For most visitors — and I am no different — Miami is essentially South Beach. Even though its wide, sandy beachfront and Art Deco landmarks aren’t in Miami proper, South Beach feels more like our idea of Miami than the empty sidewalks and soulless glass towers of downtown.
But lately I’ve been hearing buzz about new neighborhoods — or rather, neighborhoods most outsiders have scarcely paid attention to. Real estate in Miami has taken off once again, with wealthy foreigners bidding up prices for anything close to the beach. As a consequence, I’m told, middle-class locals are moving to once-sleepy areas of downtown Miami, bringing their hip sensibilities and street-level energy with them.
I decided to see just how hip. From Aventura, where I ate kosher chocolate babka with Venezuelan friends (the Venezuelan Jewish diaspora has a hub here), I jogged west to U.S. 1, Biscayne Boulevard, where locals had told me about their favorite hotspots.
The name Biscayne Boulevard has a poetic sound to it, with the alliteration and imagery of a tropical bay. In reality, though, Biscayne Boulevard is a busy, utilitarian strip through the neighborhoods northeast of downtown.
With spread-out buildings and parking lots, the boulevard has a suburban feel that makes it easy to drive right past mid-century architecture worth a second look. But so many cute pink boutiques, like Rebel, which carries hip clothing for women as well as designer consignment pieces, are opening alongside scene-y wine bars that locals have started calling the area from 60th to 79th streets Miami’s Upper East Side (which, technically, it is).
I drove slowly to get a good look. I even got out of the car and walked, getting some strange looks as I strolled, solo, between Art Deco hotels and the whir of 5 p.m. traffic. With my shopping-phobic husband, Oggi, in tow, there was little opportunity to do damage in those high-priced shoe stores. But I caught a glimpse of the very high heels cooling outside Michy’s, a much-talked-about hotspot owned by the Jewish-Latina chef Michelle Bernstein.
At Northeast 39th Street, I turned and headed west, following large signs for the “Miami Design District.” Much has been written about the burgeoning art scene in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood (which overlaps somewhat with the Design District), and the annual Art Basel crowds generate a lot of hype from the fashion set. So far, Miami galleries have convinced me that Soho has nothing to worry about. But I keep an open mind.
A block off Biscayne, the traffic evaporated and a looming wall announced the Design District in foot-high black letters. Smaller signs trumpeted local dining and shopping. Neither activity was much in evidence along these narrow, palm-lined lanes, but the overall aesthetic was post-industrial urban: sleek white buildings with lots of right angles and color-blocked walls.
It was that lonely hour between shopping and dinner, and once again I had the sidewalks to myself. I strolled past gallery windows full of leopard prints, avant-garde sofas and exotically shaped vases. Here and there an all-black window or a set of ominously high, closed doors suggested an exclusive club; outside, valet parking attendants idled by velvet ropes. A couple of skinny men in skinny pants walked past, chattering in Cuban Spanish.
I stumbled upon a block of high-end international luxury chains: Prada, Tiffany, Hermes. Obviously, the jet set had heard about the hip new ’hood and decided to be in on it. But of all the luxury strips I’ve seen around the world, this was by far the most incongruous — and most deserted.
What Miami’s downtown sidewalks lack in people, they make up for in cranes and “Luxury Apartment” signs. Indeed, as we cruised down Biscayne, alongside the Miami River and up A1A, the street that parallels the ocean, what was most striking was the proliferation of glittering new towers. Seen from the highway, the Miami skyline appears to have exploded in just a handful of years, suggestive of a truly world-class metropolis.
But despite all the evident activity, the sidewalks remained more or less bare all the way down Biscayne Boulevard. At its southern terminus, where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay, a few couples strolled with their dogs along the Riverwalk promenade.
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South Beach, it turns out, is still where you have to go for Miami people-watching. In downtown Miami, forget people: buildings are king, and they form a landscape as arresting, distinctive and organically evolving as any on Earth.
In another decade or two, who knows? Crowds may be thronging to Biscayne Boulevard. Meanwhile, I’ll keep coming back because no matter how many times I visit Miami, I never get bored.