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

Erosion has exposed the seawall in the vacant area that was once the greyhound track's double-decker parking lot. James York bends down, digs around by the wall, and comes up with a chunk of marine-blue cement. He is standing where Jack Diamond's hamburger shack used to be, over in the far corner of the parking lot.

By the late Seventies when York, then a freshman in high school, started surfing on South Beach, riding waves had long since ceased to be a national sensation. A regular group of local surfers still hung out by the pier, but the businesses they once supported had disappeared. The surf-shop owners had moved their stores up to Cocoa Beach or Melbourne, and some of the surfers had gone with them. Others had put their boards aside for inland careers or taken up trendier hobbies. Miami Beach's glory days were over. South Beach had severely deteriorated.

"It was not a place that you came to relax at the beach then," notes York, walking toward the water. "A couple cars a day were being stolen. They were smashing windows. There were fights all the time. There were cops everywhere. Not a lot was going on on the beach then, either. It was old people who were eating cat food; it was refugees who were trying to rip you off; and it was surfers. It sounds corny when I say it, but you really felt like you were living in a frontier within this setting. Because everyone was on edge. Everything was very unconventional. There was nobody here speculating about land. And there was nobody here who would just bring out a beach chair and enjoy the sun A everybody went to Key Biscayne to do that."

"Surfers aren't really flashy people," chimes in Mark Rosen, "so the criminal element wasn't real interested in us. They figured if we were crazy enough to be out in the ocean when there were 60-mile-an-hour winds and you could barely walk to the beach without being pelted by sand, and there were big gnarly, choppy waves, and man-of-war -- most people just figured we were lunatics so they didn't bother us that much."

About the only remaining surfers' hangout back then was Jack Diamond's hamburger stand, which served as a personal restaurant, message center, and weather tower for the hard-core group of surfers who were on South Beach every day that there was the possibility of a wave. In the morning, Jack, a crusty transplanted New Yorker in his 50s, would take out his dog-track binoculars and check out the conditions. When the surfers called him, he'd give them his version of a surf report.

"If there were no waves, he'd tell us there were waves [anyway], so we'd come and he could do some business," remembers Rosen. "But then a group of us promised him that if he would tell other surfers that the waves were a little bit smaller than they really were, we'd support him. We suggested to him to serve what we liked to eat. He had these hot dogs and hamburgers of undeterminate origin. We had him go down to the Daily Bread Bakery in Miami and get some whole-wheat pitas. We had him get some spinach pies. Then every time we finished surfing we'd go right up there and buy something from him. That was the deal we had."

That deal lasted until 1980, the year the dog track was leveled. Jack closed down his stand one day and disappeared. Five years later, City of Miami Beach officials demolished the sagging Million-Dollar Pier, and the Army Corps of Engineers widened the beach, filling in the area in front of the seawall with sand as part of a plan to build a new jetty closer to Government Cut. So ended an era of South Beach surfing.

"Mother Nature has full control of it now," says York. "Now there's no structure for the formation of sandbars."

Local surfers say the removal of the pier undoubtedly reduced the size and quality of the waves, and, in turn, the number of good surfing days on South Beach. On top of that, some believe global warming has affected the number of surfing days per season.

"My surfing days have definitely diminished over the years," acknowledges Rosen. "Our weather patterns have changed. In the Seventies, winter temperatures in the 50s were common; often they'd get down to the 30s. We'd get slammed with strong weather systems more often."

Recently surfing has become trendy again. So has South Beach. These days the water off First Street is packed with locals, tourists, and surfer wanna-be's. That doesn't seem to unnerve James York too much. He contemplates the chunk of old blue cement he holds from Jack Diamond's hamburger stand for a moment, then looks out at the ocean. He says he'll keep surfing on South Beach as long as he's in Miami. But it's no longer a frontier.

"The conception of surfing has changed, not just in Miami Beach but really throughout the developed world," York laments. "At one time, in order to be a surfer, you had to be an amateur meteorologist and you had to be damn good at it. You had to be a kind of a mystic, you had to understand the ways of the water, the way the ocean is. And if you didn't understand that, you had your head up your ass.

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