April 19, 2024

Urban Living Celebrating 50 Years

Tale of Two Neighborhoods

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.

Cynthia Barnett | 9/1/2008

SoFi: 1980-90s

Michael Grimmé
The SoFi neighborhood encompasses all of Miami Beach south of 5th Street.
[Map: ESRI, TeleAtlas]

Beth Jacob building
The Beth Jacob building went on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, but both the neighborhood and the congregation’s membership were declining. [Photo: State Archives]
SoFi: Theories abound as to why the $400-million South Shore Redevelopment plan was such a disaster for SoFi. But one thing seems clear: The prospect of the city coming in and demolishing buildings led many property owners to stop taking care of their existing buildings and to avoid developing anything new. “Nobody would repair their buildings, which made it a very difficult place to live, particularly for the elderly,” says Abe Lavender. As elderly Jews died or moved away, they often were replaced by immigrants. Because the neighborhood was so cheap, it attracted the poorest of the poor, including Mariel boatlift exiles. Crime was rampant. “Everything that wasn’t tied down, and half of those, were stolen,” Lavender says. “Elderly Jews walking down the street would be attacked for the very little that they had.”

Beth Jacob building
By the 1990s, the Brown’s Hotel, Miami Beach’s first, had become the run-down Star Apartments. [Photo: City of Miami Beach]
Before things got better, they would get worse. By the time assistant city planner William Cary moved to Miami Beach in 1994, the city had abandoned its redevelopment plan — without producing much redevelopment. In 1995, Cary was called out to inspect an old structure known as The Brown’s Hotel — the city’s very first hotel, a two-story, wood-frame building built in 1915 by William J. Brown right on the sand. By the time Cary saw the place, it had been covered with stucco to protect it from hurricanes. Renamed the “Star Apartments,” it was, in reality, a flophouse. When he went inside, vagrants were lying on floors throughout the building, all in the dark. When he got back to his car, hundreds of fleas began to jump off him and his partner; the fleas soon covered the inside of the city car, which couldn’t be driven for weeks after.

Cary and city codes officers were sure the city’s most historic building would burn to the ground one night. It did not. Instead, The Brown’s Hotel would soon embody SoFi’s comeback.

Tags: Housing/Construction

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