Miami Mirror – True Reflections SOUTH BEACH


Plaza South Hotel - 1690 Collins Avenue entrance - Jan 2011

February 2, 2011 By David Arthur Walters MIAMI MIROR Miami Beach I passed by the historic Plaza South Hotel on my Moses-like trek to what would hopefully become the promised land for new tennis courts where high school students could play tennis, out back of Miami Beach High School instead of at scandal-ridden Flamingo Park Tennis Center. I was moved to stop and take a cheap cell-phone shot of the face a graffiti artist put on the blight, and to reflect on my experiences in the bustling tourist area. 1|Page

Miami Mirror – True Reflections The blighted and boarded-up Plaza South lies within South Beach’s illustrious Cultural Arts Neighborhood District Overlay (CANDO), the long building stretching between its front and back addresses at 1685 James Avenue and 1690 Collins Avenue. All of the tenants including myself were evicted from the building when it was sold by prominent developer Russell Galbut a half-dozen years ago, reportedly to the Delano Hotel, a luxury party hotel across Collins Avenue, then owned by the Morgan Hotel Group. Since then it has sat vacant, an eyesore to residents and visitors alike. The last I heard, the City of Miami Beach was holding up redevelopment of the property due to ongoing squabbles over permits.

Plaza South – Delano in background – Jan 2011

Reflecting on my experiences at the hotel reaffirmed my belief that Russell Galbut had done the tenants a favor by kicking them out of his property. Every former tenant I have encountered since then wound up in better living quarters, including myself, with the possible exception of those who wound up in homeless shelters. For example, the apartment I immediately relocated to is a ways south of the CANDO area.That property, has been a public nuisance for years as it often harbors illegal immigrants, petty criminals and drug dealers for cash rents; but the studios are large and the neighborhood is more residential. The city is now putting millions into new streets and sidewalks, the cops have cracked down, so its future looks better. The landlord is a Cuban-American immigrant who arrived in Florida during a time when many landlords posted For Rent signs with “No Spics” written on them. He started working as a kitchen boy, learned English and eventually made a fortune; but his fortune is puny in comparison to that made by the Galbut family, who are rumored to be members of a so-called Jewish Mafia. The principal member of the family, developer Russell Galbut, was displeased with a great deal of bad press he received about his relationship with Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, imprisoned for corruption in 1993. The Galbut law firm back then reportedly handled some of the dirty money. Mr. Daoud has revealed the dirty details in Sins of South Beach, a book wildly popular in Miami Beach and soon to be made into a movie. 2|Page

Miami Mirror – True Reflections The Galbuts reportedly own a vast amount of real estate in Miami Beach via a web of companies, including considerable property in the CANDO art district promoted by former Miami Beach mayor David Dermer, purportedly to curb gentrification. In reality, the promotion was intended to accelerate gentrification and cure the blighted nature of the area hence hundreds of “vulgar” people were evicted from their humble abodes to make way for the noble “gentry.”

Plaza South - 2011

Mr. Galbut has in the past refused to disclose just how much property his family syndicate holds in the CANDO area. In April of 2005 Mr. Galbut’s nephew, Keith Menin, at the grand opening of the Sanctuary, a former nursing home converted into a posh condotel a half-block from the Plaza South, bragged that an entire neighborhood would soon go on the block. David Dermer was at the opening to cut the red tape. Several reporters from prestigious magazines and newspapers, including the Miami Herald’s nightlife columnist Lesley Abravanel, covered the event. The Miami Herald, incidentally, served the developers as their main propaganda organ, with the SunPost playing second fiddle, during the South Florida building boom that led the nation to the brink of disaster, setting higher ethical considerations aside to fan the speculative hysteria. For instance, the paper prostituted itself when Ms. Abravanel was lavished with free goods and services at the Sanctuary; her editors reportedly encouraged her to receive the gratuity, claiming that accepting the bribes would not be contrary to journalism ethics – the subsequent Herald report was naturally favorable. So much for the former assisted-living home, now Sanctuary to the rich and famous. The Plaza South assisted-living home and low-income hotel property down the street was sold shortly after the sumptuous Sanctuary gala to the owners of the Delano. David Muhlrad, a Galbut relative who owns many apartment buildings on the beach, managed the Plaza South towards the end of its operating existence. He was seldom around. He arrived in his vintage Cadillac from time to time, went in and picked up envelopes stuffed with cash, issued a few orders to staff, and so on. He told me a man had to be crazy to be in his business. He was notorious for verbally abusing old folks during his brief visits, shouting them down if they asked questions about his services. 3|Page

