A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

Escape From New York

Why More and More Manhattanites Are Moving to South Beach

On a recent visit to New York, we wandered over to Bloomingdale’s and ran into friends we hadn’t seen in months. Donna is a soap-opera head writer, and Michael, her husband, produces one of New York’s highest-rated morning radio shows. With a large Manhattan apartment and a home in the Hamptons, they are quintessential New Yorkers. After a few air kisses (tres chic), the conversation changed from “nice to see you” to South Beach.

“We have decided you have the right idea,” Donna said. “I can’t take these winters any longer.”

‘We’re close to putting our apartment on the market,” Mike chimed in. “Donna can write from anywhere, and I might start a radio station. South Beach is hot. It could be home for us.”

Donna and Mike were the first of a wave of friends we encountered during our two weeks who were thinking of relocating to our urban beach. “If I could get the same job there,” was a common refrain, “I’d move tomorrow.” We have an unabashed love affair with South Beach. But the enthusiasm of our New York friends had inadvertently given us this month’s chatter. What is it about South Beach that is a magnet to New Yorkers?

We lived in New York for years and know firsthand that The New York Times is the final arbiter of “cool.” “Every year-or is it every three months?-there seems to be a rebirth of Miami Beach,” the paper commented this past January. The Times should know. In 1982 it said, “In decaying South Beach, the elderly huddle in frailty and fear.” Eight years later it was “SoHo with a suntan and the Hamptons with better weather.” It took another two to declare we were overexposed and ask, “Why won’t South Beach go away?” By 2000, the Times had thumbs up: “For years people have been predicting the demise of South Beach, but like a tech stock that keeps rising despite the experts’ warnings, the scene there has climbed to new heights.” A year later, in 2001, it flipped and announced it was again over: “This fall the scene has evaporated. The jets are half empty, and many of the hotels are struggling to stay alive.” In 2002, it continued the “party is over” theme: “Who needs South Beach?” it asked in an article about an exodus of hip to Fort Lauderdale (yes, even the Times can get a story that wrong). In 2003, the Times again changed its mind. “South Beach-from hot to cold and back to hot again….For the past few years, the word has gone out among the fashionable set: South Beach is so over….But the hipsters are returning and the ‘new’ South Beach may, in fact, be South Beach itself.”

So with the imprimatur of the Times, New Yorkers who haven’t been here in years are intrigued with exploring it. It is little wonder that the construction crane is now as ubiquitous locally as palm trees. Many moving here are like Donna and Mike, young professionals bringing a Manhattan energy and vitality. This is not your parents’ “retiring to Florida” crowd.

Part of the allure is that while South Beach is a tropical vacation oasis, it also has a decidedly urban quality. There are not many towns where you can get a delicious meal at a packed restaurant after midnight and then spend the rest of the night at jammed clubs and bars. That the city runs 24/7 is a big appeal to New Yorkers accustomed to an around-the-clock lifestyle. “It’s sort of like a mini Manhattan,” Brian Bell, an executive at Tommy Hilfiger, told us. “You don’t have to own a car. I can walk everywhere. And I get to have the beach and better weather.”

Ah, the weather. New York winters are drab, miserable and long. Trust us. We speak from years of frozen experience. “More and more people and friends in New York are taking second homes here,” says Stacy Pisone, owner of Cafeteria on Lincoln Road. “When I first started to come down 12 years ago, I wanted a little break from the long winters. It’s the same time as getting to the Hamptons, about two and a half hours, and the weather is better than New York’s nine months of the year. In a couple of hours you’re in 82 degrees instead of 20.”

But not everyone is driven by the weather. Nine- time Tony Award-winning choreographer and Broadway performer Tommy Tune doesn’t mind New York’s winters. Tune grew up in “the swamps of Houston,” and when he moved to Manhattan he fell in love with the seasons. it was not a problem for me,” he says.

He first visited Miami Beach 20 years ago, and when he walked around the beach and Ocean Drive, “I marveled at all these multicolored buildings, with these old people sitting on terraces looking out at the palm trees and a gorgeous ocean. A few years later I came back and suddenly it was wall-to-wall young people with great bodies. What happened to the geezers?”

What happened was that pioneering New Yorkers such as real- estate developer Tony Goldman had arrived and seen the potential. ‘When I came to South Beach in 1984, I was not the least intimidated by the crack dealers or the rough street scene,” recalls Goldman. “I have been in burly neighborhoods, and know how to handle myself. Despite the half-boarded-up buildings, I thought, This is the Riviera. Let’s go. I tried to buy everything I could. This was a home run. I knew it couldn’t miss as long as you could hang on. It was King Solomon’s abandoned mines waiting to be discovered again.”

