Everything old is new again on South Beach

"Fifteen years ago?" said Romero Fernandez. "You wouldn't want to be here, at least not this late at night."

It's 9 p.m. in Miami Beach, more specifically in South Beach, and more specifically at Lummus Beach Park, a nexus of walking trails and playgrounds for children on a little spit of sand on a barrier island that has become -- improbably -- a hot spot for celebrity-watching, nightclub hopping and nightlong partying.

South Beach is called America's Riviera, and it has come a long way to get here. The beach's transformation from Middle Class Winter Playground to Down-at-the-Heels Crime-Ridden Dump to today's mix of artists and beautiful people is stunning.

If resurrection can be found in the lemon-and-peach Art Deco buildings in South Beach, some pretty cool stories can, too.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Fernandez, longtime Miami resident, out for a stroll on the beach one fall weeknight with his grandson, Kyle, 5. "Every day we come here to the beach."

Lucky Kyle. Lucky Fernandez. Beneath the "uvas de plaza," or beach grapes, the sand is an excellent place to be.

The beach is wide and white and opens up into a turquoise-blue Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the Gulf Stream.

But behind the sand? That's another story, and it starts with sweet-smelling orange blossoms.

In the late 1800s, Julia D. Tuttle moved south from Ohio after the death of her industrialist husband, Frederick. In 1895, a bad frost nearly destroyed Florida's northern citrus crop. Tuttle sent orange blossoms -- still blooming -- to railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler to encourage him to extend his tracks to Miami, farther south of the frost belt. After a visit south, the enchanted Flagler did just that.

The trains came south, and so did the tourists for a look at wildlife. In 1925, designers at Paris' Exposition Internationale des Arts Dicoratifs et Industriels Modernes -- called Art Deco for short -- were enamored of the sleek and functional design. Architects embraced it, especially in Miami. Art Deco buildings were going up in the South Beach area at the rate of roughly 100 a year. By the 1930s, South Beach was a melting pot for middle-class tourists.

South Beach, and Miami in general, was only rarely the playground for the rich. The rich tended to vacation in Europe and the original Riviera, but Miami's South Beach section was plenty chic for the middle-class Easterners who streamed in during winter breaks, deposited hard-earned cash into the city coffers and left to return to the ice and snow up north.

By the '60s, South Beach was a happening place for the great unwashed. Lincoln Road, in particular, became a shopping Mecca known as the Fifth Avenue of the South, with its signature Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit-Teller stores.

In the '70s and early '80s, South Beach fell onto hard times. The children of the first visitors looked for smarter places to vacation. Shops closed, and the area became a blighted and embarrassing has-been.

Beloved Art Deco buildings were being destroyed by urban renewal. South Beach -- which stretches roughly from Fifth Street to 41st -- became, according to one writer, a "low-rent retirement ghetto."

Urban renewal -- in South Beach and elsewhere -- leaves in its wake anonymous, cookie-cutter high-rises. One by one, the playful, functional Riviera of America was being replaced by monstrous hotels -- or nothing at all. Empty lots lined with trash blown up from the beach punctuated the landscape. The beach was fine, fantastic, but step off the sand and things got very ugly very quickly.

Artists flocked to the cheap rooms that overlooked the ocean. They and a handful of preservationists literally stood in the way of bulldozers, and then, in a strange turn of events, Hollywood came to the rescue. A new crime drama that also served as an excellent travelogue reminded television viewers of the city's former glory. If South Beach has the starving artists to thank for the revival of its soul, the starving artists must nod to '80s TV detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs of "Miami Vice."

From 1984 to 1989, viewers were treated to a Technicolor vision of Miami, and South Beach, and tourists once again made the trek over the MacArthur or Julia Tuttle causeways, past the gated Star and Hibiscus islands, to visit South Beach again.

Last year, roughly 12 million tourists came to the beach. The resurrection includes the fabulous Lincoln Road, a 12-block-long outdoor pedestrian mall containing 50 chic restaurants and 200 snazzy shops. The Road, as locals call it, underwent a $16 million renovation in '96. Palm trees were restored or replaced, and reflecting pools were added. A farmer's market and antiques show take over the pedestrian-only boulevard on Sundays.

On Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, plastic souvenir shops have been replaced by sidewalk cafes and boutiques. Places such as News Cafe -- where you can get magazines from anywhere 00 cropped up. The formerly all-white Art Deco buildings estimates count 800 in a square mile were renovated in bold colors.

Designer Gianni Versace and Madonna bought houses. The place ceased being a testing ground for culture, and the artists were moved off the beach, but middle-class travelers and starving artists, take heart: The farther you get from pricey Ocean Drive, the lower the prices of everything from souvenirs to food to hotels.

The Hotel Shelly on Collins has a sign that offers Pullmanettes. Upon investigation, though, a somewhat sheepish desk clerk allowed that he didn't offer those types of efficiencies any more because a renovation eight months ago rendered the hotel modern.

The businesses on the back blocks still are frequented by locals.

The famed Art Deco District -- bounded roughly 5th to 23rd, and Alton to Ocean -- is a walk through architectural confections.

In South Beach's high season -- December through March -- a room can be had for as little as $50, on streets off Ocean Drive.

For the shopper, there's the ubiquitous Pottery Barn and Urban Outfitters, but there are also funky little places such as the Casa Solares, with its beautiful and reasonable Guatemalan furniture and accessories down the lovely Espaqola Way.

If it's beautiful people you want, try Merv Griffin's Blue Moon Hotel, or The Shore Club, 1901 Collins Ave., and its rooftop spa designed by supermodel Christy Turlington.

If you're just celebrity-watching, there have been recent sightings of rap singer Lil' Kim, Burt Reynolds, Jamie Lee Curtis and Donatella Versace, Gianni's sister and fellow-designer.

Remember that the beach hasn't changed. The winds will blow in October, the sun will come out in February. And relax. Despite the place's new pedigree, not all of South Beach's former charm is lost.