MIAMI - Twenty years ago, South Beach was a tired seaside village best known for Scarface drug deals and flocks of retired people rocking on the front porches of decrepit hotels.
But a fight to save the old buildings helped fuel a renaissance. Preservationists, artists, photographers, designers, performers and other avant-garde types smitten with the promise of a forgotten, but architecturally unique, corner of America joined forces to turn the place around. By 1987, a handful of funky restaurants, clubs and refurbished hotels began to draw cool crowds.
Today, South Beach has evolved from a Bohemian playground where one could have dinner and drinks for $7 to a world-class tourism hot spot where a Kobe burger costs $30 and a top-shelf cocktail is about $20.
The small-town edginess is history. But now the place boasts financial and cultural maturity. Money has brought more money. Fame more fame.
Each December, South Beach hosts North America's most important contemporary-art fair. Art Basel Miami Beach has helped deepen the local art scene as more and more galleries, like France's Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, and private museums, like the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, pop up on the mainland to cater to the international art community that now descends annually.
Basel has turned its international high-roller following sweet on buying into the glamorous new condo towers shadowing the Art Deco district, where units can set you back between $3 million and $20 million. The South Beach Wine & Food Festival every February lures culinary superstars, from the Food Network's Rachael Ray to avant-garde Spanish chef Ferran Adria, and highlights a maturing local restaurant scene.
There's a growing roster of upscale hotels, with the W, the Mondrian and the Gansevoort slated to join the Setai, the Ritz-Carlton, the Regent and others that make $600 rooms commonplace.
And, in the works, superstar architecture: Toward the east end of Lincoln Road, a new Frank Gehry-designed rehearsal/performance space for the New World Symphony, a world-class training orchestra born in Miami Beach in 1987. Near the west end, a sculptural parking garage by the cutting-edge duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Switzerland. And at 16th and Drexel, a residential/commercial project by Mexico's Enrique Norten.
Factoring even economic ups and downs, it seems clear that South Beach now has a foothold as a cosmopolitan, cultural mecca. High-stakes art, architecture and artifice define things today. But there was simpler magic at play when the revival began.
"The energy was palpable. There's something about seeing the potential of a place and being part of creating it," said South Beach pioneer Louis Canales, who moved down from New York in 1986 and promoted many of the early nightclubs. He helped lure his New York fashion friends and several magazine writers and editors, who went home and heralded "America's New Riviera."
"Back then, South Beach was not about things," Canales said. "It was about ideas."
It was the Beach that fueled the ideas of Carlos Betancourt, then a struggling artist with a $300-a-month studio. Today, his works reside in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
"Things were very underground," Betancourt said. "There were so many artists. We were all so immersed in our work, in Art Deco preservation."
In 1983, as a high school student, he volunteered with Christo's Surrounded Islands project, which turned Biscayne Bay into a string of giant pink lily pads and put the place in the international spotlight at a time when cocaine cowboys and their bloodbaths were the area's biggest showstopper.
"We found out Christo was staying at the Leslie Hotel, and a bunch of us went to see where this hotel was," Betancourt said. "It was my introduction to Ocean Drive. I was mesmerized."
As with most other gentrification movements around the country, artists seeking cheap studio space and a creative community moved in first. Painters, sculptors and performance artists mixed with a surging gay community, droves of drag queens, and club kids who went out in eye-popping costumes. The atmosphere turned electric.
In 1984, the Art Center/South Florida helped spark life on Lincoln Road - then a down-an-out pedestrian mall featuring dusty wig and girdle shops - with the establishment of an artists' colony in 21 storefronts (the center is still there, in three buildings that hold galleries, offices and more than 46 studios).
"The artists helped turn around South Beach," said art collector Richard Shack, who in the early 1990s was chair of the Art Center. "Before the artists took over some of those empty art spaces on Lincoln Road, you didn't go there. It was a scary space. But once the artists were there, people started walking down the Road."
The Art Center had the foresight to purchase some of the buildings it occupied while they were still affordable, which is how it has survived after scores of independent artists and galleries were pushed off the Beach by soaring real-estate prices.
