Miami Beach is technically a separate city from Miami, and in certain respects – amazingly – it is its equal or even superior in urban vitality. It occupies a broad barrier island in Biscayne Bay, as long and perhaps five or six times wider than the Rockaway Peninsula of New York. The area was opened to development by the construction of a bridge crossing the bay in 1914, and the site’s natural advantages meant that it developed quickly. The further inland you go in southern Florida, the more it resembles a swamp – which indeed, it is, called the Everglades – and so the best land there is is the land right on the water. The ocean breezes temper the air, and the beach is there. And Miami Beach’s beaches are probably the best of any American metropolis: white powdery sand, lazy currents, respectable surf, and a sloping shore that deepens neither too quickly nor too slowly.
The more urban part of the coast is the famous “South Beach,” while to the north massive hotels and condos stretch off into the distance. North Miami Beach, yet another incorporated city, sends up skyscrapers at the edge of the horizon and right on the water, where they look beautiful and Oz-like rising out of the ocean and amethyst-tinted in the mist. It looks, of course, like a horrible place to put large buildings – on the ocean in the hurricane-rich Caribbean – but the area in fact has had little trouble with hurricanes since 1926. I do not know if this is a quirk of Miami’s location or yet another instance of the ridiculously good luck America had in the 20h century.
The old buildings of Miami Beach have been designated the “Art Deco Historic District,” and indeed it looks like America in 1939 or so: with large department stores such as Macy’s anchoring an old Main-Street shopping area, with a large standing public clock, an opera house, lots of small businesses, a city hall, and even an old hotel called “the Delano,” which brings back the FDR era both in décor and name. Walking through the downtown area on a Saturday night I saw that the opera house was performing an opera indoors while simultaneously screening it outdoors on the side of the gleaming white building. It looked and sounded like Mozart. Couples old and young were seated or splayed out on the lawn in front of the screen. It seemed like a very genteel way to spend a Saturday night after a day at the beach.
Added on to this, however, is the tawdry beach culture, somewhat like Santa Monica but raunchier and a bit weirder. Tattoo parlors were everywhere – hardly a block lacked one – and there were dozens of indistinguishable shops selling t-shirts and tourist knick-knacks. The t-shirts were of the “I’m with Stupid” variety: “Nice Story Bitch Now Go Get Me A Sandwich” was one of the more memorable slogans. I did kind of like the Crockett and Tubbs shirts, but none of them were quite good enough to get me to fish around in my pocket for cash. I was certain that after the first wash you wouldn’t be able to tell who they were. There were the usual snowglobes, shot glasses, fridge magnets, and the like. I was especially impressed by the panties, inscribed with such promising come-ons as “Open 24/7” and “Insert Here.” I will confess that I was somewhat interested in meeting a girl whose idea of self-expression was buying herself a pair of “Open 24/7” panties – the New York girls I knew don’t really seem capable of such a thing – but no one did while I was looking.
But if girls really do exist who buy panties like that, I felt that Miami Beach was where I would find them. On the streets it seemed like anything went. It was the beach, of course, so you could wear a bikini – but it was also Miami, so you could be wearing a tuxedo or a ballgown too. In general people had great bodies – bodybuilders, dancers, plastic surgery aficionados, sun worshippers, beach bums, doctors, rich people, whatever they were, they seemed to look good and enjoy looking good. At night the club and gala outfits came out, and the people-watching was just astonishing: everyone was all dressed up and out on the town. Art Basel I’m sure increased the city’s nightlife temperature: there were celebrities, rich people, and beautiful people everywhere.
Most impressive to me was the fact that all of this was pedestrian: Miami, which in so many ways could be compared to L.A., was different because it had (especially in Miami Beach) a superior pedestrian culture. People really were walking on the streets, and so all the beauty and all the glam was public and in some sense it truly enriched the whole city. And it was not all the same: a group of skinny girls in sheer gowns and stilettos might be walking in front of a female bodybuilder trying to powerwalk past them to get to the gym. Lincoln Road is closed to traffic, and has become a pedestrian shopping mall. What used to be the street is now taken up by outdoor seating for restaurants, one after another, block after block. Couples in the restaurants sit next to each other facing outwards because the people-watching is so good. I was out for the first night of Hanukkah, and a group of Hasidic Jews were lighting a six-foot-tall Menorah – which was covered in seashells and quite possibly the corniest thing ever – in the middle of the pedestrian area, while the fake Miami boobs were bouncing right by. It really was incredible.
We went to the beach every day we had a chance. The December water was warm by New York standards – about as warm as it gets in August at Rockaway – but it was noticeable that almost no one was in the water. It was too cold for Floridians. That said, we all swam for forty minutes at a time without even feeling cold. It was amazing.
Winter in the north separates you so forcibly from your body, and the sensuality of Miami Beach restores it to you. It made me wonder why I hadn’t been doing this every year. And the ocean is archetypal: as fashionable as it might be, and as tawdry as it can get, it will always have different meanings to different people, and some of those people will always be deep. You could feel it in the air: the ocean meant somehow that it was not all fake, that something deep and incredible was despite it all always at hand: it might come to you in the sound of the waves, or the smell of the salt, or something strange that had washed up on the shore, at any moment.