Travel: Beauty and the beach

The Art Deco quarter of Miami drips with money, style and glamour. But behind the scenes, there's an ugly battle going on. Hilary Bower reports
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The Independent Culture
A young nymph, all pout and belly button, lies flung out on the divan draped with wolf fur in the centre of the lobby, vapidly eyeing each entering guest. To one side, spot-lit in the high-sided golden brocade sofa, a pair of sleek men talk animatedly, lip to ear, disingenuously oblivious to the tableau of closeted coquettishness they create. Behind them all, white gauze shrouds fall ceiling-to-floor, dividing groups of drinkers and talkers, pool players and diners, faces alternately shadowed by the red-filamented flicker of fake candles on dark wood panels, fired by fluorescent pools, or uplit into sunken-eyed creatures of the night lolling on chairs kitschly backed with the metallic faces of Sergeant Pepper's Beatles.

This is the Delano Hotel with its white-on-white rooms and "streamline moderne" exterior - Philippe Starck's epitome of high style on Miami's South Beach. And it must be the epitome as it's still the hippest hotel on the beach after almost two years, and there is nowhere quite as hard on trendsetters as this shifting, mercurial city on a sandbar.

In 20 years, the southern tip of Miami Beach has gone from God's waiting room to God's games room, via hell. And though some, like South Beach's famously gloomy chronicler, Tom Austin, say it's still hell, just a different chamber and you pay more for it, for most visitors, it's a piece of heaven, with its cerulean ocean, wide blond beach, whimsical pastel-tinted Art Deco hotels and a well-earned reputation for the most weird and wonderful nightlife.

After the steamy premenstrual pe-nance that passes for summer in this part of the world, the clear hot days of the "season" - October to March - pull the beautiful, stylish, rich, young and simply fun-loving like heat-seeking missiles to what has become the hottest high-style backdrop in the world.

On patios - where once elderly retirees from the cold north-east spent their dotage in lawn chairs - fashion photographers, film-makers, models, musicians and a cosmopolitan world of tourists parley. Wannabe cover girls descend from across the Americas. Playboy magazine recently calculated that 1,500 models live in South Beach, giving it "a greater concentration of female beauty than has ever occurred in the history of the planet - 13 babes per block."

But it's not just the young girls that provide the eye candy. Sleek, minimally clothed rollerbladers glide along the boardwalks like bronzed Mercuries, crop-topped bellies bound the volleyball court like golden puppies and the beach heaves with toned flesh. The genetically favoured hunt the rich, the rich cultivate style, the trend-masters seek the new, and the rest of us watch, sun-soak, pump iron, dance, drink, cut loose and don't care in the all-night fantasy night-clubs.

If it feels like being caught up in a movie, chances are you are, though probably only in chimerical ripples. Stoked by what seems like endless appetite for palms, pastels and pared down architecture, the media industry has moved in en masse and caravans of camera crews with trailers and lights and make-up boxes trail the streets.

Touted as the new, more accessible Hollywood, South Beach is already the capital of Spanish-speaking music - home to megastars like Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Madonna. MTV Latino broadcasts to 22 countries from a remodelled Art Deco building in Lincoln Road; Sony Music has just moved into its Latin Division nearby and dozens of small production companies feel the craving for Spanish-language music videos, not to mention a huge industry of organised decadence.

"Exhibitionist, voyeuristic, celebrity obsessed, somewhat snobby, very photogenic and a lot of fun," is New Yorker Bill Wisser's verdict. A photographer, author and people watcher, whose recently published book traces the explosion of life in South Beach in words and pictures, he says that the community here has joined the list of "great scenes of the world".

"Berkeley in the Sixties, King's Road, London, the hippie bus scene in Kabul, Afghanistan, Kathmandu, Nepal. What these places have in common is that they are urban villages. In Europe that's probably no big deal but in America it's really rare, we are so automobile-orientated. Planet South Beach is in its own little world, but it's very connected, it has a small town feeling, the opposite of the faceless crowd, but in a very sophisticated, cosmopolitan urban centre."