"We had bought 1035 Lincoln Road for about $300,000 in the 1980s," Shack said. "In the 1990s, we sold it for $3.8 million to what is now Pottery Barn (and Williams-Sonoma). That money we used to redo our other spaces."
"Miami Vice" debuted the same year as the Art Center, and it delivered the fresh version of Deco to the living rooms of middle America and the world. None of the changes could have happened without the Miami Design Preservation League, which had been fighting since the mid-1970s to preserve the decaying hotels that had popped up in Miami Beach toward the end of the Depression to give snowbirds cheap places to stay.
In 1979, led by Barbara Capitman, the league got the district and its inventory of Tropical Deco buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982, league co-founder Leonard Horowitz got a grant to paint a shabby block of Washington Avenue. Out went the beiges; in came the pinks and lemons and blues.
"It all started with Barbara Capitman walking around Miami Beach and thinking that it should be revisited as a historic district," said Dennis Wilhelm, a preservationist who joined her fight. `But the buildings were barely 50 years old, so people were saying, `How can you call that historic?' Getting her point across was the major accomplishment of Barbara Capitman."
Out-of-towners started to buy up real estate - from weekend crash pads to buildings to whole blocks.
"I was buying like a drunk," said developer Tony Goldman, credited with turning Manhattan's SoHo around in the late 1970s and then with helping to reinvent the Beach.
"I first saw it in 1985," Goldman said. "There was a lot of poverty and desperation in the air. But I bought a building a month for the next year or so. I bought 18 properties." They included the Park Central Hotel, the Tiffany and the building that in 1988 became home to the landmark News Cafe.
"On Ocean Drive," Goldman said, "the vision was a promenade for cafe life. Those of us who were working on it were very clear we had to keep the Gap out. This couldn't be any old street anywhere in the country."
As Deco buildings created a sherbet rainbow, the fashion industry grew, drawn by fresh backdrops, the crystalline winter light and cheap hotel rates. By the early 1990s, the fauna had become intimidatingly gorgeous. Eight major modeling agencies had established Beach branches, and thousands of models were posing for cameras by day and draping nightclub sofas in newly invented VIP rooms by night.
"In those days, the permitting (for photo shoots) was very liberal," said Bruce Orosz, head of ACT Productions, a print and video production company that opened in 1983 and rode the wave of international fashion catalogues and superstar photographers - Bruce Weber, Annie Liebovitz, Patrick Demarchelier - elbowing one another for picturesque corners.
"Anywhere you went, there could be 15 or 20 photo teams fighting for spots," Orosz said. "Up and down Ocean Drive, on the beach itself, in funky alleys. The fashion industry fell in love with the place, with the colors, with the dynamics. They all wanted to be part of the scene."
The celebs wanted to make the scene, too. Some, like Madonna and Gianni Versace, came early to frolic off the radar in a sexy, subtropical vacation spot that was still an inside secret.
"I remember Gianni would invite us over for tea, and it would be Elton John, Sting, Cindy Crawford, Madonna," said Ingrid Casares, who in those days gained the "Madonna gal pal" tag. "We would all walk to News Cafe and sit to organize our night out. Then we'd walk to Warsaw (Ballroom) or wherever, and nobody bothered anybody. There was no paparazzi yet."
By 1995, when Chris Paciello and Casares opened Liquid above an unglamorous Payless ShoeSource at 14th and Washington, the stars had the run of the town. Stallone, Cher and Oprah all had pads here.
In 2000, Paciello pleaded guilty to charges of robbery, racketeering and murder for his involvement in the 1993 home invasion that left a Staten Island housewife dead. His plea came after police caught him on tape saying he wanted club competitor Gerry Kelly sleeping with the fishes. Paciello received a seven-year sentence and, according to South Beach friends, is now living in Los Angeles.
Today, celebs like Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Vin Diesel are flown in, put up and promised a red-carpet flashfest at some of the top spots. As the nightlife grew sleeker, and more and more celebrities increased the gawk factor - they were coming to play, buy houses, record CDs at local studios and tape music videos by the surf - tourism multiplied, everybody looking to be part of the sexy, high-octane mix they were reading about in glossies from middle America to South America to Europe.
