100 Years: The Dark and Dirty History of Miami Beach

Exactly 100 years ago, March 26, 1915, the 33 registered voters of Miami Beach officially incorporated the new city. To celebrate its centennial, the city is throwing itself a grand, 100-hour celebration, and local media outlets are putting out nostalgic looks back at the Beach's finest moments. You're sure to hear all about Miami Beach's proudest memories: the epic hotels, the unique architecture, the celebrities and creativity, and the unique culture. But that isn't the only history that has made the Beach what it is today. After all, not only the good times but also the tough times shape a place's character. 

And Miami Beach has one hell of a history of crime, corruption, racism, economic downfall, and even a brush with war. Before we blow out those 100 candles on the Beach's cake, let's take a look at the lowlight reel.

Men Play God
Throughout the vast majority of human existence, our species has been content with living on land that already exists and is readily inhabitable. This is not true of Miami Beach. 

In 1870, Miami Beach was a glorified sandbar and mangrove ridge. New Jersey residents Henry Lum and son Charles decided to buy this sandbar for 25 cents an acre. They tried to turn it into a coconut farm, but either rats or rabbits (depending upon which version you hear) ate the coconuts. Henry and Charles didn't make very good Floridians. Eventually, John S. Collins bought the area and had more success growing crops, but that didn't mean it was anything more than a mangrove and some sand at that point. By 1915, the town would officially be incorporated, and Collins partnered with Carl Fisher and the banking Lummus brothers to turn the beach into an honest hunk of land. True, much of South Florida is built on drained swampland, but compared to the creation of Miami Beach, that was relatively easy. In Miami Beach, laborers had to clear out the mangroves, deepen the channels of water around it, and fill in the area with actual soil to create honest-to-not-God land. Of course, laborers were subjected to high heat and mosquitoes. 

This set the scene for Miami Beach being a land built on artificiality, the crazy ambitions of men seeking money and glamor, and the exploitation of cheap labor. To this day, the City of Miami Beach still has to dredge sand to fill its beaches because, again, it is not a naturally occurring geographical feature. 

Whether Miami Beach continues to remain real and inhabitable land in the face of threats from global warming and sea-level rise remains to be seen.

Mafia City
OK, Miami Beach may not be Chicago when it comes to organized crime, but the Beach certainly played host to a number of notorious characters during the golden age of graft, which is no shock when you consider how many mobsters had ties to nearby Havana. 

Scarface himself, Al Capone, began wintering in Miami in 1927 and two years later bought a house on Palm Island even though residents voted to pass a resolution to ban the notorious criminal. ("Capone is no worse than a lot of others down here," then-Mayor J. Newton Lummus said after admitting he'd actually sold the gangster his house, proving that scummy real-estate development and politics have always been best friends in South Florida.) Meyer Lansky also had strong ties to Miami Beach, with casino interests in Florida dating back to the 1930s. In his later years, he returned to town, moving to Hollywood and Hallandale Beach in the '50s and '60s before settling in a Collins Avenue condo, where he died in 1983 as an 80-year-old. 

These days, Russian mobs are more likely to cause trouble and spice up nightlife. Just a few years ago, a group tied to Eastern European organized crime was busted in an elaborate scheme involving setting up fake nightclubs on Washington Avenue and using beautiful Estonian women to lure men in before drugging and robbing them.

The Time Germany Accidentally Forced Mexico Into WWII
Most know that Miami Beach was used as a training ground during World War II. Not many people remember Miami Beach being an active theater in the war, and technically it wasn't, but an attack just off its coast in 1942 might have been one of Germany's dumbest mistakes. While most of the fighting took place half a world a way, German U-boats were known to patrol the shores off major East Coast cities and occasionally try to sink Allied ships.

The night of May 14, 1942, the German U-boat U-564 spotted a ship. Its captain believed it was an Italian tanker in violation of international law and decided to sink it. Turns out the ship was actually the Mexican SS Potrero del Llano. The Germans had mistaken the Mexican flag for the similar but distinct Italian flag. No, seriously, this was their official excuse. At the time, Mexico was officially neutral. Thirteen crew members died, and the rest were brought to Miami for treatment. A week later, another U-boat would make a similar mistake, and by the end of June, Mexico declared war on the Axis Powers. Meanwhile, the U.S. stepped up its protection off the Miami Beach coast. 

