Net Loss

Jimbo's, a beloved chowder of old Florida and innocent days, is adrift

At Jimbo's bar on Virginia Key, it was just another morning, another chance to sit under the pine boughs, stoke a smoldering log fire, and ease open another cold Schlitz. In the nearby lagoon, reflected sunlight undulated against a worn dock's wood planks, and pelicans stood sentinel on faded fishing boats.

James "Jimbo" Luznar, who is 78 years old, has run his ramshackle operation here — serving shrimp, smoked fish, and beer to generations of Miamians and intrepid tourists — for the past half-century. Long ago the city told him his shrimp boats couldn't stay at an old pier downtown, then a warren of slums slated for redevelopment and now home to the Miami Herald building. In 1954 he dropped anchor in the forsaken waters just off Rickenbacker Causeway and built a few leaning shacks on property the city granted him. Luznar's only neighbors were the occasional sandcombers at Virginia Key Beach, a blacks-only beach at the time, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Toxic foam and a powerful stench from the nearby sewage treatment plant drifted into camp on windy days, flies swarmed, and boats ran aground in the markerless lagoon. "They didn't do us any favors," Luznar said of the city.

Luznar's agreement with the city provided him a docking place for his three shrimp boats but little else in terms of specifics. Jimbo's was and still is in a legal gray area, without a lease or taxation. It is, for all intents and purposes, off the map.

Over the years, as mirrored skyscrapers have sprouted across the bay, Jimbo's has become known as a piece of old Florida, a place where beach bums and ship captains mix with lawyers and politicians over two-dollar beers and a game of bocce. "It's different than anything in the world," Luznar said recently.

Although city officials emphasize they have no specific designs on Jimbo's, the pending Virginia Key master plan — with its stated goal of introducing land use policies and developing public open spaces, including possible ball fields in the area of Jimbo's — has put a question mark over the bar's future. What some consider Jimbo's charm — a raft of code violations, from rambling roosters and rotting mattresses to rusting car hulks and rank outhouses — doesn't help its case with the city.

"You can't enforce code in Little Havana and not out there," said Miami City Manager Joe Arriola. "Places like that don't belong in the City of Miami." Despite his own opinion, Arriola said he is open to feedback by way of planned public forums on the master plan. "There's no hidden agenda," Arriola said. "Jimbo's is on the table like everything out there is on the table."

However, the city will likely consider the fact that Luznar has gone "way beyond" the intent of the original resolution to grant him a docking place, said Laura Billberry, director of the city's Public Facilities Office. Jimbo's has also gone beyond the intent of its liquor license, which allows beer sales but not on-site consumption, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

As for liability issues, City Attorney Jorge Fernandez said he had never heard of Jimbo's and wouldn't entertain questions about liability there. "Hypothetical questions don't go too far," Fernandez said.

What isn't hypothetical is Jimbo's lack of legal basis for remaining on Virginia Key, according to Robert Weinreb, a consultant to the city's master plan project. "The city could throw him out at anytime."

Luznar isn't scared. He said he couldn't imagine the city cracking down on him after all of these years, and he couldn't imagine his loyal legions allowing that. "I know more people and more people know me in Miami than the mayor, and I tell you what, they're going to fight for me."

A great-grandfather, Luznar has slowed a bit over the years. He lives comfortably in North Miami Beach and visits his bar only on weekends. Still, he said, he can't stomach the idea of losing the watering hole, a place he considers one of the last bastions of authenticity: "[Jimbo's] belongs to the people, not the city."


Jimbo's Lore

>> Jimbo Luznar says he began selling beer with his shrimp when some Fisher Island residents suggested he open a bar; he cant remember exactly when. Apparently the wealthy islanders didnt want the blue-collar workers building resort homes to come to their watering holes, Luznar says.

>> The lagoon next to Jimbo's was the site of filming for Sixties-era television shows Flipper and Gentle Ben.

>> Jimbo's movie credits include scenes from True Lies, a 1994 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Blood and Wine, a 1997 film starring Jack Nicholson. The film crew for 1983s Porky's II built a riverboat in the lagoon behind Jimbos.

>> Jimbo's has been the site of countless fashion and music video shoots. Mariah Carey shot her first album cover there.

 
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