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?

At 37 E. Flagler, down a drab hallway in the basement of the Seybold Building, the wall suddenly comes to life with photographs of the boxing greats. Ali. Duran. Kid Chocolate. An autographed portrait of Mike Tyson. A closer look behind the paraphernalia reveals a three-seat barbershop. An even closer inspection uncovers a connection between the boxing photos and the silver-haired barber. Bernie Soto, 57, whose business card introduces him as "The Puerto Rican Rocky," is the referee in most of the pictures. "That's me all right," says Soto, pointing to the wall of photos. "Eighteen years a professional ref. I've seen all the greats. Thirty-two world-title fights. And 22 years on Flagler."

World Boxing Association ref of the year in 1988, Soto himself won the National Golden Gloves championship in 1956, an award he wears proudly around his neck in the form of two miniature gold boxing gloves. ("I had the diamonds put in. They didn't do that for me.") The Puerto Rican native's shop, its shelves stuffed with scrap books and photos, boxes, folders, bills, hair brushes, and scissors, might be the last place downtown where you can still get an eight-dollar haircut. "I've watched the ups and downs of Flagler from this place," Soto says. "I've been a barber for fathers, their sons, and their grandsons. This is truly a wonderful place. All these plans may be good for some people, but not for me. When it comes time for me to leave, it won't be to move. It will be to relax and retire."

If Flagler is a treasure chest, the Seybold Building that houses Soto's shop is a mother lode that rivals Mel Fisher's finds. In the otherwise unremarkable ten-story building beats the heart of downtown Miami's 1500-store jewelry industry. This is gemstone central, 280 businesses in all, from glass-lined retail shops to upstairs offices where jewelry chieftains cut deals behind closed doors.

At Italian Jewelry on the ground floor, customers stand elbow to elbow at the counters. Crafted coils of fourteen- and eighteen-carat gold hang like Spanish moss from posts in the windows and behind the counters. Boxfuls more line the shelves. Stone-studded rings and earrings, pins and pendants, necklaces and bracelets. Gold hearts and sea horses, sand dollars and dollar signs, gold leaves, a pair of Aladdin's shoes. St. Barbaras and St. Marys, St. Christophers, St. Lazarus with his dogs. Boxes and boxes and boxes of crucifixes - flat ones, round ones, wide and narrow ones. Here too, prices are negotiable. A short bargaining session and the price of an eighteen-carat-gold peacock highlighted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and amethysts is cut from $4250 to $2125. "The first price is retail, but we'll give it to you wholesale," the saleswoman says.

After more than five hours of trudging, Mom reaches the air-conditioned, surreal stillness of Burdines. The street carnival races silently by outside, framed in the glass doors. Smartly dressed salespeople stand at attention behind counters piled with silk scarves. Mom halfheartedly touches two or three scarves, glances at the lavish Christmas decorations already set up at the top of the stairs, and heads for the shoe department. After a day of dickering, of wandering from shop to shop, of buying electronic doodads, clothing, and accessories, she still hasn't found that pair of shoes.

But the peaceful confines of Burdines are a letdown after the excitement of the mad rush of Flagler, and it doesn't take long for Mom to miss the intoxication of the hard sale, the good buy. "Somehow I just can't bring myself to buy shoes here now," she says, tossing aside a pair of Brazilian-made leather pumps. "I'll have to go back to Flagler."

Outside it's business as usual on Miami's street of dreams, where a bargain is a bargain and a deal is a deal. Merchants offer. Customers demand it, consider it their right to haggle. In the end, this mutual determination may be what will save the character and soul of Miami's mercado. "The powers that be will try to dictate the changes down here," observes Uncle Sal. "But it's the people who shop here that will decide what happens. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it will always be. Anything that goes against that is a sure formula for failure."

Flash go the strobes in the windows. Flash-flash. Flashing oblivious to the rain. Flashing without change. Flashing tourists into their parlors, the merchant spiders to the shopping flies.

"I have to get ten-percent profit or they'll fire me," the salesman says to Mom, hopping in place in his Reeboks. "I can't. They'll fire me. I can't.

You can't take my shirt."
"Here they can bargain all they want," says "Uncle Sal" Behar, who has been on Flagler since he graduated high school in 1966. "I'll listen to anything. It doesn't mean I'll agree, but I'll listen."

At Sports U.S.A., 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.

"The demonstration project was supposed to be a catalyst for the owners to step in and continue the improvements," says DDA's Clyde Judson. "That just hasn't happened."

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