Pastel-washed South Beach loses fashion luster

'America's Riviera,' where Don Johnson set a new standard for how a police officer should dress, gets too pricey for creative set.

Winter is warm sunlight doting on pastel structures and palm-lined streets with a splash of saltwater.

Well, it is if you live in South Beach, where the temperature is 77 degrees F. and the art deco style is so venerated that even the Kentucky Fried Chicken building was designed to intermingle with its historically preserved neighbors.

Many Americans' impression of Miami begins and ends with the city's portrayal in the popular 1980s television show "Miami Vice" - a glitzy metropolis oozing fashion-conscious police, bikini-clad beauties, and lots of sin. Calvin Klein fed that image with sexy photo shoots that would establish this part of Miami Beach as a fashion industry mecca.

By the mid-1990s, "Sobe" enjoyed the fruits of a full-fledged revival. Restoration projects spurred economic growth. National hoteliers like Marriott and Ritz-Carlton began investing in "Manhattan South."

But today, that growth is displacing the very people - models, hip college kids, and homosexuals - who helped create the tropical bohemia. Gentrification has a stronghold on the 15 city blocks that make up what many call America's Riviera.

Jose Martinez has watched the evolution of South Beach since the 1980s. The high cost of living today, he says, is chasing off aspiring models.

"The apartment that cost you $300 a month five years ago is now up to $700 a month," says Mr. Martinez, a booking agent for Ultra Modeling Agency in Miami Beach. "Things are changing. South Beach is taking on a different feel."

It is a pattern that has become familiar in other bohemian communities such as New York's Soho district.

For South Beach, the peak came about five years ago. A hotbed of fashion and entertainment activity, the town drew major talent from New York and Los Angeles. Celebrities danced alongside locals in small nightclubs.

The emergence of popular Latin American stars like Ricky Martin fueled the raging fire. Latin American music labels set up shop and a surge in film production earned South Beach yet another moniker: Hollywood East.

But today, revenue from print photography on Miami Beach is at a 10-year low, according to the Miami-Dade Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment. As of 2001, major motion pictures being filmed here were down 50 percent in two years.

With the once-condemned buildings all gussied up, some of the romance is gone. There is a "been there, done that" syndrome.

"Art deco has been done. I don't really think we could go on too much longer," said Tony Magaldi, general manager of the News Café, where Gianni Versace got his coffee and newspaper each morning before he was murdered. "We had 10 good years."

The buzzword now is commercialization. A building boom is changing both the skyline and the social class of people who live, work, and vacation here. Once a haunt for college kids, South Beach could be tagged Beverly Hills 33139 - as wealthy European and Latin American tourists replace struggling artists and drag queens.

Laura Williams, a vacationing businesswoman from New York, says she remembers when South Beach was an affordable getaway. "I still love South Beach, but it's not what it used to be. The same thing happened with Key West," said Ms. Williams, as she wets her feet in the Atlantic Ocean. "It's really sad for the locals. South Beach is thoroughly gentrified."

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