Neighborhoods with character and a bit of edge are a lot like drunks and addicts. They have to bottom out before they bounce back. They need to go through the painful process of being overlooked, undervalued and generally unloved before intrepid urban pioneers — gifted with the unique ability to see beauty in the dirt and squalor — move in to rescue them.
Take South Beach in the 1970s. I would sit and watch the swaying palms, sparkling ocean, crumbling Art Deco buildings, and think, “What a dump!” Lincoln Road — now the site of high-end shops, fusion restaurants and hipsters — was home to a shoe repair and a corset shop, among other humble stores. When the Mariel refugees flooded the streets of Miami Beach in 1980, the patient hit rock bottom. Rehabilitation came at the hands of visionary designers, passionate preservationists and savvy hoteliers — enter the LGBT community. Popular shows like Miami Vice spotlighted the impossibly beautiful views of swaying palms, sparkling ocean and authentic Art Deco buildings. It turned out residents had failed to notice that South Florida is awash with natural beauty, and there are pockets of possibility everywhere.
Miami: Where the Magic Happens
Not too long ago, we would drive I-95 with nary a glance toward dowdy Wynwood. The warren of textile dealers and abandoned warehouses between the expressway and the tracks was practically invisible. If we noticed anything, it was the blight of graffiti. Wynwood was flat lining. But hipsters parlayed the graffiti into the most expansive display of serious street art in one of the most unique arts districts in the world. Block after block of avant garde imagery was anointed by Vogue as the 9th coolest neighborhood in the world in 2014.
Today’s trendy galleries and eateries occupy the cast-off shells of a previous era. The anti-aesthetic utilitarian buildings are an essential part of the charm: art applied to the artless, supremely ironic and completely authentic at the same time.
It’s a natural fit for the Miami hipster. But you don’t have to ride a skateboard in handmade Italian shoes to enjoy the boutiques, bars, cafés and galleries.
The original Panther Coffee — an emporium of sustainable beans — was an early draw. Wynwood Walls is an outdoor art space nestled among the pioneers, including the Rubell and Marguiles galleries and several dozen others. Joey’s Italian Café was an early tenant, as were the barbecue and bourbon spot, Pride & Joy, and Kush, the place for better burgers and beer. O Cinema does the best Rocky Horror, and I recently discovered Wynwood Brewing Company. The 15-barrel brew house crafts creative beers, including my new fave, Pop’s Porter — the anti-light beer.
Wynwood is well on its way, and has even priced a number of shop owners out. But it retains its edge. While the first wave of urban pioneering in Wynwood is past, it’s far from over. Rehab at the core of this artsy mecca is continual, but residential development still lags. The creative Cynergi condo/rental building is among the first purpose-built working and living spaces. More have been planned or scrapped pending better zoning. Going forward, we’ll see how much developers and residents have learned about organic gentrification.
Meanwhile Little Havana has been coming back, with the slow but steady appearance or rehabilitation of a small building here and there. As a leading indicator, some commercial properties have nearly doubled in price lately. Another indicator is Publix, which has added two new locations in the neighborhood.
The new 320-unit InTown condos just topped off Calle Ocho at 19th Avenue. Scrums of real estate agents, developers and bankers have taken Little Havana on the road, pitching the neighborhood to would-be investors throughout Latin America. Preservationists are already pushing back against the higher densities, which would endanger the charm that draws people there. The new Riverview Historic District in East Little Havana, where early Cuban refugees first set up, protects 94 bungalows and several Art Deco buildings and Mission-style homes built between 1920 and 1960.
Within blocks of iconic Domino Park and the historic Tower Theater, merchants are building upon the culture deeply rooted in the area. I sit near the window at El Exquisito, eating my still inexpensive Cuban breakfast and watching Calle Ocho evolve right before me. The viejitos queue up at the café windows shouting out orders of pan cubano and shots of cafecito.
But across the street, Ball & Chain — the 1930s gambling den and jazz club that hosted Billie Holiday — has been lovingly renovated and is offering live music once again. A block east is Cubaocho, a wonderful museum, bar, art gallery and music venue. Due west, the Little Havana Visitors Center displays the kinds of cool original pieces that Miamians snap up to display in their homes.
And the real magic still lies dormant down the side streets, where block after block of early-20th-century homes, from modest to grand, have stood for decades. Some of these gems have been restored to their original glory. Others await their white knights. I think Little Havana is “The Next Big Thing.”
Fort Lauderdale: Living the Sunny Life
Just north of the glitz that defines Miami, life gets a little less hectic and flashy. In the early 2000s, large segments of the LGBT community that had previously claimed South Beach as their own migrated north — some to settle down somewhere more peaceful, others in search of better prices. Victoria Park and Colee Hammock have not been affordable for quite some time, and even Wilton Manors, which initially benefitted from the dearth of accessible properties in those areas, has priced itself out of the mainstream market as well. But the areas right around Wilton Manors, such as Babco Heights, have begun to grow, as you can still find relative bargains without getting too far from the heart of town.
The areas bordering Wilton Manors are all seeing a spike in sales as folks snatch up homes and renovate them. In the neighborhood of North Andrews Gardens — east of Andrews and north of Commercial — you can still purchase a three-bedroom, two-bath property for less than $200 thousand. But just north of Wilton Manors, Oakland Park has already begun its upswing.
