Miami Stories

New York transplant recalls how she wound up ‘in this beautiful place’

A younger Eileen Levine Seitlin on the road to the Florida Keys.
A younger Eileen Levine Seitlin on the road to the Florida Keys. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

As a city girl from the Bronx, the only strawberries I had picked were at the corner supermarket. Oftentimes on weekend trips with my husband we would be driving through strawberry fields on the way to an Islamorada Keys getaway. Today, I live in an East Kendall townhome built on top of former farmland.

But how did I wind up in this beautiful place?

Our family had occasionally vacationed during the winter in Miami Beach. We would travel on the Orange Blossom Special train from New York. Miami was still a very small town back then and very clearly “South” not “North.” I remember asking my mother about the odd sign I saw in a supermarket water fountain on one of our trips: “Colored Water.”

My father’s respiratory issues grew worse from the brutal New York City winters, so the choice was to move to either South Florida or Arizona. Being that there weren’t too many kosher butchers or delicatessens in Phoenix, my parents chose Miami, and in October 1950 made the move south. They settled in an apartment north of Coral Gables, just in time for a late season hurricane to hit and blow the roof off the building! My parents later bought a house in Coral Gate and my brother, Seymour, went to Miami High and then on to graduate from the University of Miami. I initially stayed behind and decided to work part-time in Manhattan. However, I soon followed the family and in 1951 found myself, at 20 years old, in the Magic City.

I started working and participating in singles functions at the Coral Gables Jewish Center, and it was there that I met my first husband, Murray Levine, who was living on the Beach and had just started a concrete business with his younger brother. Our second date was in October 1951 and by December, we were married in the chapel of the beautiful Temple Emanu-El in South Beach.

While Murray was building his concrete business with his brother Sam, I raised our growing family. We built a house “way out” on Miller Road — 10 blocks west of the University of Miami. Three of my four children were born at Doctors Hospital on the university campus. There were no traffic lights in our neighborhood; it was still a quiet part of town. On the occasional cold winter morning, I’d find a sheriff’s deputy on his motorcycle sitting in our garage waiting to catch someone running the stop sign. We left our doors unlocked, and I would feel comfortable in the house leaving my baby daughter on the porch in her carriage with only our German shepherd watching over her. It was a simpler time in Southwest Dade.

As our children grew during the 1950s and ‘60s, so did the city. All of my husband’s brothers and sisters lived within a few miles of us, so we were always together with the extended family on weekends. There were picnics at Matheson Hammock, trips to the Zoo and Seaquarium on Key Biscayne, movies at the Tropicaire Drive-In, or dinner at Shorty’s on U.S. 1. The air-raid siren on top of Riviera Theatre would go off precisely at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. We could smell the bread baking across the street at the Holsum Bakery.

My parents still lived in the Gables where they were very active in Temple Zamora. Most of their brothers and sisters made the move from New York, as well, and they settled on Miami Beach. Dinners with them would be at restaurants such as the Glorified Delicatessen or The Pub in the Gables, or Junior’s Deli or Embers on the Beach. Later on, my mother would enjoy Freddie’s great onion soup at The Studio on 32nd Avenue just south of Coral Way.

When I wasn’t doing the bookkeeping for the latest company project, or volunteering at PTA or attending a Hadassah meeting, I would be carpooling one of the kids. Mondays, however, was bowling in the B’nai B’rith league at The Coliseum Lanes. Weekend trips could include a drive to Key West, a Pan Am flight to Havana or Nassau, or an Eastern flight to San Juan. On our last trip to Havana, one of the floors of our hotel had been commandeered by a young military officer named Fidel Castro.

My husband’s company, Samson Concrete, supplied much of the infrastructure of South Dade, from an initial plant on Coral Way to a second plant in Homestead. My two brothers-in-law, Barney Landers and Sidney Falk, started a building supply company called Banner Supply, initially located on Dixie Highway next to the Royal Palm Ice Company.

As my children grew up, so did Miami. Traffic lights replaced stop signs and new schools were built. Publix was closed on Sundays, and for kosher food you still had to go the local butcher. Drive-Ins became shopping centers and Tropical Park racetrack became a beautiful park with tennis courts and baseball diamonds.

I lost my husband Murray prematurely in 1968, but a few years later found a great soulmate in Emmanuel “Manny” Seitlin, whose family had even deeper roots in Miami. Manny was born and grew up in Coconut Grove. Their family home’s roof was lost in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. He would tell me stories of watching the Pan Am seaplanes landing at Dinner Key, where Miami City Hall is now. His family founded many local businesses, including Seitlin Insurance. We were married in 1972 as the city was just about to enter its next major growth spurt.

The pace of life in southwest Miami in the 1970s started increasing along with the population. South Miami High opened up — with its “Cobra” mascot on the roof relocated from the old Serpentarium. Waves of new residents and citizens, largely from Cuba, joined our schools and neighborhoods, and arroz con pollo was added to the local menus of hamburgers and fries and lox and bagels.

By the early 1980s, my youngest son was off to college in Gainesville and the house became a little empty. But in a few years, my children would start getting married and soon the house would be filled with grandchildren and holiday parties. My daughter and sons stayed in South Florida as their careers and families grew.

In the 1990s it was time for me to downsize the original family home. I moved to Kendall where I still remain quite active in Hadassah as past president of Naomi Chapter and past advisor to the Greater Miami region. My kids have moved a bit north to Plantation and Aventura, with only my eldest son in Pinecrest. Shabbat dinners now often involve an overnight bag. I have 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Unfortunately, most of them live up north in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Georgia and Colorado, so I don’t see them as often as I would like. How ironic that the family is moving north — just wait for a couple more winters like 2014 and perhaps they’ll see the same thing I saw in warm, magical Miami!

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