South Beach Continues to Evolve, But It’s Still Lacking Some Key Businesses
In 1994, when we first began visiting South Beach, we chanced one morning across a great sight near Alton Road and Dade Boulevard. A group of gay men was just leaving an all-night party at the club Salvation. About half a block away, a couple of young girls in uniform were on their way to school. And crossing the street closest to us was an elderly couple, the man using a walker and his wife holding on to his arm.
“I love this town,” Trisha said.
There was no need to ask what she meant. It was that wonderful cross section of three different slices of South Beach life, all living together.
You don’t need to be a student of the census to know that South Beach’s demographics have changed substantially since our morning encounter 12 years ago. The elderly, largely Jewish retirees who packed South Beach in residences or nursing homes have passed away or been relocated to cheaper accommodations on North Beach.
Places such as Temple Emanu-El were once thriving congregations where people lined up on Friday nights and High Holiday crowds spilled over to the Jackie Gleason Theater. But the temple lost members as Jews moved north. The congregation, which boasted 1,200 families in the 1980s, now claims just 250. In the last 10 years, the number of Jewish households on South Beach has fallen by 50 percent from 4,800 to 2,400, says Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor who conducted the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s demographic survey. To try to attract new and younger congregants, the 34-year-old rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Kliel Rose, has added guitar, drums, meditation and a mystical, cabalistic flair to Shabbat services.
No one keeps precise tabs on the numbers of the gay population, which helped transform the Beach from downtrodden to hip, but while it is still a powerhouse, it somehow seems smaller. Some have also moved north, to Fort Lauderdale, and some dislike the_ evolution of the Beach from an East Village ambiance to one more akin to Chelsea south. Only two consistent gay clubs exist, Score and Twist. Salvation, where we saw our partiers, is now an Office Depot Even Warsaw, the great club with a mixed following that dominated the night scene from its Collins Avenue perch, is now Jerry’s Deli. But a gay presence is also so integrated in the Beach that it isn’t a matter of pointing at one establishment and saying “straight” or “gay.” In what other American city would the mayor conclude that pressing the flesh amid the crowds of the White Party was as necessary as stopping by the chamber of commerce? Remember, this was where Anita Bryant and her Christian-fundamentalist followers assembled their late-1970s Save Our Children group to successfully overturn the county’s anti-gay-discrimination ordinance.
But the changes in the makeup of the Beach mean that while some groups have downsized, others have grown. According to census – stats from 2000, the city’s population has stayed fairly stagnant, but those here are more educated and younger than in decades. The average income is up by nearly 15 percent, a tribute to some ultrarich who have made this a permanent home in the boom of multimillion-dollar condos and houses. The word you hear from local officials-taboo often in hip locales but welcomed by the Beach’s politicos-is ‘yuppies.’ Just wander along Lincoln on any Saturday night, remove the tourists, and you will be left with a lot of 20- to 30- something couples, often pushing a babycart. If there is any doubt that the edgy feel of the Beach is dead, you only need to wander through the Gap or stop in Victoria’s Secret.
The question is what all these demographic changes mean for the future. What businesses are likely to find their way here to serve the new population mix?
“It will continue to get better,” former mayor Neisen Kasdin told us. “The economic progress of Miami Beach is part of an enormous big sweep that has been going on for 25 years. South Beach created the global image, but what does it need now? How do we make it attractive to work and live in?”
Kasdin believes that “culture is first and foremost.” He points out the Wolfsonian, the New World Symphony, the annual Art Basel fair and the Frank Gehry SoundSpace proposed for just off Lincoln. ‘The people now living in South Beach want these cultural outlets, and there is a need for more.”
A number of people we spoke to said the answer to changing demographics is to bring in the big box stores to which most Beach residents now have to drive. These are the typical suspects: Target, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond and Best Buy. But Kasdin thinks there is little chance of these being built, even if the new Beach demographics demand it, simply because there is so little space to locate one of these large stores. And even if the land is found, lack of parking almost invariably kills interest from the store itself. Randall Robinson, co-author of MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed, believes that smaller “city” versions of the box stores could be built on the Beach. He also thinks such stores should be held to a high standard for their design: “What Banana Republic did with that bank on Lincoln should be a model for what can be done with an existing space.”
If there was a sentiment we heard more frequently than any other when asking people what businesses the Beach could use, it was for a grand gourmet store, one that would give Epicure some competition. Award-winning photographer Pamela Jones not only wants a gourmet store but also a few healthy and organic restaurants. She adds, “We need a great farmers market every weekend, not the limited one on Lincoln that has a little produce and a few flowers.”
Deco Drive’s Louis Aguirre agrees. ‘The Beach desperately needs a high-end gourmet grocery store the likes of which have never been seen in South Florida. I’m talking Balducci’s, Dean & Deluca, Whole Foods on the scale of their store in New York City’s Columbus Circle. A store where you can find even the most obscure gourmet ingredient for that amazing meal you’re preparing straight out of Jean- Georges’ cookbook. A place where you can get healthy, freshly prepared meals every day of the week and never have the same thing twice.”
“I’ll vote for a Dean & Deluca and a great fish store,” says architect Chad Oppenheim. “It’s more expensive to buy things in Epicure than in New York. It’s like we are living in Tokyo or something. What gives?”
“While we’re on the subject of food, how about a decent breakfast restaurant?” adds Aguirre. The Hotel Victor, his favorite, only serves until 11 a.m. “Hello, this is the Beach, some of us aren’t getting home from the night before till 11. And while Icebox, Cafeteria and Oliver’s do a good job, I’m talking something more along the lines of New York’s famed Sarabeth’s or Norma’s. A place where you can get fresh baked goods, homemade oatmeal, a variety of egg dishes and omelets…and for God’s sake, if you’re going to serve pancakes, waffles and French toast, how about serving 100-percent-real maple syrup? Come on, guys, don’t be so cheap.”
Kasdin likes a lot of the ideas tossed out. If people talk about these things enough, he says, then some businessman or developer will do them. “What has happened on Lincoln could hopefully lead to other streets having more interesting stores. We are a dynamic and successful city that is constantly evolving. Some people want to freeze Miami Beach the way it was in 1990, but you can’t do that and wouldn’t want to. It is not the hip and undiscovered community it was 15 years ago, but it has changed into a vibrant city. We have to prevent the exploitation of its popularity so it doesn’t become honky- tonk.”
That raises the old tug of war between those who live here and those who come to visit and party. If you ask a weekend crowd on Ocean what businesses are needed on the Beach, they might vote for more Clevelanders. But that’s not the view of residents, who vote their taste by where they spend their money: Few spend it on Ocean, and quite a few full-time residents we spoke to could not remember the last time they had been there. So Kasdin’s concern-”the exploitation of its popularity”- can only happen if those of us who call this home abdicate our responsibilities and civic and social duties.
“I mean, let’s face it,” Aguirre told us. “We’re really self-contained here on the Beach: great restaurants, world-class nightlife, high-end luxury hotels, amazing day spas, great shopping, our own multiplex and now even our own bowling alley. Still, it can get much better, and all we have to be is involved in making it happen.”