Bea Kalstein, Gadfly in the Miami Beach Ointment

It seemed so small of former Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber to take his last shots at Bea Kalstein shortly after her death last week. “Always very friendly” he conceded about the passionate Beach activist, “but insufferable” he felt it necessary to add. “She was a regular at my podium, destructive as she could be, but it’s America,” said the thankfully long-retired Gelber, who evidently equates free speech with destructiveness.

But Gelbers’ gracelessness should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed Bea badgering him for his groveling giveaway of Miami Beach to developers such as Thomas Kramer. Of course Gelber couldn’t have sold out our city alone -- he had plenty of help from the other commissioners at that time, most notably Neisen Kasdin and Nancy Liebman. Kasdin and Liebman would go on to build themselves up as anti-development crusaders once the damage was done and it was politically opportune to do so. They fooled almost everybody -- including former editors and staff writers at Miami New Times. But they didn’t fool Bea Kalstein.

When my wife and I first moved here in the mid-1990’s, we used to attend Miami Beach city commission hearings. It was at City Hall that we met and befriended Bea, who would drop by our home on occasion to share tea and talk politics. She was a warm and giving person, if a bit mysterious. Sometimes she’d bring my wife some old clothes that she’d gotten from a vintage store -- it was never quite the right style or fit, so we’d pass it along to charity, but it was still a touching gesture. Whenever she left we would always remark at how much stronger her mind still was than one would surmise from looking at her frail body. She was 90 when she died.

I remember one particular commission meeting, when Bea declared that the extravagantly priced makeover of Lincoln Road was a ruse to raise rents and invite the Gaps, Banana Republics, and William-Sonomas to take over properties from small business owners. Nancy Liebman rolled her eyes and mocked the idea. "That’s ridiculous!" I remember Ms. Liebman saying, and then she and Neisen and Seymour looked at each other and shook their heads disdainfully -- as if Ms. Kapstein was some mad, enfeebled person whom they had to endure.

Yet as her obituary in the paper noted, it was during this very period -- the mid-Nineties -- that Bea dragged then-new city commissioner David Dermer out to the garbage dumps. She insisted they look for files she claimed had been handed over by the city’s legal department to the sanitation people. Dermer, much smarter than Gelber and his commission cronies, knew that although Bea was elderly, she was no fool. Together they combed the dumps and found expense accounts for the South Pointe Redevelopment Agency showing all manner of financial skullduggery. As our current and honorable mayor Dermer puts it, “she saved the taxpayers millions”.

We are not likely to see the likes of Bea Kapstein anytime soon. On the other hand, if you should want to see the likes of Nancy Liebman or Neisen Kasdin, you can probably catch them shopping at the Williams-Sonoma on Lincoln. --Lee Klein