The best mile of Miami, contrary to what you learned as a kid from 2 Live Crew, is not to be found on Ocean Drive. No, North Beach is where it's at. The undervalued neighborhood has all the life and lazy, sandy bliss of South Beach without all the silliness. It's the very best of Miami minus the very worst, all compacted into one happy mile. The fun starts at 69th Street, on whose corner sits the Sandbar, one of the last places a body can have a cheap beer, a good conversation, and a fun game of pool without getting all fancy about it. Microbrews — try the Longhammer I.P.A. — are only $3.50 a pint, so bottoms up! A whole slew of good pizza places and low-key cafeterias line the street going north to 71st Street. Cross that, and you're in Argentine bakery territory: The Buenos Aires Café is a particularly nice place to get a hot cup of coffee, a fresh pastry, and a heart-thawing smile from one (or more, if you're lucky) of the many friendly and pretty waitresses who work there. Take your food outside and watch the unobnoxiously busy nightlife pass by. If it's recreation you're looking for, head north only a few more blocks to the North Shore Open Space Park, a verifiable refuge from the concrete labyrinth of Miami and a helluva place for a weekend barbecue. And remember, the beach — and a lifeguard, for the kids — is right there!

What do a professor, a surgeon, an apocalypse, and Hollywood have in common? Not much. Oh, except for the fact that united, as one inpenetrable force, they made up Team Balderdash, the greatest (and most supercoolest) group of middle school pencil fighters, like, ever.

Pencil Fighting: The Life and Times of Team Balderdash is a clever mockumentary about four pencil-pounding pals, Jackson (nicknamed The Professor), Phillip (The Surgeon), Cornelius (Apocalypse), and Maxwell (Hollywood), who fall apart when Maxwell becomes "tainted by the one thing that'll blind a man enough to do the stupidest of things: love." Yup, puppy love. And in order to preserve the circle-yes-or-no-if-you-like-me prepubescent brand of feelings exchanged between himself and a young lady named Marilyn, Maxwell duels a Husky pencil with his standard No. 2 and loses with a single lick. The rest of the tale unfolds 15 years down the road, when the surviving members of Team Balderdash reunite for one last shot at glory.

Although bigger-budget films have dazzled audiences with glitzy images of South Beach, Pencil Fighting stays true to its 305 roots, shooting, for the most part, in a Miami Lakes playground, a warehouse near Tamiami Airport, and at the filmmakers' Coconut Grove digs, Gold Dickenson Productions. Winner of Best Short Film at both the Orlando Film Festival and the Miami Underground Film Festival, it's showing for free on MySpaceTV at vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=21666289.

But be warned: Drinking milk while viewing may result in it flying out your nose.

The City of Miami Gardens was incorporated in May 2003. Four years later, the community of 100,000 got its own police force — and not a day too soon. The area, which includes much of Carol City, is known for being one of the toughest in Miami-Dade County, with two dozen homicides in 2007 alone. (Rapper Rick Ross has chronicled the mean streets of this area in several songs). To deal with the problem, the city threw its support behind the fledgling department: It hired 159 officers from around the nation, paid them a $12,000 signing bonus, and gave them shiny new Crown Victorias. The department now has a budget of $33 million, making it the fifth largest in the county. Miami Gardens, says chief Matthew Boyd, ''is already at the bottom. The only place to go is up. And when it turns around, give us our due.... If we can get this turnaround, we will be a model for the nation.''

HistoryMiami
Courtesy of HistoryMiami

It isn't easy being a history museum in a city that thrives on reinvention. Yes, we love our Art Deco district. The tourists do too. But there's a new historic site in town, and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida is working hard to give it the attention it deserves. This year, the HMSF secured the management of the Miami Circle, an archaeological site at the mouth of the Miami River. Two thousand years ago, it might have been a Tequesta chief's home, but now it will take millions of dollars to make the site the showpiece it deserves to be. In a town where high humidity, regular hurricanes, and new waves of developers continue to wipe away the city's past, the historians at HMSF know the story of Miami can't be told in one building. That is why they take to the streets and waterways with tours and cruises, reminding us that even if we just arrived here, we are now part of the tale of Miami.

