Clues for the Clueless

Recently I devoted this space to a modest essay about the renaissance of Miami Beach's Lincoln Road Mall. The headline: "Lincoln Road Miracle: From Scruffy Derelict to Enchanting Shoppers' Paradise." The piece generated a fair amount of mail, most of which we published the following week. We didn't have room for all the letters, however, so I'd like to print one here that didn't make it. Among the responses to "Lincoln Road Miracle," this was typical:

Jim Mullin got one thing right in his misguided musings on the "miracle" of chain stores: The people reveling in the franchising of Lincoln Road certainly won't be "those hordes of locals who have grown fond of lounging around their fetching open-air town square." That's because, thanks in no small part to New Times's editorial cowardice regarding South Beach development, our town square is being converted into a strip mall with exactly the same businesses seen in every other nickel-and-dime town in America.

Of course it would be nice if Mullin's vision of a Lincoln Road harmoniously balanced with national, regional, and local tenants could come to pass. It would also be neat if piranhas and guppies could share the same fish tank, or if Santie Claus really did exist. But while Mullin points out that those most "richly rewarded" by the mall's rampant commercialism are the property owners, he neglects to say that their prosperity derives from the outrageously high rents they now charge. In other words, giant national chains can afford to locate on Lincoln Road. Small local merchants cannot. So much for harmony.

You might think this is too complex for Mullin to grasp, but even when he's able to do the math, he still gets the answers wrong -- like his praise of Beach officials for not insisting that developers provide more than a "puny 300-space parking garage to accommodate their theater's 3000 seats." (His italics.) His reasoning is that increased business will generate taxes, which will allow an upgrading of public services.

But City Manager Sergio Rodriguez said last week that the cineplex alone will draw an estimated "35,000 [my italics] more people" to the neighborhood, which will require a $700,000 increase in the city budget to provide the additional services these crowds will necessitate. There goes a large chunk of Mullin's predicted tax windfall, which leaves us with throngs of people, increased rowdiness, litter and noise, unimaginably bad traffic congestion and parking problems, a burden on the very infrastructure of the Beach, a lack of individual and interesting shops, and a loss of the "personality" and "eccentricity" Mullin so small-mindedly mocks, but in fact was what drew people to South Beach to begin with.

"What's the plus side? "Gourmet popcorn," "Dolby Surround sound," "dancing diners at Cuban cafes," and "a really good cup of coffee from Starbucks," which in the world according to Mullin means a sustaining of the "high-quality lifestyles Miami Beach residents have come to expect."

That the editor of a newspaper could be so clueless to his community's wants, needs, and perceptions of what defines "quality of life" is unsettling; so is his use of contemptuous terms like "hordes" and "sneering elitists" in describing those locals who don't want Lincoln Road to look like suburban Cleveland with palm trees. If I'm a snob for preferring fresh, hand-formed hamburgers at a local tavern or bar and grill (though, as I've mentioned, that's impossible now because of the rents), as opposed to boxloads of frozen brick-like patties of beef served up by minimum-wage, pimply faced countermen at Mullin's favorite burger chain, well, so be it.

Finally Mullin frets that busloads of tourists are going to leave frustrated if they find Lincoln Road to be "the only mall in America that doesn't have a Gap." Well, we already have plenty of places for that mass of crass materialists to do their shopping, places like the Shops at Sunset Place, Sawgrass Mills, and CocoWalk. Maybe Mullin should consider switching his column to one of those megamalls' newsletters -- at least then he'd be in sync with his readership.

I'll save the writer of that earnest missive the embarrassment of printing his name. And he should thank me, for it's evident that my column whizzed over his head like a Sammy Sosa drive to deep left. But I think I understand why he and others missed the point entirely. In this town there traditionally has been one special subject that would not countenance any wisecracking whatsoever: Fidel Castro and his death-grip on Cuba. Now it appears there are two.

When it comes to Lincoln Road Mall and its inexorable march toward mediocrity, it seems there is no room for humor, especially the kind of humor that forces people to confront the dreadful truth. The response to my column provides ample evidence that the mere thought of Lincoln Road's imminent desecration is enough to provoke outrage in many people. And in that lies a warning for those who would facilitate its degradation -- businessmen and politicians alike.

Still, it's amusing to think anyone could take seriously unctuous praise for those Lincoln Road "visionaries" who understood the future to be "shoppertainment," and of the "courage of a few outstanding business people" who should be commended (along with the city commission) for having the "foresight" to dramatically increase South Beach traffic congestion by building a woefully inadequate parking garage. Or that developer Michael Comras deserves plaudits as the man responsible for the "enticing presence" along the Road of Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, et al. Or that Miami Beach residents actually enjoy "high-quality lifestyles" made possible by "enhanced" city services. Or that "really good" coffee (at Starbucks!) is an integral part of any successful shopping trip. Or that an Olive Garden restaurant is highly desirable. Or that a Johnny Rockets burger joint would be a welcome addition to the Road, particularly if, as our photo-illustration depicted, it replaced that stodgy old Books & Books.

Clearly for some people there's no laughing about the prospect of such commercial atrocities being visited upon Lincoln Road. I must confess, though, that I'm still curious to know whether Gloria and Emilio would be interested in taking over the Miami City Ballet space for one of their Bongos beaneries. I just can't shake that alluring image: dancing diners at Cuban cafes.

Following the briefly successful effort to suspend the First Amendment right of free speech at Miami International Airport (by banning Cigar Aficionado), several county bureaucrats deserve to be spanked. Certainly aviation department assistant director Mayra Bustamante, whose delicate sensibilities were offended by the magazine's articles about Cuba, has earned a good licking for instigating the whole embarrassing episode. Her boss, department director Gary Dellapa, who approved her decision to ban distribution of the magazine, should also been taken to the woodshed.

But no one merits being paddywhacked more than Roy Wood, the assistant county attorney who gave Bustamante the go-ahead before she yanked the publication from newsstands. Wood repeated to the Herald his thoughtfully considered opinion: "I could not conceive of any legal objection to it -- and still cannot." This from a man whose law school education presumably included at least one class on the U.S. Constitution.

It's bad enough that a person exhibiting such exceedingly poor judgment should wield so much influence over legal affairs at our sprawling airport, but Wood, of all people, should have known better than to give his blessing to an act of government censorship. Until recently he served as the county's chief counsel regarding another essential freedom guaranteed by law: the public's right to know. Any questions or disputes over county compliance with Florida's public-records law eventually landed on Wood's desk, an experience you'd think would have sensitized him to all manner of issues involving the First Amendment.

John de Leon, president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is still shaking his head over the "awful advice" Wood gave Bustamante. "The county attorney has an obligation and duty to see that county employees follow the Constitution and that they don't violate the constitutional rights of anyone," he says. "I would suggest that [Wood] read some of the fundamental constitutional cases and prohibitions on censorship, because apparently the county attorney's office still does not understand the critical importance of allowing debate on controversial issues in this community. Government has no role as a censor."

If the ACLU gets its chance to offer county employees brush-up seminars in basic American freedoms, Wood's supervisors should force him to be the first to enroll.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin