By Albert Stern / Special to the BJV
It wasn’t until the early aughts, around the time I turned forty, before the most common response to my telling someone that I was born and raised in Miami Beach was something other than: “Oh, my grandmother lived there. I didn’t realize anyone actually grew up there.”
By then, the city was well on the way of reinventing itself as the glitzy party town and mega-millionaires’ enclave that constitutes its current incarnation. But the Miami Beach of my heart will always be the Miami Beach inhabited by elderly Jewish retirees, the city of my childhood. This is how I described it in an article published in The Forward in 2014: “Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in Miami Beach in the 1960s was like being raised in a Technicolor Anatevka…South Beach in my formative years was an insular subtropical shtetl, and the idea of living outside a monolithically Jewish community would have been as alien to me then as the possibility of looking out the window and seeing snow.”
Sorry for the recycled prose – I just don’t think I can do much better than that. But photographer Andy Sweet, also a Miami Beach native, did do much better, and I probably had his work somewhere in mind when I wrote those sentences. Sweet’s images of South Beach in the late 1970s, now on view at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, are unique, impeccable records of that time, that place, and those people. Starting in 1977, Sweet and his partner, Gary Monroe, initiated a 10-year grant-funded project to photograph the denizens of South Beach.
Stylistically and temperamentally, the two photographers could not have been more different. Monroe took a “serious” documentarian’s approach and used only black and white film – and though he might deny it six ways to Sunday (as he once did to me at an art opening we both attended), I bet you he still sometimes wakes up with a start in the middle of the night ruing the opportunity he missed.
Because South Beach was all about color – the sun, the sky, the sand, the surf, the buildings, the clothes. The difference between Monroe’s strident shades of grey and Sweet’s goofily glorious color images is the difference between Dorothy in Kansas and Dorothy in Oz. But Sweet’s achievement was more than just technical and compositional – he was a true artist who captured the poignant insouciance of his subjects. Sorry for some more recycled prose, but this is how I once described the community of Jews Sweet photographed in a short story:
Miami Beach was home to tens of thousands of Jews who had come south from New York vowing not to leave this world without a fight, or, at the very least, an argument. For the most part their lives had been difficult and, having spent most of their existences buffeted by stress and turmoil, when they suddenly found themselves in a relaxing subtropical environment, they continued to feel aggravation in much the same way an amputee imagines he feels pain in a missing limb. As their time on Earth wound down, the last thing these people seemed willing to part with was their bitterness.
A person’s time in Miami Beach was often short, but it seemed long. Life in Miami Beach was like a videotaped 100-meter dash replayed in slow motion. One can still see the strain of all-out exertion by the participants, the fury of competition on their faces, but at the same time everything moves a whole lot slower. The decelerated pace of existence served to magnify life’s little dramas, while at the same time cutting every event, be it tragic or joyous, with a dollop of the surreal.
At the time Sweet and Monroe were engaged in what they called the “Miami Beach Photographic Project,” my family owned The Congress Hotel on Ocean Drive in South Beach. It was the last such property we owned. I was a teenager by then, and had grown up in the milieu that Sweet and Monroe documented. My mother organized the kind of celebrations in hotel lobbies that the two photographers found so fascinating – as proprietors, we were expected to provide our guests with ENTERTAINMENT! I still think the second funniest thing I’ve ever seen was the birthday party of one of our residents, who doddered with pleasure as the frog-voiced chanteuse we hired for the occasion serenaded him with “Take…good…care of yourself / Yoooooou belong to me,” while the other elderly guests, the majority wearing cardboard party hats secured with elastic bands around their chins, clapped along.
I passed endless hours on front porches with people who spent the sunny days brooding on lounge chairs while staring out at the Atlantic Ocean. My father used to enjoy telling the story of how he, after noticing that one of his resident porch sitters had not moved in quite some time, called Fire Rescue and sat down next to the man – who, sadly, had indeed died – and engaged him in conversation for 20 minutes until the ambulance arrived, so as not to alarm the other guests. (“No doubt an excellent opportunity for you to have shared one of your fascinating d’var Torahs, Henry,” I remember our family rabbi quipping.)
