Every Picture Tells A Story

There he is -- the guy with the strawberry-blond mustache who tried to electrocute his own mother in the bathtub. And the nurse, now dead, who always wore a flower in her hair. The cowboy with a twisted smirk who invited preteens to his room. The sweet-faced woman whose husband kicked one of her eyes out.

"I got stories on all these people," confides Marcia Gelbart Walkenstein with a chortle. "It's so much fun." A well-worn Nikon F2 around her neck, she resumes pasting five-by-seven photographs onto the wall of a vacant building on Washington Avenue at Fifth Street in Miami Beach. Just downstairs from Beau Jack's old haunt, the landmark Fifth Street Gym, Walkenstein is like a branch in a stream, around which Beach people eddy and eventually pass. "Hey, baby!" she replies to greetings shouted from bicycles and cars, moving quickly and lightly, gluing up more pictures and making little jokes, much as her brother, Hollywood screenwriter Larry Gelbart (Tootsie, Blame It On Rio, the TV series M*A*S*H), might do.

Since Labor Day, Walkenstein has endeavored to cover that wall with a tapestry of more than 1000 of her snapshots, the subjects of which are the people she's encountered in South Beach during the past fifteen years: artists, local heroes such as boxing champ "Beau Jack," several more-recent glitterati, street people, her own children. Walkenstein describes her outdoor exhibit, Faces of South Beach 1977-1992, as a celebration, a gesture of love directed at its subjects -- especially the street people and the elderly who were methodically displaced as the area was gentrified.

"South Beach is different in every way from fifteen years ago," Walkenstein says with some annoyance. She points out several pictures of people she calls "Goldman's Oldies," a swipe at Tony Goldman, one of the Beach's more prominent developers whose wholesale renovations displaced hundreds of snowbirds. "They do their number. They come in and buy cheap. Everything's fancy-shmancy. That's what they do now. I always say I shot South Beach `B.C.' Before Chic."

Since she moved to Miami Beach in 1977, Walkenstein says, she has taken about half a million photographs. Faces of South Beach is her first stab at street art, she says; her work normally appears in more traditional locations -- the Bass Museum on Collins Avenue, Mad Max restaurant on Ocean Drive. A book of her photographs is in the early stages of publication.

The street-art project had been on her mind for a long time, but it took Hurricane Andrew to provide the final catalyst. She characterizes the exhibit as "a payback to the gods" for guarding the photos in her South Beach apartment while she weathered the storm at a Miami Lakes shelter, adding, "When I came back from the shelter and found out these weren't floating on top of water in the apartment, I said, `That's it, I can't wait any more.'"

Walkenstein says she spent most of her life in Beverly Hills, where her father, Harry Gelbart, was a barber to the rich and famous. ("I've got a nickel bag of JFK's hair," she brags.) She took up photography not long before she moved with her four children and her husband to South Beach. As the decaying neighborhood began to undergo its revitalization, Walkenstein photographed the changes. Her own life changed during that time, as well, she points out; her eldest son was murdered five years ago, and she and her husband recently separated.

"Is that Roy or not?" interrupts a man wearing a gray T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, as he and his friends peruse the exhibit over a lunch of sandwiches street-made from a communal loaf of white bread, a pack of bologna, and small jar of mayonnaise.

"No, but it looks like him," someone murmurs.
"Roy's always been a bonehead," concludes Carol Bauer, a skinny, sun-baked woman with no front teeth. She and her boyfriend, who swears his name is Tony Roma, live under a nearby bridge. Unlike many Beach denizens who drift into the community and then out again, they've been here a long time -- Bauer for 35 years, Tony Roma for almost twenty.

"I know most of these people," says Tony Roma, a St. Croix native in psychedelic shorts, red suspenders, and dark sunglasses. "This woman" -- he points to a dark, defiant beauty in a skintight yellow dress -- "she was the best-known prostitute on Miami Beach."

"She's retired," Bauer adds. "She was going to go to West Palm Beach."
As they continue their discussion, Walkenstein continues her documentation, snapping photos of them and other visitors as they study the pictures on the wall. In a few days, she'll paste the new scenes up with the rest.

Diane Camber, executive director of the Bass Museum, says she was the first to give Walkenstein's work a public showing, in the early 1980s. Several South Beach faces are included in the museum's permanent collection and will be part of an October portraiture exhibition. "People didn't really know about Marcia and her photography," Cambers says. "She and her husband were living in South Beach when there were no younger people at all, with no telephone -- sort of a counterculture. At the time she was working with a borrowed camera. I knew she was photographing street people, and I got very interested in her work and asked to see it. She arrived with a huge satchel of candid photos she'd been taking. I said, `You've really got a terrific eye and you should keep at it.' And she has."

Walkenstein's latest effort, however, may not be long for Washington Avenue. As far as the city of Miami Beach's code enforcement department is concerned, the display is illegal -- and it has to go. Under city ordinances, code enforcement officer Michael Saunders explains, the exhibit comes under the heading of "unauthorized signage, graffiti, or posters." The penalty for not removing it: up to $250 per day.

But because the "unauthorized signage" is mounted on a privately owned building, the owner is responsible for removing it, a fact that irritates Robert Levine, the Miami lawyer who represents the New York-based landlords.

"What is she doing out there?" asks Levine, who has not seen Walkenstein's exhibit. "We're not going to get fined because people are using the property for their purposes," he adds. "We have to send men down at great expense to my client to clean it up. This isn't right. People don't ask for permission."

Actually, Walkenstein did call Levine this past Wednesday, after city officials informed her the exhibit was illegal. But Levine says he had no idea what she was talking about; and Michael Saunders of the code enforcement department says that even if the owners did eventually approve the project, Walkenstein would still have to get a permit from the city.

"I have a problem," concedes Walkenstein, sounding a bit puzzled. And just when she got a much-needed donation of Elmer's glue. But she knows the show can't really go on forever; the photos eventually will fade in the light, despite the fact that she applied an acrylic overcoat. In addition, people are pilfering photos from the wall every day -- some don't like having their pictures displayed, others like it a little bit too much.

"I sort of didn't think of it being torn down," Walkenstein confides, "just that it would fade away. Now if I don't protect it, I think it'll get ripped off. What I'd really love to do is have a hidden camera and watch what goes on."

Meanwhile, she is considering applying a heavier acrylic coating to keep the photos intact, and she's wondering how much good that will do, if she has to comply with the letter of the law. She tilts her head, grins, and says, "We'll have to play it by eye.


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