Michael Kranish

    The following stories were two of the articles in an eight-page section about Miami Beach’s South Beach, by Michael Kranish, in The Miami Herald

    At the time, in 1982, one bar had been restored as an Art Deco venture, and much of the area was slated to be torn down. Kranish spent four months talking to the people of South Beach (many of whom were to lose their homes) to develop this series. Shortly after the series ran, city officials abandoned the plans to raze much of South Beach, and encouraged restoration that continues today. This portion of the series is being republished here to provide historical context about the difficult path that preceded the development of today’s vibrant community. 

 

 

By MICHAEL KRANISH 

Herald Staff Writer

 

August 29, 1982

PART ONE

 

It was 1919 when visionaries took a sandspit called Miami Beach and turned it into High Society's playground. Gregorio Medina, a young Cuban polo player, arrived on a trolley to entertain the millionaires. Five years later Allen G. Smith opened America's leading Rolls Royce dealership.

Today Allen G. Smith, 93, repairs Silver Ghosts on Fifth Street in a long concrete-and-pine garage, a time capsule filled with luxury cars, 50-year-old tools and a thousand unmarked jars of nuts and bolts. Outside, Mariel refugees fix battered Chevies.

Gregorio Medina, 85, fears the dark. Each night he locks himself inside his small apartment near the old polo grounds.

"Otherwise they would kill you," Medina explains in Spanish. 

The two pioneers are simply on the wrong side of Miami Beach, the side that few outsiders associate with the neon glitz and glamour of Hotel Row. It is the south side, an unlikely collection of old buildings and older people, a landscape the hotelmen and politicians wanted to change -- forever.

Upset that the last 30 years have turned the south side into a mecca for thousands of elderly poor New York Jewish garment workers, city fathers in 1974 decided to tear down South Beach's decaying southern quarter, relocate the 6,000 residents, and restore the faded resort's lost luster.

It was to have been the biggest urban renewal project in America.

Today, reality mocks the dream.

A lethal combination of political infighting, governmental indecision and 20 per cent interest rates stopped the project three times in six years. A much less dramatic plan proposed this month, which eliminates a network of Venetian canals and doubles the number of new condominiums, would take another decade to complete. It will be debated Wednesday by the City Commission.

But nine years of planning and delays have eliminated one debate: The once-stable though poor neighborhood has been devastated, a victim of its own government.

Collectively, South Beach today is the sickest, poorest and oldest population in America.

It is a 1.74-square-mile-world that runs beach to bay, 21st Street to Government Cut, 232 blocks and 103 alleys, densely packed with 50,000 people. Fifteen thousand of them are elderly Jews, including 10,000 Tsarist-era Eastern European refugees, the greatest such concentration in the world. They mix today, uneasily, with 13,000 Latin American and 6,000 Mariel refugees, with little more in common than their shared dependence on a government check.

To stop "unplanned development" in the redevelopment area south of Sixth Street, the city imposed a building moratorium in 1973. Major repair of old hotels and apartments was banned. Buildings slid into decay, forcing out the elderly renters, bringing in an underclass -- criminals, dope users, the poor, unemployed Mariel refugees. Property values stagnated, increasing by only one-third the Dade average. Elderly condo owners couldn't sell. The crime rate doubled.

The city in effect pulled out.

Miami Beach closed most of the parks. The city stopped the Pier Park dances that drew 1,000 nightly revelers. It refused to disburse federal low-interest property improvement loans. It denied free federal medication to many residents.

Now, like a miracle cure that induces only a worsening sickness, the government-fostered decay has infected the other three-quarters of South Beach.

"It's a terrible thing, a tragic thing for these people," says Miami Beach City Manager Robert Parkins, who assumed his post four months ago. "It's the kind of thing that you look back on after nine years and say, 'How could that have been allowed to happen?' "

Rosine Smith, who has owned the Ocean Breeze Hotel on First Street for 20 years, dreamed of retiring there. Redevelopment changed her plans. She wanted out. But she couldn't get out. She couldn't sell the rainbow-colored hotel because of uncertainty created by redevelopment. She couldn't make major repairs on her deteriorating building because that was prohibited under redevelopment. So it deteriorated further.

