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A Definition of Refuge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
February 2020

Miami Motel Stories brings the past to North Beach

OMotels_1nce again Juggerknot Theatre Company and Miami playwright Juan C.  Sanchez coax true Miami experiences to life through immersive theater -- this time with Miami Motel Stories North Beach. Fifty artists, including 27 actors and directors Ana Margineanu and Tai Thompson, have gathered to weave the tapestry of the 24-block neighborhood over the past century.

You’ll meet the Southern church lady appalled at the goings-on at the Jungle Inn speakeasy with the bootleg hooch and gambling; the 1960s mobster preparing for his next rubout; Harold and Marion, the 1956 Jewish honeymooners from Brooklyn; Mary, the 1960s domestic servant at Normandy Isle required to wear an ID while on the beach; the young black and Jewish high-schoolers thrown together by busing in 1972; the Argentine couple getting their bearings in 1991; the squatters in the deserted building in 2015; and an actor inspired by “Shoe Doctor” Dinsdale Gibbs, who is 81 and still cobbles every day at 7416 Collins Ave.

You might even find yourself with Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997, seeking refuge on Pine Tree Drive before decamping to a houseboat and shooting himself in the head with a stolen pistol.

In developing the experience, Sanchez found his key overarching word and loose theme: refuge.

“Back in 1875, there was only one structure built here,” Sanchez says. “It was the two-story Biscayne House of Refuge, one of five lifesaving stations ordered by President Ulysses Grant in South Florida. That information set the course for an interesting journey and created an overarching theme. This neighborhood has always been a place of refuge.”

Motels_2The refuge marker stands at Collins and 72nd Street, just south of the North Beach Bandshell. Captain William Fulford became keeper of the house before staking out some land that became North Miami Beach.

In creating his stories, Sanchez says he has tried to be scrupulous with the neighborhood’s history, working in concert with HistoryMiami and historian Paul George, who has led tours of the North Beach neighborhood that extends into nearby LaGorce and Normandy Isle.

Miami Motel Stories North Beach, presented by Perrier in partnership with Ocean Terrace Holdings, runs February 6-29, Thursday to Sunday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Broadmoor Hotel, 7450 Ocean Terr. in Miami Beach. You can choose from four storylines by selecting blue, orange, yellow, and pink room keys.

The Juggerknot team works closely to set the mood for each room, as Annamarie Morales handles the lighting, Li Milian the sets, and Lee Harrison the costumes. The colors and design carry significance: blue for crime, orange for outside, yellow for home, and pink for glamour. Tangled branches over a bed, say, may connote the trapped mind of a lawyer traumatized by a beating.

Tickets are $69.99 through MiamiMotelStories.com. Meet at the hotel. Wear comfortable shoes, and don’t bring bulky items. Disabilities are accommodated, and you must be 18. Free parking is available after 6:30 p.m. along the streets and in public lots nearby.

This production, the fourth in a series, follows Miami Motel Stories Little Havana in 2017, Miami Motel Stories MiMo in 2018, and Wynwood Stories last year.

Motels_3An aside: For real Miami Beach oral history in book form, treat yourself to Joann Biondi’s 2007 labor of love, Miami Beach Memories: A Nostalgic Chronicle of Days Gone By. It is a wonder, and many of her voices have since passed on.

On another level, these productions pay tribute to the past and portend what is to come -- for a big wave is about to land.

Ocean Terrace Holdings, led by developers Sandor Scher and Alex Blavatnik, bought up the 7400 block between Collins and Ocean Terrace, and are preparing to build a $220 million beachfront mixed-use development, with a 235-foot-tall residential tower and 125-foot-tall hotel. They will create a midblock public pass-through from Collins to the ocean, and retain about 12 midcentury modern façades from the early 1950s.

In a development agreement passed unanimously by the Miami Beach City Commission last summer, Ocean Terrace agreed to invest $15 million in a public oceanfront park designed by landscape architect Raymond Jungles. Construction will take about three years.

Ocean Terrace provided the space for Juggerknot and accommodated the group. In a news release, Scher said he and Blavatnik are “looking to the past to inspire our future development plans on the block” and, in providing the venue, are “underscoring our commitment to promoting the arts.”