Segregation Keeps the Beach Off-Limits to Anyone but Whites
Before the Civil Rights era, segregation in Miami Beach wasn’t just about water fountains and lunch tables. African-Americans were not allowed to live in Miami Beach, and any African-American who worked on the Beach was urged to get a “pass” issued by the police department to avoid questioning after 6 p.m. Likewise, people of color were banned from some beaches and allowed to use others only Mondays, the day the beaches were being cleaned after whites had partied on them all weekend. Black tourists weren’t even allowed to stay in hotels on the Beach, but, ironically, the hotels would book black entertainers to amuse their all-white guests. Even Diana Ross and the Supremes were required to stay the night in Overtown.

It wasn’t just blacks either. For a while, Jews were allowed to live only south of Fifth Street, and “Gentiles Only” signs were common among local businesses. In fact, in some cases Jews and Gentiles were required to use separate entrances. Anti-Semitism, however, was officially outlawed in 1949 by a local ordinance. 

The Disaster of the 1972 DNC
In 1972, both the Democratic and Republican parties made the odd choice of holding their conventions not only in the same town but also in the same exact building: the Miami Beach Convention Center. The Republicans were up first to renominate President Richard Nixon in the midst of the Vietnam War. Somehow this was the quieter of the two conventions. Yes, as was expected, there was protesting. Of course, Nixon tried to have those protests suppressed, but that was just Nixon Nixoning. 

It was the Democratic National Convention that turned into the real mess. Outraged over the war and the urge for total social revolution still leftover from the Civil Rights era, the Democratic Party of 1972 was a jumble of traditional moderates and downright radicals. Vietnam was a hot topic. Feminists wanted a pro-choice plank officially adopted to the party's platform. Gay-rights activists made their earliest push for inclusion in a major party. It was all rather like logging onto Tumblr today, which is healthy for debate and politics in general but not so great for the DNC getting around to nominating someone for president. 

George McGovern was the presumed nominee, but opponent Hubert Humphrey was still trying to claim the nomination for himself by challenging the winner-takes-all-delegates nature of the California primary. McGovern eventually prevailed but then had a hard time finding anyone to be his running mate. Back then, that decision could be made at the convention. He asked a who's who of politicians, but none accepted. Finally, he chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who accepted, but delegates dragged out the vote on his official nomination. This all prevented McGovern from making his acceptance speech until about 3 a.m., thus meaning most Americans had gone to bed and never saw it.

By all accounts, it was a great speech, proving that the best things to happen in Miami Beach happen at 3 a.m. and the rest of America is too tired to catch up. Naturally, neither party has thought about returning to Miami Beach (or South Florida in general) to hold a convention since. It remains politically tainted. (Incidentally, the whole campaign and convention were crazy enough to support a Hunter S. Thompson book about the story.)

The '70s and '80s: Retirement Ghettos and Crime Waves
After a few hurricanes, national economic depressions, and world-war hiccups here and there, Miami Beach was mostly a city of dreams and glamor for much of its history — until the rug got pulled out from under it in the early '70s. Miami Beach tourism hit a high point in the '50s and thrived well into the '60s, but a couple of factors contributed to Miami Beach's downward spiral in the '70s:
  • Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971, siphoning away tourists. Thanks a lot, Mickey. 
  • The image of the Beach became too prepackaged, too cheesy. It soon fell out of favor with tourists. (Hope that doesn't happen again anytime soon. Come buy H&M clothes on Lincoln Road and spend $200 on a bottle at a club that plays horrible EDM, visitors!). 
  • Air travel became more popular and obtainable, and tourists opted for the Caribbean instead. 

"Miami Beach is where neon goes to die."

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To compensate for the downfall of tourism, landlords and hotel owners soon began catering to middle-to-lower-class retirees. Meanwhile, better-off retirees soon began fleeing to tonier parts of South Florida. Miami Beach had become something it never wanted to be and never wants to be again: uncool, poor, old, and boring. It was during this time when the quip "Miami Beach is where neon goes to die" took hold. (It's often attributed to Lenny Bruce, but there's no proof. Like many things about Miami Beach, it may be inauthentic.)