She could only rent to the lowest-paying tenants. In 1980 one of her guests tried to rob her. Armed with a hammer, he beat her repeatedly, pummeled her, tied her up, took her meager cash on hand, almost killed her. So she posted a sign on her door that lies "No Rooms," bought a Central Florida mobile home and has vowed never to return to South Beach.

"I used to say 'thank you God for letting me live in such a beautiful place as South Beach,' " Smith says, sitting in her new home in a sparsely populated town. "It breaks my heart what happened to the area. I blame redevelopment for ruining my retirement years."

Property records show she is not alone. The sale of hotels and apartment buildings has virtually halted since 1976.

Not even the officially declared "historic" buildings have been spared.

Three of the four buildings that were to be preserved under redevelopment have suffered as a result of the 1973 moratorium.

Thrifty's Supermarket, a veritable Macy's of kosher food, which used to have a queue of 200 customers waiting outside in the morning, is today out of business.

Sam Picciolo's Italian restaurant, which used to feed 1,000 diners a night, was forced to sell out and now serves only 50 a night.

Temple Beth-Jacob, the first synagogue in Florida, had 500 worshipers. Now it has 50, and is in danger of losing its minyan, the minimum 10 worshipers needed for services.

"We've always had a minyan since the synagogue was built in 1929," said Rabbi Shmaryahu Swirsky, the fourth in a family of rabbis from Lithuania. "It was always the cradle of Jewish life on South Beach. Now we have fear, poverty, unbelievable conditions here."

Only Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant, managed by Redevelopment Agency Chairman Irwin Sawitz, has prospered. But that is a credit to Joe's national reputation, not redevelopment.

The city chose the area south of Sixth Street, where Miami Beach was born, because it had some of the oldest buildings in the city, and the poorest residents.

To condemn the 372 buildings, the city needed state approval, which could only come if the area were officially declared "blighted." Over objections of many residents and State Attorney Janet Reno, the commission declared the area "blighted."

That happened in 1975 with the leadership of then-Mayor Harold Rosen. He never thought redevelopment would take longer than a few years.

Today Rosen admits, "It wasn't that blighted. That was just a word we had to use. Some parts of it were bad, but the majority was good. I think we just wanted to change the image. It was becoming a lot of small co-ops for the elderly and we didn't want a retirement community for the elderly."

Now, Rosen says, it is worse than he could have imagined. Now, he says, blight is not just a political appellation. It is reality. "Regrettably, there's been a tremendous price," he says.

Hardest hit by redevelopment are residents like Michael Ziebel, 88, a Russian emigre whose life parallels a generation on South Beach.

As a child, Ziebel fled Tsar Nicholas II and moved to New York's East Side. In his way he achieved a sort of fame, a hat cutter so quick he was known as The Automobile. He worked, he married, he promised his wife he would retire to South Beach the day he was 65. He kept the promise.

"We left New York because the old Jewish neighborhood had changed," said Ziebel, a man of sallow complexion and thick white hair.

The Ziebels loved South Beach, a Brooklyn by the sea, a walker's and shopper's paradise, a place with no fast-food restaurants or suburban-style shopping centers. It had New York's urban ambiance and Miami's palm trees, beachfront and sunshine.

Then Ziebel's retirement, like that of 6,000 others in the redevelopment area, was disrupted by the city's ambition to compete once again as an internationally famous resort.

His street, Meridian Avenue, once filled with elderly Eastern Europeans and neatly kept apartments, is now home to prostitutes and dope peddlers.

Ziebel, like 1,300 other owners of modest condominiums, cannot sell. Most of the 1,400 renters in the redevelopment area have either fled or been forced out by Mariel refugees, who pool resources and live four to a room.