Motels_4When the development was first announced in 2015, it faced bitter resistance from preservationists and neighborhood activists, fearing its effect on the neighborhood’s character and architectural features, but that was muted as plans evolved.

Juggerknot founder and artistic director Tanya Bravo, daughter of a Spanish mother and Colombian father, is acutely aware of the intersection of art and patronage, and gentrification and refuge, as South Beach, Wynwood, and Little Haiti demonstrate today.

“One part of gentrification is that artists are pushed out of neighborhoods,” she says. “And I like that we have developed an interesting moment in time where we benefit from each other. I am allowed to use this space for a certain amount of time and fill it with over 50 artists, and tell the story of that neighborhood. I am aware of what is happening, but we are grateful that we can stop and pay homage and in some way be a part of history.”

Bravo remains focused on Miami -- Overtown is up next -- but would like to bring the format to other cities.

North Beach’s texture has evolved. Seventy years ago, on the 7400 block of Collins, patrons could cool off at the newly opened Normandy Theatre and the older Surf Theatre. Vacationers of modest means from New York’s outer boroughs could visit or move here, finding sunshine and respite with their thrift honed from shtetls, slums, the Depression, war, perhaps the Holocaust. The neighborhood became a self-contained center of Jewish life, just as sanctioned anti-Semitism and “restricted” policies started to lift in Miami Beach.

Says historian Paul George of that time: “This was a cute and substantial little neighborhood. It was more affordable, with more apartments and fewer hotels. It was beginning its rise just as South Beach was beginning its decline.”

Shoe Doctor Dinsdale Gibbs was able to set up his own shop here in 1972. He’d learned shoemaking in school in Jamaica, moved here as a 12-year-old in 1951, and worked in Normandy Isle, but as a black man, he had to return to the mainland before sunset into the 1960s. Now in North Miami, he raised three children and has three grandchildren. His wall is filled with certificates, and his 5-by-31-foot space is the smallest storefront business in the city.

Says Gibbs: “The landlord is keeping it steady here because I’m the oldest tenant. When I came here, I was working at Normandy Isle. We had to leave before dark because as seasonal workers we had to register with the police and be photographed and printed. In the 1970s and 1980s, business was great. As the customers got older, they needed more work on their shoes. Rubber tips. High heels. Orthopedic adjustments. I worked 6:00 a.m. to midnight. I worked fast. I still work fast.”

Across the street at Goldstein’s Prime market and deli, Brian Goldstein, age 58, is winding down for the day. Ocean Terrace bought him out a few years ago, and he expects to retire after a few more years. Business has slowed but remains solid, by his account. He bills his store as “the one and only real, fresh killed, old-school, kosher meat shop in Florida. From the slaughterhouse to you.”

“I don’t jump for joy, but I come in every day,” he says with a smile. “I drive from Plantation, and we open at 8:00. There used to be 15 kosher butchers. We’re the only one left. My problem is our customers are dying. They are 85, 90, 100. They cook meat and poultry. It’s less walk-in and more takeout and delivery now. Old people love to cook.”

On a balmy Sunday afternoon after business hours, the neighborhood changes again. Cubans still swap tales at Café Sazon’s outside stand on 73rd, and business is jumping at Argentine-inflected Manolo Churraso at 7300 Collins Ave. Elsewhere along Collins, more storefronts are vacant, some selling cheap beachwear, and franchises are overtaking the mom-and-pops. There’s a new CVS and an older Walgreens.

Hip-looking millennials line up at Taquiza by the Broadmoor and Burgers and Beer at 74th and Collins. They check out the artisan bakeries. “We sell craft beers!” exclaims the sign at a convenience store prominently selling lotto tickets. The 27-story St. Tropez condo on the 7300 block of Ocean Terrace is a harbinger. Resident Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, gave a promotional video testimonial to the Ocean Terrace project, together with preservationist and former Miami Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman.

All the more reason, then, for Juan Sanchez to tease the humanity and the stories out of the neighborhood before the next wave.

“I get into the people and the stories,” he says, “and the characters come to life. They just want to say, ‘Look at me. This is my story. It wasn’t always just this one place you see now. Hear me out. If you see me, if you hear me, if you remember me, if you know about me, then I live.’”

 

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