It's also a place full of people craving significance, a self-obsessed, self-reverential community of individuals vying to establish their claim to climb - building fragile connections - to celebrity in every name-stippled conversation. Everything is built by someone, designed by someone, attributable to someone. And because you know who designed, planned and executed it, the glory is yours too. You don't live in a flat, but a Henry Hohauser apartment. You don't go to a nightclub, but to one owned by Sly, or Ingrid Casares, the sometime paramour of Madonna and kd lang and herself an icon of borrowed fame. But Miami Beach has always been like this, so cruelly hooked on verve and glamour and a roller coaster of boom and bust.

In the Roaring Twenties the Indiana farmboy turned car-dealing millionaire Carl Fisher and the Lummus banker brothers created an "American Riviera" from the mosquito-infested, alligator-ridden mangrove swamp. Then came the boom of the Thirties when a group of young architects threw off the gloom of the Depression and used the futuristic contours of the new motor cars, trains and planes, modern materials such as aluminium, chrome and plastic and a devil-may-care flippancy to build the streamlined pastel confectionery of South Beach's Art Deco district. Movie stars, millionaires, musicians, mobsters, playwrights, sports celebrities and their entourages have flocked to Miami Beach right from the start.

In the Fifties, entrepreneurs moved a few blocks north building massive "pleasure palaces" such as the chandelier-laden excesses of the Fontainebleau Hotel which lured international jetsetters and the likes of Joan Crawford, Joe Dimaggio, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra with its sheer exclusivity.

And in between came the nemesis: the 1926 hurricane and the Wall Street Crash, the Second World War and, in the Fifties, simple greed which called in a deluge of tourists, downrated the exclusivity, sent the matinee idols scuttling for the next style capital, and left a concrete canyon of high rises and 15 blocks of declining Deco. But Miami Beach remained a warm dream viewed from the cold cities of the north-east and, now the celebrities had moved on, affordable too. Thousands of mainly Jewish retirees moved down to take up residence in the underused hotels and the community again thrived.

By the Seventies, however, both the population and the buildings were becoming decrepit. Where once the glamorous had partied all night, the frail elderly dozed in lawn chairs. A low-rent neighbourhood, it became a dumping ground for Miami's misfits - the mentally ill, the poor and the drugged. In 1980 when Castro allowed 125,000 people to flee Cuba across the Straits of Florida in a massive boat-lift from the port of Mariel, where better to settle them than in the old people's ghetto of South Beach?

While the vast majority were working-class Cubans, 25,000 were a lethal gift from Fidel's gaols and mental institutions, quite enough to plunge the decaying streets into crime and fear, and to persuade the city administration that demolition and new high rises were the only way to redeem the valuable ocean-view land.

They reckoned without Barbara Capitman, a veteran journalist who fell in love with the faded beauty of the Art Deco buildings and began the 10-year battle that was to save South Beach.

Tapping into the blossoming artistic community that was moving to South Beach to take advantage of cheap space, Capitman launched the Miami Beach Design Preservation League and held a deluge of demonstrations and vigils for every proposed demolition. League members also moved to rehabilitate the whimsical buildings, highlighting their fine points with the now famous palette of pastels, and work a network of increasingly high profile sympathisers. Among the guests to visit the first hotel to be re-opened, the Cardozo, were Andy Warhol, Patti Labelle, Eartha Kitt and Bulgarian conceptual artist Christo Javacheff - who draped 11 islands in Biscayne Bay in 6.5 million feet of shimmering Deco-pink fabric.

They took the fight to Capitol Hill and South Beach became the first 20th century neighbourhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Finally, they convinced the buck-hungry city administration that Deco had an earning potential that would outlive any property boom/bust cycle and won vital protective city bylaws for an eight- block historic district.

Under the momentum, the whole neighbourhood rejuvenated. Artists, photographers, restaurateurs, trendsetters arrived, drawn by music and film festivals, Art Deco tours and lectures and masked balls. In 1984 Miami Vice showcased South Beach to the world as well as pouring millions of dollars into the neighbourhood and the city exploded into international consciousness.

Now if you believed South Beach's own publicity machine, you'd think it was populated entirely by super models and zillionaires. So it's a pleasant surprise to find that back from the fashionable Ocean Drive, the atmosphere feels surprisingly working class, human scale and friendly.

Somehow the basic substratum of elderly Jews and working class Hispanics have melded with the creatives, gays, rollerbladers, Bohemians and tourists into a small-town community where people cycle to work and talk on the street. It all feels oddly timewarped in a city where elsewhere life is firmly confined to small islands between highways. Frail Jewish ladies with liver-spotted hands still have their hair done at the Rendezvous beauty salon with its walls lined with matinee idols, even if next door a scarily perfect assistant sells $250 vintage collectible Levis, and a group of wigged transvestites refuel from the night before with high octane thimbles of Cuban coffee.

