What’s in a name? If it’s attached to a street or a building or a park in South Florida, it could be anything from narcotrafficking to child molestation to financial flim-flammery. And money, of course — lots and lots of money.
When Sunglass Hut zillionaire Sanford Ziff in 2011 wanted his late wife Dolores’ name removed from the Arsht Center’s opera house, just eight months after her death (he wanted to replace it with that of his new wife), he predicted breezy compliance. “I gave $10 million to the Arsht Center, so I don’t expect it to be a problem,” Ziff said.
That turned out to be not quite enough: Ziff died last year, Wife No. 2’s name still not on the sign. But the opera house episode lives on as an inglorious example of the stark contradictions in the way things get named, and unnamed, in South Florida.
“This stuff happens here all the time,” says Jose Lambiet, a longtime local gossip columnist who now chronicles South Florida ritz and ditz for the London Daily Mail. “It’s our specialty.”
Another chapter in this tale may be written on Wednesday, when Florida International University trustees are expected to take up removing the name of the school’s former president, Modesto “Mitch” Maidique, from its west Miami-Dade campus. One reason: He’s been critical of some recent FIU operations, including its role in the installation of a $14 million pedestrian bridge that collapsed in March, killing six people. Another: Some trustees think FIU could make $100 million by selling the naming rights to somebody else.
The attempt to drum Maidique back into the plebian ranks of the South Florida nameless is by no means unique, and the motive — his failure to be a hundreds-of-millions-aire — is far from the cruelest. Dolores Ziff was targeted merely for having died.
So was Joe Robbie, sort of. The man who brought NFL football to South Florida had his name yanked from the stadium he built with his own money — possibly the last owner of a major-sport professional franchise to do that — for the indisputable reason that he sold the team and the Pro Player apparel company would pay the new owner more for the name than the deceased Robbie would.
Like a tiger that’s acquired a taste for human blood, various Dolphins owners have voraciously devoured names even since. The stadium has gone through 10 names in a little over two decades, sometimes changing them literally every few months. (Remember the seven-month golden era of Land Shark Stadium?)
“Miami stadiums change names so often I have to look them up every time I write anything,” complains Lambiet. “I can never remember what the name is this week...Just another Florida fast-buck-get-rich-quick scheme, and nobody gives a [bleep] about tradition.”
You probably need to update you car’s GPS pretty often, too. Street names come and go faster than Dixie Highway drag racers.
At least three times in the past 35 years, groups of Miami Beach city commissioners have tried to purge the name of 20th century broadcast host Arthur Godfrey from one of the city’s major thoroughfares on charges of not being famous anymore. (It was also suggested, with scant evidence, he was part of the Beach’s institutionalized anti-Semitism from an earlier era.) The 1994 round of attacks on Godfrey so irritated one Beach resident that he wrote the Miami Herald to suggest renaming Alton Road to Princess Di Road so that Generation Y motorists wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of driving on a culturally irrelevant street.
But there are also plenty of people who’ve worked long and hard for the notoriety to get their names kicked off South Florida street and building signs. After getting 10 blocks of Southwest 16th Street in Kendall named after himself in the late 1980s, major league baseball player Jose Canseco (a graduate of Coral Park High), got in a series of bar fights and car fights — not a typo; he rammed his wife’s BMW with his Porsche — and finally wrote a book boasting of his drug use, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. (He also had a fly ball bounce off his head for a home run while playing in the Texas Rangers outfield, but that wasn’t specifically cited when the county yanked his name off the street.)
Then there’s developer Leonel Martinez, who was awarded first a six-block stretch of SW 132nd Avenue — the Leomar Parkway, it was called — and then, two years later in 1990, an indictment for narcotrafficking. And the fiercely anti-communist priest Juán Ramón O’Farrill’ (last words: “Pray for Cuba!”), for whom two blocks of Northeast Second Street were named. He subsequently was caught on a police informant’s microphone offering to provide an alibi to a bank robber in exchange for sex. That led to a related perjury charge, which was dismissed as part of pretrial-diversion.
Sometimes the serpentine path South Florida’s namings and unnamings gets so twisted that it resembles a snake eating its own tale. Miami filmmaker Billy Corben recalls hosting a fundraising gala for FIU’s Jewish Museum, located on Washington Avenue in two restored buildings that once were synagogues.
He looked in one direction and saw then-city commissioner Joy Malakoff, who at the time was trying to get Godfrey’s name purged from the city streets. He turn in another direction and could clearly see the name of notorious gangster Meyer Lansky embedded in a pane of a stained-glass window that Lansky donated back in the synagogue days.
“The only word for that is surreal,” Corben says.
Usually these controversies erupt when people misbehave after their names have been placed on a public space. But South Florida’s enthusiasm for embracing celebrity isn’t always too discerning. Margate resident Iris Scarfone saw a short newspaper story announcing the town’s city council had changed the name of a street in her neighborhood to Alcee Hastings Way.
“That can’t be!” she exclaimed to her husband. “He’s a known criminal.”
