Catch a Wave...If You Can

South Beach surfing has its ups and downs -- mostly downs -- but for a dedicated posse of locals it still can be swell

Although Miami Beach was in its heyday as a glitzy resort town, the neighborhood south of Fifth Street was populated by retirees, middle-class snowbirds, and the less affluent members of the first wave of Cuban exiles; they lived in wooden bungalows and modern apartment buildings along lower Ocean Drive. A block of Miami Beach Housing Authority projects for low-income families had been built in the 1950s at 800 Biscayne St., right at the entrance to South Pointe Park.

The Miami Beach Kennel Club greyhound racetrack, located where South Pointe Towers now stands, was the area's main attraction. Behind it was a two-story parking lot appropriated by surfers who would drive in and check out the waves from their cars. Parking cost a dollar for the day, but pennies, scraped across the concrete floor of the parking lot to file them down, were used to trip the meters.

Bellizzi points to the corner of First and Ocean, where there was a drugstore that served breakfast for 25 cents. A block south was Lum's, which later became Chicken Limited, a popular surfers' hangout. The Turf Bar down the street was known for its great hamburgers, huge salads, and pool table.

Across the street, in what's still called Pier Park, just to the right of the spot now occupied by Penrod's parking lot, seagrass and sea-grape plants grew wild, and green parrots nested. The park ended at the foot of the Miami Beach Municipal Pier, built by Ohio businessman George R.K. Carter in 1926. The pier was damaged in both the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes, but Carter subsequently repaired the reinforced concrete structure, adding a wooden building at its entrance that housed a restaurant and gambling casino. Carter sank so much money into the project that it became known as "the Million-Dollar Pier," even though in 1940 he sold it to the City of Miami Beach for considerably less than a million dollars -- $65,000. During World War II the pier was used as a recreation center for military personnel; in fact from 1942 to 1945 it was referred to as "the Serviceman's Pier."

It was the Million-Dollar Pier that lured local teenagers, eager to create a cool surf scene like the one in Southern California, to the far end of South Beach in the early Sixties. By that time, the pier, which had suffered damage from several tropical storms, extended roughly from Penrod's out past what is now the beginning of the beach, with water reaching right up to the top of the pier's ocean end at high tide. When the wind brought a swell down from the north, sandbars would form around the pilings. Twenty to thirty-mile-per-hour winds could create twenty-foot waves. At high tide, the surfers would jump off the end of the pier into the water and catch the tubes, timing their launches carefully with the outgoing surf to keep from getting smashed against the pilings when the ocean was rough.

The surfers provided a new form of entertainment for neighborhood residents, for whom Pier Park was a traditional meeting place and entertainment center. The restaurant and casino had been gutted, but concerts and dances for retirees were held in the park's bandshell. People were already coming out to watch shark fisherman on the pier, and the novelty of surfing attracted an even bigger crowd.

In 1971, after some surfers were arrested for surfing off South Beach in a swimming area, University of Miami student Ross Gary Houston formed the Dade County Surfing Association "to provide a means of organizing the local surfing population for the betterment of the sport and to work towards improving relations between the community and the surfers." According to Houston, there were 2000 Dade County surfers at the time.

By 1972 the group had 300 members. Its meetings were held at the American Savings & Loan at Lincoln Road, basically for the purpose of screening surf movies. The whole thing was a precarious endeavor that relied on surfers' dues for funding, and it lasted only a few years, falling apart when Houston moved on to other concerns.

Nonetheless, during its lifetime the association persuaded the Miami Beach City Council to create new regulations increasing the number of legal surfing spots. Previously, First Street had been Miami Beach's only designated surfing area, but under pressure from Houston's group, the council voted to permit surfing in the "groins" (protruding manmade structures) at Lummus Park at 14th Street, at the beach at 21st Street, and at the beach from 83rd to 85th streets. Accordingly, in a misguided attempt to affect surf lingo, on April 23, 1972, the Miami Beach Daily Sun-Reporter newspaper reported that surfers could now "curl 10" at these three new locations.

Good morning, this is the X-isle surf report for Thursday morning. Cruise by and check us out, a lot of cool things happenin'. New boards from Rusty, come check out those new longboards, and shortboards, too. Other things happening. Our back-store skate store is open, we've got all you need: skateboards, truckboards, wheels, bearings, grip tape, all that crazy stuff you need for skate. Give 'em a call at 538-SLAM. As far as the wind and waves, it's about knee-high, a little north swell chillin' sort of like yesterday, not really too pumpin', but who knows what the tide can do here. If it does get better, we'll update it. Upcoast information 976-TUBE. That's about it. We'll see you guys.

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