Viva Flagler!

It's downtown's swirling kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells. Where the Latin mercado meets the American enterprise. Where commerce thrives and clerks cut deals. So why would urban planners want to kill it?

When 56-year-old Miguel Brazlavsky arrived from Havana in 1962, Flagler already was catering to a predominately Latin American market. After his first job, at Bently Men's Wear in the Olympia Building, he moved to Briggs Men's Wear, which he purchased in 1965. Meanwhile black Americans replaced Anglos, then were themselves replaced by Haitians, as the minority market supplementing the Latin American regulars - Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians, Argentines, Brazilians. Although Canadian, European, and Asian tourists regularly have searched out deals here over the years, Latins have been Flagler's pan y mantequilla. So much so, in fact, that the entire area - which consists of more than 800 businesses and is bordered roughly by Sixth Street to the north, the Miami River to the south, Biscayne Boulevard to the east, and Interstate 95 to the west - has long been a weather vane for tempestuous Latin American booms and busts, thriving and suffering through good times and bad in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

In the early Sixties, captives from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba returned from prisons on the island and spent their U.S. government back pay on Flagler. "Back then there were very few Spanish-speaking merchants in the city," recalls the gray-haired Brazlavsky, leaning against a circular rack of polyester men's pants, staring out the front door of his shop at 75 E. Flagler. "So they went to the place where there were Spanish-speaking salesmen, which was here. And they came to spend money. Those were good times for us. We weren't hurting for anything."

Strong Latin American currencies guaranteed a steady stream of Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and other tourists through the end of the Sixties. And when Venezuela basked in an oil boom in the mid- and late Seventies, Flagler flourished along with it. Equally, merchants suffered when oil prices plummeted and inflation battered Latin America in the early Eighties, devastating the tourist trade. "That's when everything changed," says Brazlavsky. "A lot of people thought the boom was going to last forever. Well, nothing lasts forever. A lot of people sure found that out the hard way."

Many of the merchants who survived the lean years held on by gearing their businesses toward lower-income shoppers; those who couldn't withstand the slump were replaced by electronics and jewelry dealers who were willing to pay high rents to secure a place downtown. "We used to have a lot better mix of stores," Brazlavsky recalls. "Ladies and men's stores, restaurants. We lost two department stores - J Byrons moved out and Richard's went out of business - and who knows how many other stores. Now the mix just isn't there."

Just west of the Galeria Internacional, Mom walks past three Haitian men stacking white plastic garbage bags stuffed with calculators, watches, and batteries they've purchased from an electronics shop across the street. As employees of the store ferry over more plastic sacks on hand carts, the three men stuff the goods into worn green duffel bags. All they'll say is that they're taking the wares back with them to Port-au-Prince. Mom, meanwhile, disappears past mannequins outfitted in Day-Glo Bay Boy's Gym and Panama Jack Original T-shirts and black-and-green sweat suits, into Sports U.S.A. at 243 E. Flagler. A saleswoman peeking over a mountain of shoe boxes acquiesces meekly to demands for a deal from Mom, who by now has become a bargaining bully. She leaves the store with a gift for her granddaughter: a pair of size-seven L.A. Gear aerobic shoes that were marked $79 but ended up costing $50.

Next it's on to Bijoux Terner at 223 E. Flagler, a maze of costume jewelry mounted on black-plastic backing and hung on stainless steel hooks or piled in bins that stretch in every direction: red plastic sea-horse earrings for five dollars; $8.50 for a tiny pair of yellow, white, and green earrings shaped like clown faces; pentagonal glass earrings with steel spokes sticking out, marked $68; pearl necklaces draped like serpents along the wall; cotton shirts fluttering in the air conditioner's breeze. Apparently the price tags are for show; the saleswoman says everything is half-price. Mom looks at a black cotton shirt, a rhinestone rainbow splashed across its front, finally settles on two similar shirts, earrings, and a bracelet. Total tab: $82.50.

Outside the breeze has picked up, rustling the black olives, whipping the metal wires on the Dade County Courthouse flagpoles down the street into a frenzy of tin hammers tap-tapping on hollow pipe. The storefront stroll continues, interrupted by a quick search for the old soda fountain in the Walgreens drug store at 200 E. Flagler, which Mom recalls was once the meeting place of the Flagler powerful. The search bears no fruit. "It must be long gone," she remarks. Further west, past the Capital Mall - the "Puerta de las Americas" with its second-floor tropical scene of parrots and peasants shaped of stained glass - the olives give way to palms, the functional-looking light poles to fancy replacements painted in pastel hues, the potholes to patches. Past East First Avenue, the block of Burdines department store and McCrory's, is the city's idea of what things ought to look like.

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