Dr. Leonard Haber, the Mayor of Miami Beach who once envisioned a Venice-like Waterway District along Collins Avenue and who hosted a popular radio program dispensing psychological advice to callers, died Friday morning in the city he helped lead for more than a decade.
Haber was 82.
“He was my hero, but he was also a hero to many as he served a lifetime for the community,” his son Joseph Haber said Friday.
Haber first joined the Miami Beach commission in 1971 when he was elected to a four-year term as a councilman. By 1977, Haber was the city’s mayor during a period of growing pains. He served for two years and was later re-elected as a commissioner for two more years in 1981.
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One of his boldest endeavors was to try and create a Waterway District along Collins Avenue from 23rd to 63rd Streets complete with sidewalk cafés, gondola rides and decorative paths for romantic moonlit strolls.
Struggling with crime, a faltering tourist trade and an aging population in the pre-Miami Vice years and post-Rat Pack heyday that had filled hotels in the 1950s and ’60s along Collins, Haber wanted action. This was, after all, an era in which newspaper articles about Lincoln Road Mall would preface the location with the adjective “beleaguered.”
“This plan could make Miami Beach more cosmopolitan and urbane,” he told the Miami News in 1982. “It could be another French Riviera or Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.”
Haber also proposed establishing an official topless beach, “just like the French Riviera” on Miami Beach. That didn’t happen officially but he was merely ahead of his time. Today, spotting topless bathers on bustling South Beach is much easier than spotting a parking spot.
Ultimately, the Beach began its revival later that decade as it re-imagined itself in the image Miami Vice created on television.
“Creating Venice, he was very passionate about that. … It happened, just not the way he envisioned it, but he loved this city,” said his son Michael Haber.
“The community kind of became an extended family,” added son Daniel Haber. “He wanted to show everybody what an outstanding city Miami Beach was and could be, and should be.”
During Haber’s time on the dais, the city often drew national attention. For example, Haber was a councilman when the city hosted both the 1972 Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention at the Miami Beach Convention Center in July and August, respectively.
The city set up an encampment at nearby Flamingo Park, which quickly filled with young visitors, who called themselves Yippies. Yippie leader, Abbie Hoffman, a quasi-candidate, pressed the flesh and the Democrats lured country music’s first couple, George Jones and Tammy Wynette to serenade the park’s masses.
Anti-war protests, however, erupted during the hot August nights and days of the Republican convention near the Fontainebleau and Convention Center.
A decade later, during his second term as a commissioner, Haber, then one of the owners of the 25-store Carib Mall on 230 Lincoln Road, supported the filming of Universal’s Scarface on Miami Beach after Cuban-Americans protested that the film’s title character, played by an over-the-top Al Pacino, was to be a Mariel refugee. Producers had threatened to pull the production from the city.
“We have the moon over Miami and now we want the stars in Miami as well,” Haber said at the time.
He swept into office with a Herald endorsement in 1981. “Haber offers considerably more experience and insight to the city’s problems than does the incumbent, appointee Walter Kaplan,” the editorial board opined.
Haber also served as the city psychologist for Miami Beach in the late 1980s in a part-time capacity, a move that created some controversy in 1991 when he retired from the position and filed for a $24,000-a-year city pension. Amid scrutiny, he decided to forgo that pension.
“I was looking and thinking how it looked, and it did look unfair,” Haber told Miami Herald in 1991.
Haber would also enjoy a popular 13-year run as a host dispensing advice on the WKAT-1360 AM radio show, At Your Service, initially alongside pal Larry King, beginning in 1969. For 40 years, Haber was a trial consultant and expert witness until his 2004 retirement. He was a radio and TV news commentator sought for his opinions on high-profile criminal cases, including serving as a regular guest for NBC during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-1990s.
Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Haber to the Judicial Qualifications Commission in 1998 and he was reappointed by Gov. Jeb Bush four years later.
Haber was born on March 21, 1933 in the Bronx and graduated from City College and earned his Ph.D from Adelphi University in New York. He established his private practice, Psychological Associates of Miami, on Miami Beach in 1965.
Current Beach Mayor Philip Levine extended condolences to the Haber family. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Leonard Haber,” he said in a statement.
“I hit the father lottery. His kids were the most important thing in the world to him and, as a son, I couldn’t imagine having a better father. If I am half the man my father was I will be 100-percent successful,” said Michael Haber.
“My dad was just a master of words and situations,” added Daniel Haber. “When anybody needed advice he was able to navigate the nuances, and provide the most sage and appropriate and concise advice.”
Haber is survived by his wife Marta; his three sons Michael, Daniel and Joseph Haber; grandchildren Melanie, Jennifer, Matthew, Aiden and Jackie; and, his sister Sandra.
Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Temple Beth Sholom, 4144 Chase Ave., Miami Beach, and services will follow at 1 p.m. at Lakeside Memorial Park, 10301 NW 25th St., Miami.
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