Best Of :: People & Places
Say what you will about West Palm Beach's Mayor Nancy Graham. She's a tad cold. She's unresponsive to her constituents. She's out of town a lot, visiting foreign dignitaries and discovering the virtues of Italian architecture. And she's hardly the most photogenic of Palm Beach County politicians -- that honor goes to the stunning Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus. But take a look at Graham's city. Within the last decade, she's been instrumental in transforming downtown West Palm Beach from a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood where nobody wanted to shop, much less sit down for a cup of coffee, into a family-friendly strip of bars and restaurants, coffeehouses, and weekly outdoor music festivals. With West Palm's latest improvement project, CityPlace, under way, the best is yet to come. But, alas, Graham decided not to run for reelection, and she'll soon be leaving office. Her vision and influence, though, will surely outlive her career in city politics. Unless, of course, the economy goes sour.
A yellow road-sign hanging from a tree warns "Butterfly Crossing," and the traffic is indeed intense. Dozens of yellow-and-black-striped zebras and classic monarch butterflies swoop, golden sulphurs hover high above, and orange julias flit about the garden that wraps around building contractor Ralph Johnson's Fort Lauderdale home. More than a year ago, Johnson and a friend, Bonnie Campbell, began courting butterflies. They sought books and seminars to find out which plants -- including cassia, milkweed, passion vine, and the wine-stained Dutchman's pipe -- attract the delicate creatures. Now Johnson and Campbell have their own photo album that tracks caterpillars through the pupa stage to full-blown butterflies and a log in which they've noted 13 species that have paid them a visit and as many as 70 sightings in the garden at one time. Johnson talks about putting together a guide to cultivating butterflies in South Florida and recently gave an impromptu instructional tour to a stranger who drove into his driveway and asked for his secret. He is already offering seedlings to his neighbors, sprinkling pollenlike fairy dust in the hope of creating a block-long private Butterfly World.
It's a suitably ironic commentary on the dismal state of so much South Florida architecture that the most striking piece of work around is this gloriously gratuitous bit of design from the world-renowned firm of Arquitectonica, which has offices in Miami. Built a decade ago, this marble-and-ceramic "stairway to nowhere" flies in the face of the notion that form should follow function in architecture. It's a flashy construction of geometric shapes fashioned from bright, shiny blue and red tiles and a checkerboard slab of gray marble, assembled with steps and railings to suggest a Jetsons-style confluence of the '50s and futurism. The overall effect is that of a sort of deranged el train station, and the punch line is that, once you ascend the stairs, there's nowhere to go -- the walkways extending from the stairs into the terminal lead to nonexistent train tracks. The structure is a piece of pure absurdist eye candy.
Those are Ben Franklins you smell in the lobby of the Chesterfield Hotel. Crisp and tightly packed in a gold money clip, placed neatly inside the interior pocket of a pinstriped suit jacket. The portly gentleman wearing the suit saunters, Dominican in hand, toward the dark-wood-and-brass bar at the hotel restaurant, the Leopard Lounge. Two dignified middle-aged women with martinis ("Very dry, please") chat at small, low-to-the-ground cocktail tables by the dance floor. A three-piece band croons Sinatra tunes. The portly man with the Dominican smiles at the women and does a two-step past them. Were it not for the friendly bartenders, the live swing and dance music, and the nudes painted on the ceiling in swirls of red and white, the Leopard Lounge might at first glance appear to be too austere a place for even the bluest of blue bloods among us. But since it opened about ten years ago, the Leopard has been real money's top choice for a drink. Yes, there are celebrities: Alan King, Phyllis Diller -- even Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (when he's not in jail or rehab). But they're bourgeois. Real money is invisible, because real money doesn't boast. And the Leopard Lounge is high society, where discussions of money -- greenbacks, moolah, cash, dough, shekels, secret accounts in the Cayman Islands -- are considered gauche. So if you start chatting with someone at the Leopard Lounge, just assume he or she has more money than God. Or you. And let him or her pick up the tab.
Park your butt on the whitewashed concrete railing on either side of the 11th Avenue bridge, gaze out over the north fork of the New River, and squint. If the sun's low in the sky to the west of Sailboat Bend, and you clamp your lids down just enough to add a blurry sepia tone to the scene, you can imagine that it's 1925. Movies cost a nickel. Kids don't sass their mamas, and small bridges are cranked open and closed by hand. Be patient. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes for a boater to hail the bridge and ask to pass. Then the bridge tender will sound a bell and drop the stop arms. He'll walk to the center of the 48-foot span, poke the business end of an L-shaped handle into a hole in the steel-mesh roadway, and put his back into it, walking the crank in a circle like a pony harnessed to a grist mill. The bridge will swing parallel to the river channel, allowing boats to pass on either side. No motor, no noise, no hurry. Just like the old days. The Snow-Reed (named for two former Fort Lauderdale mayors) is the only metal-truss swing bridge operating in South Florida. Bridge junkies will surely appreciate its rim-bearing pivot design featuring eight rollers and a centrally located wheel. The rest of us will marvel at how smoothly the bridge carves a lazy arc after 74 years and be glad we don't have to crank it open and closed 20 times a day.
