SUBURBS OF SOUTH BEACH
Every so often there’s a great wringing of hands on this forum over the question, “What makes a place urban or suburban?” I don’t know what all the fuss is about; it seems evident urban places are ones where people walk, and suburban places are ones where they don’t.
The distinction’s pretty obvious in Paris or Miami Beach, in both of which the suburbs actually have bigger buildings than the city and fairly high density, but nobody walks.
According to the 2000 census, 87,933 people live in the 7.03 square miles inside the Miami Beach city limits, for an overall city-limit density of 12,508—a bit more than Boston.
South Beach, the urban part where people walk: within its 2.60 square miles live 40,177 permanent residents (2003), yielding a density of 15,472 persons per square mile, about the same as San Francisco.
That leaves the suburban remainder, also known as North Beach: 4.43 square miles and 47,756 residents, for a density of 10,780. Pretty high, huh? Especially for a suburb.
That’s higher than any of the faux-cities of the sunbelt, including of course Miami, which with the clear-eyed vision of a European we would have to declare a suburb of South Beach. The census bureau doesn’t see it that way, but you know what the census bureau is full of; they’re the ones who regaled us with the [oxy]moronic “urban sprawl,” till they changed their definitions.
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Nobody on this forum still believes in urban sprawl or the tooth fairy, and everyone here knows what the look of Miami Beach is, but older people and many who have never been can be forgiven for thinking Miami Beach looks like this:
North Miami Beach.
If you had come to Miami Beach twenty-five years ago, you probably also would have left thinking it looked like this. The reason: North Beach, with its vast Brazilian slabs was then the only respectable part of town-- out there in Suburbia, where nobody walked.
Densely built-out but completely suburban North Beach, home of the fabled Fontainebleau and Eden Roc megaresorts: here, in each building-as-city you got a private stretch of patrolled sand and a fully self-contained resort environment, complete with hairdresser, gift shops, oceanfront pool, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and maybe a night club.
Canals and artificial islands abound in North Beach:
Everyone arrives in a vehicle: guests in cars, hotel workers in buses:
Wealth on the water backed by what could be taken for commie blocks:
Btw, how much is that yacht?
North Beach; the Fontainebleau is the concave building:
Photo from SSP.
The stepped conical spire at left marks the end of urban South Beach, and the beginning of suburban North Beach, with its megablocks galumphing up the skinny sandbar to distant Fort Lauderdale; Miami Beach resembles Paris in that the high rises are outside the central city. Big green area is a country club and villas for plutocrats:
Photo from SSP.
It was all so Fifties-- like Las Vegas with a beach as the principal attraction in place of gaming tables. There was not a soul on the sidewalk; each hyperdense beachfront building was a spaceship that nobody left for the duration of their stay. You could arrive by taxi from the airport and never leave your hotel grounds until it was time to take the cab back to your plane:
If you asked your cabbie on the way to drive you through old, decrepit South Miami Beach where you heard there were some little old decaying buildings from the Thirties, he would flat refuse. Too risky to even drive through: that was the turf of drug dealers, prostitutes, carjackers, squeegee artists, welfare mothers and perverts. South of 18th Street it looked dangerous, and the crime statistics proved it was. On fixed incomes, a few old Jews from the Boroughs reputedly cowered there among the litter and detritus, though how they survived was mysterious. To a cabbie, driving through South Miami Beach was like riding through the Serengeti on a bicycle: too foolhardy to even contemplate.
But, swelling with pride, your cabbie would be more than pleased to show you to the mansions of the toffs, above Dade Boulevard, safe behind their gates on lush and verdant lanes, most of which back up to canals or Biscayne Bay:
He would show you the lifestyles of the rich and famous:
Modernism’s forte was really the single-family house; the paucity of detail was in scale with the smallish masses of a residence. Too bad the modern house never caught on except among the super-rich.
Actually, even some of the rich prefer vulgar display:
Early Modernist villas –or are they Deco? Is there really a difference?
And isn’t the apartment block just polychrome Bauhaus?
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The city of Miami Beach is built on a barrier island that separates the Atlantic Ocean from Biscayne Bay, a lagoon. Like Venice, it’s connected to the mainland by causeway. On the mainland lurks Miami, a separate municipality, every bit as interesting as Mestre.
North Beach in foreground, skyline of Miami across the Bay:
Photo from SSP.
While Miami Beach is urban and full of street life, Miami sports the usual suburban districts and damaged Southern downtown. Like Atlanta, this features parking lots, blank walls, trafficways, aloof highrises and poor people changing buses. In addition, you will find a surprising amount of artificial topography and colorful highrises, some by Arquitectonica. These you can safely ogle from your car on Biscayne Boulevard—the alternative being to state your business to the gated parking’s security guard.
As in Atlanta, there is also a heavy-rail subway looking for riders. The barrel of pork in which it came could have been sent to New York, Boston or Philadelphia, where it would have been gratefully put to good use.
On an artificial island in the lagoon, the Port of Miami astounds when large with ships:
Miami itself is mostly as ugly, unwalkable and forgettable (even Little Havana) as any other Sunbelt city. It has some nice subcenters, such as Coral Gables and Coconut Grove; I posted those about a year ago. Though charming, these remain suburban; Coconut Grove’s a pleasurable outdoor shopping mall with chain stores and a good-looking clientele, and Coral Gables is an admirable Twenties planned suburb with beautiful streets, very pretty houses and an ingratiating shopping district. Kansas City, Cleveland and Los Angeles (among others) have places based on the same impulse, and these are pretty nice too. Nice, but suburban.
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Sometimes nifty architecture can be a catalyst for gentrification. This was certainly the case in South Beach, which went from poor relation of North Beach back to today's glorious little modern city.