It was during the early 1980s when crime, and not of the particularly organized variety, began to take hold on the Beach. Fidel Castro shipping over tons of prisoners during the Mariel Boatlift didn't help. So alongside the retirees lived drug dealers and two-bit criminals. Remember the chainsaw scene in Scarface? Yeah, that wasn't too far off. The wealthiest remaining retirees hightailed it out of town, and the poorest were forced to remain. 

South Beach had lost its soul and wasn't sure what to do with itself. It was during these times when there were real efforts underway to demolish much of the city's trademark art deco architecture and replace it with new urban development. Thankfully, preservationists won, but it only underscores how aimless and identity-less the city was during the '70s and early '80s. Hell, there were even plans to rename South Beach "South Shore" and "Oceanside." That's how bad things had gotten. 

Gay Men Who Came Here to Die From AIDS Fueled South Beach's Rebirth
South Beach was never an exclusive gayborhood, but there was a time when you couldn’t walk more than three blocks without hitting a gay club. It was some sort of postsexuality wonderland. Gays and straights lived (and partied) in harmony, and sometimes the lines between them became blurred. Homosexuals played a large part in helping turn the blighted Beach of the early ‘80s into the fun, partying, creative international destination it became by the early ‘90s and gave it a lot of its flavor along the way.

But why was that? “Many men with AIDS have come to South Beach to spend their last years,” the New York Times reported in 1996. It turns out that for years, gay men diagnosed with HIV would move to South Beach because it was a warm, relatively affordable, and hospitable place to spend their last few years. South Beach: real-estate winner of the HIV/AIDS crisis! 

For more about South Beach's gay past and its subsequent straight-washing, read our 2010 feature "Escape From South Beach." 

Mayor Alex Daoud's 528 Years' Worth of Crimes
In a region full of political corruption, few political downfalls come close to that of former Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud. He was elected to the Miami Beach City Commission in 1979, with the Miami News endorsing him as "one of the most appealing candidates on the entire ballot." By 1985, he was mayor. He became the only mayor since 1973 to win reelection and went on to an unprecedented third term. He was young, progressive, and energetic. He oversaw the Beach's rebirth and enjoyed the social trappings that accompanied it.

Of course, it all came to a messy, messy end in 1991. After a corruption probe, he wound up facing 41 charges of bribery, racketeering, extortion, money laundering, and filing false income tax returns. The mayor was found to have routinely sold his vote, used his office to have free work done on his home, laundered bribe money, and extorted businessmen. He originally faced 528 years — yes, years — in prison, but in the end, the always-slippery Daoud escaped with only 18 months in exchange for helping prosecutors. In 2007, he released a memoir, Sins of South Beach, in which he claimed he also used to ride along with Miami Beach cops looking for criminals to kick the crap out of in vigilante justice escapades. 

Versace's Murder Marks the End of South Beach's Greatest Era
It's hard to imagine that an era of a city's history can be so intertwined with a fashion designer, but such is the case with Miami Beach, luxurious land of looks and glamor. The paths of Gianni Versace and Miami Beach collided when the producers of Miami Vice brought him on as a fashion consultant. Not all of the clothes came from his collections, but many of them did, and the trademark look of main character Sonny Crockett swept the nation. In 1986, People magazine noted that sales in Miami's Versace boutique were some of the biggest in the world. In the ensuing years, South Beach would become one of the world's premier destinations and Versace the world's premier designer. The marriage would be consummated in 1992 when Versace bought an old home and a neighboring hotel on Ocean Drive and built his castle, almost instantly making him the king of South Beach. Along with him, he brought artists, supermodels, and A-list celebrities like Madonna. He cemented South Beach's A-list status. In turn, South Beach's influence could clearly be seen in his collection.