Adrian Scott, a realtor with Barkin-Gilman & Associates/Coldwell Banker singles out the Oakland Park neighborhoods of Coral Heights and Coral Woods. “I just sold a beautifully renovated home to a gay couple in Coral Woods,” he says. “And they’ve found that a large percentage of the neighborhood is gay.”
South Middle River is also benefitting from being adjacent to Wilton Manors. Referred to by some residents as SoWilMa, it has already seen a large influx of LGBT residents. Driveways that just a few years ago served as the neglected parking spots of rusted-out cars amid patches of weeds, now boast Volvos, Maseratis and BMWs along with well-manicured lawns. The southern edge of the neighborhood, 13th street, is teeming with new businesses, including the hipster-hangout, Warsaw Coffee. There are also a number of new galleries and the gay club, Le Boy.
Poinsettia Heights, just west of the South Middle River neighborhood, is also seeing a lot of action. Because the area features somewhat larger homes, sales are brisk.
“I’ve recently represented two homes in this neighborhood, and they’ve both gone under contract for record breaking prices in under a week,” says Scott.
Closer to downtown Fort Lauderdale, F.A.T. (Flagler Arts and Technology) Village is home to many locally owned creative businesses and artists. Coffeehouses, galleries, graphic arts studios and theaters are all crammed into two dynamic square blocks. Also known as Progresso, the area between Broward and Sunrise from Federal to I-95 is the centerpiece of the Community Redevelopment Area there.
“This area has approved a total of 16,060 units in the city’s land use plan and 13,100 in the county’s land use plan, and 15 percent of that is slated for low-income opportunities. This major increase from the previously allowed number of units is huge for the future growth of the downtown Fort Lauderdale area,” says Charles “Kip” Reynolds, a broker with Atlantic Properties. “Already we are seeing the Flagler monthly Art Walk, cool scenes like Rhythm and Vine Beer Garden, new hotels going up, newly constructed rental units, new townhouse and condo projects and even the new train station!”
Key West: Come As You Are
On the one hand the LGBT footprint on this historic island has clearly shrunk in scale and diversity. Like once thriving gayborhoods nationwide, gay Key West has been wrestling with the economic consequences of a profoundly positive sea change in public attitudes.
“The gay community has become a victim of its own success,” is how Joey Schroeder puts it. Schroeder is the owner of seven popular businesses clustered around Duval and Petronia streets, the de facto gay neighborhood on the island.
We are chatting at a casual Tiki Hut bar in the sprawling back garden of Bourbon Street Pub, his flagship business and by far the most popular gay bar in town. Bourbon Street Pub is where up to nine near-naked men gyrate for dollars every night. It’s home to the outrageous New Year’s Eve Drag Queen Shoe Drop and central to a stream of local LGBT events including the star-studded finale of the Stoli Key West LGBT Cocktail Classic.
Schroeder gets right to the heart of our modern day paradox. Older visitors are choosing to accrue points and use miles by staying at corporate hotels. While this makes sense on an individual level, over time it has resulted in the closure of several prominent guesthouses. Once these same tourists arrive, however, they bemoan the absence of the bawdy gay community they recall or have read about.
Meanwhile, sexually fluid lesbian and gay millenials prefer to chill with their straight friends at less cruisy places. They bypass gay bars altogether, hooking-up via apps like Grindr and Tinder. Local DJ Angel Raigoza is part of that crowd, but rather than sitting in the sidelines, he is getting his foot in the door, spinning house music with an urban flair for his peers at Chicagos (Wednesday), time/lapse (Thursday) and The Saint Hotel (Friday).
The upshot to this revolution is that the surviving gay bars like Aqua, 801 and Bourbon Street Pub have had to evolve. Mixed crowds are welcome. Weddings are a new source of revenue. Sex is downplayed. And palatable drag takes place just about everywhere.
Guy Ross, recently appointed LGBT sales manager at the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, is clearly a glass-half-full kind of guy. Like Schroeder, Ross has lived in Key West for decades. “Now is the most stable time in Key West’s economic history,” he assures me. “And, this community is well-positioned for the future. The history, the architecture, the reef and the restaurants are what the LGBT tourist is coming for. Key West is not a nightlife destination,” he emphasizes. “But we have that as well.”
It’s Ross’ job to sell the Keys to a changing LGBT market, and that’s what he is doing. But he has a point. While it’s true, many beloved gay venues like the Copa, Atlantic Shores and a string of piano bars have disappeared, it’s also true that Key West is more than just a place for drinking and cruising.
Ross and I are dining at the historic La Te Da hotel. Its new owner is committed to modernizing the property while keeping its old school tea dance alive. Stop by on a Sunday afternoon: It’s usually raining men and it’s always fun.
So too are the organized events that have longstanding tradition in the city, including Pride in June, Tropical Heat in August, Bone Island in July and December, Womenfest in September, Fantasy Fest in October, the twice-weekly pool parties at Island House and Tea on the Sea — the pet project of Chic Wagner, an enthusiastic member of the Fury Water Adventures family. In 2015, Wagner pitched the idea of an LGBT-only cruise to management; they gave it a thumbs-up, and the event became an immediate hit. Beginning in 2016, there will be a Tea on the Sea sunset sail every month.