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?

Many Flagler merchants take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. Despite concerns about the current threat of recession, Brazlavsky is quick to point out what's really important to the area. "What I would like to see is more restaurants and nightlife," he says, "so when people come downtown to Gusman [Center for the Performing Arts] and walk the street after the show, they look in my window, and my neighbors' windows. Then maybe next week, maybe next year, they'll remember my store. Projects like that, that's what we want. That's what we will support."

Meanwhile business still flourishes, and lease rates for downtown retail space average $40 per square foot. It's about twice that in other Dade County locations such as the Falls, Mayfair in the Grove, and Dadeland. The rent goes up to $100 per square foot for prime Flagler Street frontage, which is virtually never vacant. And Flagler outlets for national retailers report among the highest sales volumes in their companies. (Oaktree, Three Sisters, and Payless Shoe Source outlets on Flagler, for instance, this past year netted among the highest sales volumes in their chains nationwide.)

Mom says it's time for a quick break, and steps into glitzy Flagler Station, an indoor shopping mall built in what once was the Kress Building at 48 E. Flagler, just east of Burdines. She strides under the neon entrance sign, across the tile floors, and up the stairs to the bustling food court. English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Creole are spoken by families, shopping bags stacked at their sides as they munch on Cuban sandwiches, sweet-and-sour chicken, and Greek salads. In the mezzanine a smiling pianist playing a black baby grand slides from "En Mi Bello San Juan" to de Falla's "Ritual Dance of Fire" to "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Thick, green vines spill over from above, where Natan Rok rules his Flagler empire.

Natan Rok is the top dog, a king among landlords in downtown Miami. The Cuban immigrant's first venture into business here was Dandy's Men's Wear, a small retail store at 72 E. Flagler, which he and his uncle opened shortly after Rok arrived in Miami in 1964. Today Rok owns more than $50 million worth of property in the downtown area alone, with about 225 tenants in more than twenty buildings.

Rok pioneered the practice of subdividing downtown buildings into small retail spaces, despite predictions he would fail. With Flagler Station, his transformation of the five-story Kress Building (originally constructed in 1926), Rok has set a trend businessmen like Brazlavsky say might be the compromise between modernizing Flagler and retaining the present flavor of the area. The $25 million renovation, completed in 1985, consists of a shopping mall, a food court, the main offices of Transatlantic Bank, as well as Rok Enterprises, Inc., and Manny Medina's two-million-dollar Monty's Downtown, the first of what downtown merchants hope will be many more night spots.

Emerging from the south end of Flagler Station, Mom, shopping bags slung over her arm, wanders east along SE First Street, past Gordo's, a narrow green passageway of a Brazilian restaurant, where Portuguese-speaking patrons sip guarana, a Brazilian soda, and argue business over feijoada completa - black-bean stew with pork, chopped collard greens, and manioc-flour dressing. Mom ignores the salesmen lurking in the doorway of Suaya's Supershops at 155 SE First St., where bright-red brand names - Fila, Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, Pony - blaze from white backgrounds. On the next corner, at 165 SE First Street, Juan Canal sits behind the counter of his newsstand and watches the traffic go by, as he has done from the same spot for the past fifteen years.

While technically it's not on Flagler, Canal's stand is Flagler, a four-window stall that serves as a touchstone for downtown's Latin American masses, a soapbox for its proprietor's political outpourings, where customers sometimes are ignored in the heat of debate. On portable pipe-metal carts, passersby can choose from La Tercera and El Mercurio of Chile, El Universal of Venezuela, La Nacion of Costa Rica, El Pais of Spain, Le Monde of France, even the hard-to-find Carribbean Week - about 100 foreign papers in all. Canal has the society magazine Hola! of Spain, the fashion Collezioni Donna of Italy. He has batteries and Italian bonbons, rickety frames filled with racy paperback novelas whose titles translate to "Savage Dogs," "Thirst for Vengeance," and "Where Death Rules." And Canal himself, a 55-year-old Spaniard from Santander, has an opinion about everything. Especially politics. The greatest men of the Eighties, he maintains, were Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"Flagler has changed remarkably in the past ten years, so much you wouldn't recognize it if you saw it then," Canal says in Spanish. "Change here is inevitable. The metamorphosis of this place is impossible to halt. This is a young city, so change is inevitable. But no one group can decide that change. The economic force will decide, and that's the people who buy my papers, the people who take a cab from this corner, the people who stop to eat here, all the way up to the guy who buys one of these buildings. Those will be the people to decide. There have always been Hispanics here, and there always will be. If they push out the ones that are here now, new ones will come to replace them. That's just the way it is."

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