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Fort Lauderdale Redux

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Changes more than skin deep in the Venice of America


by Paul Rubio

Fort Lauderdale shined in the eighties as a Spring Break haven for Generation X, the ultimate palladium of wet t-shirt contests, Sun-In, and carcinogenic tan lines. Miami Vice met the trailer park during the decade of excess and Reagansim as this once small town became a world-renown Mecca of sardine packed motel rooms and Pabst Blue Ribbon-strewn beaches.

Spring Breakers were literally kicked out in 1986 when the mayor booted MTV and appeared on Good Morning America to un-invite college students. By the following year both Cher and Fort Lauderdale had officially lost their identity.



Above: The Floridian Restaurant.


Fearing paradise lost, the city soon endeavored what would become a 2 billion dollar face-lift to clean up the Aquanet oil slick and promote urban economic development. A new mayor in '92, a revitalization strategy, a tourism marketing blitzkrieg, by the mid-nineties Fort Lauderdale was promoting gay tourism and campaigning upscale clientèle to visit.

  Greg Louganis diving in Ft. Lauderdale.

Capitalizing on the beauty of the labyrinthine Intracoastal waterways, Fort Lauderdale was re-christened 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. It seems that Fort Lauderdale went into hiding for a good ten years, through a painful process of nip and tuck, until its slogans matched reality. Unveiled in 2007, the final bandages reveal a new Fort Lauderdale—a growing metropolis in the process of a social and cultural renaissance.

 
"Sebastian finds itself the "Cheers" of South Florida's beaches—gregarious and relaxed, stripped and raw..."


From world-renowned exhibits at the Museum of Art to top tier performances at the Broward Performing Arts Center, Fort Lauderdale is gaining a cultural identity. Chic, urban high-rises line the Atlantic Ocean and the intricate waterways of the Intracoastal. Trendy bars and clubs now link Himmarshee Street. Diesel bodies pack the beaches along A1A. Strips of boutique shops and lofts along Las Olas Boulevard house Fort Lauderdale's new bourgeoisie. The Fort Lauderdale "SWAN" has indeed emerged, but the urban growth has not compromised the small town feel that has historrically defined the city.

Greater Fort Lauderdale's strongest attraction is arguably the twenty-three miles of powdery sand and palm-fringed, lucid waters that line the coastline from Hallandale to Deerfield Beach. Ready for action or relaxation, gay men swarm a small section of this Atlantic bliss known as Sebastian Beach. Frolicking like foraging possums on nature's playground, roasting in the fiery sun, the scantily clad expose both the latest and the outdated, gossiping about Fort Lauderdale's continuous nightlife. As opposed to SoBe's "Muscle Beach" reputation, Sebastian finds itself the "Cheers" of South Florida's beaches—gregarious and relaxed, stripped and raw, with all ages and sizes, from Latino twinks and porn stars to leather daddies and oversized bears.

With some twenty gay guesthouses located within walking distance of Sebastian, the competition and camaraderie seems to have goaded guest service to dizzying extremes. Staff at these singular B&Bs champion neo-indentured servitude, entertaining diva-esque requests (like going for an alcohol run in a torrential downpour). It is unlike any other city I've visited and my three favorite guesthouses do boast a nearly extinct breed of genuine service. Locals often out-number snowbirds at the Flamingo Inn Amongst the Flowers, Fort Lauderdale's therapeutic floristic beach oasis, a sheltered tranquility from the drama and cruziness of the gay world. The Grand Resort and Spa sports a full service spa and a Melrose Place set up, with rooms radiating from the central pool, a social meeting point for new friends and tricks, nightly happy hour and Sunday mimosas. A little less than a mile from the beach and closer to downtown, Pineapple Point redefines the gay guest house experience with service that would outshine Bree Vandicamp. A maze of tropical cottages and dense foliage, the treasure map leads to four (clothing optional) hot tubs and swimming pools (including a sleek lap pool), often equipped with nude guests (in my case twelve police officers). For those who prefer the contemporary "hotel experience," the oceanfront W hotel is slated to open late fall 2008 while The Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Atlantic Hotel provide Fort Lauderdale beaches' uber-sophisticated options.


"Fort Lauderdale went into hiding for a good ten years, through a painful process of nip and tuck, until its slogans matched reality."

Heading away from downtown and the beach, the city sheds all remnants of its more delightfully pretentious counterparts, approaching the residential municipalities of Wilton Manors and Oakland Park. Fort Lauderdale's gay heart and soul, Wilton Manors, shines as a queer utopia for thirty-plus couples and retirees, complete with bars, restaurants, gyms, stores, realtors, and travel agents, that specifically cater to the gay community. With stores affectionately named Bottoms and Tops and Gay Mart, Wilton Manors is the core of Fort Lauderdale�s older gay life.

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