By Tom Austin (Nightlife); by sondra schneider (neighborhoods); by brett sokol (culture) | July 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
The last 10 years have hardly been quiet for anyone, but in Miami, they’ve been a tumultuous roller coaster of activity. Already an international hot spot a decade ago, South Beach continued its reign as ground zero for the Beautiful People, helped along by world-renowned art fairs, opulent new hotels and soaring condo towers. But other neighborhoods also began to evolve, from Wynwood—hipster central for the culture crowd—to downtown, whose rebirth was signaled by a chorus of construction cranes. Through it all, the innovators, boldfacers and visionaries kept up their mission to make this city one of the country’s most startling and alluring metropolises.
On South Beach, where the citizens have only the dimmest memory of what happened last night, 10 years is an eternity, a long night out on the space-time continuum of degeneracy. Nightlife never really changes—in any epoch, people drink too much and try to get laid—but everyone always thinks the real party happened last week, last year or last decade.
Parties are about the power of myth: The best are exercises in aspiration and hope, gatherings where all the other guests are much higher up the social food chain. In 2000, I wrote the “Babylon” nightlife column for Ocean Drive, and was on the list in a big way—surrounded every night by beauty, money, fame and sex, none of which I possessed.
The first day of 2000 brought an international sigh of relief: Countless scaredy-cats, conspiracy- theory nutcases and plain old Regular Joes were expecting computers to spin out of whack and bring on the Rapture. Curiously, New Year’s Eve on South Beach that year was imminently civilized—go figure—and ushered in a certain je ne sais quoi. While it wasn’t, say, prewar Berlin with Sally Bowles, it was kind of fun anyway.
That year, and for some time to come, was the era of Tantra, Touch, Red Square, the Astor, the Delano, Joia, Bar Room, Liquid redux and a series of louche drunken joints where it was actually easy to get in, not that it was always that easy to leave at last call. Later on, downtown emerged as the Dodge City of nightlife, while locals rode out the lounge aesthetic at Casa Tua and embraced the Grand Hotel period: the Shore Club, The Setai, the Gansevoort South, the Fontainebleau and now the W South Beach, the coolest—and richest—kid in class until, perhaps, Soho Beach House Miami opens this fall.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Madonna, Rupert Everett and Gwyneth Paltrow (the alpha cougar no longer talks to either party chum) were out and about. Up the strip and down the fame pole, strange bedfellows Melissa Joan Hart of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction threw a shindig at The Shelborne. As the year unfolded, Crobar went head to head with other lumbering megaclubs—Bacchanalia, Xcape, etc.—and snagged the wayward, from Lenny Kravitz to Vanilla Ice.
Meanwhile, Celia Cruz and Albita—one sadly gone, one in fame remission—showed at The Raleigh, going on to gloss aftermath at the departed Goddess. Level, now Mansion, hosted a party for Bulgari with go-go boys and female impersonators, the road warrior of drag, Elaine Lancaster, still hanging in, bless her glamorama heart. Bolero, also gone, lured in Omar Martinez, while Erinn Cosby, daughter of Bill, had a pajama-theme party at B.E.D.
Tama Janowitz turned up at Score, the Energizer Bunny of gay bars: “Look at all the guys standing against the wall like they’re at a prom or something.” At the thankfully still-around Joe Allen, the theater set talked about Kathie Lee Gifford in Sondheim’s Putting It Together (they weren’t kind). Meanwhile, over at the Blue Moon hotel, A-gay Merv Griffin—he’s gone, but not his hotel—hosted a bizarre party with the oldest living Ziegfeld Follies girl. Across town at some dive or other, Vin Diesel reminisced about working as a club doorman with the late Gilbert Stafford. Mynt recently hosted a damn fine wake for Stafford, the most fun funeral imaginable, with a fan of mine—and many others, apparently—licking everyone’s tongues for chuckles. Stafford, who liked to spread a bit of club love, would have approved.
At Bambú, now Buck15, Gabriel Byrne was surrounded by several heat-seeking model missiles, Adrien Brody, Sky Nellor and a local implant king who still resembles Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame: Everyone, as they say in show biz, is still working. Hometown glam girl Debbie Ohanian is back in the club business at Private Residence: It’s situated above Barton G., home to the late and much-lamented Starfish. In 2000, Starfish’s entertainment lineup included the then 77-year-old bolero singer Rosita Fornés lifting up her skirt for a number. Those were the days.
And so the night goes, year after year. Was South Beach 2000 better than 2010, or are all the memories of decadence past a drunken chimera, couched in the sickly sweet violence of nostalgia? At the 20th anniversary party for Books & Books on Lincoln Road, the fun, as per usual these days, was virtual. A seasoned group of reformed degenerates gathered around an iPhone, taking in Carlos Betancourt’s Facebook gallery of vintage club photos: Neither technological innovation, of course, existed in 2000. We all bragged about the era when we drank, smoked, snorted, danced on tabletops and actually went to clubs, as opposed to looking at old club photos of ourselves. Someone at the table suggested a 9:30 movie, and an outraged cry went up, as if a 5 AM visit to an after-hours club had been proposed: Everyone had an early morning at the gym, meetings, middle-age creaks, whatever. Time takes a toll.