"It is like what happened to my New York neighborhood, only much worse," Ziebel says.

It is the lament heard daily on the corners of South Beach: At Lincoln Road where the once-grand shops have been replaced with electronics stores. On Ocean Drive where the Art Deco hotels still have spectacular ocean views but have mostly small, unkempt rooms. On Washington Avenue, the Main Street of South Beach, where its 40 medical clinics outnumber the food shops.

Soon there will be only a sprinkling of old Eastern Europeans. Every day another one dies, moves away or slips into the anonymity of a nursing home.

Few outsiders realize the generation exists and soon it will have quietly passed from its unlikely setting two miles from Miami's downtown skyscrapers.

"They're almost all gone now," says Rabbi Swirsky of Temple Beth-Jacob.

"Soon I will go, too. But I won't leave until all of my people are gone. It's really tottering now, tottering with one 't.' Soon, when it's tottering with two 't's, I'll go to Israel and some old rabbi will take my place. I can't wait forever, and when they start tearing the buildings down, the temple will meet a sad fate."

The elderly poor, their lives often confined by walking distance and monthly government checks, find richness in memories. They talk of the Old Country, they read Yiddish newspapers, they watch the change in the neighborhood and talk about the way things used to be.

Even the buildings, standing lot line to lot line, alley to street, tug at memories. The whimsical Art Deco hotels are designed like neon-lit cinemas, rockets and ships, named after presidents, dukes, monarchs, judges.

The memories are harshest in the redevelopment area south of Sixth Street. It was once known as the "Jewish Riviera" because city founder J.N. Lummus allowed Jews to live there in the 1920s. The landowners to the north, Carl Fisher and John Collins, posted signs that said "Gentiles Only." It was a pattern that continued until the 1940s, the anti-semitism creeping to northern Miami Beach, attracting the old garment workers to South Beach, the only seaside resort in Florida to allow working-class Jews.

Now an eerie string of buildings resemble darkened theaters, their neon signs turned off. It all seems like a giant closed amusement park where the old people are suspended in fear at the top of a ferris wheel.

Many live in "pullmanettes" -- tiny rooms with only a bed and a hotplate, some of which are in old streamline-design Deco hotels that state inpectors call "warehouses."

Doctor knows symptoms

Dr. Aaron Goldberg has seen thousands of South Beach elderly in his Washington Avenue office during the last decade:

"They are mostly indigent, elderly Jewish people who live in filthy, pathetic places, who are stuck, who can't leave and they're so frightened about the element out there that they lock themselves inside these tiny places in fear," Goldberg says. "That's South Beach."

South Beach is the anomaly of South Florida, an urban place where few residents have cars: Although South Beach accounts for .178 per cent of the Metrobus service area, it provides 20 per cent of the system's ridership. On South Beach the streets display the people rather than carry them along in a rush, and the people seem powerful and unified because there are so many alike. When South Beach is gone, and that time seems soon, its residents will again be invisible, scattered.

Today's changing South Beach is often an odd and frenetic world of characters, like the old New Yorker who can always be seen carrying his violin but never playing it, the Cuban woman who sleeps on the beach and drags her belongings around in a big cardboard box, the dozen cat ladies who spend their nights feeding the 1,000 feral cats that haunt alleyways.

And there is Ice Cream Joe Savino, who made a good living selling Nutty Buddy cones in Lummus Park and decided to buy the Playhouse Bar right next to the Miami Beach Kennel Club's dog track.

Now the dog track is gone, the beach parking lots are empty and Ice Cream Joe is lucky to get a dozen customers a night.

Shawls and bikinis

The streets are a parade of contrast. A Cuban transvestite nightclub stands next to a kosher deli. The shawl-wrapped Eastern Europeans stroll next to young men and women in clingy bikinis.

For some, the talk is not of Tsar Nicholas II, but of Hitler.

