Once known for its seedy motels and street walkers, Miami’s Upper East Side has slowly transformed into a neighborhood packed with great food, historic buildings and live music.
Over the past decade, the northern boundary of the neighborhood, which runs roughly from the lower 50s to 87th Street, from Biscayne Boulevard to Biscayne Bay, has undergone a major shift.
Miami historian Paul George said the transformation has been fascinating to watch: “It's a fabulous story of urban revival.’’
Many of the neighborhoods, such as Belle Meade, suffered from what George referred to as “urban malaise.’’ Though the areas had been built up after World War II, people began to move out and, by the ’80s, Biscayne Boulevard consisted of mostly rundown motels. It suffered from high crime rates, with prostitutes lining the streets.
The revitalization began in 1984, when Morningside, a neighborhood known for its historic homes just east of Biscayne Boulevard in the 50s and 60s, received historic designation. Residents had decided they wanted to stay and restore their homes, rather than leave. Other neighborhoods followed suit, and by the early 2000s, most of the area had been declared historic.
Today, Biscayne Boulevard is lined with restaurants like The Federal, off Biscayne at 51st Street, which opened in 2012 and is jammed weekend nights. Cafes with live music and juice bars have followed.
Residents who have lived in the area have witnessed the change. Before moving to the area 13 years ago, Miguel Monnichmeyer used to drive down Biscayne Boulevard to get to work.
“All I remember is the hookers, the cheap coffee and the dirty gas stations,’’ he said.
Even after moving into their house in Morningside, Monnichmeyer and his family experienced the high crime first-hand.
“When I first bought that house, the area was pretty scary,’’ he said.
A man crashed into a nearby home and ran directly toward Monnichmeyer's house with a gun, being chased by police.
“The cops were yelling ‘Get in the house!’ and I had to close my door and tell my wife to get on the floor while they chased the man in our yard,’’ he said.
Another incident involved a full-day lockdown, after which the police found a man suspected of murder hiding under Monnichmeyer's house.
Now, he said “the tables have completely turned.’’ Friends who live in Coral Gables and Aventura want to go out in his area, and he sees more tourists using the motels than the prostitutes.
“It's changed 1,000 percent,’’ he said.
The neighborhood is also Miami's first commercial historic district because of its Miami Modern architecture. The strip along Biscayne Boulevard from 50th Street to 77th Street is lined with old motels built in the 1940s and 1950s. The motels were used as a gateway to Miami Beach for people who could not afford hotels there. MiMo architecture features striking styles, like curved walls, textured surfaces, cut-outs and mosaic tile. The district won its historic designation in 2006 after a long battle with the city to preserve the district.
Nancy Liebman, president of the MiMo Biscayne Association, was part of the original movement to get the historic designation. She said it was a big step for Miami to approve it.
“It was a real revelation that it happened,’’ Liebman said.
Today, developer Arva Jain is restoring The Vagabond, and has plans to work on other properties along Biscayne Boulevard, including The Royal and The Stephens.
Liebman and George believe the district is becoming an alternative for people who cannot afford or do not want to stay in South Beach, and a booming area for locals.
“It's a very laborious process, but it's beginning to bear fruit now,’’ George said.
For those unfamiliar with the area, it can be hard to know where to start. Here, then, is a neighborhood guide.
Banana pancakes at Jimmy's
For a city packed with so many New Yorkers, Miami is sorely lacking in traditional diners. Jimmy's Eastside Diner is more than 40 years old and a staple in the neighborhood. Lined with booths and filled with bright light, Jimmy's is a proper diner. The service is quick, they serve breakfast all day, and you can only order two types of coffee: regular and decaf.
In true diner fashion, everything on the menu at Jimmy's is good. But save the trouble of staring at the menu and order a stack of banana pancakes, which are fluffy and with perfectly browned bananas. You can also ask for bananas pancakes instead of regular ones in any of the breakfast specials.
A self-guided tour of the MiMo district
Biscayne Boulevard is well-known for its MiMo motels and buildings. The 1953 Vagabond Hotel, 7301 Biscayne Blvd. was restored last year, and Jain hopes to do the same with four more historic motels in the area.
Though guided tours are not conducted on a regular basis, it is easy to give a self-guided tour with a little planning. Beyond the hotels, there are restaurants like Andiamo Pizza, 5600 Biscayne Blvd., that feature MiMo architecture. The building was once a tire dealership.
For more information on MiMo and a list of MiMo buildings, go to mimoonthebeach.com which has a “Great Miami’’ section with addresses to important buildings on Biscayne Boulevard.
Share some plates at The Federal
The Federal is easy to miss, tucked away in a Biscayne Boulevard strip mall with a Dunkin' Donuts and a health food store. But despite its odd location, The Federal is well worth a stop — the restaurant's biscuits were named some of the best in the country by Food & Wine magazine last year. The tiny restaurant serves up tasty New American cuisine, like crispy Brussels Sprouts with molasses vinaigrette, pickled apples and onions, and their house specialty, Jar o' Duck, served with duck rillettes, charred fluff, candied sweet potato.
The menu is divided up into “Pescetarian Pleasure,’’ “Veggie Friendly,’’ and “Meatlovers Delight,’’ so there are options for everyone. The plates are made for sharing, so there's no need to decide on just one dish. Be sure to call ahead and reserve a table, or you might find yourself waiting a long time.
A bit of Brazilian nightlife
End your night with live music and drinks at Boteco, the vibrant and bustling Brazilian bar on 79th Street, east of Biscayne Boulevard. In a time when other businesses in the area were struggling, Boteco remained a neighborhood staple. The restaurant and bar has live music on weekends, and sometimes even weekdays. It also features free samba classes most Mondays, and food and drink specials nearly every day.
Order up caipirinhas, the most traditional of Brazilian drinks. They’re made with cachaça, a distilled sugar cane liquor, lime and sugar. The bar's website features their recipe, so anyone can try it at home to make sure they like it.