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Exploring the cultural side of Miami Beach

April 25, 2022

Despite its reputation as a party city, the US resort town has something for everyone. Its historic buildings hold clues about its popularity even during the pandemic.

hotels in Miami
Art deco style is a key part of Miami BeachImage: Sarah Hucal/DW

At the start of March each year, the neighborhood of Miami Beach known as South Beach is packed with bathing suit-clad college kids. Music blasts from speakers in seemingly every direction and long lines form outside popular hotel bars. Miami Beach has long been a popular destination for Spring Break. But spring breakers are just one element of Miami Beach, an island city in the southern US state of Florida. The beach's white sands (which are shipped in from elsewhere) and stunning blue waters attract huge crowds.

There's the middle-aged Midwestern couple, who have been waiting to see the sun all winter, frying like lobsters — and there's over-the-top glitz and glamour, too. The five-star Faena Hotel has a lobby decorated with gigantic golden columns and a low-lit bar where a Jazz band plays. Entry seems primarily permitted to women with designer handbags and high heels.

The Breakwater Hotel lit up at night.
The Art Deco-style Breakwater Hotel is on Ocean Drive, the epicenter of Spring BreakImage: Ed Rhodes/robertharding/picture alliance

Taco joints are numerous, as are Cuban restaurants — one can speak Spanish instead of English pretty much everywhere. After all, Miami not only has a sizeable Cuban population but is also home to people who have immigrated from all over Latin America.

The island, which was once covered in mangrove forests and teeming with crocodiles, was designed from the start to be a vacationer's paradise.

Pandemic didn't stop tourists

Tourists flocked to Miami Beach in 2021, and they're still coming. As of April 10, 2022, the number of hotel rooms sold in the Greater Miami area was up 18% from the same day in 2019, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

During the height of the pandemic, Florida's Republican governor imposed few restrictions, meaning when other states in the country were locked down, Florida was largely open for business. Tourist numbers in the second quarter of 2021 were already at pre-pandemic levels.

Mark Gordon, a longtime staff member of the Miami Beach Design Preservation League, says that a year ago, it was simply too busy with party tourists. "You had what I called the perfect storm — vaccines had just been introduced, people had been locked up north, hotels were empty and we were an open state."

Oceanfront hotels on a colorful postcard from 1941.
Miami Beach's architecture has long been one of the city's attraction, as depicted on this postcard from 1941Image: Curt Teich Postcard Archives/Heritage Images/picture alliance

Art deco history

Aside from the parties, Miami Beach has the largest number of art deco buildings in the US. Over 800 colorful structures built between 1923 and 1943 put Miami Beach on the US National Register of Historic Places. The structures tell the story of the city, as guides of the daily art deco walking tour offered by the Miami Design Preservation League tell guests.

The city's development is largely attributed to automobile industry mogul Carl Fisher, who was hellbent on making Miami Beach a winter vacation resort for wealthy people from the North in the 1920s. He harnessed the power of marketing, and his advertising campaigns featured women in swimsuits, "bathing beauties" as they were called, giving the city a reputation for attracting beautiful women to its sandy shores.

A pink lifeguard structure on the beach in Miami Beach.
Miami Beach was designed as a resort town in the 1920sImage: Tim Heusinger von Waldegge/Zoonar/picture alliance

In Fisher's era, golf clubs and mansions were built in an architectural style known as "Mediterranean revival" with porticos and Venetian-style windows to make people think they were vacationing on the French Riviera.

In the 1930s, the island attracted tourists to the city's small art deco-style hotels, which were popping up almost overnight, despite the economic depression. The architects, some of whom were inspired by the Bauhaus movement in Germany, aimed to cheaply build basic hotels that would make people think of luxury and comfort. Some buildings even evoked images of cruise ships, since cruising was a luxurious venture at the time — the style is known as "nautical art deco."

"Tropical art deco," meanwhile, emerged in Miami, and featured ornate motifs and images of suns, moons and other symbols.

An intricate motif featuring fern shapes in green.
Some of the city's Art Deco buildings feature intricate motifsImage: Nadia Mackenzie/Arcaid/picture alliance

Yet the "vacationer's paradise" also has a darker side. Its large elderly Jewish population, many of whom moved to Florida from the northern states, were also subject to antisemitism, beginning in the Carl Fisher years.

It also wasn't until the 1960s that African Americans could actually spend the night on Miami Beach — previously they had to leave the island by sundown.

Recreating the myth

For a while, large parts of the city fell into poverty and disrepair. In the 1970s, the Miami Design Preservation League was founded by a group of activists who saw the architectural beauty of the art deco structures — and the cultural and economic benefits of showcasing them.

A tourist points while in front of a fireplace of a lobby in the Essex House Hotel.
Tourists visit the lobby of the Essex House Hotel on the Art Deco walking tour by the Miami Design Preservation LeagueImage: Sarah Hucal/DW

In the 1980s, art deco architecture helped make it a popular vacation destination again. A 1985 Calvin Klein advertisement featured naked men and women on an art deco building; pop artist Andy Warhol took an architecture tour, giving the area his stamp of approval.

Modeling agencies from New York came down to take advantage of the good lighting and cheaper costs. Miami Beach hotels were used as movie sets in "The Birdcage" and "Scarface." Interestingly, the real-life gangster Al Capone, aka "Scarface," started wintering in Miami Beach in 1927.

Colorful Art Deco buildings on Washington Avenue
Miami Beach has over 800 Art Deco buildingsImage: Marco Simoni/robertharding/picture alliance

A cultural rebrand?

In recent years, Miami Beach has attempted to redefine itself as a cultural hub. Since 2002, Art Basel Miami Beach attracts gallerists and contemporary art lovers from around the world each December. The city is also gaining a reputation as a cryptocurrency hot spot — the Bitcoin 2022 conference recently brought tens of thousands to the beach city.

The city's historic architecture is also playing a role in the revamp. NYC-based investment company Infinity Hospitality is redeveloping a historic pedestrian street called Espanola Way. Originally, the street was intended to be an artists' quarter.

"By focusing on the historical roots of the street's original vision, we, among other groups are re-establishing Espanola Way as a cultural and artistic district that caters to locals and tourists alike," says David Berg, a partner at Infinity Hospitality.

 Esme Hotel Miami Beach alongside a pedestrian street.
Renovations are also taking place along Espanola Way, a historic pedestrian streetImage: World Red Eye

The group purchased a budget hotel and transformed it into a hip luxury Esme hotel, which has several bars and restaurants on-site. Digital nomads are encouraged to spend the day working in the whitewashed passageway called the paseo, making one feel as if they are in a Spanish villa.

Berg points out that the pandemic actually gave a boost to Miami tourism, noting that demand doesn't appear to be slowing down as "international travel, historically a major driver for Miami Beach, has yet to fully recover."

Edited by: Benjamin Restle

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist