Review: Gerald Posner's 'Miami Babylon' tells it like it was, and is

As Aeneas was to Rome and Bugsy Siegel was to Las Vegas, so Carl Fisher was to Miami Beach.

Others came before him. John Collins, whose name now graces Collins Avenue, did all right with mangoes and avocados on the swampy strip that, Gerald Posner writes, had more rats than crops.

But Collins' vision was a paltry one. It took Fisher, a short, stocky, tasteless, anti-Semitic ex-bicycle racer from Indianapolis, to conceive of this sandbar as the American Riviera, and to make something like reality of his vision. Indeed, it was Fisher who decreed, Let there be land, and, unimpeded by conscience, science, environmental restrictions or much in the way of laws at all, dug up the offshore seabed and dumped it onto the sand and swamp, vastly increasing the size of his holdings.

By the early 1920s, Miami Beach was alive with tourists, all moneyed, all white, all Gentile. "Always a View, Never a Jew," advertised one hotel. Fisher himself assured his fellow hoteliers that just a glance at the surname would indicate whether a potential visitor was acceptable. It was developer heaven, until the first of many bust cycles. By then Fisher, who made his millions in auto parts, had increased his stake many times over.

If I dwell on the early days, it's because they are the latter days in microcosm; substitute booze runners of the 1920s for the cocaine cowboys of the 1970s and '80s, and you get the idea. Florida hasn't changed much. Ever.

"Greedy state politicians used the act's failure'' — this was an 1842 law that said, defend it and it's yours — "to declare that the land's best use lay with private developers. By the late 1880s, Florida had completed America's largest shift ever of public resources into the pockets of private entrepreneurs. A succession of governors gave away 23 million of Florida's 35 million acres, to . . . virtually anyone who promised to drain and develop the state's swampy southern half.''

Posner is a busy boy. Among his 10 books are Why America Slept, about 9/11; Killing the Dream, about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and Case Closed, about the assassination of President Kennedy. In addition, he is chief investigative reporter for the Daily Beast, a Web site that combines links to other sources with original reporting. (His wife, Trisha Posner, works with him on his books and joins him in his interviews, but refuses co-author credit.)

Miami Babylon must have been a labor of love for the Posners, who live on Miami Beach in the South Pointe neighborhood that is a nexus of their reporting. Once a grim warehouse for the destitute and dying, albeit with a fabulous view, South Pointe is now porcupined with condo and apartment towers.

It adjoins South Beach, where a handful of dedicated preservationists and clever developers saw the value and the potential profit in America's largest collection of whimsical art deco hotels. This is the neighborhood that lent its pastel palette to Miami Vice, which in turn sealed the status of South Beach as a very sexy place indeed.

Unreal? Miami Beach has its own reality. "After 9/11,'' writes Posner, "the mayor did not give a speech assuring his town of the strength of America. He posed for a photo op at a local hotel to encourage tourists not to cancel their trips; to enjoy mojitos, sunbathing and nightclubbing."

Nothing fascinates like corruption, and here is corruption writ large, a morality tale for our time. Here, in fascinating detail, is a city driven entirely by greed and growth, where bribery, chicanery, graft and nepotism are merely how things are done, where even the good guys (relatively speaking) such as three-time Mayor Alex Daoud frequently trade city hall for a jail cell.

Once upon a time Miami Beach was merely St. Petersburg's rival as God's Waiting Room. Then it became a not very stately pleasure dome, "a sybaritic theme park."

And now? Ironically but inevitably, the chain stores have arrived. The gay club Salvation, to cite one example, is now an Office Depot. "Lincoln (Road) was always going to be a very successful commercial operation," says Craig Robins, a second-generation developer in Miami Beach, "but it didn't have to be tacky."

Tacky was in its DNA. "Carl Fisher was right," notes Posner, "when he told his wife he'd create a place like no other."

David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.

Review: Gerald Posner's 'Miami Babylon' tells it like it was, and is 10/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2009 12:21pm]

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