In the past decade, Miami went on a building spree of such magnitude that it morphed into a different city, warping at the speed of light from a fairly low-key town into a highenergy world-class destination with (according to Forbes) the sixth-highest cost of living in the country. The contrast between Miami past and present is most clearly seen in the older neighborhoods that have emerged in the last decade into full bloom: SoFi on the Beach, the Design District, MiMo and, centered by downtown, the gleaming Brickell area and the revitalized lower Biscayne corridor.
By 2000, the gentrification of SoFi had begun with the construction of Portofino, a 44-story luxury tower that served as the catalyst for a series of ultra-pricey condos developed by The Related Group, including the Yacht Club at Portofino, the Murano, the Murano Grande and Icon. In 10 years, SoFi developed a skyline to rival downtown’s, with some of the most expensive real estate in the area, from the Continuum towers to the final addition, Apogee, where preconstruction prices soared as high as $15 million. And restaurants have followed suit, as the formerly abandoned blocks now host gourmet spots from Smith & Wollensky and Red the Steakhouse to Myles Chefetz’s collection of highend eateries, epitomized by Prime One Twelve.
Eva Mendes, JR and Loren Ridinger, Roberto Cavalli and Paulina Rubio at the Ridingers' party celebrating New Year's, 2000
If the revival of a derelict neighborhood is one of the markers of a real city, Miami earned its chops with MiMo. The neighborhood—best known for its seedy motels that studded the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard between 50th and 79th streets—was so undesirable that when Mark Soyka bought the former 55th Street Station and opened his eponymous restaurant in 1999, most people thought he had gone insane. Today, with landmark status for its collection of Miami Modern architecture, MiMo is an eclectic mix of boutiques and acclaimed restaurants such as Michy’s and Red Light.
Ten years ago, about the only one who believed that the empty, sun-baked streets of the Design District would turn around was Craig Robins, who bought up huge swaths of the area. The leafy neighborhood of designer shops, showrooms and restaurants he envisioned has come to pass, and some of the city’s best dining options are located there, like Fratelli Lyon, Pacific Time, Sra. Martinez and, of course, Michael’s Genuine, which led the way for the culinary reinvention of the neighborhood.
Downtown and Brickell comprises almost too large a district to be termed a “neighborhood,” but their futures are intertwined. With the building up of Brickell Key and the addition of several new towers on Brickell Avenue, the area finally reached the density to get the long-promised Mary Brickell Village and the retail component it sorely lacked. As for downtown, the addition of a few new luxury towers (including Related’s Icon Brickell and the Epic Hotel), the Arsht Center and the promised Museum Park has been a shot in the arm, but the area still has a way to go. Perhaps we’ll see a completely different vibe there by 2020.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Miami art scene suddenly sprung into existence with the 2002 arrival of the Art Basel fair. It’s not that talented, boundary-breaking artists haven’t always called Miami home. But for decades, living in South Florida and having a viable artistic career here were mutually exclusive options. As far back as 1966, Miami Dade College sculpture professor Duane Hanson was making waves around town with his topically charged, eerily lifelike dioramas—and finding himself subsequently locked out of his campus studio by outraged administrators. Frustrated by similarly conservative responses from local curators and collectors, Hanson soon decamped to New York City—where within a few years of arriving he was rewarded with critical raves, enthusiastic sales and a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Such was the pattern for years to come: If a Miamian wanted to earn a living as a contemporary artist, a U-Haul and a drive north were a part of his or her future.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say Basel—and its accompanying cultural circus—changed everything. True, there had been a brief flurry of national attention in the ’90s around a fresh crop of Cubanexile painters. And the tail end of that era also saw a handful of plucky pioneers sinking roots into the bleakly industrial Wynwood neighborhood: Manhattanites Mera and Don Rubell reversed the travel pattern, winging south and plunking their sprawling art collection inside a 45,000-square-foot former DEA warehouse; artists Westen Charles, Cooper and Elizabeth Withstandley transformed a onetime crackhouse into Locust Projects, a vibrant, nonprofit alternative space; art dealer Brook Dorsch moved in from Coral Gables, cleaned out yet another crackhouse, and then hung out his gallery’s shingle.
But Basel’s attention not only put Miami on the international art-world circuit; it also finally focused a mass of hometown minds on this burg’s homegrown artists. “There are people in this town who only understand money,” Miami sculptor Mark Handforth told Ocean Drive last December. “So if you want the city government to take art and culture seriously, there’s nothing like 200 private jets at the airport to wake them up.”
And how. As of 2010, the Rubells’ private museum has been joined by similar endeavors from übercollectors like Ella Fontanals Cisneros, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz and Marty Margulies— many of whom have exhibition spaces that dwarf in size those of both the Miami Art Museum and North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Not to be outdone, those two public institutions are in the midst of dramatic expansions, and the Beach’s Bass Museum of Art has meanwhile reinvented itself as yet another showcase for the avant-garde. Not least, the Dorsch Gallery now has dozens of new art-dealing neighbors, from local stalwart Fredric Snitzer to newcomer Nina Johnson’s Gallery Diet. Even the late Duane Hanson is back in town, all prior opprobrium forgotten, his work on prominent display at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and, of course, selling for six figures at last year’s Art Basel fair.
photographs by seth browarnik (miami) manny hernandez (miami, mendes); seth browarnik/red eye production (jackson); Dacra (moore building)