Internationally known for its historic architecture, sultry beaches, and bumping nightclubs, South Beach has always had another claim to fame: its scandals. From the days of Prohibition to the era of the Cocaine Cowboys to the gruesome murder of Gianni Versace, the city has been plagued by crime and corruption since its earliest years.
Where other tourism boards would cringe at the association, the ever-entrepreneurial Miami Beach has embraced and even marketed its seedy reputation. Sadly, someone else beat us to selling cocaine snow globes, but the locals still have some tricks up their sleeves: Earlier this month, the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) rolled out a themed walking tour offering a comprehensive look at all of those South Beach scandals.
"For a city of its size, throughout its history, a lot of good and not-so-good things have happened here," says Howard Brayer, a volunteer who leads the tour. "It was a well-known place during Prohibition because alcohol was readily available... and a lot of political corruption seems to be in South Florida."
MDPL, a nonprofit that protects historic buildings, previously led the tour during Art Deco Weekend, but now it's a regular occurrence the second Monday of every month. For 25 bucks, you get a low-intensity workout and a brief history of the Beach's illegal gambling rings, notorious drug dens, and corrupt politicians.
Here are some of the stops you can expect:
Washington Avenue b-girl clubs: You don't have to have lived in South Beach to remember one of its highest-profile crime rings. After setting up fake nightclubs, an Eastern European network deployed hot, young "bar girls" to ply men with alcohol and stick them with tabs for tens of thousands of dollars. The group was busted in 2011 after the feds sent an undercover agent to the clubs to work as a bouncer. In the end, the ringleader, Russian mobster Alec Simchuk, was sentenced to just three years in prison after cooperating with investigators.
Essex House: Noted for its striking art deco façade, Essex House appeals to hotel guests looking for historic charm. But it turns out the building is more than just a pretty face. According to Brayer, the Essex was home to an illegal gambling ring in the 1940s. "There are three arrows on the terrazzo floor that supposedly led to the room where the gambling was," he says.
That apartment building from Scarface: People complain about the crime on Ocean Drive today, but it's small potatoes compared to life in South Beach in the '80s. The site of the most famous scene from Scarface, the 1983 gangster film starring Al Pacino as a Cuban drug kingpin, makes the perfect backdrop for a deep dive into the city's seedy history of drug smuggling and gun violence. Enjoy it before it turns into a CVS.
The old city hall: In a city where building department employees have been busted for taking bribes from developers, and firefighters have been caught smuggling coke, the public corruption segment of the walk could be a tour in and of itself. But Brayer says he mostly talks about the infamous case involving former Mayor Alex Daoud, who landed in prison after being indicted on 41 counts of bribery in 1991. "I don't want to throw too many names at people," Brayer says. "It's easier to stick to one."
The former Versace mansion: Of course, no tour of South Beach scandals would be complete without a look at its most notorious murder, the killing of beloved fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1997. Saturday will mark the 30th anniversary of the shooting, which will be the focus of an upcoming season of American Crime Story on FX. Brayer says high-profile homicides are always popular on tours. "A lot of people are interested in crime and murder, whether it's on TV, in the movies, or in real life," he says. "People like to hear those kinds of stories in general."
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