The party continued for much of the decade until 1997. The media had become obsessed with spree killer Andrew Cunanan, who was believed to have been responsible for the deaths of four men in three states. That summer he seemingly disappeared for two months. Turns out he was hiding in plain sight, right here in Miami-Dade. (Way to go, local police!) After learning of Versace's morning routine, he made his move July 15 and fatally shot the designer on the steps of that Ocean Drive home. The Beach had seen many a crime before, but none quite as shocking and bizarre as this.

Not to be too blunt, but some old South Beachers still talk of it as if it were a local 9/11. "Well, this was back in the Versace days," they'll say. "Of course, that was after Versace, when things all started coming apart." It's viewed as the end of an era and the final chapter of what might have been South Beach's most glamorous and fun era.

Today, Versace's mansion is a tourist hot spot, with people constantly taking photos just steps from the spot where he was murdered. Naturally, it's still not very hard to find men and women dressed as if they'd walked directly off Versace's 1993 catwalk.
The Urban Beach Week Saga
The Beach nowadays is now largely defined by its signature annual events. Art Basel Miami Beach, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and Winter Music Conference/Miami Music Week are the showcase trio, but there are plenty of others that pack hotel rooms throughout the year. So you'd think the Beach would welcome another such landmark weekend. 

The inaugural Urban Beach Week kicked off in 2001 during Memorial Day weekend, which is traditionally the beginning of slow season for the Beach. True, there were hints the event might prove to have some kinks. It was not centrally organized, largely promoted through word of mouth, and not officially sanctioned by the city. It also catered to college-aged kids, who are typically a bit wilder and less responsible than the general population. Yet there was one other defining feature of the event: It was organized largely for and by African-Americans. 

The event started small, but soon national hip-hop acts began making it a regular destination, and the crowds grew. Locals, meanwhile, complained loudly. Restaurants found reasons to close up shop for the weekend. One year, a club on the mainland threw a "white party" during the weekend. City leaders — civic, business, and political — made little attempt to welcome the event and try to improve its organization. Local residents, the majority of whom are white and Hispanic, complained louder. Tensions grew. Police presence increased over the weekend, with Miami Beach PD bringing in officers from other local forces. 

The boiling point came in 2011, when about a dozen police officers fired 116 bullets into the car of Raymond Herrisse, a 22-year-old resident of Boca Raton who was driving suspiciously on Washington Avenue at 4 a.m. Police said he shot first. They never presented evidence to that end, but they did find a gun in his car days after the shooting. Police claimed he had clipped an officer on a bicycle with his car.

Police, however, responded by turning South Beach into basically a police state the following year. Watch towers were erected. Checkpoints were set up at the entrance to the Beach, with high-tech cameras scanning the license plate of every car entering. Barriers were placed to deter motorists from driving in residential areas. Police were on every corner. However, this time police weren't offering "passes" to African-Americans, even the ones who worked on the Beach. 

At last year's event, arrests were down about half from the previous year, but businesses have taken a hit too. Hotel bookings are down about 25 percent from 2011, and other local businesses complain that the weekend is now a dead zone. How did the Beach, as a community, botch things so badly? It's hard to say that racism wasn't at least a factor. 

Corruption Central
If you thought corruption in South Beach had gone out of style with Don Johnson, the past decade proved you so very wrong. The scandals began in 2008, when a flashy developer named Michael Stern snitched on building officials who took money hidden in toilet paper rolls and Rolex watches in exchange for fast-tracking projects — including a plan to knock over a historic coral rock house. Three city officials ended up pleading guilty for their ties to that scandal.

Then, two years later, another wave of cash-taking dominoes began to topple. First came the downfall of the city's longtime procurement chief, who was popped for tipping off a corrupt developer to bids in exchange for kickbacks. Then came even more charges later in 2012. Four code compliance officers, along with that department's chief and two firefighters, were arrested in an FBI sting into alleged payouts from nightclubs to ignore code problems. A New Times investigation found those arrests likely only scratched the surface. 

Don't worry — the Beach didn't clean up its political act in time for its 100th birthday. Just last month, New Times told the tale of an Española Way restaurateur who forced one city employee's resignation and tied the FBI into a probe of alleged corruption and political favors in that famed walkway's code compliance rules

— Tim Elfrink contributed to this story