Although many bigger charities have much bigger coffers, there's none nobler than Poverello. (The name is an Italian diminutive for "poor little one.") Every dollar raised by this AIDS relief organization, run by volunteers and Fr. William F. Collins, the unassuming but tireless Franciscan priest who started it in 1987, goes directly toward feeding and otherwise assisting people living with HIV. The agency runs a food bank and a fitness center for its more than 6000 clients, as well as a thrift store open to the public. When he's not visiting homes or hospitals or performing memorial services, "Father Bill" can often be seen rubbing elbows with drag queens and strippers as he makes the rounds of fundraising events at the many local gay bars that support his work.
Buddy Nevins may have a name that belongs on the liner notes of a country and western album, but the politicians he zings are the ones who have tears falling into their beers. Nevins, a 20-year Sun-Sentinel vet, took over the "political writer" mantle five years ago and immediately turned the once-lifeless political column into a news-breaker, uncovering political hypocrisy, corruption, and various shenanigans on a weekly basis. For all his columnizing, however, Nevins doesn't come across as mean-spirited or holier-than-thou. You can't even tell if the guy is a Democrat or Republican. "I'm an equal-opportunity insulter," he says with a laugh. Don't stop tellin' on them cheatin' hearts, Buddy.
Without a doubt, one of the nastiest places in which to spend a day is Room 130 of the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. This is where not-so-upstanding citizens go to take care of parking fines and other misdemeanors. Apparently we have a lot of traffic scofflaws in this region, because the lines in room 130 are long. The room can get mighty crowded and uncomfortable on a hot, nasty summer day. We guarantee there would be a lot more bloodshed in this room -- we're talking about traffic offenders, after all -- if not for the little magic box in the corner. On most days it's tuned to CNN, but we've also stumbled onto Oprah and Golden Girls reruns. The TV was actually donated to room 130 six years ago by now-retired judge Gerald Mager. But let us praise his honor, because his is a gift that keeps on giving.
This is the place to go to escape the daily grind without leaving town. Tucked in a secluded alcove at the far tip of Fort Lauderdale beach, Lago-Mar is as far as you're going to get from the teeming masses of the new, improved, family-friendly Fort Lauderdale. The beach is wide and groomed and, miracle of miracles, private. The pools are ringed with palms and tropical flowers, the halls are chiseled with pastel mosaics and lulled by piano music. Sure the rooms are typically no-frills, but they are large and airy and about as nice as you'll find without heading up to the Palm Beaches. The key word here is relaxation. Easy enough when, fully booked, the place still feels like some private oasis.
You know you've found yourself a quality hotel when the Presidential Suite is simply too luxurious for an actual U.S. President. When George Herbert Walker Bush vacations at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, he chooses to stay in the Governor's Suite. And it's not just so he can feel kinship with governor sons Jeb and George. The Presidential Suite, which occupies two floors at more than 6000 square feet, comes complete with private elevator, workout room, library, and baby grand in the living room. In short, it's too imposing for our 41st President, according to hotel spokesperson Chuck Smith. The rest of the hotel is hardly your local HoJo either. Since it opened along the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton in 1926, the resort -- which includes two 18-hole golf courses, 34 clay tennis courts, Mediterranean charm, and historic architecture -- has been South Florida's playground for entertainers, the superrich, and bon vivants including Al Jolson, Elizabeth Arden, the Vanderbilts, Elton John, Bill Gates, and South Florida's own, H. Wayne Huizenga. Wayne the Great bought the posh pad in 1997 for $325 million. No doubt he stays in the Presidential Suite.
She's in her thirties and shops like a demon. She's either married and living on her wealthy husband's income, or she's hunting like mad for a guy who's loaded. Her hair and nails are always done; she won't even go to the beach unless her makeup is just so. She only wears designer rags. Max's Grille is her favorite hangout. She drips disdain for those who aren't as perfectly coiffed and situated in life. In other words she's nouveau riche and materialistic -- perhaps a transplant from Long Island. Her attitude is reflected in Boca Raton's manicured look -- avenues immaculately framed by royal palms, shops, office buildings, even Publix dressed up in tasteful pastels. Plenty of good things can be said about the city, but there's no harm in pointing out the flaws of some of its, shall we say, less than savory characters. And, besides, we didn't make up the insult. Honest.
He's gone now, but in his lifetime John D. MacDonald penned 73 novels, including 21 thrillers featuring tough-guy sleuth Travis McGee, Fort Lauderdale's greatest fictional citizen. McGee lived on a 52-foot houseboat at slip F-18, Bahia Mar Marina, and to this day scores of literary pilgrims from around the world show up to pay quiet homage at the site, marked with a small bronze plaque not far from Fort Lauderdale beach. The slip is perennially empty, offering the possibility that the ageless McGee is off on a fishing jaunt in the Keys. May his spirit never die.