Two Florida communities -- unlike demographically and geographically -- followed similar paths as they declined, then rose again over the past 50 years. Today, they face the same challenges going forward.
Like many of Florida’s best old neighborhoods, downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola/Thornton Park and Miami Beach’s “South of 5th” — “SoFi”— had their heydays in the 1950s, when children filled the sidewalks and shopping, services and worship were a short walk away. In the latter half of the 20th century, the two areas’ decline and their fight for renewal typified the struggles of urban neighborhoods throughout Florida. Today, Lake Eola/Thornton Park and SoFi are becoming harbingers of Florida’s future, as cities across the state work to build urban centers that remain affordable and diverse — even as development pressures drive up the cost of urban living.
Before the creation of Ocean Drive, only a boardwalk and sand separated the original Brown’s Hotel (shown here in 1924) from the Atlantic Ocean.
SoFi: By the 1960s, Miami Beach had established its reputation as “America’s Playground” with its wide, tropical beaches, nearly 500 hotels and star power — from the Beatles doing the “Ed Sullivan Show” at the Deauville Hotel to Jackie Gleason’s weekly filming of his television show. The playground was ethnically divided, however. Neighborhoods to the north, as well as many of the resort hotels, had little tolerance for diversity. Some featured “restricted clientele” rules; some came with deeds prohibiting “Hebrew blood.” South of Fifth Street, however, the city was home to a thriving, mostly Jewish community, with many families living in tidy bungalows or small apartments. The Beth Jacob Synagogue on Washington Street flourished, and four kosher markets and delis sold challah and smoked fish in a two-block area on Collins Avenue between Third and Fifth streets.
|» Miami Beach’s Jewish population peaked in 1970 at 80%. At that time, the Hispanic population was only 22%. Today, the Jewish population is 37%, and Hispanics make up more than 50% of the population.|
By 1970, Jews accounted for 80% of the permanent population of Miami Beach, according to Abe Lavender, a sociologist at Florida International University who studies Jewish life and has lived in the neighborhood since 1988. And SoFi had become a haven for Jewish retirees, many of them low income Meanwhile, younger Jews stopped moving in, says Lavender, in part because they were by then welcome in other parts of Miami and in part because they didn’t want to live in “God’s waiting room.”
Into the 1960s, the Beth Jacob Synagogue on Washington Street was still a centerpiece of Jewish life, packed for weddings and other religious and community events.