Though the coffee-table books concentrate on the hotels, the same Art Deco masters also designed hundreds of low-rise apartment houses which still offer relatively cheap accommodation to the people who work here.

But things are changing, says Bill Wisser: "Dance clubs, photographers, artists all move to an undervalued neighbourhood because they need a lot of cheap space. Some of the smarter developers are helping to keep the artists here by subsidising studios in their buildings, but rents are still going up. The creatives were really an important component of the whole South Beach thing and if they get pushed out, South Beach will lose its cachet entirely."

And, with land prices soaring, many fear the fight to keep this unusual community is about to start all over again.

Eight-thirty in the morning is an unknown hour for many on South Beach, but Petunia's restaurant on Washington Avenue is buzzing not only with people, but serious people.

Taking seats around a table stretching the length of the small restaurant for their weekly breakfast meeting are the members - mostly small business people - of the Save Miami Beach Political Action Group. Their "guest" this week is Dennis Russ, executive director of the Miami Beach Develop- ment Corporation, an offshoot of Miami Design Preservation League. But guest is the wrong word - Dennis is not there for breakfast bonhomie, but to be grilled over moves which the activists say are undermining the very community the League fought for.

The crux is twofold, they say. On one hand, heavy special taxes, backed by MBDC and levied to cover increased services ostensibly caused by the burgeoning tourist industry, are hitting small businesses hard, savaging their viability. On the other, access to tax, not used for services, is enabling the city administration to back and make an economic case for the kind of high rise developments bitterly fought against by the activists for the past 20 years.

Their fears are not without foundation. High-rise developments like those which have turned the beaches of mid and north Miami Beach into concrete canyons are encroaching on the Deco district on all sides. Highest on the hate list, and the one likely to bring community relations to combustion point, is one planned by German commodity trader and speculation wunderkind Thomas Kramer for South Pointe.

With its stunning panoramas South Pointe was the forfeit paid to gain the protection of the Deco district. It had a similar quota of dilapidated Deco beauties but was zoned to lure those dedicated to progress by demolition.

Thomas Kramer was one who took the bait - reputedly paying cash not only for the pivotal South Pointe itself, but also for dozens of smaller plots that wrap the point. Now, say community activists, not only does Kramer control all the waterfront area, but city ordinances, designed to restrict height and bulk, are being thrown out as sweeteners in a complex web of deals and swaps. The 80-plus storey result - just a few floors off the height of New York's Empire State Building - will tower ridiculously over the whole community.

Guesthouse owner Erica Brigham, who is a leading member of the small business people breakfast band, says: "People have absolutely no conception of how big Kramer's development will be. Poor judgement, poor planning, poor agreements, lots of loopholes, it's all beginning to show up in this deal.

"Miami Beach is such a wonderful place and potentially an incredible place. South Pointe is pivotal. You look west to the Miami skyline and down the shipping channel, east to the Keys and the Atlantic Ocean - it would be a wonderful place for water cafes, maybe a hydrofoil to Cuba, it could be the most magnificent public plaza, one to rival St Marco in Venice. Instead, if this development goes ahead, it will be a huge wall of development."

But not without a fight. Round one last month went to the activists. A 4,000-signature petition forced the city administration to schedule a public vote on whether every bid to build over the city's current height limit should be approved by a ballot of South Beach citizens themselves - a move that would substantially tie developers' hands.

The city administration may also find itself fighting on other fronts. Randall C Robinson Junior, Miami Design Preser-vation League's historic preservation director says it's time to start protecting some of the more recent gems - the mid-beach behemoths once derided as the height of vulgarity which Robinson fondly labels Miami Beach's "flabbergast architecture".

"The Fontainebleau Hotel, designed by Morris Lapidus, is unquestionably the single most identifiable building on Miami Beach. It represents what Miami Beach was in the Fifties - what might now be called garish was then unique, startling, and challenging. It was an exciting time - you had this huge population of north-eastern Americans who had lived through the Depression and the Second World War and they had had it with compromise.