Miami Mirror – True Reflections Mr. Muhlrad is apparently a devout Jew: he was not available during any emergency at Plaza South if it happened to occur on the Sabbath. The fire alarms would go off every week; they were usually false alarms, but then there was the Section 8 tenant who liked to set fires in the stairwell outside my room, and inside of his own room as well, burning the wall and ceiling. The Fire Department was aggravated by the regular false alarms, and one fireman said the law provided that the landlord must hire security to ensure the safety of tenants where fire alarms were not functioning properly. That was not done. Mr. Muhlrad, by the way, was at one time the head of the city’s code enforcement department. A prostitute worked the room directly above mine. I got used to the sounds; the frequent slams of the door, the floor-creaking walks to the beds, the beds banging against the wall, and the groans. But the water from their bathroom was destroying the ceiling and walls in my bathroom, so I went upstairs and complained to the pimp, who was in the room with two of his girls. He did not care, he said, because his girls needed to wash, so he would not turn off the water – a defective pipe was flooding everything below. The water eventually reached the first floor, soaking the ceiling and a wall of the elderly folk’s dining room. I was worried the ceiling would collapse on the aged people while they were dining. Mr. Muhlrad did not respond to calls, so I went out of my way to find Mr. Galbut’s phone number and called him on a pay phone – I could not afford a cell phone, and there was no one on duty downstairs at night despite the fact that some of the elderly tenants might need help. I warned him that if the water continued to flow, the building would be damaged so badly it would have to be evacuated. He knocked at my door with his boy Friday in tow. Plumbers and carpenters were brought in and they fixed the pipes and walls. I did not expect any thanks for my service at the time because I did what anyone should do, but now I wonder why I did not get one considering that no one else was willing to do what I did. Independent male and female prostitutes who could not afford rent were working inside the side entrances of the building, between the Plaza South and the adjacent hotel, or simply having sex in the unlocked path between the buildings – Mr. Muhlrad was asked to secure the area, which was also used for drug trafficking, but whatever locks he placed were broken the same day. Two elderly tenants said they enjoyed watching the sexual encounters through their windows at night. One very raining night, anguished cries were coming from the area outside, waking everyone up. I got someone with a cell phone to call 911. The fireman reported that a homeless man was huddled under the airconditioning duct, crying desperately in the rain – they took him away to a dry place. Nursing at the Plaza South was provided by unlicensed nurses, several of whom appeared to be living far beyond the means of their paltry wage – elderly residents often complained about missing jewelry and cash. The charge for assisted living, including a small hotel room, meager fare, and unlicensed nursing services, ranged from $1,200 to $2,000 per month. The nursing home license tacked on the doorway to a tiny office on the first floor was held by a person in absentia. The facilities for the old folk included a kitchen and dining room; a few weeks before they were moved out, the kitchen was shut down because it was said to be too expensive, and food such as macaroni salad and tuna 4|Page

Miami Mirror – True Reflections sandwiches were ordered from vendors. The elderly men and women were suddenly removed without statutory notice to the “Jewish Mafia’s” Hebrew Home, where some of them were reportedly bedded two to a room, which would yield the landlord $2,400 to $4,000 month per room. One old man called the police, claiming he was being kidnapped. He was written off as senile.