I guess I focus on the elderly Jews’ aggravation with the cosmos because that’s what entertained me most about them. Andy Sweet, who by all accounts was a warm, ebullient free spirit, apprehended their pathos but felt far more deeply the joie de vivre that animated these old Jews. It was a zest for living that inspired their baroque sartorial choices, made them come together each afternoon in Lummus Park to sing old songs about Romania under the palm trees, led them to packed dances at the bandshell and show off their ballroom steps, and – when prompted – to strike a pose. With panache.
As I’ve moved through the world, I have often tried to describe the Miami Beach of my youth – but if I could have, I would have just shared those images captured by Andy Sweet. For decades, they were almost impossible to find. In 1991, Sweet and Gary Monroe’s work was published in an art book titled Miami Beach, with a foreword by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who lived just up Collins Avenue in Surfside. It was well-received at the time, but went out of print. And that was it – Andy Sweet’s photographs, you see, could not be reproduced. His negatives had been entrusted to a storage company that specialized in handling fine art, but at some point, that company misplaced every last one of them.
That Sweet’s negatives vanished was not only a loss to the art of photography, but also to history. He and Monroe captured Jewish South Beach on the cusp of its demise, just before the catastrophes the neighborhood experienced following the Mariel boatlift of 1980.
Most of the approximately 800 buildings in what is now the Miami Beach Art Deco District were built in the 1930s, and all started to show their age at the same time. Their inhabitants, mostly elderly working-class Jews living on fixed incomes, were willing to sacrifice maintenance of the properties in exchange for lower rents. By the end of the 1970s, rundown South Beach was the cheapest place to live in South Florida.
The boatlift took place between April and October of 1980. Cuba’s Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, opened the port of Mariel for emigration, and approximately 125,000 of his subjects fled by boat to the United States. Castro also unlocked his prisons and mental institutions, however, sending an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 criminals to the United States along with the asylum seekers. Struggling to resettle in their new home, many Mariel refugees, law-abiding and not, naturally sought out lodging they could afford, and showed up in Miami Beach.
I was finishing up high school when the boatlift changed everything. All of a sudden – and it was sudden – the landscape captured in Sweet’s work was populated not only by elderly Jews, but also by terrifying thugs and people who were clearly, dangerously out of their minds. It was described as an instant, seemingly permanent crimewave that in fact lasted for several years, until the hardest of the hard-core cases ended up either locked away or dead.
The Jews of South Beach who could afford to leave, left. Those who remained felt intimidated, and retreated from the communal activities they once enjoyed. They were poorer and sadder, and the hardships of aging that had been ameliorated by the rich social and civic life once available to them became more pronounced – the loneliness, the infirmity, the isolation from family.
My family sold The Congress Hotel, at a loss, in the early 1980s. Like many other landlords and hoteliers, we gave up on Miami Beach. It was very hard to imagine the city turning around. And after my mother died of cancer in 1982, my father more or less gave up on being a businessman, and retreated into an uneasy retirement.
Those violent times also claimed the life of Andy Sweet. Somewhere along the line, he had lost his way and started using too many drugs. In 1982, he was stabbed to death in his apartment during a deal gone wrong. The tragedy of his murder was compounded by the loss of his negatives by the warehouse company, which was discovered by his horrified family in 1996, ten years after they had been placed in storage – all that remained of his work, it seemed, would be prints, their color fading with time.
I left Miami Beach for college in 1980, returning in 1987 to South Beach, which was still suffering the effects of the early 1980s crimewave but just starting to turn around thanks to farsighted preservationists, canny real estate developers, and a bohemian vanguard just looking to live the life. I took an apartment on Ocean Drive in a rundown shrine of architectural eccentricity called the Amsterdam Palace, which Gianni Versace would a few years later purchase and transform into a real palace. There I enjoyed a glorious few years, living the life.
