The Battle of Biscayne

Desire and Felicity shamble down the scorching sidewalk, sodden makeup smearing sullen faces. They're looking for the telltale sign from a driver rumbling through midafternoon traffic on Biscayne Boulevard: prolonged eye contact and a chin nod. Or maybe the reliable standby: "Excuse me, miss, but I need directions." Both women are black, and both claim to be twentysomething, though it's difficult to see faces behind the impassive mask of the professional sex worker.

Felicity, who insists that's her real name, and Desire — sometimes Desirée — who refuses to admit her name and says you can call her anything if you're willing to pay, are hot and tired. They cross Biscayne at 69th Street and enter the refrigerated air of Starbucks, the clean, well-lit beacon of impending gentrification everywhere.

A mop-topped kid with Buddy Holly eyeglasses and iPod earbuds connected to his laptop sits in a comfortable chair next to the entrance. He smirks at the sweat-stained prostitutes and looks back down at his screen. "Fuck," says Desire. "That's my favorite chair."

A soccer mom in khaki capri pants and a white blouse tries not to look at the two women. Desire is dressed in a pink-and-white floral print smock and house slippers, Felicity in black flats, a black pleather miniskirt, and a purple halter-top. Mom chirps her order, "Fresh-squeezed OJ and a salad," and accidentally bumps Desire as she scurries out the door. She apologizes without slowing down and hops into a silver Navigator whose back window bears stickers depicting a happy nuclear family.

The women are still laughing as she pulls out of the parking lot. They order grandé iced mochas with whipped cream and sit on the couch in the coffee shop's corner.

The effects of a condo boom just a few miles south in downtown, which includes 12,000 units and more than a half-billion dollars in city-approved condo and retail construction, has sown the seeds of change along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami's Upper Eastside — long Miami's Skid Row. From tasteful tapas bars such as Mosaiques (at 70th Street) to brie-on-a-baguette sandwicheries like Uva 69 (at 69th), more than a dozen cafés and restaurants have opened in the area since 2003 — and at least six have survived.

Last year a pair of businessmen decided to spend more than four million dollars to purchase and renovate the dilapidated Vagabond Motel at 73rd Street. Developers of new condo complexes such as Kubik and The Bank want to bring approximately 400 new units to the Boulevard at 80th Street; Nirvana, a five-building apartment complex being converted into condos, has 347 units for sale at NE 64th Street. Spas and upscale furniture stores are popping up where convenience stores and corner boys once thrived.

Property values in the Upper Eastside have doubled in the past five years, according to the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team.

"It's nice, I guess," says Felicity, when asked about the recent emergence of upscale fare in the neighborhood. "There's more good food and everything, but it's too much money sometimes."

Desire, busily sucking away at a mound of whipped cream through her straw, snorts. "Too much fucking money. Way too much."

Felicity laughs when she's asked whether the changes on the Boulevard mean the end of drugs and prostitution. "It's not going anywhere. I've been out here for a little while, and it's not going anywhere. It might move up and down the street, but it's not going anywhere really."

Jazzed by the coffee confections, the two women hit the sidewalk again, parading south past the new display windows and the dog-walkers and bicyclists from Belle Meade and Morningside who until recently wouldn't have set foot on these gritty sidewalks. But some things never change: A white-haired man in a gleaming pearl Cadillac slows down and pulls into a turn lane across the street from the girls. "I guess I'm about to make some money," Felicity says and nods at the man. She turns onto a tree-lined street and heads away from Biscayne. The Cadillac eases into a street one block north, and Felicity saunters off.

Desire continues down the Boulevard, fanning herself with her hand.

In the Fifties and Sixties, the stretch of Biscayne from 36th to 87th streets was relatively family-friendly. Vacationers from parts north stayed in happily tacky motels and then drove to Miami Beach.

All of that changed as Miami convulsed into the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Crack cocaine, race riots, and waves of poor immigrants, particularly those from Central America and Haiti, changed the neighborhood. By the Eighties, the Upper Eastside was an urban nightmare of motels that had become nodes for the local drug and prostitution trades.

And though Miami Beach has morphed into an international hot spot in the past decade, places on Biscayne like the Vagabond, Stephan's International (63rd Street), and the Camelot Inn (71st Street) have continued to be blackened teeth in Miami's supermodel grin. While boutique lodgings like the Delano have become the norm on South Beach, the Boulevard motels have stayed grimy.

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Forrest Norman
Contact: Forrest Norman