/ The Miami Guide
Miami — By themiamiguide on October 30, 2009 at 11:47 am

Gerald Posner’s Miami Babylon: the Magic City Unmasked

Illusion and reality are a potent topic for any writer to dissect — tell-all books on celebrities living and dead are standard fare and a media staple of our time.  What is more unusual is a book about a city and its times from infancy to maturity — well, sort of — and the people and events that were key in shaping it and have left their imprint to the present.  This type of intelligent tell-all about a place can get you dropping everything else to sit down and learn a city and what made it what it is today.  Gerald Posner’s new book entitled Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power – A Dispatch From The Beach  does exactly that.  It’s essential reading for anyone wanting to not only fill in the gaps of their own understanding about the growth of Miami but also grasp the fascinating combination of events and people that drove those changes.  

Miami Babylon (courtesy - Simon & Schuster)

Miami Babylon (courtesy - Simon & Schuster)

Miami Beach emerges in Posner’s account as a town with distinct chapters in its relatively short but often turbulent life, and along the way we also come to perceive it as a place that embraced villains and visionaries, rogues and renaissance men in equal proportion.  While inventing itself, Miami also allowed any number of pioneers and profiteers to also reinvent themselves.  It was all its own process, so to speak, and Posner accepts this as integral to Miami’s story — thus his chapters can veer one to the next from authentic founding figures like Carl Fisher to more lurid assortments of gangsters, drug czars and clubland icons but who all played some passing role on the Miami stage that left an imprint. 

As far as what was more challenging to research or more unexpected that he uncovered?  Posner explains: “I think the most difficult or challenging part was actually in telling about the nightlife or club scene, and that’s for two reasons: one, with some of the people who were instrumental in making Miami Beach come alive through a nightlife and a club scene and helped brand it unfortunately in the intervening years are gone – some of HIV. They just aren’t around. So their stories aren’t here to be told. Secondly, the people that are left have often gone on to be brands of their own — you know, far away from the club scene, they’re now independent and in real estate or PR or whatever, and so they’re defining those years when they were partying and what the club scene was like as standing members of the community today and so somewhat toned down. I also think that there were a lot of people who were in the club scene then who only remember it only vaguely because they partied too heavily. What I call hazy recollections. It was a challenge to try to pull that together — it would be like going back and writing about Studio 54 and actually trying to describe it by missing some people and talking to others who were too loaded every night to clearly remember it well and talking to others who are now have gone on to become a neurosurgeon and talk about it very blandly So that was a challenge, if that makes sense. And I think the most surprising thing to me was actually the chapter that I call “The Players”, in which there’s only three people — I understand that — but still, it’s somewhat remarkable to me that you can boast about your drug-trafficking days as though it’s a badge of honor, with no shame or disdain for that, but almost as though you talk about yourself as a pirate or bucaneer and think that it was something you got away with, and makes you a braver and tougher person. That surprised me. I suppose it exists in every city, I just hadn’t come across it as blatantly as that.”

GeraldPosnerMiami in our own times remains a kaleidoscopic mix of forces, influences, and trends both economic and social that still engages Gerald Posner, and his underlying affection and regard for it is what gives this book the type of elan which in turn engages the reader.  His own perception and ability to see beneath the surface images that Miami prefers to display for general consumption also allows him to acknowledge not just the headline grabbers of the periods he delves through but also the people of substance who have left their own legacy.  Or as he puts it:  “There are sometimes the unsung heroes, there are the people like Frank Del Vecchio, the community activist who’s had a great impact of the development of parts of South Beach post- Barbara Capitman but will die without anybody really knowing or remembering his name, that’s certainly been the case. What’s interesting about that is almost this dichotomy or contradiction: on the one hand, it is a city that has started to embrace “culture” as people have the money to do it and suddenly decide they would like the wing of a new cultural center like the Arsht Center named after themselves like Henry Kravitz can have a wing named after himself at the Met. You know,  monuments to the living of their good taste. And there is an effort underfoot to have more, but still on the whole I find what’s stimulating here and what makes it come alive for me? I don’t go out to clubs at night — I mean, restaurants open and close before I get to them if they’re popular! I’m certainly not on any circuit that follows the trends in the city, but I have a great group of friends who are intellectually stimulating; I can argue with them about politics and discuss new books and talk about the existence of God or not, or talk about the latest gossip, dish and scandal on TMZ or whatever.  You can run the gamut with them. Just as I could with friends in New York, in Manhattan where I lived for 25 years. There may be a smaller pool here of people like that and maybe more in Manhattan, no question about it, but it does exist here. One of the interesting things is that although the city government and the people that run the city have not pushed the arts at the expense of just tourism and superficial enttertainment — they’re happy just to have the Bass. I mean they spent more on just trying to get Cirque de Soleil’s permanent show here than any effort to bring in another museum. So although the people who run the city haven’t been focused on that, many of the people attracted to live here are as interesting as anybody you’ll come across, and that I think is what’s missed from New Yorkers who don’t understand the city at all. They can’t quite appreciate that you can have both a place that on the one hand has a superficiality to it and doesn’t necessarily have the cultural history, legacy or commitment that many “real” cities have, but at the same time does have a collection of people that are as eclectic and stimulating as anybody you’ll come across at the snobbiest party in Manhattan.”

In fact, as Posner points out, Miami Babylon got underway in its telling in part because he was originally contracted to do a second book as part of a commitment to write a book about the Vatican and its finances.  This evolved in turn to his current publisher wisely realizing that Miami and its background might be a more worthwhile story to turn to first.  Posner and his wife Trisha, had mixed initial reactions:  “The first was: we live here, like living here and don’t want to move!” he recalls.  ” Because ultimately our work is investigative, so we thought okay that will be great – on to the next warm place. But then we had to figure out if there was a book that we could tell, and then we thought okay, we’ll tell Miami and Miami Beach, and it took us only a few weeks to realize that was impossible — totally diferent stories. And so we picked an arbitrary starting point for Miami Beach, we figured it would be the Mariel boat lift — just take 1980, bring in the boat lift and then go through that whole renaissance, and that would be it. That’s what that publisher agreed to publish, and then of course as you well know, you’re back in ‘79 for the Art Deco designation, and then that takes you just a little bit further back to the start of the Miami Preservation Design League, and then you jump a little bit back to the Fountainbleau, and then you’re in the RDA, and the next thing you know you’re in the Sixties, and then it becomes a deserted sandbar to the present time. And so they got the full history of the Beach but that’s not what they were expecting.”  But fortunately he did indeed become that engrossed in connecting the long and intriguing collection of dots over time to produce this tale.  And the magic is still there for Gerald Posner and for his readers too, even when all the masks have been stripped away at last.

 If you are in the Miami area, Gerald Posner will next be reading from Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power at:

Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power – A Dispatch From The Beach (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).


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