Max Silnicki, who runs the Washington Avenue Barber Shop, shaved the heads of 10,000 Jews in Nazi concentration camps before they were cremated. Now he trims the hair of a dozen, steady customers for $3 each, and has nightmares about Joseph Mengele, Hitler's "Angel of Death."

"It is a terrible thing," Silnicki says. "I wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, thinking about how Mengele used to select Jews to die."

Inside his four-chair shop, he used to have a shoeshine boy. Now a sign advertises "$1--Blood Pressure Checked." Silnicki, who was uprooted by the Fifth Street expansion, vows never to leave his shop: "I've survived too much, for so long."

Latins come in summer

In the summer, the northern area of South Beach throbs with Latins, on vacation from South America, from Union City, N.J., even from the working-class neighborhoods of Hialeah. For many shopowners in that end of the district, summer has become The Season.

Today, the ethnic mix is advertised in the windows. The signs say, "We speak Yiddish, We speak Hebrew, Se Habla Espanol."

Washington Avenue has a row of open-air fruit stands, delicatessens and kosher meat markets, crowded with old people who haggle over the price of plums, pickles and pastrami. It is a rigid daily routine for the elderly, squeeze and test, try to save a few pennies.

And when the 25,000 Social Security checks worth $8 million are delivered each month, police say 80 pickpockets arrive to prey on the elderly. In the winter, many pickpockets take a profitable "vacation" from the Northeast, police say.

The fear is so pervasive on South Beach that the city has installed 200 rectangular boxes on streetlamps with a blue insignia: POLICE. The city's 20 video cameras are shifted from box to box to confuse criminals. Miami Beach is the only city in the country to use the cameras. All of them are on South Beach. But none are south of Fifth Street, the largest part of the redevelopment area.

Everyone seems to know someone who has been mugged, and the story is repeated everywhere: An old woman wears a gold chain inscribed in Hebrew, L'chaim. To life. She is thrown to the ground, the chain ripped from her neck. The thief is not caught, and the story is told on a porch stoop to another woman.

Muggers know advantage

"South Beach is filled with great victims," said Officer Cornelius O'Regan, walking the Washington Avenue beat. "The old people are petrified of being hurt and the South American tourists aren't going to return here to testify. The thieves know this."

Sgt. Thomas Hunker has been on the South Beach beat for 10 years. He says a small group of Mariel refugees have pilfered anything "that's not nailed down. The old people are scared out of their minds, and justifiably so."

Officer O'Regan, who used to mow South Dade lawns so his parents could vacation on Miami Beach, walks South Beach and can't believe this was the place they dreamed of.

"This place should be like Lake Tahoe," he says, rounding the $13-a-night Drake Hotel, a blocky, chalk-white building badly in need of paint. "In Lake Tahoe, you could walk around at night, go to a club, go to gamble, go to a restaurant. It's really great."

South Beach was like that 25 years ago, he remembers. "Maybe Lake Tahoe will be like this in 25 years. Can you believe a place can change that quickly?"

Roots put down

Frances Mitnick lives at the southern edge of the redevelopment area, where she has owned the Calvert Hotel since 1946, owned it because this was the best place in Florida to have a small family hotel. Her part of Ocean Drive was once all Jewish and Italian, old people who would return year after year. She still won't allow an unmarried couple in her rooms.

"We only take in select people, proper people," she says.

A block from Pier Park where once 1,000 old Jews happily danced all night, the Calvert is now a backdrop for a passing parade of shirtless young men with radios, some wearing roller skates, some peddling dope, nearly always attracting the whirring blue lights of the police.

This year, for the first time since she bought the Calvert, Frances Mitnick locks the lobby entrance at nightfall, has hired a security guard, and latches her own door with a heavy metal chain.

Frances Mitnick, 81, Boston-born, fights back with $300 worth of silver and gold glitter, pasted on the lobby walls from floor to ceiling.

The rest is painted pink. The doors are pink. So are the walls, beds and sheets. Even the fans and refrigerators. It makes the hotel come alive, she explains.

