By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
No agency tracked how much the GLBT population increased in the following years, but the transformation was evident. Gay storefronts — from leather shops to cafés — began to sprout, and so did nightclubs. "Everything was pastel and glitter," recalls Shelley Novak. "You were tripping over gays." There was a smaller group of lesbians too.
In 1992, fashion designer Gianni Versace announced plans to transform an old rent-controlled apartment building into a bright-white oceanside mansion. For models and photographers, it would soon become what Andy Warhol's Factory was to aspiring New York artists: an epicenter for all things erotic and creative.
When Powers was with Ocean Drive, he befriended the gay fashion genius. "I don't want to say he was a loner, but he loved to go to the beach by himself," Powers remembers, "and then you'd see him a few days later surrounded by celebrities."
By 1996 — thanks to The Real World: Miami — even suburban housewives in Nebraska had a taste of what it meant to be gay in Miami Beach. Dan Renzi, the student turned model on the show, felt a tinge of guilt. "People were rolling their eyes at us," he says. "The show was a great success for the city, but it really changed things."
It was true: Miami Beach had grown more commercial. Even a Gap now loomed on Collins Avenue. Following the national attention, the New York Times reported another phenomenon: "Many men with AIDS have come to South Beach to spend their last years." The warm climate made coping with the virus easier, and there was a sense of family.
Then, on July 15, 1997, as Versace strolled home from News Café, a spree killer shot him execution-style near the front gate of his Ocean Drive mansion. One of the bullets struck "the center of his face," according to police reports. He dropped the Italian magazines he was carrying and fell to the concrete.
Versace was the fifth murder victim on a list compiled by a delusional pharmacist named Andrew Cunanan, who several days later, while holed up on a Miami Beach houseboat, killed himself using the same 40-caliber handgun. National media was all over the story. If you were a gay man walking the streets of South Beach that week, chances are a TV reporter thrust a microphone in your face.
To some degree, the murder changed Miami Beach. Part of the city's appeal was its easy, carefree lifestyle. Afterward, people were on edge. Some theorized that the fashion designer was killed because of his sexual orientation or promiscuity. For a while, gay men stopped cruising Flamingo Park at night.
Says Shelley Novak: "We were all looking over our shoulders." On July 23, Miami Beach Police determined "No motive or direct connection was found between Cunanan and Versace," according to the report.
Eventually, the fashion industry moved on. So did many gay tourists. The following year, the City of Miami Beach amped its efforts to court them back. City officials placed a glossy $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles-based Genre magazine featuring two men arm in arm. It wasn't enough. Gay businesses were beginning to close.
Like storekeepers, gay renters sensed that the community had scattered. Some of them felt they no longer belonged in Miami Beach. Others wanted to settle down but couldn't in Florida, where adoption and partnership legislation makes alternative families feel like outlaws.
Even South Beach wasn't immune. In November 2007, a man named William Charles Smatt hung a banner outside his Alton Road home that read, "God created Adam + Eve, NOT Adam + Steve." The following week, the 76-year-old ran for mayor and lost.
"The gay community no longer feels welcome," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower observed the following year. She proposed that officials "see what other cities are doing and identify what opportunities are being missed."
Dozens of former gay clubs and businesses have been replaced by corporate chains, expensive restaurants, and designer boutiques since the 1990s.
One of them is the Office Depot at 1771 West Ave., an address that once housed an enormous, throbbing gay club called Salvation. Beginning in 1997, Salvation hosted 1,200 men a night under the glow of laser lights that beamed where stark fluorescent bulbs now illuminate rows of notebooks, printers, and pens. There are only four South Beach gay bars left — compared to more than a dozen in the '90s.
As the leases ran out on businesses that served as gay hangouts, such as Mexican restaurant Barrio, owners noticed that prices had tripled from the mid- to late '90s. Lincoln Road, for example, was once lined with LGBT bookstores, restaurants, and gyms. But the cost of commercial space on the strip jumped from $12 per square foot to $120 in ten years.
To afford leases in South Beach, nightclubs began relying on income from bottle service and private rooms. Renzi, the former cast member from The Real World: Miami, describes it this way: "Most gay people won't spend $300 on a bottle every weekend; it's just a cultural thing." So an upscale hip-hop clientele — many of whom were tourists — took over the streets.
"It created an incubator for tension," says CJ Ortuño of the human rights group SAVE Dade.