From boom to bust to boom, Miami’s South Beach is heating up again.
By Tray Butler
Miami Beach is the place where neon goes to die. So said the late comedian Lenny Bruce — allegedly. The oft-repeated quote becomes questionable knowing that Bruce met his own untimely demise in 1966, long before the then-crumbling Art Deco District became “God’s Waiting Room” full of blue-collar retirees.
In the half century since then, South Beach has tried on more outfits than a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” finalist, going from ghetto to gayborhood to playground for the one percent. The neon lights along Ocean Drive may have flickered over the years, but they definitely haven’t died.
Cycles of boom and bust come with the territory in Miami, a Teflon Babylon that’s survived and even thrived despite hurricanes, cocaine and crime waves. These days, the city is on another upswing thanks to a burst of development and international investment. The downtown restaurant scene has nearly doubled since 2010. Miami boasts the most popular spring break in the nation and the busiest cruise ship port in the world. Last year, it came in sixth on Knight Frank’s list of the world’s top 10 cities for the super rich.
6 Days, 13,000 Partiers, 1 Sun
“South Florida is booming,” says Justin Bell, chair of the 23rd annual Winter Party Festival, which returns to South Beach this month. Raising funds for the National LGBTQ Task Force and various local LGBTQ nonprofits, the festival has evolved in recent years beyond its circuit roots.
It’s now a sprawling six-day celebration, featuring a juried art exhibition, silent auction, VIP receptions, film screenings, shopping events, and — of course — the much-loved dance parties.
“We’re seeing more and more events move to unique neighborhoods in Miami, including Wynwood and downtown,” Bell says. The expansion strategy seems to have paid off. Attendance topped 13,000 last year and fundraising hit $1 million for the first time ever.
This year, the venerable daytime events largely stick to a formula that’s worked for the past two decades. Under One Sun, the Saturday pool party, promises 2,000 bikini- and boxcut-clad revelers swarming the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach, the festival’s host hotel. The next day, the crowd triples at Winter Party’s signature Beach Party, a sandy extravaganza like no other in the world. New for 2016, the Sunday event goes from 1-8 p.m., adding twilight hours to the beachfront bacchanal.
Bell acknowledges that South Florida’s persuasive weather and unique venues help explain the festival’s popularity. He believes the real secret, though, may be the (lack of) attitude.
“Our guests have come to realize that Winter Party Festival is the friendliest party on the planet,” he says. “We pride ourselves on ensuring everyone feels welcome.”
More Sights of Miami
In 2013, the city’s reputation as a mecca for contemporary art got a boost with the unveiling of the $220 Million Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd., pamm.org). Culture vultures might also want to experience the Wynwood Arts District and Miami Design Districts, two downtown stomping grounds for aesthetes.
If the back-to-back DJ sets of Winter Party Festival leave you somehow jonesing for more EDM, get those earplugs ready for Miami Music Week (miamimusicweek.com) March 15-20, which includes Ultra Music Festival. Hordes (as in hundreds of thousands) of ravers from every nation flock to South Florida for one of the world’s hottest electronic dance music spectacles.
Even if it can’t exactly compare to New York or San Francisco, Miami Beach Pride (April 8-10, miamibeachgaypride.com) scores points for spunk — and for hosting what may be the earliest Pride observance on the calendar. The animated parade takes over the Art Deco District on Ocean Drive on April 10.
A walking tour on Winter Party weekend? More like a stumbling tour, maybe. Take a stroll down memory lane and learn about the rich history of queer South Beach at the Miami Design Preservation League’s Gay Walking Tour (March 5, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., www.mdpl.org/tours/gay-and-lesbian-walking-tour). The $26 outing starts at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Dr.