Spending an afternoon on South Beach with Ray Breslin is a bit like stepping into the closing scenes of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Although Breslin never hollers out: "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building & Loan!" as he buoyantly walks Kulchur through a block-by-block tour of his neighborhood, the 58-year-old seems to have the same visceral love for these aging Art Deco structures as Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey had for good old Bedford Falls.
True, Breslin and his boyfriend of 26 years, Patrick Pecoraro, may not be the exact profile of domestic bliss Capra had in mind for his film's quaint burg. And Breslin uses the exclamation "It's fabulous!" a tad more than Jimmy Stewart ever did. But all concerned share the same ingratiating warmth, the same earnest joy in everyday living: Exploring the northern stretches of South Beach's historic district has never been this much fun.
Breslin stops short in front of 21st Street's Abbey Hotel, whose vintage façade of alligators and flowers is postcard perfect: "Oh! Have you eaten here recently? They're serving a Sunday brunch now, and" -- wait for it -- "it's fabulous!"
When Kulchur admits he hasn't dined at the Abbey -- not even, ahem, once -- Breslin looks genuinely hurt, as if a dear friend has just been insulted. As the new chairman of the Collins Park Neighborhood Association -- whose boundaries encompass 17th Street to 25th Street and from Washington Avenue east to the Atlantic Ocean -- Breslin takes the group's mission personally.
That heightened sensitivity is particularly on display when he leads the way to the area's "cultural campus," where the new regional library, the Bass Museum of Art, and the Miami City Ballet flank what is about to become a waterfront park and theater (following the old library's demolition). Much like mainland Miami's Performing Arts Center, it's a project that has served as a veritable starting gun for a fresh round of nearby condo developments. And much like mainland Miami, day-to-day reality has yet to mimic those glossy sales brochures.
"Just look at this!" Breslin groans, opening up his arms to the blocks that face the cultural campus. Indeed something's not quite right. If you cast your gaze skyward, you'll find plenty of evidence of the area's real-estate boom. The 40-story Setai, the Shore Club with its attendant VIP-favored bars and restaurants, and the Holiday Inn slated to become a swanky W hotel are only the most prominent of the pricey condo-hotel projects spreading into Collins Park.
However, a street-level perspective offers up an image that's a far cry from the American Riviera locale realtors love to evoke. The entire block once anchored by Wolfie's diner, a 21st Street institution, has been shuttered for several years. Condos have been discussed for the site, but in the meantime its ground floor remains dark. Likewise long stretches of Collins Avenue find blackened windows where shops and cafés once were, with tourists picking their way past broken glass on the sidewalks. Another block-long stretch beneath the Roney Plaza -- whose ground floor holds 100,000 square feet of retail space -- now sits boarded up with wooden planks. The Roney's new owner, New York City-based Chetrin Group, bought the building last year for $150 million and has announced intentions to convert its 574 hotel rooms into -- what else? -- condos, but has been frustratingly vague beyond that.
If you're after a Coors-emblazoned bikini, a Scarface T-shirt, or a "National Pimp Association" jersey, you're in luck. The sprawling La Mirage store, beneath the Townhouse Hotel, has all of those items for sale in its windows. But if you're looking for a grocery, a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, or even just a place to linger over a muffin and a cup of coffee, forget about finding it in Collins Park. Which begs the question: Once all of these new condos have become filled with owners, what then?
"It's great that developers have all these plans," Breslin bristles with clear exasperation. "We want them to succeed. But you can't just have a gym, a spa, and a high-end restaurant on every corner. Do they expect us all to go out for a $100 dinner every night of the week? I hope these developers don't forget that people are actually going to live in their condos once they've bought them."
Call it a bittersweet evolution. Breslin, who in 1994 bought his first condo in 24th Street's Mantell Plaza and has subsequently purchased several more units there he markets as vacation rentals, has watched the value of the building skyrocket even as surrounding services have vanished. "There used to be four markets and a fruit stand here," he sighs. "If you're on Lincoln Road and you want an ice cream cone, there's six different places to go" -- actually, if you're amenable to gelato, there are ten -- "but here in Collins Park? Not one."
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Breslin continues, "I moved here because I wanted an urban experience. I wanted to be able to walk everywhere. I have a boat," he laughs, hitching his thumb toward the small craft bobbing in the canal near the Mantell, "but I don't have a car. I'm afraid we're going to become a suburb in the middle of the city."
To that end, Breslin is gathering a growing number of his fellow residents into their Neighborhood Association, hoping to work with the Miami Beach Planning Board in properly managing the nabe's growth -- rezoning or perhaps offering tax incentives to attract the type of businesses that have disappeared. One way or another, he adds, it's Collins Park's residents who'll be forced to deal with the situation once the developers have packed up their sales offices and moved on to the next hot neighborhood.
Still, however plucky Breslin and his neighbors may be, they have some powerful forces arrayed against them -- the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into their back yards carries an awful lot of influence at city hall.
Such opposition only makes Breslin more determined. Here comes Jimmy Stewart again: "In 1979, when my partner and I first settled down, there weren't any laws on the books to protect us. The right to get married?" He shakes his head incredulously at the very thought of such a demand in an earlier era. "Back then you were forced to work things out for yourself. You had to take care of each other. And if you cared about your community, well, you had to look out for that too." He pauses and then breaks into a triumphant smile: "And that's exactly what we did."