Plaza South - Jan 2011

The low-income hotel aspect of the property was conducted on a tax-exempt cash basis only, no questions as to identity asked. If a regular Plaza South resident did not cough up the currency, their doors were “booted” and they were locked out in violation of state law. Vagrants lived in the stairwells and slept in the halls. One of the drug dealers, a Mexican fellow, boasted to tenants that he would cut the throats of anyone who ratted him out – he dealt his drugs openly on busy Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Lincoln road. I went over to the police station and reported him instead of wasting scarce money on a pay phone. He was busted along with another dealer, and was seen back dealing on Lincoln Road when he got out of jail some time later. I used computers at the local library to send reports to the editor of a local paper, the SunPost, about the sorry business going on a Plaza South and elsewhere as well, to no avail. An employee of the illustrious free sidewalk rag lived in a crummy room on the second floor of the Plaza South up until its closing. He witnessed what was going on. An attempt was even made to shake him down for higher rent even when the management knew it was going to shut the place down in a week or two. I asked him why his paper had ignored the information I had sent along to his paper and why he did not bring the sorry situation to the personal attention of his editor. He angrily said, “They know all about it. This is not the time to alienate the real estate owners! Right now we are planning on creating another publication just for the real estate industry.” He also stated that the paper was highly profitable. Well, as we all know, boom went bust. The paper went down. We forgive it for its part in the sins of South Beach, and look forward to its revival, or we hope for another local paper that will provide true reflections of what is really going on around town.


Miami Mirror – True Reflections Not everyone at Plaza South knew what was going on. Of course shelter, no matter how shabby, brings people together when they need it. Once they have it, they might want something much better, and a few might even be willing to do whatever it takes to pay high rents in order to “keep the riff raff out.” The alienated, shabbily dressed residents of our seedy residential hotel huddled in the lobby when the lights went out during a hurricane a few days before Sukkot. For the first time, almost everyone got to know each other. The more conventional residents were appalled when they discovered that many of their neighbors were mentally ill, drug-addicted, alcoholic, and criminally inclined, wherefore they quit the premises for better resorts the very next month. They got out just in time. The rest were evicted a few weeks later. One of the holdouts on the second floor threatened to burn the building down. I remember him well. He was a formerly homeless man. He had a huge goiter and a foul breath. He was relatively intelligent but tried to dominate people. He had filled his room with televisions and appliances he had taken from another apartment building that was evacuated for condominium conversion. Besides the junk, his room at Plaza South was always filled with flies, so nobody wanted to enter it. Off duty police officers were hired to deal with the holdouts. Doors were kicked down, pets ran loose in the halls; stalwart holdouts were shown the door. But before that a kinder approach was taken, in the form of envelopes with money in them. I had gotten out before the cash came, and felt like a fool for not getting some of it for myself by simply saying I was still in my room although I had really moved out. Since then Miami Beach has been kind to me although there are times I cannot stand it and want to go “home,” wherever that is. As I peered into the face of the blight on Collins Avenue, I reflected that ghetto-like transient hotels are difficult to manage, and are usually owned and operated on a shoestring by so-called slumlords. The currency might have come in handy to Mr. Galbut, but the place was probably losing money, at least on the books after the management fee was skimmed off. I knew that some of the old folks were in arrears on their room and board and nursing. Many of the non-nursing home residents were in fact mentally ill or retarded, emotionally unstable, and addicted to drugs, usually crack. Mr. Muhlrad did make several attempts to improve the conditions at first, but after he filled up the building he stopped coming around except to pick up the money. The place did provide housing to those who did not have the wherewithal to get it elsewhere. And many tourists hustled on Collins Avenue were pleased with the drugs and quickie sex. The cops did pick up the worst people although the judges let them out time and time again. Fire Department personnel were extraordinarily kind to a desperate homeless man crying out for help from under the air-conditioning duct that rainy night. Finally, those residents who did not hold out during the premature eviction were given a few hundred dollars in cash by the “thugs” to relocate. 6|Page

Miami Mirror – True Reflections

Most of those evicted wound in somewhat better circumstances, although at higher rents. Two or three of the former residents of Plaza South wound up at homeless shelters – one old lady, a professional Lincoln Road panhandler, wound up at the Delta House in the CANDO district, a place soon closed by the gentrification process, but she is still seen today, neatly dressed, panhandling as usual. All in all, this is the best of all possible beaches. The future is looking up.


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