"I'll never leave my hotel," she says, putting a pink flower in a pink flower vase. "When I first saw this block, I thought this was it: The best place in the world to live. How can I leave the place of my dreams?"

 

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PART TWO

 

'THESE ARE PEOPLE WHO EMIGRATED...THEIR WHOLE LIFE, AND THIS IS HOW IT ENDS”

 

BY MICHAEL KRANISH 

Herald Staff Writer

 

Sometimes, when neighbors visit his suburban Kendall home at night or on weekends, Dr. Robert Goldberg tries to explain about "my other life in my other world," the world of South Beach. He never succeeds.

The neighbors would never understand that in this lush tropical island of pastel-colored buildings, hardly any of South Beach's 50,000 residents have more than a honeycomb-sized one- bedroom apartment, that 1,020 of them don't even have a bathroom.

The neighbors would never understand that 200 people on South Beach can't find their way home. The police know this because they keep a list. Every day an elderly Eastern European refugee, probably a transplanted New Yorker, wanders into the police or fire station without identification and asks "Where am I?" or "How do I get back to the East Side?" 

"No one can appreciate South Beach until they live or work here," Goldberg says. "I leave my office and I see my patients going through garbage cans. I can't believe it. These are people who emigrated from Russia, worked their whole life, and this is how it ends." 

They are the last remnants of a turn-of-the-century exodus of two million Jews from Eastern Europe. Most settled in the industrialized Northeast and worked in its factories. After a lifetime of toil they looked forward to the tranquillity of retirement.

South Beach seemed the idyllic spot: The sun, the tightly knit Jewish community, the temple, the nearby shops, the old Art Deco hotels converted into tiny but affordable apartments. But that was before Miami Beach stopped construction in the southern quarter of South Beach in 1973, before the still- stalled redevelopment plans stopped life throughout South Beach.

Today's South Beach hosts a chaotic mix of Latin immigrants and refugees and a dying generation of Eastern European Jews. The Eastern Europeans had come, thousands of them, with their dreams to South Beach. Now, in their world that is forever changed, they are stuck here, simply too poor and too old to be anywhere else.

Anna Berking, born in Hungary in 1888, is typical of that group.

In 1913, she left the shtetl (Jewish village) that had been her life and bought a berth to America.

Anna Berking fared better than most of her shipmates. She eventually owned and operated two delicatessens with her husband in New York City. At the end of her working life she turned to South Beach.

Today, at 93, she is one of Dr. Goldberg's patients.

The life she knew in New York is a sun-washed picture pasted to the mirror of her $100-per-month apartment on South Beach. Here, she has a hot plate, a bare lightbulb, a dresser, a refrigerator. No bathroom, no telephone, no air conditioning or fan. She sleeps in a single bed that takes up a quarter of her one-room apartment, where she has lived for 13 years.

"I don't go outside except to the doctor. I don't like it but I have to like it. What can I do?" says Anna Berking, a widow with no children. She is a small, frail woman who wears a white wool cap, thick stockings and a faded housedress. "The only thing I don't like is to be alone." Half live on Social Security

Of the 50,000 people on South Beach, 31,000 are over 65 years old and 25,000 depend almost entirely on Social Security for their income.

Many have little money and many sicknesses; the average resident of the redevelopment area lives below the $8,000-per- year poverty level, the average resident on the rest of South Beach lives just above that level.

South Beach has 2,000 like Anna Berking who need partial nursing care, and 1,300 who need full-time care, yet they live with no care at all.

At the South Shore Hospital, the only one on South Beach, 95 out of 100 patients must pay with Medicare. It is the highest such percentage in the nation.

Of South Beach's 31,000 housing units, 95 per cent have one bedroom or less. Seventy-five per cent of the residents are renters, and welfare agencies say the majority spend more of their income on rent than they should. Each week, 100 of them complain to the city about their landlords. Unable to cut down on rent, the elderly make concessions elsewhere: less food, no new clothing, only rare visits off South Beach.

