Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2009

Barbara Capitman: the red who saved Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels

Filed under: Miami Beach — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

Barbara Capitman

When our tour guide revealed yesterday that the person most responsible for saving Miami Beach Art Deco buildings from the wrecking ball of capitalist progress was a Communist Jew from New York, my first reaction was surprise and delight. But after a moment it sunk in that this was just what I might have suspected. When it comes to looking after the long-term interests of society, whether it is cultural heritage or climate change, you have to rise above the profit motive and who better to assume this role than the Red.

In 1948 the 28 year old Barbara Capitman met her future husband Will at a May Day party sponsored by the Young Communist League in N.Y. She was the only child of a sweater-importing father and a mother who was a sculptor and painter. When Will graduated from NYU law school in 1951, he was blocked from passing the bar because of his YCL past. So instead he made a living teaching business and marketing at Harvard and Yale.

In 1973 he got a tenure track position at the Florida International University business school and the two moved to Coconut Grove, Miami’s version of Greenwich Village. Two years later he died from pancreatic cancer and Barbara was on her own.

After moving to Miami Beach, Barbara ran into Leonard Horowitz, a doorman at a luxury condo who was gay and an aspiring artist/designer. They became close friends after meeting and soon discovered a shared commitment to the preservation of Art Deco buildings. The two formed a committee to save the old buildings now falling into disrepair that relied heavily on donations from gay people and senior citizens. Within 3 years, they managed to have over half of South Beach’s Art Deco hotels covered by landmark preservation laws. Leonard Horowitz died of AIDS in 1988. The hotel we are staying at is between 10th and 11th streets on Ocean Drive and 11th street has been renamed Leonard Horowitz Drive.

Barbara Capitman died two years later. The NY Times obit noted:

In 1976 she helped to found the Miami Design Preservation League, which in 1979 won Federal historic designation for the South Beach district of Miami Beach. Her outspoken, unorthodox manner later led to her ouster from the group.

”She would push and agitate and cause trouble until people wouldn’t speak to her,” said Michael Kinerk, chairman of the Art Deco Weekend festival. ”She was interested in results, not social sensitivities.’

I would say that no social change takes place without people who are “outspoken” and “unorthodox”. The fact that she was interested in results rather than “social sensitivities” should not be lost on those leftists who are reluctant to take on the status quo.

In the April 27 1982 Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn hailed Capitman as a true heroine. He quoted her on the Art Deco district:

At night when the full moon is overhead, the residential streets of the Art Deco district take on that stagey, solemn simplicity of another era. Moonlight and neon articulate the stripes and circles of the small apartments on Euclid or Jefferson and the swaying palms cast shadows on the curving walls. This is the night world that Thomas Wolfe wrote of in the 1930s—the decade of our district’s revival—nights filled with the far-hooting of trains, the nearer sounding of great vessels moving into port, the mysterious rustling of trees…

Cockburn noted that Capitman was not able to defend all of Miami Beach from the assault of real estate developers. The South Beach area remains unsullied but the middle and northern parts of the island have succumbed to the forces Cockburn describes as follows:

The forces of darkness gathered their nerve, and finally, in 1981 tore off their whiskers and pounced. Anyone who wants to see what might happen to the Deco Square Mile need only glance north of 23rd Street, where architectural barbarism is on the rampage and the condomaniac, behemothic tide marches down via the Fountainbleau and other signposts of Babylon.

Cockburn concludes his article by saying that if the real estate developers had their way, the northern sector of South Beach would succumb and the result would be equivalent to “the permanent submersion of substantial portions of Venice.”

Ironically, Art Deco was an attempt to apply the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism to architecture. These art movements were in themselves attempts to approximate the forms of machinery to fine art in the spirit of a modernization stripped of nostalgia for the past. The products of that age now are threatened by the relentless march of capitalist modernization which will result in the leveling of all that is beautiful and its replacement by shopping malls and Walmarts. It is to the credit of people like Barbara Capitman, someone who presumably would have read the Communist Manifesto at some point in her life and who would have absorbed Marx’s breathless evocation of the bourgeoisie’s “most revolutionary role”, to draw a line in the sand and tell this bourgeoisie to get fucked.

December 9, 2009

Greetings from Miami Beach

Filed under: Miami Beach — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

Miami Beach art deco

Here I am in sunny Miami Beach, Florida staying with my wife in the Clevelander Hotel until Sunday. She’s down here to give a paper at a political science conference at the Royal Palm Hotel and I am along for the ride.

In general, the unrepentant Marxist does not travel very much. Outside of trips to Nicaragua and East Africa with Tecnica and one to see my good friend Mark Jones in London before he died, I wouldn’t dream of staying in a hotel. I made an exception in this case because I really love the art deco architecture of South Beach, the section of Miami Beach that most hotels are located in, as well as having an affinity for the locale of two of me and my wife’s favorite TV shows: Miami Vice and Nip-Tuck.

The hotels are really strikingly beautiful to my eyes. They have the same pastel colors as the Necco candies of my youth as well as the Tums I now take in my old age to cool off chronic heartburn. They look good enough to eat. Yummy.

When Miami Vice was airing on NBC from 1984 to 1989, South Beach was in disrepair. The local bourgeoisie made the wise decision to turn the area into a tourist attraction by channeling funds into the remodeling and renovation of over 100 hotels in about a two square mile area. By contrast, the resort hotels of my youth in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY went down the toilet. In both areas, the hotels were owned by Jews but in Florida they seemed more committed to diversity as the people hated by Walter Benn Michaels might put it.

The Clevelander Hotel is on Ocean Drive, which is a stone’s throw from the beach. If you walk along Ocean Drive, you will be accosted by the maitre de’s of all the restaurants on the ground floor of hotels like the Clevelander who try to thrust post card sized circulars in your hands advertising half-price deals on chicken fingers and Mojitos. The general effect is a cheapening of the restaurant as if you were being lured into a whorehouse in the Red Light district of Amsterdam.

Late last night we stopped in at an upscale version of one of the joints, a place called Proof that is close to the Royal Palm where my wife will be giving her paper on economic crisis, a topic perhaps relevant to the hustlers on Ocean Drive and the panhandlers we have run into as well. We were sitting there drinking high-priced martinis and sharing an even higher priced Caesar’s Salad when the ex-basketball player Dennis Rodman showed up with his entourage. They took a table about 15 feet from our own where Rodman, a colorful personality to say the least, held court.

It turns out that our good friend Michael Yates stayed briefly at a sublet a block from the Royal Palm some years ago when he began the first leg of a pilgrimage described in “Cheap Motels and Hot Plate”. He gave us some suggestions on a walking tour that will take up.

The Clevelander is a block from a mansion that was once occupied by Gianni Versace, the Italian designer who was murdered by Andrew Cunahan in 1997, a serial killer. The place is overdecorated, like the man’s silk shirts in my opinion. South Beach seems to draw such personalities like Versace and Dennis Rodman who had and has a reputation of promiscuity that exceeds Tiger Wood’s. Of course, in Rodman’s case this was not likely to lose him lucrative contracts with major corporations since he did everything he could to flout middle-class convention to start with.

All in all, I am enjoying myself thoroughly and will have more to report in the next day or so.

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