Andy Sweet: New Year’s Eve Parties on the Old South Beach
My barometer for the strength and vibrancy of the elderly South Beach community during this time was measured by the New Year’s Eve parties that just about every hotelier threw for his guests each season. In the mid-1970s, when Andy and I photographed these parties for the first time, they were otherworldly to us twentysomethings. Hotels up and down Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue, and Collins Avenue were alive and vivid. Old people were living it up! We’d walk from one hotel lobby to the next, perhaps going to twenty-five parties in one night. There must have been more than one hundred, maybe two hundred in all, and these old people danced like young people. It’s true that the parties started at five pm and often ended before the ball dropped in Times Square, but this is inconsequential. What mattered most was that these seventy and eighty-year-olds celebrated life with varying degrees of abandon. There’s a lesson here.
With the influx of Cuban refugees from the Mariel boatlift, the efforts to redevelop South Beach, and the campaign to secure recognition of the area’s art deco buildings by the National Register of Historic Places, South Beach was inexorably changing. These external forces beat attrition. Those New Year’s Eve parties began trailing off in the early ’80s, and by 1987 there were just two, and these were lackluster. By this time, hotels were being renovated, bars were added, clubs were opening, Lincoln Road was coming back, and the rest is history.
This most remarkable chapter of history centered on these elderly people, who were so inconsequential to popular culture and the media that they seemed to have vanished as if they never existed, as if their community was never there. Andy and I knew, even in the moment, that this unique cultural outpost mattered, that there was something remarkable about the time, the place, and the people. We were too young to fully comprehend our own history. Having both been born and raised in Miami Beach, we were too close to it to get it, to realize that the lives of these funny old people were actually deadly serious, that they were the last of a lineage whose roots extend back to the Polish shtetels; many bore tattooed numbers on their forearms evidencing their survival of the Holocaust. They arrived in America through Ellis Island, where they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, and made New York and the northeast their homes. But they dreamed of sunshine. And when they retired, they made South Beach theirs, the last resort. It was where they came not to forget, but to remember, to maintain their roots, identity, and rare ethos. America’s never really been a melting pot, and in South Beach these Jewish men and women lived out their lives not just in paradisiac Miami Beach, but together, in accord with their beliefs—and that was beautiful. And it was what Andy and I photographed.
Miami Beach was still a community when Andy was murdered in 1982. Mourners filled Temple Emanu-El; in fact, many people couldn’t get inside, so they paid their respects from the steps and the sidewalks.
Andy was not organized and didn’t pay attention to ensuring his archive. So when he died, there were boxes of negatives, work prints (7 inches square) and large final prints (15 inches square), but no notes or, needless to say, instructions. I, perhaps too soon after his death, submitted a plan to conserve and forward his life’s work, starting with putting the material in acid-free storage boxes. But at the time, his family was understandably emotionally crippled and nothing happened. Not for years, which turned into decades. Plans were eventually made for Andy’s archive to be turned over to the University of Miami, but the family was not content with the terms and, still, could not let go.
Then the unimaginable happened, again: Miami’s highest-end art storage facility, where the family had placed the material for safekeeping, lost most of it, including the negatives. Extant large prints had faded terribly (a curse of color photographic emulsion), and we all thought that was the end of it. But instead it was call to action: Andy’s sister and close friend of mine, Ellen Moss, and her significant other, Stan Hughes, stepped up to the plate to undertake resurrecting Andy’s legacy.
For a while it seemed fruitless, but Stan is a skilled graphic designer with fine instincts and after pursing Andy’s work and talking with me, among other things, he was very empathetic and began treating Andy’s work like his own. Stan scanned the work prints, which made 80 percent of Andy’s choice images available, and color-corrected these in accordance with Andy’s sensibilities. Andy was a meticulous craftsman and Stan reestablished a lost treasure. He, Ellen, and Andy’s other sister Nancy are having estate prints made, which are exquisite, reminiscent of Andy’s originals, and given the precision of digital technology, are, to me, as fine to finer. Now family and friends are promoting Andy Sweet’s photography, so, at last, it can be appreciated on many levels.
My work complemented Andy’s and vice-versa. His, being colorful and irreverent, was most appealing to the masses, more so than my black-and-white interpretations. Andy’s photographs echoed the vivaciousness of the people, without any artifice or interference or theory. He followed no rules, happily photographing in midday light. He was not given to deliberation; he didn’t need to be, as he was certain, trusting his instincts each time he released his Hasselblad’s shutter.
Andy’s approach was consistent: he would walk up to a stranger, raise his camera to his eyes, quickly focus, and take the picture. We did have an advantage: we, Jewish too, were a half-century younger than the people we were among and we were sort of surrogates for their grandchildren up north. But Andy’s snapshot-like images are deceptively simple. The photographs are formally perfect and philosophically dense, eliciting each viewer’s own interpretation. That is, they give nothing away; they show, albeit subjectively, what a fraction of a second looked like within a cordoned-off space. The meanings of these pictures—the lives of the individuals, the social setting they occupied, and the history they’ve made—rest on the shoulders of the viewers.
After Andy’s death, I continued our South Beach Photographic Project through 1987, by which time the elderly Jewish population that had characterized South Beach was so far gone that there was almost nothing left of it. The many who have discovered South Beach, or Miami for that matter, after this time might not know that for decades the southern tip of the island of Miami Beach, from Government Cut to Lincoln Road, was a refuge for old world Jewish people, a community that was unified by their religious mores and a unique lifestyle. The clubs and bars in the hotel lobbies of today were makeshift synagogues just a generation ago, where orthodox Jewish men prayed twice daily. I could go on, but suffice it to say that during those years, I could have any parking space along Ocean Drive, day or night.
Gary Monroe has photographed South Beach’s old world Jewry, nearly every part of Florida, and throughout Haiti, among other destinations worldwide. He is the author of The Highwaymen: Florida’s African American Landscape Painters and other books about Outsider art in Florida.