Not exactly. In 1981, Hastings — then a federal judge — was indicted on charges of soliciting a $150,000 bribe from two mob-related felons asking him for reduced sentences. He was eventually acquitted, But he was impeached and removed by Congress for bribery and perjury.
In 1993 Hastings was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Broward district, but that didn’t clear his name as far as Scarfone was concerned. “It was crazy to name a street after someone like that,” she told the Herald last week. “We couldn’t let it stand.” She mustered support from a couple of dozen like-minded neighbors, and after several stormy meetings with city council committees, including much finger-waving on both sides, Hastings’ name was withdrawn.
“All these years later, people are still thanking me,” says Scarfone.
South Florida is by no means the only place in America with naming controversies. Nearly every state in the south is fighting racially charged battles over street names of and monuments to soldiers and politicians of the old Confederacy. In Washington D.C. itself, there’s a move afoot to change the name of the Russell Senate Office Building, named in 1972 after Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia out of the Senate’s “respect for [his] legislative skills,” which senators have belatedly realized were frequently used to gut proposed laws against segregation and lynching. The proposal is to rename it after recently deceased Sen. John McCain.
Even U.S. presidents are not immune. A coalition of Princeton students and faculty members in 2016 pressured trustees to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson was a fierce advocate of racial separatism who as president segregated the federal workforce, firing large numbers of black government workers in the process.
Even so, Florida seems to move to its own — much faster — beat when it comes to the name game. Miami historian Paul George has been watching it played for many decades now, first with a certain amount of amusement, but now a growing concern.
“I find what’s happening with Maidique interesting and a little bit alarming,” says George, who has taught at Miami Dade College, Florida State and Florida A&M over the years. “This is not a case where somebody has been caught dealing drugs or acting like a crazy person...
“If he’s being punished for speaking out, it seems like punishment for exercising his First Amendment rights, and usually there’s no place where the First Amendment is honored more than on college campuses. And if it’s just about money, are we heading into a situation where someone can just walk onto a campus and say, ‘Here’s $50 million, or $150 million, put my name on the place, not a building but the whole university?’ Crazy stuff, this is crazy stuff... This isn’t renaming some little street. You’re talking about taking a name down from one of the largest public colleges in the United States.”
George first began worrying that South Florida was getting a little promiscuous with naming rights in 1964, when the name of then-Miami Mayor Robert King High went onto a public housing project that still stands on Northwest Seventh Street on the west side of Little Havana.
George had no objection to the mayor’s politics, which were reformist (he worked hard to clean up gambling and prostitution in Miami) and moderately liberal.
“But he was a young man, just 40 at the time,” George recalls. “There was every reason to think he’d be around for another three decades or more. And I thought, who knows what could happen in all that time? Something could go wrong. We could regret this.”
As it turned out, the mayor wouldn’t have time to go wrong; he died unexpectedly of a heart attack just three years later, after losing a tough gubernatorial race. But as local governments increasingly named things after big-bucks donors and transitory celebrities, George’s unease grew.
“A lot of places have rules that you can’t name things after a living person, which gives us time to learn more things about them,” George says. “Why South Florida doesn’t have that kind of a rule is the $64 question.”
He thinks it may have something to do with Miami’s relative youth — about a hundred years old, depending on exactly how you count it — and its land’s-end sensibilities
“This is a place where people come to start over and reinvent themselves,” George says.
“So we don’t have deep, deep roots. The community is a little bit of a booster town, a place that sort of likes to pat people on the back early, too early.”
Filmmaker Corben (who has a couple of sandwiches named after him at local restaurants, but thinks if he ever turned criminal, they’d only get more popular: “Who wouldn’t want to eat an Al Capone sandwich?”) believes there’s something to the idea that that Miami’s location at the southern tip of America has something to do with the infiltration of grifters and crooks into the cartography of polite society.
Corben, who has produced multiple films on University of Miami athletics, noted that the university been associated in recent year with three Ponzi schemers, including Nevin Shapiro, who donated generously to the athletic program and had an athletic lounge named after him until his crimes were exposed.
Ponzi artists, like narcotraffickers, are usually adept at setting up what look like legitimate infrastructure to cover their crimes, which can go on for years without detection by police, much less do-gooder fundraisers and politicians desperate for money to balance budgets. Maybe the only defense really is to buy time through a policy against naming anything for somebody who is still alive.
The idea is not new. Back during another naming contretemps in 1992, a prominent Miami banker warned that the city should be more careful. “A person may have done something good today, and tomorrow he is doing something bad,” he said. “The city and citizens may be embarrassed by that.”
The banker’s name was Abel Holtz. Two years later, he stood in a federal courtroom and pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury about bribes he paid to a Miami Beach mayor. As he headed for prison, Holtz left behind a downtown Miami street, a tennis court in a Miami Beach park and a quadrangle at Barry University, all of them stamped with his name.
This story has been updated. A previous version misstated the year when the former Joe Robbie Stadium became Land Shark Stadium.