The Fontainebleau was the greatest representation of that austerity-be-damned attitude, that gayness and euphoria. The danger is that it and other buildings will be toned down, cleaned up and made more palatable to 1990s' sensibilities and lose their vital character along the way."

Following tactics used in the Deco fight, Robinson has just started a walking tour to raise public awareness and appreciation of such "atomic age" work. It includes the mad roadside motel style of the Lucerne and clean outer space austerity of Lapidus's Eden Roc, hotel of the year in 1954, but misses unfortunately the wonderfully garish Sahara Motels with its Sphinx and camels - too far to walk.

At the velvet barricades, none of this matters. What the achingly elegant door "goddess" with the clipboard and golden lorgnette wants is "elegance or androgyny". If you don't have these, then money, quietly in the palm or to buy that $200 bottle of champagne or whisky. Without either, well, you'll queue, along with rowdy graduates, ravers, drag queens, raucous tourists, tropical-shirted existentialists, conventioneers and loaded suburbanites - which can be just as good a show.

Inside, the scenes range from hyper-cool to phantasmagorical, from lava hot dance to raunchy sex shows. The popularity of the various clubs rises and falls faster than fireworks, some literally with inventive event promoters renting venues for all-out nights of fantasy. While the Delano Hotel reigns for smouldering style, Ingrid Casares' club Liquid rules for dance and sheer wildness, closely followed by the spectacular Glam Slam, property of the artist formerly known as Prince.

Rent-a-crowd takes on a completely different meaning at Sylvester Stal- lone's Bar None where managers ring in the model agencies to ensure their quota of relentless beauty. The Marlin is a colour-drenched Jamaican fantasy designed by Sixties Biba diva Barbara Hulanicki, and Mango's on Ocean Drive with its insistent Latin rhythm and pneumatic table-top dancers won a billing from Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the eight hottest spots in the world for women to come and meet the "right" sort of men. But nowhere is more fabulously inventive than the gay club Warsaw with its drop-dead glamour transvestite hostesses like the explosively blond vamp Adora and foul but funny Varla.

But just because you're on the other side of the velvet rope, don't think you've made it. Every nightclub has its VIP rooms, some a hierarchy of them, well guarded by the unsmiling and muscle-bound. Sycophancy levels are gaggingly high whether the stars are real or not. But whatever room you're in, the layers of class and artifice gradually peel away as the hours fall towards dawn. Wild dancing is de rigeur, on the tables is even better and baring breasts is applauded - 15 minutes of fame is there for the grasping.

Suffocating in sycophancy or falling off a table are not the only nightlife dangers in South Beach. Though with most of Castro's criminals now gaoled or reformed, Miami Beach has relinquished its Eighties crown of America's murder capital, its extravagant reputation draws the unsavoury like moths to a flame. Ask where to avoid and locals draw fine, block by block distinctions, warning of a migrating mixture of gang problems, petty crime and drunken loutishness which can turn some blocks of Washington Avenue into badlands while two blocks away on Ocean Drive people promenade without a care.

"My rule of thumb is take a taxi to the door after 11pm," says Randall Robinson. "The bottom line is that this is a major American city and it has problems the same as any other major. Florida has managed to paint this amusement park image for itself and so it pays the price when real life isn't a fantasy."

The glitz also covers plenty of murky undercurrents of its own. "There are a lot of people who come here, men and women, who, to make ends meet, sleep with people," says Bill Wisser. "And there's a whole subculture of gay people who come here to die - who decide they don't want to spend the last years of their lives in Iowa, come here, open a shop or a bar and go into denial. A lot of the guys you see - bulked-up on steroids and looking fabulous - are HIV positive and dying. This is not Disney World. No, it's the Weimar Republic - full of decadence, perversity and beauty." !

GETTING THERE

British Airways fly direct from London Heathrow and London Gatwick to Miami from around pounds 440. American Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow from around pounds 500 return and from Manchester from around pounds 400 return. Air France also fly direct from Manchester to Miami for around pounds 410 return and Air Canada flies to Miami from Glasgow via Toronto from around pounds 427 return.

STAYING THERE

The author stayed at the Delano Hotel (001 305 673 2900), located at 1685 Collins Avenue, South Beach.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Glam Slam, 001 305 672 2770; Bar None, 001 305 672 9252; Mango's, 001 305 673 4422. Florida Division of Tourism, 0891 600 555.

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