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
Photo by Diego Pocovi

Huge sets, great singing, fun and intricate dancing — Urinetown had all of that, and we salute it. Generally, though, we also like our shows full of ideas, novelty, craziness, and weirdness — again, all of which Urinetown had in excess. Urinetown is not a happy musical — Mark Holman and Glen Hotis's piece begins with a sad premise and ends with what might be the extinction of the human race — but it ekes more fun, surprise, and joy out of its gloom than most musicals without any gloom to plumb. This has something to do with the play's obsession with urine, maybe, but it's also the way it gives you the odd feeling you're seeing something you've never, ever seen before (unless you've seen it before). It is, after all, a musical political allegory about needing to take a piss, and there's not a lot of that in the world. What most folks want from their musicals is a night of pure, sugar-coated entertainment, which Urinetown was pleased to deliver while making everybody think a little too. Nobody else came close to doing both of those things this year; hardly anybody else even tried.

"Street Named for the King of the Guayabera!"

"Angelina and Brad Divorce!"

"Ants Don't Need Sleep!"

These are but a few of the frenetic and exciting headlines you'll find in Calle Ocho News, the only paper dedicated specially to covering the eponymous street in Little Havana. Founded in 2001, it has grown to a circulation of 40,000 and, in a testament to the cultural reach of that one little street, it can be found all over the city: in supermarkets, gas stations, and neighborhood cafeterias — Cuban or otherwise. Topics range from the minutiae of everyday life to themes of wider scope: A recent edition depicted two cowboys facing a sunset under the headline "The Old West Comes to Florida" — a reference to a recent wave of violent crime in the city. The paper has a website that, although minimal, is functional and offers up a web-only video section, where you can watch the popular "Shakira: Hips Don't Lie" or "Depravadores Sexuales" ("Sexual Depravities"). But best of all is the paper's Curiosidades (Curiosities) section, filled with the kind of random trivia you just can't get from the Miami Herald: Did you know blondes have more hair than brunettes?

On any given Sunday, this tiny Little Havana church — a shrine to the patron saint of faith and purity— fills with worshippers clad in suits or mantles and gloves while clutching their Bibles and rosaries. They enter the modest building down steps that oddly descend under sidewalk level. Inside, a sonorous Father Rueda delivers mass at 8 and 11 a.m. every Sunday. After service, many parishioners mingle in the parking lot in scenes reminiscent of an Elmer Gantry revival. A billboard on the shrine's front lawn urges help for pregnant teens.

International Inn

It's gone now, but for a few heady days in January, the International Inn adjacent to the 79th Street drawbridge on the Normandy Isle side was no longer the International Inn. It's gigantic green sign, one of the few spectacular neon signs left in Miami, hung over the glittering waters of Biscayne Bay advertising a magical place called "Intern Inn." How the "ational" letters of the sign knew to malfunction in unison to produce a mildly comedic chuckle that would have been downright hilarious in the spring of 1998 is a mystery that local psychics are still trying to parse out. But for those of us who were able to catch it, perhaps on the way home from a long day of trying to sell off a bloated inventory of condo units, while listening to Lakshmi Singh announce the latest death toll in Iraq, it took us back to a simpler time, when all we had to worry about was the commander-in-chief's taste in cigars, and should we throw another five percent into the 401K? Let's throw in another five percent, and while we're at it, get those Goo Goo Dolls tickets. Front row, baby.

At first glance, this might seem like just another fine example of affordable housing. But Tangelia Sands's new place is the first one in Miami-Dade that is certifiably green, as in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified green. That means builders used renewable materials and designed the home in such a way that the place is considered environmentally friendly to a set standard. Although some upscale buildings have incorporated these elements, this is among the first of its kind built with public money. Remarkably, making the three-bedroom, two-bath home near Liberty Square energy efficient required only an additional $12,850 in construction costs, but Sands and her four kids get to expect an energy savings of $2,500 per year ... while the rest of us get a cleaner environment.

The best new drama to hit Miami this year was written in a single night and was less than 10 minutes long. Twenty Six had its first and probably last performance at The 24 Hour Theatre Project, a fundraiser masterminded by the cats at Naked Stage and gamely sponsored by the great Joe Adler, in which assorted playwrights came up with scripts with randomly assigned titles before dawn November 29, which were turned into plays and performed that same night. Most of the submitted pieces went for the funny bone rather than the heart strings, but Twenty Six wasn't one of them. SoFla's daring, darling young playwright Marco Ramirez somehow believed a 10-minute run time was sufficient to sell an audience on a highly improbable premise, get them to fall in love with his characters, and make them all cry. He was right. The show was about a man who had grown to the height of 30 stories overnight. When he woke, he freaked, and while trying to get his bearings, killed quite a few people, including a baby. His sister has been convinced by the military to persuade her brother to take a poison tablet in order to end the threat posed by his unfortunate size. It's not a conversation anybody expects to hear passed between a brother and sister, and few playwrights could have summoned the delicacy needed to pull it off. We're blessed to have one in our back yard.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®