So you think Miami is all about bubbleheads whose most intense reading comes from their hair-gel tubes, right? And about people who would say Verlaine is a brand of sunglasses and Pynchon a species of fish, right? Think again, dude. This town was practically founded by highly literate people from the northeastern United States, e.g., author Kirk Munroe, one of the first settlers of Coconut Grove in the late 1800s. These days the area's best-known men and women of letters are realists such as Carl Hiaasen, Les Standiford, James Hall, and Edna Buchanan. They cater to the popular tastes, and we love that stuff. But every vibrant literary scene needs a journal, because quality and experimentation do not always reach the mass market. Instructors at Florida International University founded Gulf Stream Magazine in 1989 when they launched the school's master's program for creative writing. "We particularly look for work we think is energetic, well made, and provocative," editor Lynne Barrett says. Call that statement a synechdoche for Miami. You can subscribe or order single issues by calling the FIU creative-writing department, or buy a copy from Books & Books.

No booming THX sound. No giant curved screen. No reclining overstuffed seats that look like they fell off a spaceship. No handy drink holders. No uniformed minions peddling hot dogs, nachos, and candy. No computerized ticket dispensers. No call ahead and charge. No TV monitors broadcasting what time the movie you came to see will be playing. A smallish big screen, 192 comfortably rickety seats. A discerning selection of first-run, second-run, and foreign films. A cozy lobby with couches, tables, and chairs where you can sip an espresso or a soda, scarf your popcorn and Snickers, chat with other cineastes, silently read a magazine, or just listen to the piped-in music. In short a charming and user-friendly theater run by two gregarious guys, Johnny Calderin and Cesar Hernandez-Canton, who remember what going to the movies was like before the advent of the multiplex.

