- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — South Beach was once a place where crime kept residents indoors at night and retirees lined porches. Forlorn hotels stood mostly vacant, and a popular outdoor mall was reduced to a desolate strip where the homeless slept.

Those were the days before “Miami Vice.”

The TV show’s popularity from 1984 to 1989 coincided with the early days of the rebirth of Miami Beach’s southern end — and helped it along. Today, South Beach is known for trendy restaurants and nightclubs, brightly painted hotels packed with tourists, upscale fashion and expensive restaurants.

The new “Miami Vice” movie, which opened July 28, is set in the present, not the past. Nevertheless, the film is bound to remind some viewers that South Beach was a very different place when the original “Miami Vice” was on the air.

Back then, as detectives Crockett and Tubbs zipped their Ferrari along Ocean Drive or drove speedboats in Biscayne Bay, the restoration of the local art-deco district had barely begun.

Designers were just discovering the area as a backdrop for high fashion, and a party scene was emerging as club impresarios and restaurateurs relocated from the Northeast.

“It felt like pioneer country,” says Mark Soyka, who opened News Cafe on Ocean Drive in 1988. “We used to be proud to say ‘We live in Casablanca — people think it’s dangerous, but we’re OK because we know the way around.’”

A few decades earlier, in the 1940s and ‘50s, Miami Beach was a popular — even high-end — resort. In the 1960s, it began attracting more retirees from the Northeast; the most prominent eateries were delicatessens, and evening entertainment consisted of hotel cabaret shows.

“It was just a nice, pleasant, middle-class kind of neighborhood,” says M. Barron Stofik, a former Miami Beach resident and author of “Saving South Beach.”

By the late 1970s, things had deteriorated. Tourist attractions elsewhere — such as Walt Disney World — sapped Miami Beach’s momentum; wealthy residents moved to condominiums farther north; and South Beach began to founder.

“Compared to today, it was like a ghost town,” says Dennis Wilhelm, who works for an architectural firm and is a member of the Miami Design Preservation League.

Crime exploded in the Miami area in the early 1980s. Cocaine cowboys held shootouts in the streets; a crack epidemic fueled muggings and purse-snatchings.

Parking was easy because so few cars came through the area, and the few nice restaurants catered mainly to older residents. Lincoln Road Mall was mostly deserted save for a busy Woolworth store and some artists’ workshops.

Mr. Soyka, who moved here from New York in 1985, says the area looked “like the end of the world, with crack addicts hiding and sleeping in the abandoned buildings. Business owners lived with that for so long they didn’t realize the potential of these little buildings sitting right there.”

Those “little buildings” comprised the world’s largest collection of art-deco architecture, and in 1979, the area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The recognition ensured that the buildings — with their curved edges and corners, porthole windows and stepped walls and rooflines — would not be demolished, no matter how rundown the area became.

Preservationists rejoiced, and keen-eyed entrepreneurs began buying up the buildings with an eye toward restoration.

When the TV show “Miami Vice” began filming, set designers turned empty storefronts into makeshift businesses and gussied up aging hotels to give them a clean look in pastel colors. Fancy cars rolled down the streets, and elderly denizens of hotel porches and verandas were replaced temporarily by scantily clad actors walking the narrow sidewalks.

Television was helping to create a new image for South Beach and Miami, and reality wasn’t far behind.

“They created a lot of the glitz and the glamour — the Miami that we saw in ‘Miami Vice’ sure wasn’t where we lived,” Miss Stofik says.

“It became this synergistic relationship where ‘Miami Vice’ was painting its own buildings and using architecture as a character in the show, and millions were seeing this on television.”

By 1985 — the year Bruce Weber photographed a Calvin Klein Obsession perfume ad at the Breakwater Hotel — the fashion industry had taken notice of cheap hotel rooms and eclectic scenery, and the area became a popular hangout for models and photographers. Places such as the Strand and Penrod’s on the Beach began attracting crowds.

“It was a bohemian wild, wild west. You could sense that something was happening that was very special,” says Tara Solomon, a public relations executive and former journalist who arrived in South Beach in 1987.

The show was filmed on location throughout the beach, drawing tourists eager to see Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas playing Crockett and Tubbs in their signature Ray-Bans and suits with rolled-up sleeves paired with T-shirts.

“If we were shooting at 5 o’clock in the morning, there were still people out here watching us,” says Dee Miller, who cast local actors for the show. Tour bus drivers would call attention to the TV shoots.

By 1989, South Beach’s rebirth was in full swing. The fashion industry was entrenched, and celebrities on movie shoots — such as Madonna and Sylvester Stallone — took a liking to the area. Millionaires began buying homes and condos.

More restaurants and nightclubs were born, and Italian designer Gianni Versace arrived in 1991. He lived on South Beach until 1997, when he was fatally shot in front of his Ocean Drive mansion. Ironically, the murder cemented the area’s image as a haven for celebs and fashionistas.

“Versace was a local hero,” Miss Solomon says.

Today, South Beach is a prime destination for tourists. Hotels, restaurants and nightclubs abound; cars pack the streets at all hours on weekends, and crime is down. Lincoln Road Mall, a pedestrian shopping area, bustles with activity, and Ocean Drive is lined with cafes and bars overlooking the sand and the clear turquoise water.

Those restored art-deco buildings in pretty pastel colors with the palm trees out front? Today they are world-famous, instantly recognizable symbols of a place that has been reinvented — a place that takes center stage once again in the remake of “Miami Vice.”

• • •

Bars, cafes and the beach along Ocean Drive. Shopping along Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue and the Lincoln Road Mall. News Cafe is open 24 hours a day; 800 Ocean Drive, 305/538-6397.

Architectural tours of the Art Deco Historic District are offered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays from the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive; visit www.mdpl.org or call 305/531-3484. Tickets cost $20.

The Miami Beach Visitors Center, 1920 Meridian Ave. (www.miamibeachchamber.com or 305/672-1270) offers 19 daily tours and help with hotels, car rentals and other trip planning.

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