My name is Jena Nassar and I am currently a freshman student majoring in Nutrition at Florida International University. My hopes are to graduate with a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies and work in neonatology. While having lived in South Florida my entire life, I enjoy traveling far from home and experiencing cultures way different than my own.
South Beach is located in the southernmost 2.5 square miles of Miami Beach, just off the coast of mainland Miami. South Beach lies on the natural and man-made barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, which separates the island from inland Miami.
South Beach is wildly popular for being a nightlife haven. Once skyfall hits, the streets of Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road are flooded with the fantastical lights of the Art Deco buildings and music blaring from inside the bars. South Beach’s iconic hotels takeover the skyline, with many offering luxury restaurants and elite bars fluttering with A-list celebrities.
Being one of the lowest-lying municipalities in the country, the island as a whole faces frequent flooding. The coast bordering Biscayne Bay, the island’s lower side, battles the consequences of the full-moon’s high tide regularly. Salt water seeps into storm-drain outlets and porous limestone foundation of the island, forcing water up and into the streets. Because of the porous nature of the limestone foundation beneath the ground’s surface, it risks the possibility of traditional sea level rise and storm mitigation measures, such as seawalls and dykes, being ineffective.
South Beach, with its iconic architecture and alluring ambiance, is a charm that reals in Miami tourists from all angles. Whether as a result of its annual surge of Art Basel enthusiasts or the celebrity-fueled nightclubs, South Beach still continues to flourish. Though the community did not maintain this level of acclaim throughout the entirety of its almost 150 year history. From its humble beginnings as a plantation, South Beach has grown into a playground for the rich and famous.
The area that is known today as South Beach was at one point nothing more than unsettled farmland. According to The History of South Beach, It wasn’t until 1870 that Henry and Charles Lum purchased 160 acres of land for coconut farming. The Lum brothers built their first house on the beach in 1886, but eight years later, left their plantation to a man by the name of John Collins. Similar to the brothers, Collins used the plantation for farming, but also went on to discover fresh water and extended his parcel in 1907 to what is now 67th street.
In 1912, two Miami businessmen known as the Lummus brothers had the vision of an oceanfront city occupied with modest, single-family homes. Thus, the brothers purchased 400 acres of Collins’ land and began developing the island. In 1913, Collins began construction of a bridge from Miami to the island with the help of local resident investors. However, they ran out of money for the project before its completion. Carl G. Fisher, a successful entrepreneur with the vision of a South Beach completely independent from Miami, invested $50,000 into the bridge. The “Collins Bridge,” completed in June, 1913, is known today as the Venetian Causeway.
Through the collective efforts of Lummus, Collins, and Fisher, the Town of Miami Beach was officially incorporated in 1915. The Lummus brothers sold their oceanfront property to the city, making what is known today as Lummus Park. Five years later, in 1920, the land boom officially began. With its main streets (5th Street, Alton Road, Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Ocean Drive) all suitable for automobiles, South Beach traffic heightened. The beach’s population steadily increased, and with it came many esteemed residents. Notable South Beach inhabitants included Harvey Firestone, J.C. Penny, and Albert Champion, who built mansions on the beach. South Beach welcomed even more fame as The Jackie Gleason Show was brought to the area in 1964. The television personality, Jackie Gleason, filmed hour-long comedies at the Jackie Gleason Theater, indirectly serving as endorsements of the community every week.
From the mid 1960s to the 1980s, Miami Beach became widely used as a retirement community for those seeking to escape the cold and enjoy the warm weather. However, many of the senior citizens lived on modest, fixed incomes, and living along the ocean required high maintenance. Around the same time began the “cocaine cowboys”, drug dealers who used the area as a base for their illicit drug activities. Miami Beach soon began to adopt a ramshackle appearance. The film, Scarface, released in 1983, filmed much of the movie in the rather dilapidated community as many of the desired sets could be found in Miami Beach; only minor alterations needed to be made as many of the buildings were already run down. Additionally, the television show, Miami Vice, filmed in South Beach for similar backdrops (Baca).
Barbara Baer Capitman, along with a group of activists, promoted a movement to place almost one square mile of South Beach on the National Registry of Historic Places. In the late 1980s, South Beach witnessed a popularity resurgence with the influx of fashion industry enthusiasts inhabiting the community. Fast forward to today, South Beach is one of the most affluent and prosperous commercial areas in Miami, once again staking its claim as a playground for the rich and famous.
According to the most recent United States census estimates, South Beach has a population of 3,675 and is the 525th most populated city in the state of Florida. In 2017, the largest South Beach racial/ethnic group was White (96.5%), followed by Hispanic (2.5%) and Two or More (1%). As of 2017, South Beach residents’ median income was $104,613. The overall median age of residents was 66 years old (“South Beach FL Demographics Data”).
