In 1959, I was a freshman at the University of Vermont, and my dad, Arthur, was executive director of the Jewish Federation in Montreal.
My mom wanted to return to the U.S. That same position at the Jewish Federation opened up in Boston, and my dad applied for it. But the federation director in Miami got it instead. So the federation board in Miami talked him into coming here.
In January 1960, never having been south of northern Virginia, I boarded a plane in Montreal, switched to a National-leased Pan Am 707 at what was then Idlewild, and flew America’s first-ever domestic jet route to Miami.
I came down the stairway in a winter coat, much to my parents’ amusement – it was 80 degrees. My first Florida meal was at the Robin Hood Inn at 36th and Biscayne – there’s a gas station there now. We were living at the Seahorse Motel off Biscayne at 31st – it’s now a drug rehab center. During that visit, we went to see Carol Channing at the Grove Playhouse.
I was only here for a week in January and again in April, but spent that entire summer in the house my parents had bought in Bay Heights. To this day, I can count on my fingers the number of Southern accents I’ve ever heard here, yet Miami was just as rigidly segregated as any town in Alabama. I got my driver’s license in the old Florida Highway Patrol station on West Flagler. It had “white” and “colored” water fountains. The papers had separate listings for the three “negro theaters.” Royal Castle burger joints were everywhere, owned by a Cleveland businessman, but blacks could only order from outdoor windows.
The Orange Bowl was segregated, even for college games, and the end zone was a sea of dark faces.
I worked that summer at Mount Sinai Hospital; my job was sending second and third billings to ER and outpatients. Two of them were sexual-assault victims – I threw their billing files in the trash. The ER/outpatient fee was $3 – $1 if you said you were poor.
I would sometimes drive to the world’s first Burger King at 36th Street and 24th Avenue for two 39-cent Whoppers. We ate out at Pumperniks, Juniors and Wolfie’s, where pastrami sandwiches were 95 cents. I went to the Miami Beach Auditorium, as it was called then, to see and hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak. The day after New Year’s, I went to the Orange Bowl game – president-elect Kennedy was also somewhere in the stands.
Bus fares were 15 cents in Miami, but only a dime if you took a Miami Beach bus from downtown. The Julia Tuttle Causeway was new, and gratefully received – no toll and no annoying drawbridges.
The parking meters in the parking islands in downtown Biscayne had a maddening feature: shields that blocked the view of the timer, and notices simply saying, “Pay for full time you intend to park.”
On one corner of Biscayne and Flagler was a Mayflower Donut shop; across the street, a Pan Am ticket office showing, each day, how many times they had flown across each ocean and around the world.
Crime was low, so traffic cops were everywhere, hiding behind bushes on motorcycles waiting to bust you for “failing to come to a full stop” or an “improper lane change.”
Downtown was alive at night, with movie theaters and a funny little shop where they would start an auction if more than one prospective customer was inside. The first Cuban cafeterias, on Flagler Street, charged nine cents for a cafe Cubano. Christian prayers were recited in the public schools, and the downtown courthouse featured a huge lighted cross every winter.
You could take an FEC train up the coast. A prop flight to New York was $60 – $75 if you took a jet. Flying to Havana was as easy as flying to Nassau, and a big sign downtown urged people to go to Cuba, “the friendly island next door.”
South Beach was crowded with retirees, many with cars, and parking was as difficult on Ocean Drive then as it is now. Miami’s 305 area code ran from Key West to Pensacola – only the Tampa Bay area had another one.
My dad held his position through 1972, then retired. I entered UM in January 1961, the same day that its new president, Henry King Stanford, desegregated it. I left in the fall of 1963, one step ahead of a raft of improper-left-turn-type traffic tickets and an order to turn in my license. I married and came back in 1971 with my wife and two baby girls. We had another girl born at Mount Sinai, where each of my parents also passed away. We bought a 1924-built house in Miami in 1972, then went to a 1933-built home in Miami Beach in 1983. Our three kids, and their kids, are in three different states.
What hasn’t changed in those 50 years? Not much. Our house, for one, and many of those around it. The downtown courthouse looks the same; so do some large apartment buildings on Biscayne, across from Edgewater. You can still buy liquor at drugstores, something that surprised me back then.
Every road and bridge that charged a toll then is still charging one now. Lincoln Road Mall is busy again, just as it was then. Passenger trains still run to and from Miami on the old Seaboard rail route. Cafe Cubano is still sold in those little white cups, and is still cheap. Burdines is still where it was in 1914, albeit with a name change. I don’t think the nature of politics here has changed much, either, but I’ll leave that one alone.