Sometimes you have to see a place before it changes drastically, while it’s still on the right side of your economic, ecologic, emotional or aesthetic tipping point.
I learned this in 1989 on my first trip to Bali — well after the 1960s hippie/surfer invasion when you could live simply for almost nothing, but before the explosion of opulent five-star resorts. Similarly, in 2016, amid grim scientific warnings of melting ice and rising seas, I lit out for Antarctica.
Closer to home, I hopped on a plane in January soon after South Florida pals began to fret that the artsy, funky, relatively low-rise city of Hollywood — including the barrier island called Hollywood Beach — faced imminent upscaling. I needed another retro Hollywood holiday before that happened.
One local worrier was my dearest friend since fourth grade, with whom I launched my nostalgia wallow from a corner table at Ocean Alley. The thatched-roof surfside bar and restaurant buzzes from breakfast through last call. Over nicely scrambled eggs, fresh grapefruit juice and strong iced coffee, we happily gazed at the turquoise Atlantic and an unending parade of humanity.
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Elderly couples shuffled by on their morning constitutionals, oblivious to young women in teeny bikinis, buff guys in surfer jams, harried parents chasing racing toddlers and assorted grown-ups sneaking peeks under stroller hoods at babies or — more covertly — small, forbidden doggies.
All happily shared space on the almost two-and-a-half-mile brick straightaway known as the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk. That’s Broad, not Board, named for its width and ease of navigation. The inland side is for pedestrians and certified service animals. Concealed or open-carry comfort creatures such as snakes, birds, cats and pooches are forbidden. The Broadwalk’s oceanside is for humans using wheels: bikes, trikes, inline skates, strollers, wheelchairs and canopied surreys, the last built to move small posses.
Snippets of English, French, Spanish, Russian and Portuguese filled the air, along with the scent of saltwater, fried grease and sunblock.
Here on Hollywood Beach, located between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, most people seem less interested in strutting their stuff than simply enjoying some of the 80 mom-and-pop restaurants, beach-tog boutiques, surf shops, juice joints, bars, live music, a weekly greenmarket, frequent concerts and a skyline relatively short on skyscrapers.
But big change is coming to this swath of Broward County that California developer Joseph Wesley Young envisioned in the 1920s as his “Dream City in Florida.” Young tried heroically to turn flat scrubland into a planned community and a second film capital based on the Los Angeles original. It would stretch from the Atlantic across the Intracoastal Waterway westward to the edge of the Everglades.
Like other idealists, Young thought that public parks, quality homes, hotels, a golf course, businesses, a major cruise ship port and artificial lakes deep enough for yacht turnarounds could sustain “a city for everyone, from the opulent at the top of the industrial and social ladder to the most humble of working people,” as the city’s official website puts it.
It didn’t quite work out for Young, who became Hollywood’s first mayor. He lost his fortune following a devastating 1926 hurricane, a mass exit by storm-spooked residents and the 1929 stock market crash, then died in 1934 at age 51. Other Florida cities became known for high-rise flash and lots of cash (think Miami Beach), or discreet fortunes sunk into exclusive, sometimes exclusionary enclaves (Palm Beach). But Hollywood and its wide, enticing beach stayed underdeveloped, under the radar and slightly eccentric.
In 2000, when Debra Case — owner of the aforementioned Ocean Alley Restaurant, a Hollywood city commissioner and the vice mayor — arrived from Vermont, the Broadwalk’s predecessor was a mile shorter and made of black asphalt. No stylish retaining walls or majestic palm trees graced the beach.
“Neighborhoods were a little seedy, though not dangerous. A lot of rundown [beach] property needed to go,” Case said. “There is a lot of history in the primarily residential low-rise buildings, the motels, apartments and houses, but we don’t want to become a condo canyon.”
The aim, she said, is “to transform into a resort community. Gentrification is necessary, and a certain amount of [displacement] will happen, unfortunately. But we have to change with the times.”
Behold the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, a 17-story hotel and theme-park-style complex that opened on five acres in late 2015. It’s part of Key West music and lifestyle mogul Jimmy Buffett’s hyperbranded empire. From kiddie camp to an adults-only lounge, Parrotheads and their little Parakeets need never leave the place for a meal, music or massage.
Meanwhile, over the Intracoastal on U.S. 1, a new Hollywood Circle high-rise with 400 luxury rental units is wooing tenants with amenities, services and views of the Atlantic in the distance or the 10-acre Art Park at Young Circle directly below. A 104-room boutique hotel is also planned.
Across that circle, Young’s now-closed 1924 Mediterranean Revivalesque Great Southern Hotel will be replaced by a 19-story apartment, office, hotel and retail tower called Young Circle Commons.
Such projects will bring many more tourists and residents to the lively “historic downtown” on Hollywood Boulevard and Harrison Street. The city of about 150,000 nearly went bust during the 2008 recession and desperately needs new revenue for services and infrastructure, Case said, which is why officials are also eager to develop areas west of downtown.
To casual visitors with no interest in city planning, however, the heart of Hollywood is charming the way it is right now.
Check out the two dozen outdoor murals and several art galleries downtown. Get a tattoo.
Consult a psychic. Buy baby clothes, kinky boots, bathing suits or heavily sequined short shorts and long gowns at assorted frock shops.
Catch a foreign film at Cinema Paradiso. Blow your own vase at Hollywood Hot Glass on Young Circle.
But mostly, walk and eat. (You’re well on your way to 10,000 steps just making a round trip on the Broadwalk.).
From simple cafes and pizza parlors to a growing number of fine restaurants and chic wine bars, it is possible to execute an international graze-a-thon on both sides of the Intracoastal: gelato; moussaka; foie gras; pad thai; sushi; ribs; pho; kebabs; chocolates; pasta; tacos; borscht; craft beer; organic wine; artisanal cheese; Kobe beef; and, of course, Florida’s famous stone-crab claws.
“Don’t say too many nice things about Hollywood,” warned my grade-school bestie, a lifelong artist. She fears that well-heeled newcomers — baby boomers, startup whiz kids, global investors, money-laundering oligarchs, snowbirds — will price her out of the modest, mainland neighborhood an easy walk from downtown.
Yes, her largely unrenovated 1950s cottage has nearly quadrupled in value over 20 years. But if she sold it now, where could she move? Hellbent on staying put, she watches with dread as nearby homes are razed for McMansions or stylishly gut-jobbed by savvy new owners and investors.
We both fear that Hollywood’s existential tipping point is not far off. So we plotted a temporary antidote that included raucous meals with girlfriends, lots of chilled, crisp sauvignon blanc and a Broadwalk stroll at sunset, where the unspoken question — how much funky time is left? — remained, for now, unanswered.