By Chuck Strouse
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"The sailors who docked in Miami said that Hell's Kitchen could not compare with North Miami," Helen Muir wrote in her 1953 book Miami USA. "Saloons were open around the clock. Roulette wheels ran in the middle of Miami Avenue. Opium dens flourished. Chinese, Negroes, and whites lived together in an atmosphere in which violence bubbled always beneath the surface. Three reported killings a night were about average." The evening after payday, Miami pioneer John Sewell observed, was particularly chaotic.
Henry Flagler's railroad reached Miami in April 1896, swelling the population. Downtown Miami began to spread north. It wasn't long before efforts began to run the sinners out. "When the area starts to become not just honky-tonk but residential, there are residents who start saying, 'Okay, that's enough with that kind of stuff,'" historian Paul George explains. "So they created a neighborhood association to clean it up."
In an article published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, George recounts that in 1908, prohibitionist Carrie Nation visited South Florida. She descended upon North Miami, where she entered a brothel and found women smoking and "lounging in loose attire." Nation interrogated a couple she discovered in a darkened room and triumphantly determined they were not married to each other. The experience was enough to convince the moral crusader that there was "crime and corruption in plenty in Miami."
But the area was not purged until Sheriff Dan Hardie took up the cause, announcing that he would "clean out the whole rat's nest" in six weeks' time. The high-profile lawman offered prostitutes "a ticket home to Mother" and uprooted the gamblers and honky-tonk owners who traipsed across the railroad tracks into Colored Town. "North Miami becomes part of the City of Miami circa 1913," George says. "By then the whole honky-tonk thing is gone. There have been raids on the place, they've chased all the prostitution out of there to the black neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. North Miami becomes a white working-class neighborhood." Several wooden houses still standing on shady NE Miami Court, a side street parallel to North Miami Avenue, provide a glimpse of what the neighborhood looked like 90 years ago, when it was primarily residential.
In 1915 Firehouse Number Two was established, coinciding with the hiring of the Miami Fire Department's first salaried corps of firefighters. (The original building was torn down in the Twenties to make way for the formidable building standing now, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.) Horse-drawn pumps were replaced by motorized trucks.
During the real-estate boom of the early Twenties, the area was targeted for small apartment houses and residence hotels, and merchants moved in, hoping to offer an alternative to the bustling shops on busy Flagler Street. In 1926 the Citizens Bank was built on the corner of North Miami Avenue near NE Fourteenth Street. An adjoining office building had four real-estate companies, an accountant, and a physician as tenants. The Fourteenth Street Drugstore was around the corner. Other tenants on the avenue included a restaurant, a cleaners, an artist's studio, an auto-supply store, the gas station, and the apartment building initially called the Bunny Apartments and later rechristened the Leslie Apartment Hotel. There was a ballroom on the ground floor.
By 1926 Miami's real-estate boom was over, and the city's financial decline was compounded by the wallop of a major hurricane. Within four years the Citizens Bank building stood empty, as did most properties on the North Miami Avenue block.
The economy was looking up by 1935, and by 1940 Miami was thriving again. The population was moving farther away from the city center, and the area north of downtown became less residential, evolving instead into a location for small manufacturing companies and warehouses. The Sears Tower, which had opened on NE Thirteenth Street and Biscayne Boulevard in 1929, did brisk business. In 1941 it was reported that more than 6200 cars passed through the traffic circle in front of the store each afternoon during rush hour.
Taxidermist Al Pflueger moved from New Jersey to Miami in 1925, figuring he could make a living mounting fish as trophies for sport fisherman in the growing coastal tourist destination. He invented a new method of preserving fish using sawdust and gauze instead of filling the specimens with heavy plaster of Paris. The taxidermist also became well-known for his "top secret" creation: prosthetic fish eyes that looked like the real thing.
In 1936 Pflueger moved his shop from NW Twelfth Street into the old Citizens Bank building. He put his workshop upstairs, turning the vault into a walk-in refrigerator where he stored freshly caught fish awaiting his handiwork. Pflueger's son, Al, Jr., fondly recalls spending time as a boy on North Miami Avenue, hanging out at the Standard Oil station across the street and dining at the Royal restaurant around the corner. "I used to hitchhike downtown to Flagler Street," recalls the younger Pflueger, now in his sixties. "I knew everyone and everyone knew me."
By his own estimate, the elder Pflueger mounted more than half a million game fish in his lifetime, and he was known in the marine-science field as one of the leading authorities on fish identification. He decided to share his knowledge with the public by setting up a marine museum on the first floor of the bank building. According to a 1941 guide to Miami, hundreds of mounted fish lined the walls. Large glass cases were fitted between the lobby columns, each painted with a reef scene in the background. "Running the gamut of rainbow colors," the specimens included "parrotfish, four-eye butterfly, angel, trigger, tang, and file." The museum was open every day and admission was free. "He had all the large fish indigenous to the area," confirms his son, who took over the business after his father died. "There were big rays hanging from the ceiling, whales, fish of all kinds. People were going in and out of there all the time."