We all deluded ourselves into thinking that Lincoln Road could become some sort of quirky subversion of the suburban mall shopping experience. That the uniquely Miami culture the strip once exemplified could survive peacefully alongside giant corporations' fast fashion mega-stores. Sure, for a while it was a place where you could get khakis at the Gap and a cheap shirt from H&M to match, but afterward you could go check out drag queens, live jazz, a sale on mystical healing crystals, literary author readings, samba lessons or any host of outré diversions that would have seemed downright bizarre in any regular mall.
The announcement this weekend that it's closing time for the Van Dyke Cafe, the iconic restaurant and live jazz hotspot, is just the latest gut punch reminder that that era of Lincoln Road is long gone. Its character is now quickly becoming about as a bland as food court grub in a shopping mall. But we shouldn't be surprised. This is what Lincoln Road was always supposed to be, and that's sad.
Van Dyke's closing is just the latest in a string of exits from the pedestrian mall. Score and its drag queens now call a spot off Washington Avenue home. New age one-stop-shop 9th Chakra has relocated to Alton. Ice Box Cafe, a locally-owned dessert mecca that resided just off the strip, couldn't even ride an Oprah endorsement to Lincoln sustainability and relocated Sunset Harbour. David's Cafe II and Zeke's Roadhouse are gone too.
Nothing is sacred. No literally. The Miami Beach Community Church, located in prime property on Lincoln Road, is considering leasing its courtyard to a developer for further retail space in a $100 million, 50-year deal. "This is a miracle from God," the head of the church's board of directors told New Times. "It's truly a miracle from God that he would provide this church with these types of resources." We must have missed the parts of the Bible that characterized gentrification as a miracle.
In that same stretch of time, H&M opened in the old Lincoln Theater. Urban Outfitters now resides in a space formally occupied by an apothecary. Forever 21 is in the old Saks building. Apple and Gap are currently building themselves larger store spaces on the road. American Eagle and Zara are on their way. Not to mention a brand new Yard House restaurant, a chain owned by the same company that brought us Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
But Van Dyke's closure is particularly poignant. The restaurant helped revitalize Lincoln Road into what it was today.
Back in 1986 the Miami Herald characterized Lincoln Road as a "road to nowhere." Five years earlier a letter writer to the Miami News called it a "ghost town." As anyone familiar with Miami Vice could tell you, the early 1980s were not a particularly kind time to Miami, the beach in particular. Lincoln Road was a prime example. Storefronts sat empty. But then in the late '80s artists started renting out those stores as gallery space. Soon Miami Beach and Lincoln Road took on a bohemian vibe. Van Dyke was one of the first restaurants to set up shop in the slowly reinvigorating area, and certainly the oldest to have survived that era. It offered affordable but tasty grub downstair, but more famously offered live jazz and R&B upstairs every night.
It's a victim of the very revival it helped spur. Van Dyke never became less popular. Anyone who walked down Lincoln Road could see a restaurant as packed as any other on the strip, but it couldn't keep up with the rising rent on Lincoln Road.
"Had to happen no restaurant can afford $300 per sqft! Thats right 300++ a sqft on Lincoln Rd," tweeted John Kunkle, CEO of local (and perhaps rival) restaurant group 50 Eggs which owns Khong River House, right off the main Lincoln Road strip.
Such is the cruel reality of unchecked development and capitalism. Even if you build a business that becomes iconic it its neighborhood and builds a healthy and loyal customer base, that doesn't mean you won't meet your downfall at the hands of rising rents and gentrification spurred by giant corporations.
But we really shouldn't be surprised. This is what Lincoln Road was supposed to be someday anyway. South Beach pioneer Carl Fisher drained swamp land starting in the 1910s to create the road with the idea of turning it into a business and retail district. By the '40s, Life magazine was declaring it "Luxury Lane" and protested that calling it "The 5th Avenue of the South" was somehow selling it short. Stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Burdines, Bonwit Teller and "hoity-toity haberdashers" lined the street.
In the '60s city leaders, noting the success of America's first pedestrian mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan, decided to close the street to automobile traffic to turn it into our own pedestrian mall. They enlisted famed architect Morris Lapidus, the father of Miami Modernism, to helm the transformation.
"I designed Lincoln Road for people -- a car never bought anything," Lapidus quipped on its opening, leaving little doubt for his commercial vision.
The truth is the vision of the original founders of Miami wasn't that much different from any seaside town forefather anywhere else in Florida -- a ritzy winter retreat for rich northerners to come spend money. Only geography differed Miami from West Palm or Naples or Tampa or Daytona.
But tragedy, both economically here and politically and socially elsewhere, gave birth to a new identity for Miami. Cuban expatriates came here to escape communism. Gay men, ravaged by the AIDS crisis in the '80s, retreated to Miami Beach to spend their last few years in our hospitable climate. Artists, photographers and designers followed... then came the hanger-ons and the partiers. Those original developers and forefathers (and mothers) may have their names splashed all over town, but it's those unwashed masses who really helped give Miami its flavor and identity -- the very stuff that set us apart not just from the rest of Florida but from the rest of the world.
It's those people who helped revive Lincoln Road in the first place.
Sure, there may have been a nearly 50-year hiccup, but that original vision of Miami as a money-grabbing playground for the out-of-town rich (and, OK, upper middle class, whatever is left of that) is finally coming true. The relative prices of the merchandise for sale on Lincoln may be lower that during its glitzy '40s heyday, but the corporate profits certainly aren't.
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This same process already remade Coconut Grove (and have you been there lately?), it's now almost officially complete in Lincoln Road, and it's starting to happen in Wynwood.
But will Miami retain its edge and cultural and tourism dominance of the South as it begins to look like Generic Town, USA? Will there be a price to pay now that one of the most iconic roads in its most famous neighborhood resembles little more than an outdoor version of a tacky suburban mall full of chain stores?
Only time will tell. Who knows, by then we might all be underwater anyway.