To be or not to be in SoBe is no longer the question.
The rejuvenated Art Deco district of Miami Beach--known locally as South Beach and by an onslaught of New Yorkers as SoBe--is indeed the place to be these days.
"New York is now the next best thing to South Beach," Graeme Marshall, a young man from Trinidad yells over the crowd at a packed nightclub. He insists that the SoBe social scene has surpassed that of Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. "You never get bored of the crowd. It's always changing."
While the rest of the country is experiencing a recession, South Beach is smack in the middle of a renaissance.
"Isn't it wonderful?" says Richard Rickles, principal planner for the city's Department of Historic Preservation. "Maybe it's the whimsical characteristic of the Art Deco buildings that attracts us to them during difficult times."
Those Art Deco buildings were built for middle-class tourists and retirees during the Great Depression. Their simple, yet sophisticated design offered glamour at a reasonable price.
Today fashion models, European tourists and fast-track New Yorkers are turning to the deco district for "summer homes."
"Our prices here, even though they have increased dramatically over the last two to four years, are still, to most people, cheap," says Francis Clougherty, a real estate agent who left New York several years ago after he "saw the writing on the wall."
Clougherty says that while pricey lofts and condos are sitting empty in Manhattan, renovated one-bedroom Art Deco condos on the beach are being snapped up for an average price of about $70,000.
"And I would venture to say that the hotels on Ocean Drive seem to me to be like the cheapest oceanfront property in the world for any kind of sophisticated market," Clougherty says.
Ocean Drive is the 15-block-long beachfront boulevard peppered with palms, alfresco cafes and the back-to-back pastel-colored deco hotels lovingly referred to as the "painted ladies" of South Beach.
One who fell in love with SoBe is DD Allen, a New York architect who in the last two years has purchased two condos in South Beach.
Allen used to spend hours sitting on the expressway to get to her getaway home in the Hamptons on Long Island.
"It takes 2 1/2 hours to get down here and you feel like you've gone someplace foreign--there's the palm trees and it's very exotic," says Allen, who comes down to stay in her condo once a month. "In the middle of February, to be able to hop on a plane for a weekend and be sitting on the beach is a real treat."
Cory Bautista, director of the Florida division of Ford Models Inc., the international modeling agency based in New York, points out that here "people can walk to wherever they have to go. Whether it be castings, the beach, the hotels, it's one big playground and having it all in this one-mile stretch is what really attracts the clients and the models. In New York it's a hassle just to get out of the door."
Ford Models just happens to be located atop the bustling News Cafe, without a doubt the coolest cup of coffee on Ocean Drive. It's where the long-legged models and roller-blading boys get seriously into their $3 espresso and endless chatter of castings and shootings.
One of the regulars at News Cafe is Robert Sporre, an international fashion model who has been coming to South Beach every winter since 1986. A professional for 15 years, he says, "It's good for the young girls. I think it gives them a chance and they get training. But it's a lot less professional."
From 1989 to 1991, permits for fashion shoots in Miami Beach nearly doubled to 1,604, bringing in an estimated $43.6 million in revenue.
"The models, the photographers stay in our hotels, fill the cafes and clubs. They are the lifeblood of Miami Beach right now," says Robert Reboso, an administrative assistant for the city.
South Beach was near death in the mid-1980s. The Mariel boatlift that brought in more than 100,000 Cuban refugees also landed many of the down-and-out who had been released from prisons in the cheap hotels and efficiencies of Miami Beach. Crack dealers and prostitutes followed.
A major police crackdown and an Art Deco restoration movement that gained international fame helped set the stage for the beach's current revival.
The late Barbara Baer Capitman was instrumental in getting 800 Art Deco and Mediterranean revival buildings in a single square mile listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Word got around about the cheap little hotels with loads of personality.
Self-proclaimed "urban warrior" Tony Goldman, the owner of the Greene Street Cafe in SoHo, is the entrepreneur credited with putting chic back in the beach.
He recalls one day in 1985 when he had an hour to kill after checking on some of his properties in Coconut Grove.
"I took a ride . . . and it was like love at first sight," says Goldman. "I was immediately smitten."
So Goldman rounded up some of his friends in New York and made a vow to buy one piece of property once a month for a year and a half.
Goldman established the Ocean Drive Assn., which got the city to pass a $3-million bond issue to widen and beautify the boulevard.
But South Beach is variety.
Kosher delis and Cafe Cubano are sandwiched between the nouveau cuisine restaurants along the main avenues.
And while most of the elderly have been squeezed off of Ocean Drive, they can still be seen lounging quite happily in front of the less-glamorous hotels along Collins Avenue. It has also lost some of its Jewish flavor as time has eroded that population who made Yiddish the common language after World War II.
Today it's not uncommon to see a transvestite helping an old woman across the street that is spotted with gay clubs.