Few can afford to leave. If they do they probably try a "retirement hotel," which offers the company of other old people and three meals a day. But should the old person get sick, the hotel staff cannot give help without violating the law. 'Perfect solution' fails

The York Retirement Hotel, 321 Collins Ave., housed Mariel refugees until six months ago. Glenna McKitterick thought she had the perfect solution to South Beach's problem: Evict the refugees, spend thousands of dollars remodeling, take in elderly people, and run a family-style hotel.

But she has since met Dr. Irving Vinger, a state official charged with enforcing health care laws. He sees McKitterick help an elderly woman from her chair, and that is not allowed in a hotel. So, to McKitterick's dismay, Vinger says he will have to take action against the York because it is improperly operating like an "Adult Congregate Living Facility," which is allowed to give basic care and are thus strictly licensed.

Even if McKitterick wanted to apply for such a license, she could not. The city, trying to limit the number of ACLFs and nursing homes, allows only one ACLF for every two blocks. The Hebrew Home for the Aged is across the street from McKitterick's York.

Other hotels house elderly tenants who desperately need care, but the owners don't apply for a license. At the Grace Hotel, 411 Espanola Way, Vinger found a 91-year-old woman locked in her room from the outside, an 80-year-old bedridden man with open sores. The building had a natural gas leak and exposed wires. It was no "hotel," an angry Vinger declared. "People are being kept here like animals without dignity and self-respect."

He hopes to take similar action against 25 other South Beach hotels he says are violating the law in one way or another.

* *

Nothing is bright. The door is peeled and rotting.

Roaches swarm around a visitor's feet. A tall man must bend over to enter Bennie Mazor's apartment at 121 Collins Ave.

Bennie Mazor left Russia in 1919. He spent his life in New York City making furniture. For 15 years he has lived in this 10-foot by seven-foot room.

The rent is cheap at Beachview Apartments -- only $475 per year. But the amenities are few.

Everything is brown. The sheets are brown. The sink is etched in brown. The refrigerator is brown. There is no bathroom, no stove, no mirror, no air conditioning. Newspapers carpet the floor.

In the ceiling a four-foot by two-foot hole is covered with tar paper. Mazar collects the rain in two Savarin coffee cans.

On the dresser are three boxes of Manischewitz matzoh and two candlesticks. On Friday night, Mazor will light the candles, nothing can put out his Sabbath candles, and have a little wine and say Kiddish, a prayer that thanks God for getting the Jews out of Egypt.

Mazor, 79, could have gotten out of Beachview Apartments as some of his neighbors have, if he would take subsidized housing and food stamps. "I won't take any of it," Mazor says.

The landlord, Howie Bushinsky, saids he hadn't fixed up the 1921-era building because of the redevelopment moratorium on new construction. "It's been nine years, so what am I supposed to do?" he asks.

Bennie Mazor, who never married, knows none of this. He has four dirty shirts, four dirty pairs of pants; a clothesline that hangs across the room holds four dirty pairs of underwear.

But there is something that no one knows about Bennie Mazor. He is practically rich.

He has $30,000 in the bank and Social Security coming monthly. Investing properly, he could buy one of the nicer condos on South Beach.

Every few months, police find an old Eastern European Jew like Bennie Mazor -- dead in a tiny, rundown apartment.

A woman who pestered stockbrokers on Lincoln Road had $800,000 in stocks, bonds and cash. A man who pestered the head of the local Social Security office, Alan Kent, had $100,000. A woman named Frieda Zimmer, who moved into a boiler room to save money, had $140,000.

Six weeks ago, Bennie Mazor moved out his squalid quarters of 15 years and into a Ninth Street apartment, thus giving up redevelopment's relocation benefits. After Mazor left, the old apartment was cited by the city for numerous housing code violations. Landlord Howard Bushinsky corrected the violations two weeks ago.

