South Beach started as farmland. In 1870, Henry and Charles Lum purchased 165 acres (67 ha) for coconut farming. Charles Lum built the first house on the beach in 1886. In 1894, the Lum brothers left the island, leaving control of the plantation to John Collins, who came to South Beach two years later to survey the land. He used the land for farming purposes, discovering fresh water and extending his parcel from 14th Street to 67th in 1907.
In 1912, Miami businessmen the Lummus Brothers acquired 400 acres (160 ha) of Collins' land in an effort to build an oceanfront city of modest single family residences. In 1913 Collins started construction of a bridge from Miami to Miami Beach. Although some local residents invested in the bridge, Collins ran short of money before he could complete it.
Carl G. Fisher, a successful entrepreneur who made millions in 1909 after selling a business to Union Carbide, came to the beach in 1913. His vision was to establish South Beach as a successful city independent of Miami. This was the same year that the restaurant Joe's Stone Crab opened. Fisher loaned $50,000 to Collins for his bridge, which was completed in June, 1913. The Collins Bridge was later replaced by the Venetian Causeway.
On March 26, 1915, Collins, Lummus, and Fisher consolidated their efforts and incorporated the Town of Miami Beach. In 1920 the County Causeway (renamed MacArthur Causeway in 1942) was completed. The Lummus brothers sold their oceanfront property, between 6th and 14th Streets, to the city. To this day, this area is known as Lummus Park.
In 1920, the Miami Beach land boom began. South Beach's main streets (5th Street, Alton Road, Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Ocean Drive) were all suitable for automobile traffic. The population was growing in the 1920s, and several millionaires such as Harvey Firestone, J.C. Penney, Harvey Stutz, Albert Champion, Frank Seiberling, and Rockwell LaGorce built homes on Miami Beach. President Warren G. Harding stayed at the Flamingo Hotel during this time, increasing interest in the area.
In the 1930s, an architectural revolution came to South Beach, bringing Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and Nautical Moderne architecture to the Beach. South Beach claims to be the world's largest collection of Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture. Napier, New Zealand, another notable Art Deco city, makes an interesting comparison with Miami Beach as it was rebuilt in the Ziggurat Art Deco style after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1931.
By 1940, the beach had a population of 28,000. After the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army Air Corps took command over Miami Beach. That year, tourism brought almost two million people to South Beach.
In 1964, South Beach became even more famous when Jackie Gleason brought his weekly variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show to the area for taping, a rarity in the industry. Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the 1980s, South Beach was used as a retirement community with most of its ocean-front hotels and apartment buildings filled with elderly people living on small, fixed incomes. This period also saw the introduction of the "cocaine cowboys," drug dealers who used the area as a base for their illicit drug activities. Scarface, released in 1983, typifies this activity. In addition, television show Miami Vice used South Beach as a backdrop for much of its filming because of the area's raw and unique visual beauty. A somewhat recurring theme of early Miami Vice episodes was thugs and drug addicts barricading themselves in utterly run-down, almost ruin-like empty buildings. Only minor alterations had to be made for these scenes because many buildings in South Beach really were in such poor condition at the time.
While many of the unique Art Deco buildings, such as the New Yorker Hotel, were lost to developers in the years before 1980, the area was saved as a cohesive unit by Barbara Capitman and a group of activists who spearheaded the movement to place almost one square mile of South Beach on the National Register of Historic Places. The Miami Beach Architectural District was designated in 1979.
Before the days of Miami Vice, South Beach was considered a very poor area with a very high rate of crime. Today, it is considered one of the wealthiest and most prosperous commercial areas on the beach. Despite this, poverty and crime still exist in some isolated places surrounding the area.
Natalie O'Neill of the Miami New Times said in 2009 "Until the 1980s, Miami Beach was a peculiar mix of criminals, Cubans, and little old ladies. Then the beautiful people moved in." In the late 1980s, a renaissance began in South Beach, with an influx of fashion industry professionals moving into the area. In 1989 Irene Marie purchased the Sun Ray Apartments (famous for the chainsaw scene in Scarface) and opened Irene Marie Models - the first international full-service modeling agency in Florida. Many of the large New York based agencies soon followed.
Thomas Kramer is credited with starting the construction boom in South Beach, driving the gentrification of the area. It is now a popular living destination for the wealthy. Condominium units in the upscale high rises sell for millions. There are a number of vocal critics of the developments. The high-rise and high density buildings are derided as a "concrete jungle". However, even critics concede that the development has changed the area in a pedestrian friendly, low crime neighborhood.
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