A Skid Row Sleepover

Wherein our intrepid writer attempts to pierce the veil of sleaze on Miami's main street

In her book Biscayne Country, historian Thelma Peters cites a letter penned by developer Wright that recounts his company's 1924 land purchase on downtown's eastern fringe. "This created a lot of excitement and sales, and we really thought it had a lot to do with starting the boom. Then again we rang the curtain down on the boom, as we were still buying properties on the boulevard and had just put on the Deering estate when the boom died on us. These were the last large transactions of the boom."

Hit hard by the bust that came in 1926 (and the devastating hurricane that followed), Wright and Anderson accepted a loan from the J.S. Phipps estate of New York. When they defaulted that year, Phipps took control of the property and formed the Biscayne Boulevard Company to complete the project. According to Ballinger: "Like the anesthesia which prepares our nerves for the shock of the surgeon's knife, the creation of Biscayne boulevard [sic] kept Miami going during the summer of 1926 despite the discovery that $50,000 lots no longer could be sold for one-tenth of that amount, or that the 'summer tourist season' of 1925 was nothing but a delusion.

"The boulevard, therefore, is something more than just a wide strip of asphalt to South Florida. It is an institution whose bright flowering of today gives no hint of the bitter disappointments on which its roots first fed."

Police are conducting stings twice per week on the boulevard these days, netting fifteen to twenty johns per night
Police are conducting stings twice per week on the boulevard these days, netting fifteen to twenty johns per night

In the morning I reinspect the bathroom and decide not to shower. I throw on some clothes and saunter seven blocks south to Feinkost, the gourmet grocery. I have a coffee, a croissant, and a fresh orange juice while reading the Herald. The bill is four dollars. I might as well be on South Beach. Then I page to the story about Judge Richardson's acquittal on charges of soliciting a prostitute. Part of the reason for the jury's decision was testimony by Richardson's wife, Corinne. In open court she said the two have a healthy sex life, the article states.

After breakfast I begin searching for another motel. I inspect the nondescript rooms of Stephan's International on NE 63rd Street. They are less ragged than the Sinbad, but without the gritty character. Moreover the clerk demands $38 per night, five dollars more than his neighbor. Next I go to the Davis at NE 65th Street, where the cost is $40 per night. I decline. As I leave the office, I notice a machine that dispenses aspirin and condoms by the door.

I'm walking the same stretch of road as last night. Other than a few men lounging by the Amoco, the sunlight has for the most part forced the illicit trade into the shadows. I pass a group of Haitian women waiting for a bus with grocery bags. A woman in a fast-food-restaurant uniform briskly passes me.

I bump into the white guy I saw the night before. He's dressed in exactly the same garb: shorts, no shirt, and backward white baseball cap. "Hey," he says groggily. Feeling a little more secure in the daylight, I introduce myself and tell him I'm a writer. "Cool! What do you want to know? I can tell you some good shit," he offers. We arrange to meet later for lunch. "Great, I need some food," he says, adding that his name is Sonny.

I end up checking into the Shalimar, a once jazzy Fifties-style spot between NE 61st and 62nd streets. It only costs $33 per night. As a bonus the parking lot is protected by a gate. While exiting my car I see a pretty young white woman and three black men in a faded gold Honda. She flashes a lascivious grin. When I smile back, one of the men nudges her in the side.

After I deposit my bags in my room, I leave to look for Sonny. He's nowhere to be found, so I return to my room.

In 1994 the city's Nuisance Abatement Board temporarily closed the Shalimar after police documented ten instances of drug dealing and prostitution in its rooms during a six-month period. The board also determined the owners were unable "to abate the drug-related nuisance." It closed in December 1994. When it reopened six months later, the owners had installed four sets of security cameras, 175-watt lights, a motorized gate, and a beam sensor alarm.

At about 11:00 p.m. I go out for a stroll. One of the first people I see is the pretty girl I observed in the car at the motel. She is standing alone on a side street.

"Hi," she says. "I saw you at the Shalimar. Can I come to your room later?"

I'm thrown by her aggressiveness. "No," I stammer. "I'm just out for a walk."

She doesn't miss a beat. "I just want to come to your room and drink some beer, you know?" She says her name is Michelle. She has a tattoo of a tribal weave around her bicep. I retreat.

As I pass the Neighborhood Enhancement Team office on NE 66th Street, I notice a half-dozen Miami police cars are parked out front. I walk inside and find the place bustling. Two sergeants are seated at desks. Young men in jeans and black T-shirts that read "Police" are writing reports and checking their radios. Three saucily dressed, svelte young black women are lounging in the rear of the open white room. I assume the cops have arrested three hookers. I'm wrong. The women are undercover officers. They are preparing for a sting operation.

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