BY Paul Rubio
March 08 2010 4:00 AM ET
South Florida held the global spotlight in the early 1990s, boasting not one but two major gay cities on the rise. Less than 30 minutes apart, Miami and Fort Lauderdale initially surfaced as mutually exclusive entities, catering to discrete demographics. Miami Beach—no longer a straight retirement community—satisfied the hunger for the glamorous and the vanguard, luring in global party boys, hipsters, and scene queens for a world-renowned party scene. Fort Lauderdale welcomed middle-aged gays seeking sunny refuge from socially intolerant “red states.” The media hyped Miami’s fashion and the influx of cash from a wealthy Latin American expat population, while Fort Lauderdale—busy scrubbing away its 1980s-tinged Pabst Blue Ribbon party image—offered casual, affordable beachfront living. The crossover was minimal—either you were a Miami gay or a Lauderdale gay, and rarely the twain did meet.
Then, at the dawn of the millennium, these companionate cities became dueling divas in a vicious tug-of-war for the gay dollar. After reinvigorating the city of Miami Beach (also called South Beach, it’s a municipality distinct from Miami proper) and pushing the elderly upward to North Miami Beach and Hallandale, Miami’s gays found themselves priced out of town. The once-again chic South Beach was prohibitively expensive for those with hourly incomes, and wealthy straight couples replaced the younger retail queens and restaurant servers. As the mainstream swallowed the iconoclastic, South Beach fell out of favor in the fickle world of trends and trendsetters. Soon came the end of such megaclubs as Warsaw, Pump, Amnesia, and Salvation; Miami had lost its luster as a global party destination. Those tired of the dwindling scene and the pretension longed to escape the confines of South Beach, and gays realized that beyond the borders of Alton Road and Ocean Drive, they had little influence or even presence in the rest of Miami.
Twenty-five miles north, Fort Lauderdale was in the process of a $2 billion face-lift designed to promote urban economic development (and to clean up the Aqua Net oil slick left from the spring break era). Capitalizing on the beauty of the labyrinthine Intracoastal Waterway, the city was rechristened the “Venice of America,” a home for the world’s fastest-growing yachting community, with turquoise beaches that rival the Caribbean and a progressive, gay-friendly atmosphere on par with San Francisco’s.
Dozens of new nightlife options emerged throughout Fort Lauderdale. Some, such as the high-tech dance palace Coliseum, reinvented the gay Miami party scene of 1999, with world-famous DJs, drag extravaganzas, and easily accessible party drugs. Other venues, such as the Jackhammer and the Ramrod, catered to the leather subculture, providing an open forum for chaps and straps. The Moulin Rouge–inspired China White emerged as gay Fort Lauderdale’s Studio 54 at the height of the real estate boom in 2006. The gay scene was not confined to just one neighborhood but took root in three distinct cities within greater Fort Lauderdale: Wilton Manors, Oakland Park, and Fort Lauderdale proper. Chic, urban high-rises were erected along Las Olas Boulevard for the city’s new bourgeoisie. Luxurious hotels such as the W and the Ritz-Carlton replaced former dilapidated dumps along the beach. Suburban homes were relandscaped, repainted and remodeled. Fort Lauderdale became a place where gays of all genders, shapes, sizes, and ages could bask in their preferences. It seemed as though Miami had been permanently replaced as South Florida’s gay playground.