘Trouble in Paradise’ in which details about how the place had become a place for criminals, prostitution and cocaine market were given. The cocaine market was controlled by Colombians and Cubans in Miami and South Beach. Even cops and entrepreneurs at that time were corrupt often working hand in hand with the criminals. Anglos dominated the marijuana trade with Cubans and Colombians dominating the cocaine trade (Miami Archives, 2011). Miami beaches had become a safe haven for ships to deliver marijuana, cocaine and heroin. One of the Cuban drug lords, El Padrino, always travelled in Rolls Royce (Miami Archives, 2011). Times magazine stated in its article “An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane. Those three forces, and a number of lesser ills, threaten to turn one of the nation’s most prosperous, congenial and naturally gorgeous regions into a paradise lost” (Miami Archives, 2011). In the 1980 report published by FBI on the top ten crime-ridden cities in US, three of the cities listed were from South Florida with Miami topping the chart (Miami Archives, 2011). The drug money that flowed through Florida at that time was estimated to be anywhere between $7 and $12 billion. It was also feared that Mexicans, Cubans and Colombians were making the whole place into their own territory in terms of language, culture and underworld activity.
Miami Vice and its Impact
Miami was a gateway for relaxation for the celebrities and rich businessmen during 1920s to 1940s but after World War II it lost its charm. Slowly it turned into a place for retirees and war veterans. The first time Miami came into the limelight after a long time was in 1970s when Jackie Gleason made a show focused on South Beach. Jackie Gleason actually taped his shows out of the South Beach auditorium (MDA, 2013). In 1983, a blockbuster movie named ‘Scarface’ was released which was based on the illicit drug activities of Miami South Beach. The movie, to a great extent, brought out the true picture of South Beach during that time. The main publicity, however, came from the television series Miami Vice. The show which was aired between 1983 to 1986-87 was based on the police crime stories (MDA, 2013). The backdrop was the underworld of Miami South Beach. It was an iconic serial in many ways. First of all, the style and fashion statement portrayed in the serial, especially for men, became very popular. The cars used in the serial were unique catching the attention of the viewers. The series was also synonymous with the 1980s pop culture and inspired many other police crime series of the 1990s and 2000s. The series had a huge influence on the South Beach city as well. It helped, to a large extent, in the revitalization of South Beach. The series created a huge interest among many, increasing tourism and investment in the region. Many of the hotels which were closed got a lease of life with fresh investments. Tourist inflow improved and with that South Beach embarked on a journey back to become one of world’s most popular beaches again.
South Beach Today
South Beach Architectural District which was formed in 1979 was responsible for protecting the Art Deco heritage hotels and buildings (VSBO, 2013). From the early part of 1980s, investment again started flowing in the direction of properties and hotels. Many even invested in heritage Art Deco Hotels and reconstructed them without changing the original Art Deco architectural style. In fact the Art Deco hotels are one of the most sought after by the visitors now. They appeal to the visitors more due to their retro theme of the 1920s and 1930s. The South Beach section of Miami Beach is the entertainment mecca during the day and also during the night time. Dotted with hundreds of restaurants, hotels, boutique stores and nightclubs with Ocean Drive known for its high end shopping places, this area is extremely popular among American and European tourists and the inflow of a large number of European tourists explains the monokini culture of South Beach (VSBO, 2013). South Beach is very diverse in terms of its population. Although majority of the population speaks Spanish, a substantial portion of the population speaks English, Portuguese, French, German, Russian, Italian, Yiddish and Hebrew (VSBO, 2013). One of the iconic symbols of the present day South Beach is its lifeguard towers. This colorful lifeguard towers was designed by Architect William Lane. During 1980s and 1990s the economic revitalization of South Beach was somewhat helped by the influx of gay and lesbian population. Many of these men and women bought the dilapidated Art Deco buildings and restored them. However, gay and lesbian population was harassed by the police till recently. In 2009 Miami Beach hosted the first Gay Parade festival which has turned into an annual affair now attracting thousands of people (VSBO, 2013). Another major factor which positively affected the growth of South Beach tourism industry is the Disneyworld. There are millions of tourists who visit Orlando every year from all across the globe and being very close to Orlando many of those visitors also visit Miami Beach.
Miami South Beach is one of the most admired tourist destinations in the world. Miami Beach island was once a marshland with mangrove forest. With the help of visionaries like John Collins, Lummus brothers and Carl Fisher the place became one of the popular tourist spots in 1920s. It was the most visited beach during the 1930s and 1940s in USA. However, after the Second World War the city slowly lost its charm. It became a place for retirees and war veterans. After Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, many Cubans migrated to South Beach region, triggering a period of underworld supremacy and drug activity in Miami. However, during 1970s and 1980s many popular TV series and Hollywood films highlighted Miami. This renewed the interest among tourist and investors about South Beach. Fresh investments started pouring in which helped the place bounce back from its dark days. The close proximity to Disneyland also helped South Beach in its revival.
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