Bennie Mazor had a reason for staying so long.

"The Tsar took everything from us, and then came the (Bolshevik) Revolution," he says. "I never had money, never had a nice place to live, you understand, you understand? So I save my money and I save my money. I want to live in a nice place before I die. You understand?"

* * * 

Survivor becomes scavenger

Benci Mendelsohn, 71, a Hungarian survivor of Auschweitz, carries a reminder of that horror on his arm: Number 90376. He didn't get a chance to say goodbye to his wife and two children, who were shoved in a crematory. Now Mendelsohn searches the alleyway dumpsters for discarded bagels, which he feeds to the pigeons in Lummus Park every day.

"When I was in camp, I knew people who gave would give their gold teeth for this," the handsome white-haired man says, holding half a bagel. " I know what it's like to be hungry."

At the dark, paint-peeling three-story Jefferson Apartments, the hungry sit in chairs lined up on the sidewalk. The Jefferson is a plain building that shares a block with two gas stations.

Sam Drucker is one of its tenants. In his Polish village of 12,000 Jews, he was one of only five to escape death. His wife and two children were incinerated in a concentration camp. He came to South Beach on a Greyhound bus 23 years ago, lives in a $125-a-month apartment that has been robbed four times, and owns only some old clothes, a $260 Sears television, and two Sabbath candles.

"This town was the best," Drucker says, sitting next to two old woman who both have bandages on their faces from recent operations. "I don't go out anymore since the Mariel Cubans came. I don't like what's going on. But what are you going to do for $125 per month? You can't complain."

It costs $600 a month, plus meals, for a similar-sized room at the Blackstone Kosher Retirement Hotel, a 13-story, 252-room building frequented by the diamonds-and-glitter set in the 1930s. Now it houses 155 elderly people, including 140 turn-of- the-century refugees. For the past two years, the state threatened to close it down because it advertised services that can only be given by a licensed partial care facility.

Samuel, a Russian-born retired garment worker who never married, lives there. His brother helps him pay $345 per month to share a room with another retiree.

He thinks South Beach is a "garden spot" compared to the New York East Side he left in 1970. Still, his wrists give testimony to two recent suicide attempts.

"It wasn't a sudden decision. I can no longer walk five miles a day like I did eight months ago. And I'm facing disaster. I still have no money, and now I can no longer afford to live here. I want the state to let me into a nursing home but I don't know if they'll take me. I thought suicide was a rational thing to do."

Social worker Mike Weston, who works in South Beach because he is a specialist in geriatric problems says there is little chance the state will take him. "He's probably not sick enough," Weston explains.

* * * 

A love of life

Joseph Feinberg has been blind for 26 years. Yet he is a rarity on South Beach, he is openly happy.

Feinberg, 70, is healthy enough to jog 10 miles a day. His love of life is obvious. He smiles. He laughs. He dances. He proudly talks of his prowess as a bowler.

Cuddling his Labrador retriever, Opal, he says, "I love you, Opal, I owe everything to you."

Opal, who understands Yiddish, Russian, English and Spanish, licks the face of the muscular Feinberg and leads him across the street.

"You can't be a kvetcher (complainer)," Feinberg says, "can you, Opal?"

In the Flamingo Park clubhouse, Friendship Corner No. 3, four old card players sort out their future.

Benjamin Levy, 83, is a Turkish-born man who, like most of the elderly on South Beach, can recite his daily routine in a matter of seconds:

"I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and go to the Concord Cafeteria, where I pay $3.50 for cereal, eggs, onion roll, butter, jello and coffee. I go to Flamingo Park until 1 p.m. Then I take a walk to the Seventh Street beach, sit there for two hours and watch the people. I always wear my fine white suit, I'm very particular. I come back from the beach at 5 p.m. and I'll buy some kosher meats -- I don't eat any trayf (nonkosher).