Remnants of the Jewish population persevered, but their ranks were being thinned by attrition and mortality. Newly-minted retirees were no longer choosing South Beach, opting instead to spend their golden years in retirement villages further up the coast. By the early 1990s, those of us who remembered South Beach back in the day would talk about how the best, truest record of that era was represented by Sweet and Monroe’s out-of-print art book, Miami Beach. My copy, alas, was destroyed by flooding in my father’s garage, and when I tried to replace it several years later, I found that copies were selling online for hundreds of dollars.
About five years ago, however, some of Sweet’s images started to pop up in my Facebook feed, shared by groups created for people who had grown up in South Florida. I started corresponding with Andy’s sister and champion, Ellen Sweet Moss, who was in the early stages of bringing the photos back into the public eye. A cache of test prints that no one knew about was located in a storage facility and Ellen’s husband, Stan Hughes, was using digital graphic technology to restore them.
In the years that followed, the Andy Sweet Photo Legacy started sharing newly-recovered images on its Facebook page. I treated each one’s arrival as a major occasion, perplexing many of my non-Miami Beach friends who couldn’t understand why I was sharing these odd images. This was my childhood, I would tell them. This was not only what the world looked like to me, this is what I understood of it.
Then, suddenly, Andy Sweet’s photographs were everywhere. The restored images were discovered by a new audience, and photo essays appeared in publications like The New Yorker and Washington Post. The traveling exhibition now at the Yiddish Book Center, A Shtetl in the Sun, was organized by The Jewish Museum of Florida—FIU, and has traveled to museums and galleries around the world. A book by the same name, with 120 of Sweet’s photographs, was published in 2019 and is already in its third printing.
The documentary film The Last Resort came out in 2018, and it tells Andy’s story – the Miami Beach Photographic Project collaboration with Gary Monroe; his murder and the infuriating efforts to bring his killers properly to justice; the bitter loss of his negatives; and the restoration and triumphant second act that his work is now enjoying.
I didn’t rush out to see it. I’d felt so emotionally connected to Sweet’s work that I wanted to put off the experience as long as possible in order to savor not only the experience but my anticipation of it, as one might reserve a special bottle of Scotch for a meaningful occasion.
But one snowy morning last winter, I received a Facebook message from one of my first childhood friends, who told me that I really had to watch The Last Resort right away. Be sure to pay attention near the end of the movie, she said.
So with my snowbound wife and son, I watched The Last Resort. As I did, I realized how my own memories of South Beach are now filtered through Andy’s images. So many of our memories, particularly casual ones, do not persist as real-time narratives, but more as moments frozen in time – and my Miami Beach moments and Andy Sweet’s have started to intermingle. Mine I can describe, Andy’s I can point to, and no longer do they seem entirely separable.
As the film wraps up, Stan Hughes discusses the ongoing restoration of the test sheets, and holds up the one shown above as an example of how the images look before being digitized.
The woman on the far left is my mother. She is standing in the lobby of The Congress Hotel with her ladies, dressed in their finest. As they are all holding pocketbooks, I assume they were about to head out for a luncheon, the kind my Jewishly-engaged mother used to organize in her role as president of Hebrew Academy Women. My mother was constantly shuttling these kinds of ladies around Miami Beach to events, doctor’s appointments, shopping, and so on. I was the kid in the car who, my Gawd I can’t believe it, had grown so big since last they saw me.
My mother died within two years of that photo being taken. It was the first unfamiliar image of my mother that I had encountered in nearly 35 years - and she is in her element. And it was taken by Andy Sweet. Knowing the type of person my mother was, she must have gotten a real kick out of him - she liked the lively ones.
As Paul Bowles famously wrote in his novel The Sheltering Sky: “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
To which I’ll add, sometimes it seeming that way is more than enough.
“A Shtetl in the Sun” will be on view through March at The Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West Street, Amherst, MA. For more information, visit yiddishbookcenter.org. For more on Andy Sweet, visit andysweetphotolegacy.com. The Last Resort is available on Netflix. Albert Stern would like to thank Ellen Sweet Moss for allowing the BJV to use the unpublished image of his mother and her ladies that appears with this article.