The ultimate makeover: how Miami went chic

The opening of the 'Miami Vice' movie showcases a city revamped from the 1980s TV show.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was the iconic 1980s cop show, and it showed Miami as the capital of cool. It oozed glitz and glamour. Fast boats and flashy cars were everywhere. "Miami Vice" had it all.

Too bad the city itself back then had a murder rate more than quadruple the national average. Tourism revenue was at rock bottom. "Sleepy metropolis" and "haven for retirees" were common descriptions.

But when "Miami Vice" was canceled, a funny thing happened to the real Miami: It started to look more and more like the TV show.

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Today, as the movie version of "Miami Vice" plays in theaters nationwide, the city is a hub for big business, high fashion, and global tourism. Yes, it oozes glitz and glamour.

Just don't expect any Miamians to roll up their suit-jacket sleeves anymore, à la Don Johnson.

"It was the series that, inspired by Miami, reshaped Miami," says Chuck Strouse, editor of the Miami New Times, a weekly newspaper. "It shaped national and international thinking on the city and continued to do so for years afterwards."

Twenty-two years ago, when linen-suited detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs first appeared on screen, Miami had fallen on hard times. The biggest problems in the '80s and early '90s were crime, drugs, and poverty. At least nine tourists were killed during robberies. And some of Colombia's most notorious drug cartels conducted business through Miami – which included Fabio Ochoa, whose $1 billion-a-month operation allowed him to carpet his stables and wash down his horses with whiskey.

"The traffickers were making more money than they knew what to do with," says Guy Lewis, a former US attorney in Miami who prosecuted several big names from the feuding Medellin and Cali cartels. "They were driving round in their Ferraris and Porsches, walking into banks with duffel bags stuffed with cash.... But there was no Crockett and Tubbs in a Ferrari chasing the bad guys."

Stung by the bad publicity, Miami's police and politicians launched a blitz on crime. Efforts were afoot at the federal level, too: The vice president at the time, George H.W. Bush, set up a task force on drug trafficking, and the feds pumped in "tons of money," Mr. Lewis notes.

Many of the drugs barons in the city fled or were arrested. While even today the trade still flourishes, those who run it are less conspicuous.

While Miami still wrestles with the same problems as other metropolitan areas its size (more than 2 million people), the murder rate has at least declined substantially. In 1982, there were 190 reported murders in Miami, 128 a decade later, and 69 in 2004, the last year for which figures are available.

Other forces have also been at work in turning Miami around. As a massive influx of people has come to the city, especially from Latin America, a building boom has ensued. At the same time, more businesses have been attracted by a combination of cheap premises, proximity to expanding Latin American markets, and the availability of diverse and plentiful labor. And as crime has gone down, tourism has picked up substantially – as has a hotel building boom.

The result: a different Miami. Since 1990, international trade has tripled to $58.7 billion last year. Hundreds of European- and Asian-owned businesses are now headquartered in the city.

Swanky hotels such as the Delano, Four Seasons, and Loews have opened their doors to the rich and famous – replicating the upmarket venues where the detectives of "Miami Vice" would go undercover to set up a deal with Colombian drugs barons.

In addition, South Beach's Art Deco district, which had featured prominently on the TV show, went from run-down to chic, thanks to meticulous restoration. And an influx of fashion houses, led by the late Gianni Versace and also including such names such as Chanel, Gucci, and Prada, gave Miami its style.

Then there's the trendy nightclub scene. The beautiful people flock to hang out in the almost 200 clubs and fashionable bars along Ocean Drive and in the downtown area, even if it means a three-hour wait behind a velvet rope. A new nightclub opens every few weeks on average.

"A lot of that happened coming out of the 1980s and set Miami up in a new direction," says Gregory Bush, a professor of history at the University of Miami. "It's a far more cosmopolitan place than 20 years ago."

Local residents are proud of the city it has become.

"Twenty years ago, Miami Beach was effectively a community of retirees," says Dan Vidal, who takes photographs for the nightclub website cooljunkie.com. "People would come for the beaches. Now, they come specially for the clubs. By anyone's standards we have some of the best nightclubs in the country, catering to everyone's tastes."

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