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.