What Tune had returned to was the beginning of the renewal that Goldman and others sparked. “And I’m convinced,” says Goldman, “that it took a Northeastern vision, a hardened New Yorker’s perspective, to create a pedestrian-based urban beach.”

Tune was then hooked on what he calls the “magic of South Beach.” He bought his apartment sight unseen a few years later. “I’m a New Yorker, so I don’t drive,” he says. “Where else can I be car-free but South Beach?” And he relishes its diversity, the same as he finds in New York. “It is hugely important. I sit on my terrace and hear every language in the world, and there is a shower off the beach with a cross section of the world passing there. Everyone is so happy. It’s a regularly changing show, a feast for the eyes.” Goldman agrees: “From the beginning, my dream was streets filled with a multicultural, multiethnic mix-gay, straight, black, white, old, young. The more textural it is, the more interesting it is. It is truly American, but is also such an international draw.” The same description could also fit New York’s street scenes.

It also doesn’t hurt for trend seekers that the fashion gods have finally erased New Yorkers’ images of South Beach as cheesy T-shirts and flip-flops. While locals have known that stores like Base provide forward fashion, New Yorkers sometimes are more comfortable with familiar names. And it’s not just the early arrivals such as Armani, Versace and Diesel, but also newer stores like cult favorite Kiehl’s skincare, Von Dutch, Scoop and the soon-to-be BCBG on Lincoln Road. Barneys Coop has been called a “mini-me” of fashion, and their Collins Avenue store was their first stand-alone Coop outside New York

While some Beach old-timers bemoan the loss of local individuality, to New Yorkers these stores are indispensable. Gyms such as Crunch and soon-to-open Equinox add to the mix. So do restaurants from Smith & Wollensky and Joe Allen to China Grill, Nobu, Cafeteria and. Bond Street.

“It seemed more of our New York customers were going to South Beach than to any other spot,” says Cafeteria’s Pisone. “It was just natural for us. So many of our Chelsea customers kept asking, ‘When are you going to open in South Beach?”

For Pisone, the overlap with New York’s better restaurants and boutiques is a big plus. “I have gotten older,” she says, “as have my friends. We don’t do the clubs anymore. Instead, it’s fun restaurants and hotels. Everyone enjoys Skybar and the Raleigh, and Nikki Beach can be a lot of fun. They are unique. To go to a bar under the stars is still pretty great.”

Joey Goldman, who is spearheading a redevelopment of Miami’s Wynwood district much as his father did two decades ago with South Beach, lives on the Beach. Raised in New York, he agrees that “South Beach has grown up. It’s not just about nightclubs now. There is simply no other place I would rather live. You have the great making of a real city, with super restaurants and more sophistication, all mixed together with one of the best beaches anywhere. And the real-estate prices are still better than Manhattan’s by a wide margin. What’s not to like? For a New Yorker, it’s like being on a constant vacation.”

Barton G., one of Miami’s most successful event planners as well as the owner of a celebrity-popular restaurant (Barton G.), had to choose between Los Angeles and Miami when he decided to move from New York, where he had been raised. “I knew I was ready for a change,” he recalls. “So I visited Miami, it had this great backdrop of the ocean, the weather, the local culture, and I hadn’t known anything about it. It was great. Then I went to L.A., and to me it was much like New York, only with better weather. So the choice was easy.”

Barton worried about moving here, however, because he is not into the sporting lifestyle that attracts many newcomers. You will only find him near a gym if he is catering a celebrity event there. And as an inveterate New Yorker, he had become spoiled by getting things when he wanted them. “But once I moved here,” he says, “there was no problem adapting. Now when I go back to New York, I try to make it only one day. I can’t wait to get back here. This is the land of opportunity. The only problem I have is that I get all the benefits of a major city, but I can’t figure out where to vacation. Who needs to go to Hawaii? Or the Caribbean? It is too perfect here.” “I have the same problem,” says Joey Goldman. “It is really difficult to go on vacation.”

Tune solves the problem by spending his vacations often at the beach. He has developed a second career as a successful painter. In South Beach he finds “the inspiration, the crystalline light, the setting for letting my creativity run.”

Tune might best summarize the love affair New Yorkers have with South Beach: “Every time I have to fly on a plane somewhere from South Beach, I am never ready to leave. If I’m in Venice for two weeks or on a Caribbean island, I’m ready to come home. But when it is time to leave South Beach, I get sad. South Beach is a feeling. It’s a culture. It’s home.”