In order to truly unravel all that is South Beach, I knew it was crucial for me to connect with the people within the community. As I had stopped to photograph a statue of community activist Barbara Baer Capitam, it was a nearby resident Antonio Dumas who reached out to me to explain her historical significance. Fascinated by his knowledge and clear appreciation for Miami’s history, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to speak to him more.
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Antonio moved to Miami at the age of twelve. And as much as he loves the city of South Beach, he did express his discontent with the city’s tax raises. “They keep raising taxes on the actual people who live here, and then the people who come here have to suffer from it. They raised all the prices on drinks, food, and hotel stays,” he explained. Although, that was the only bad thing he had to say about Miami, describing it as overall, a great place to live. Having spent twenty-two years in the marines, Antonio chose to retire in Miami. Rather than moving back to the northside of Fort Lauderdale, he explained that he comes to the south and just says “forget it– this is where I’m going to live.”
In regards to the South Beach culture, Antonio described it as “strong to its roots.” Having been born there, he expressed the sense of family woven throughout the community; everyone looks out for each other. “If you go back to the history of Miami, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians- they’re the first ones that actually visited this island,” Antonio explained. “People don’t acknowledge that Miami is an island and when they first got here, they took advantage of everything. That’s why when you go in certain buildings, the Cubans are still doing their thing- my family.”
When asked about the various things to do within the community, he described the availability of bicycle and scooter rentals, as well as the accessibility of the sportiest cars on every corner. He went on to explain that a lot of the people you see on South Beach, you’re convinced they must come from “Star Island,” but they don’t. He explained, “It’s easy to come down here. If you save about five or six hundred, you can look like you do.” With some money saved up, one can come down to the area and completely transform for a few days.
Art Deco Historic District Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of South Beach is the Art Deco Historic District. Although the style originated in France, Miami has the highest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world, featuring over 900 historic buildings. All residing between 5th Street and 23rd Street and along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue are unique, white and pastel-colored buildings making up Miami’s greatest architectural feats. Visitors can take walking tours of the district- either with a tour guide or self-guided. Whichever way you choose to explore the architecture, you should start off at the Art Deco Welcome Center, home of the Miami Design Preservation League, which was instrumental in saving many of the buildings on your tour.
The Villa Casa Casuarina Also along Ocean Drive stands The Villa Casa Casuarina. Better known as the Versace Mansion, the former home belonged to Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace until his death in 1997 on the mansion’s porous coraline front steps (Vernose). It was named the third most photographed home in America, behind the White House and Graceland (Vernose). Today, the former mansion now operates as a luxury hotel, though still stands infamously not just for Gianni’s murder, but for being the set of the 2018 FX true crime series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
The Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach The Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach is an imporant landmark known worldwide for its heart-wrenching sculptures and exhibits dedicated to the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II. As South Florida has one of the highest populations of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust Memorial Committee saw it as the perfect location for such a memorial (“Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach: History”). The center of the memorial is the Sculpture of Love and Anguish, a towering bronze arm rising from the earth and stretching out to the heavens. Surrounding the arm are sculptures representing the torment endured by the victims. The memorial also includes the Arbor of History, a series of black granite slabs with distressing photographs and educational descriptions of Holocaust history.
The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater began in the 1950s as the The Miami Beach Municipal Auditorium. Guests from around the world traveled to see performances on this stage. Notable mentions Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Jack Benny, who were regular visitors of the auditorium. Today, operated by LiveNation, the theater steeped in rock-n-roll history showcases the biggest names in live entertainment.
South Pointe Park South Pointe Park is just one of the many green spaces South Beach has to offer, and it is also one of the most popular. The 17-acre park features an array of unique lounging areas and winding sidewalks surrounded by palm trees for jogging with a scenic view. The space also offers a miniature water park where kids can cool off and countless areas suitable for exercising. South Pointe Park Pier is just a short stroll away from the park and allows visitors to view Miami sunsets or cruise ships depart from Port Miami. With easy access to both the fishing pier and beach, South Pointe Park is also situated for easy access to restaurants and nightlife attractions on nearby Lincoln Road.
Lummus Park Lummus Park, created in 1909 as one of Miami’s first open, green spaces runs today along Ocean Drive from about 5th Street to 15th Street. The park fashions volleyball nets and grassy, green patches where visitors can exercise or kick back and relax. Lummus Park is often seen as natural backdrop for countless television and movie scenes, appearing in many since its inception. One of the park’s most notable attractions is Muscle Beach, located within Lummus Park on 9th Street and Ocean Drive. A hub for fitness enthusiasts, Muscle Beach is an outdoor exercise area offering active space for anything from weight-lifting to gymnastics. The area also features fully-functioning equipment in the form of art. According to MyEquilibria, the exceptionally resistant installations, Leopard Tree and MyBeast, collectively feature over 30 workout components.