The hotels became as polished as the celebrities themselves. In 1995, the redo of the Delano, the Ian Schrager hotel at Collins and 17th with its Philippe Starck interiors, became the benchmark for cool and triggered a host of copycats working the white-on-white aesthetic.
Then, in 1998, the 800-room Loews opened at Collins and 16th. The Beach's first major new hotel in 30 years, it started to draw deep-pockets convention crowds. In 1987, there were 6.7 million visitors to Miami Beach and the mainland; in 2007, twice as many.
"When we survey visitors, more than two-thirds put the Art Deco district at the top of their list of places they visited," said Rolando Aedo, vice president of marketing for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "There's no question about the role South Beach has played."
But along the way, there were difficult times. Versace's murder on the steps of his Ocean Drive palazzo 10 years ago cast a dark shadow over what until then had been seen as a carefree paradise. Versace had blithely partied, strolling to News Cafe for the Italian newspapers, hosting famous friends at his Medusa-filled mansion.
After his death, Madonna and Stallone sold their Miami mansions and bolted. About the same time, the models decamped because of escalating room rates and stricter production rules. Tourism stalled after Sept. 11, sending room rates at posh hotels like the newly opened Shore Club plummeting to $100 a night.
The modeling industry never returned to its heyday, but the stars keep coming - and buying flashy homes - among them Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Diddy. MTV twice hosted its annual Video Music Awards in Miami, bringing scores of stars and their followers for seemingly endless days of partying.
Today, the South Beach skyline is cluttered with building cranes as more and more multimillion-dollar condos go up. Scoring a parking space is increasingly frustrating, and Lincoln Road keeps raising its rents and forcing out even such landmarks as Pacific Time, the first upscale eatery on the Road, which recently closed after a 14-year run.
Some naysayers fear that the Beach is blown out, that the proliferating condohotels will tank in a questionable real-estate market, that there's nowhere to go but down.
But, at least for now, the party is still on. The Gehry-designed music hall, which can only help the cultural scene mature, is a go, thanks to a recent $90 million gift from an anonymous donor. And the big-money investors are still banking on the Beach.
"We just had our best year ever at China Grill," said New York-based restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, whose 250-seat China Grill became the first big build-out restaurant in Miami Beach in 1995.
Chodorow, who grew up in Miami Beach and also owns Tuscan Steak, Social Miami and The Blue Door at the Delano, said he plans to open new restaurants in the Mondrian and Gansevoort.
"The Blue Door breaks records every year," he said. "We do phenomenally well in Miami Beach. In Los Angeles, people complain when parking goes up to $8, and they have to wait 10 minutes for their car. Here, parking is $30, and you have to wait 45 minutes for your car. But it's amazing what people will put up with here. Because it's Miami Beach."
And Miami Beach is still ground zero for trendiness, which makes it perfect for high-end branding. At Art Basel last year, vodka makers, condo-hotels and clothing chains attached themselves to glitzy art-related parties that cost into the tens of thousands.
Slated to open within the next three months on Lincoln Road in the space recently vacated by the bankrupt Cafeteria restaurant is a Guess store. It joins a proliferation of other chains - Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Apple, Victoria's Secret and three Starbucks - that have opened outposts on Lincoln Road. They're there as much for the branding as for the bucks.
"The big stores are on the Road not so much because they do great numbers in terms of sales. People do more shopping at a regular mall," said commercial broker Lyle Chariff, who sealed the Guess deal. "(But) it's very important for them to have a presence here. ... South Beach for those retailers is just a trendsetting town where you have to be."
But can the artsy magic of the past ever be recaptured?
"That's totally lost," said preservationist Wilhelm, archivist for architectural firm Arquitectonica. "The only place we have felt this again is in Shanghai. We were recently there, ... and it felt like South Beach in 1986. There is a small group opening restaurants and clubs, and it's all happening around the preservation of these great buildings from the `20s and `30s. There is this artistic energy. Just like South Beach back in the `80s, when there was no pretension or discrimination. If you were into the architecture and art, you fit right in.
"Now you have to be on the list."