I'm new in town. Just rode in from Kansas City. I'm also hungry. Shuffling down Biscayne and eyeing some mighty fine ladies who look sorta hungry, too. Well, there's a Denny's right there on the corner. I walk in and the place is packed at ten o'clock on a Wednesday night. I can see a table of nuns in one corner and a table of something -- they've got little undershirts over their big oiled-up muscles -- in another corner. I'm sitting at the counter thinking about a chicken-fried steak. Behind me is a nice couple with two kids, all dressed up, maybe come in after Wednesday-night prayer meeting. Over on the other side of the room I see this girl with her hair stacked up into a point, like the Empire State Building on her head. She's with a guy loaded down with gold rings and chains and tattoos, but he don't have no hair at all. All of a sudden yelling breaks out at a booth. "Well, you're hungry, not me," a waitress sniffs. Then a huge roly-poly woman in a skintight leopard-skin dress, she rises up, takes a step toward the retreating waitress, and tackles her around the shoulders, like wrestling a steer. "You gonna be sorry!" Roly-Poly shouts. "Your incompetence and laziness done you in! I wanna see the manager!" Now, anyone who's been here five minutes can see there is no management at this restaurant; it's the Wild West, with all kinds of characters and grifters and drifters walking in, just wanting a cup of coffee and a Grand Slam, and getting a big slice of Miami while they wait. And wait.
No doubt about it, Miami is a surreal place, almost cartoonlike at times. Which may be why Scott Baldwin's Carter comics do such a wonderful job capturing the local cultural flavor, as seen through bohemian, but never jaundiced, eyes. The strip's protagonist, Brandon, is a wide-eyed fellow, beat down but still smiling, just trying to make sense of it all. Whether he's sitting down for a drink with death (literally), wandering through Little Havana, or getting bounced out of punk dive Churchill's, Brandon alternately evokes laugh-out-loud guffaws and head-scratching confusion. It incorporates the best aspects of Ziggy and Nancy, but with Baldwin's own charmingly crude, left-out-in-the-sun-too-long style.
The Shops at Sunset Place
The Shops at Sunset Place
Foeman has never been charged with taking bribes. He's never committed voter fraud. Nor has he used his public position, one of the top three posts at the City of Miami, to slip influence to local developers or to lobby against Fidel Castro, a real possibility in a government historically obsessed with foreign affairs. Foeman survived Operation Greenpalm because he's a true representative who serves his constituents with solid professionalism. Most days he arrives at his Dinner Key office early in the morning, laboring in solitude before the phones begin to ring. The staff he oversees is the nicest, most helpful bunch of civil servants in the city, if not the entire county. Like Foeman, they work hard while keeping their politics to themselves.
"That was a small space, and I'm too big for small spaces," says drag queen Elaine Lancaster of a tiny bar on Lincoln Road where she worked recently. Sounds like Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, who defiantly declared, "I'm still big; it's the pictures that got smaller." Lancaster, however, is referring not to her status but to her stature. She really is a big girl -- six feet two without heels or her Texas-size blond mane. Frequently seen on the arm of old Texas buddy Dennis Rodman, she arrived in Miami from Dallas nearly two years ago. You can catch her hostessing at Tuesday's "Revolution" at Red Square restaurant, Wednesday's "World Famous $1000 Strip Contest" at Warsaw, and Fridays and Saturdays at Bar Room. In her syrupy Southern accent, she's raconteur, comedienne, diplomat, and self-deprecating commentator on world events. But more than just the hostess with the mostest, Lancaster (a.k.a. James Davis) is a wiz at out-illusioning her fellow gender illusionists by doing some mean lip-synching. Batting her eyelashes, casting sidelong glances, smiling widely, wooing the crowd with her many expressions, it's no wonder she's been featured on television and in movies several times, has her own column in miamigo magazine, and lately has enlisted the services of an agent to advance her career. This diva is a glamazon who's got the goods to take her straight to superstardom.
Allapattah has always been there, right in the heart of Miami, a diverse and often picturesque twenty or so square blocks. But we don't really know what Allapattah is all about. Yes, it's one of those inner-city neighborhoods that used to be rich and white and is now poor and minority. But such a great mix: about 40,000 Nicaraguans, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Colombians, Hondurans, and African Americans. They live between NW 7th and 27th avenues, from 20th Street north to 38th Street. Perhaps the most important landmarks in Allapattah are internationally known Jackson Memorial Hospital, the Veterans' Administration Hospital, Sylvester Cancer Center, and other medical institutions. But to get a real feel for Allapattah, check out the warehouse and garment district, which includes a legendary produce market. Stroll down NW Seventeenth Avenue, a day-and-night festival of mainly Dominican cafeterías, shops, botánicas, and bakeries. Visit the Wilfredo Vasquez boxing gym just a block away from Jackson Senior High. Cruise along the many residential streets lined with brightly painted 30- and 40-year-old bungalows. And for the record: That Burger King on 27th Avenue at 36th Street is the first BK to open in the United States.
From the outside the Ziff Museum looks like an ordinary synagogue, but when you step inside and feel the bright sunlight streaming through the 80 stained-glass windows, you sense a vitality that comes from more than this building having once been a house of worship. Before there was a museum, there was a traveling exhibition called "MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida." Organized as a statewide project, "MOSAIC" comprises photographs, artifacts, and oral histories that depict the Jewish presence in South Florida since 1763. From 1990 to 1994 the exhibition toured thirteen cities around the nation. Its immense popularity persuaded organizers to find it a permanent home, which expanded into the idea of building the South's first Jewish museum. The site: the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, which had housed Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation and provided a symbolic reminder of the days when Miami Beach Jews were restricted to living south of Fifth Street. Long in disrepair and almost done in by the wrath of Hurricane Andrew, the building was given a two-year, $1.5 million restoration, a million of which came from Sunglass Hut mogul Sanford L. Ziff. Opened in the spring of 1995, the museum has since hosted an array of fascinating exhibitions, including photographer Neil Folberg's stunning images of historic synagogues around the world; a thought-provoking examination of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region created by Joseph Stalin in the late Twenties; and entertaining and informative looks at Jewish life in Miami Beach. A lively series of lectures and programs accompany each showing and have featured readings, scholarly discussions, music by klezmer bands, and recollections from long-time South Florida residents. Its past life as a synagogue serves the museum quite well, for it's indeed a place to contemplate and appreciate what it means to be Jewish -- for members of the faith and others.

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Artist-turned-dealer Fred Snitzer is the godfather of Miami's contemporary art scene. He has outlasted art-world fads and real estate trends, persevering when others have grown discouraged with the local audience and art market. "It's frustrating," says the Philadelphia native, who first opened a gallery here two decades ago and for the past two years has been at his ample, cement-floored space in an unfashionable neighborhood bordering Coral Gables. "Considering the amount of money spent in Miami on fancy cars and big-screen TVs, very little is spent to support or purchase art." Despite financial ups and downs, Snitzer has remained faithful to his vision and criteria, exhibiting daring work of young artists and established names from South Florida and beyond. "Good art-gallery owners take chances and show things they think are taking art further along in its evolution, art that makes a contribution to humanity. I'd say I'm in that category most of the time." And we thank him.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®