South Beach consists of an onslaught of traffic, which is why many people opt for more dependable and in-expensive travel options. The Miami Beach Trolley offers free, reliable transportation connecting to regional transit loops. Operating all over Miami Beach, its South Beach loop has a frequency of about 40 minutes (Gonzalez). Similarly, there is a scattering of double-decker tour buses offering visitors views from all over the community. While this an overall effective way of getting around South Beach, those in cars often find themselves trapped behind large busses constantly stopping to pick up or drop up pedestrians.
CitiBike is also a large part of South Beach transportation culture. Miami’s bike sharing and rental system is a fun, efficient, and convenient way to get around. The Citi Bike program has docking stations on nearly every corner of Miami with bikes available to use 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Despite the options, many visitors and locals choose to walk from place to place, as each walk down the block offers another exciting view of South Beach.
Nearly every street in South Beach offers a fresh set of restaurants. From up-scale, luxury dining to casual eateries, their is a place to fit every culinary need.
Joe’s Stone Crab Joe’s Stone Crab was established in 1913, and it the most historic restaurant in South Beach. The restaurant even predates Miami Beach, opening two years before it was incorporated into a city in 1915. The restaurant’s most popular dish, the stone crabs, are in season from mid-October to mid-May, and this year it celebrates its 106th season (“Where to Eat in South Beach”).
Time Out Market Near Lincoln Road lies the place to get the most comprehensive taste of Miami. Time Out Market features a food hall with 20 stalls, each containing the best of the best of Miami’s culinary scene (“Where to Eat in South Beach”). From Miami’s best burgers, to steak, to sushi– it can all be found under this one roof.
Being that South Beach is a highly touristic community, it’s no surprise tourist shops make up a significant portion of the local businesses. Nearly every block presents a new storefront showcasing golden bikinis and “I Heart Miami” t-shirts.
One business that immediately catches the eyes of visitors is U Rock Couture located on Ocean Drive. The boutique stands out from its clothing store counterparts in that it offers name-brand jeans and dresses, as opposed to simple hoodies. The shop is difficult to miss with its checkered-floors glamorous chandeliers on bright display.
Another shop not uncommon to the area is Psychic Readings by Bianca, located on Collins Avenue. The store advertises palm readings, psychic readings, energy cleansing, and more.
Between the Threads is Alejandro Lindo’s relatively hidden jewelry business located on the 17th Street Beach Walk. Alejandro’s table showcases his various bracelets, necklaces and earrings all woven by hand. I was fascinated by his skillful and creative craftsmanship, so I stopped to speak to him more about his work. As he primarily speaks Spanish, fellow student Blanca Alcaraz translated for me the story of his small, yet successful business. He explained that his success is seasonal, some months making more and some less. His customers are mostly tourists, yet he does have a few local customers who purchase from him regularly.
There are many things South Beach has done right, leading it to its glamorous reputation. The way it has preserved its Art Deco architecture, alongside its pristine beaches and never-ending nightlife has made it a natural backdrop for countless television and movie scenes based in Miami. Yet through its crowd-pulling success, its largest downfall is that once people visit South Beach and realize it is not always the way it seems on TV, they might not return again. As much as it seems like a dream to drop your, umbrella and swim bag on the shore of the beach and take a dip in the water, it is not realistic. Many people relaxing on the beach are victims of robberies, and most don’t notice their belongings have gone missing until it is far too late to retrieve them. Despite its shortcomings, South Beach is still thriving by its influx of art enthusiasts and partygoers. All this cultivates into what makes South Beach a playground for the rich and famous.
Baca, Mandy. “That South Beach Life, Then and Now.” The New Tropic, 1 Sept. 2016, https://thenewtropic.com/south-beach-then-now/.
Design : MyBeast, http://www.myequilibria.com/mybeast/design/.
Gonzalez, Jose R. “Citywide Free Trolley.” City of Miami Beach, https://www.miamibeachfl.gov/city-hall/transportation/trolley/.
“Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach: History.” The Holocaust Memorial of Miami Beach, http://holocaustmemorialmiamibeach.org/about/history/.
“South Beach FL Demographics Data.” South Beach FL Demographics Data with Population from Census, https://www.towncharts.com/Florida/Demographics/South-Beach-CDP-FL-Demographics-data.html.
“The History of South Beach.” Cavalier Hotel, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.cavaliersouthbeach.com/2017/02/history-south-beach/.
Vernose, Vienna. “A Historical Look at the Versace Mansion.” CR Fashion Book, CR Fashion Book, 2 May 2019, https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a27274615/historical-look-versace-mansion/.
“Where to Eat in South Beach.” Where to Eat in South Beach, https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/restaurants/south-beach-dining.
All photos are by Jena Nassar, unless stated otherwise.