"I smoke a pack and a half of cigarets a day. I have supper. I sit down to watch to TV. I don't go out at night anymore. Before I go to sleep, I have one glass of Manischewitz wine."

Soon, Levy says, his routine will change for the first time in 12 years. His legs are hurting, his body is hurting, and he knows he will become one of those people who don't go to Flamingo Park anymore, who stay inside their small rooms.

* * * 

 'Virile if you have one'

Every week 20 elderly South Beach women venture from their rooms to visit an old-fashioned Jewish matchmaker, Paula Jacobson, and each asks for a "Nice Jewish Man, virile if you have one, at least one who's healthy." South Beach has three woman for every man. Women live longer.

Many of the lonely women, and the relatively few surviving lonely men, date if they're healthy. An old Russian-born man comes to the Tides Hotel on South Beach because his wife died; there, he meets a Polish-born woman who is widowed. They talk about the situation, the trouble, they walk in the park.

Others, like Carl Goldbard and Dottie Lanskrow, do their courting at the regular dances held at Lummus Park. The two met at a nightclub four years ago. She is teaching him to dance.

Dottie and Carl are 69 years old, a soft-voiced clerk and a truck driver.

Every night, Carl and Dottie and 600 other old people dance at the 10th Street Auditorium, a simple, square building in Lummus Park.

The dance is an opportunity to dress up, to take out the white patent leather shoes, the best shirt, the nicest pants. The dance is companionship. The dance is being alive.

The celebrants line up an hour before the 7:30 p.m. start, ready to pay the 25-cent admission fee that hasn't changed in 30 years. They file into the auditorium, sit in one of the 265 black-cushioned metal chairs under a spinning mirrored ball. An illusion still shines

At every dance, a city employe named Clyde sprinkles yellow powdered dance wax on the terrazzo floor so the old people can dance more gracefully. He says he uses 15 pounds of wax every month.

Actually, Clyde is just pretending. He reaches into a can, rolls his hand into a fist, and pitches his empty palm at the floor. The old people would complain if there were no wax on the floor, but would trip if there were. So Clyde pretends.

When the first chords of New York, New York, begin to play, Carl and Dottie, New Yorkers, fairly run to the floor.

The room comes alive with the shuffling sweep of shoes, the snap of fingers, the smiles on every face. South Beach is outside. The dance and the memories of The City are inside.

"This is phenomenal for them," says bandleader Max Sutton, 69, trim and flashily dressed. He started playing nights for the old folks here when he was 39. "How long can you sit in a little room, four walls, TV? The only enjoyment is TV. Here, they see each other, they meet people. It's the only place for them on South Beach."

But outside, the other South Beach intrudes. Five woman in scraggly dresses dance by themselves, clutching the air, pirouetting aimlessly. Later, the bag ladies arrive with all their possessions, bathe at a public shower, then search the trash bins for food.

The dance ends a half-hour early now, at 10:30 p.m., because of the fear of the outside. 

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Meals provided

In the morning, the city employes bring long tables into the concert hall. At 9:30 a.m., about 100 old people start lining up for a free meal that isn't served until 11:30 a.m., when the Jewish Vocational Service will serve 400 elderly. At three centers on South Beach, the service provides meals for 1,200 elderly who can't afford them. For many, it is a major social event.

A woman lets the old people five at a time into the dance hall turned dining room. By noon, the hall is filled with hundreds of diners talking about the Old Country, the East Side, the opposite sex, the sickness, the lost wife, the lost health, the lost good life on Miami Beach, The Trouble.

Then they eat a modest meal from a white styrofoam tray and slowly walk away, heading down Ocean Drive, in the direction of the three-story apartment house where Anna Berking must stay inside.

"What worries me is these are the extroverts, the ones who can get out," says Louise Morlang, the city's 17-year supervisor of recreation services.

"I don't see any new faces anymore. I think this is the end of the generation from the sweatshops from New York. I haven't seen a new face in a long time. And I wonder about old faces who can't get outside their little rooms."

South Beach series