Viva Flagler!


Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
On the red-brick sidewalks of Flagler Street, that downtown paradise of low-cost plunder, shoppers - Americans, Haitians, Japanese, Europeans, and Latinos, Latinos, everywhere - seek cover from the raindrops pelting the pavement. Huddled under grimy canvas awnings, they plot their next forays into the tangle of clothing outlets, electronics stores, jewelry boutiques, and shoe shops. Sales flyers strewn on the asphalt tatter under the watery assault, wash into the gutters along with black-olive leaves and soggy tamale wrappers and hot dog buns. Steam rises and swirls through the vast sea of legs, wafts the aroma of croquetas, fried platanos, and arroz con frijoles toward the top stories of the historic old buildings staring stoically over downtown.

Two Hare Krishnas with tiny brass cymbals punctuate the rainstorm with a steady cha-cha-cha-cha-clang, cha-cha-cha-cha-clang, as Celia Cruz's salsa blares from storefront speakers. A young Haitian woman leans out a car window, yells something in Creole, and the sound is swallowed up by the roar of bus engines spewing gritty fumes. Sunburned Brits in their Bermudas bump elbows, shuffling past fruit stands lined with cups of chopped strawberries, bananas, pineapples, and papayas, past streetfront cafeteria windows where tourists slurp guanabana ice cream and Cuban men in dark dress pants and white guyaberas sip cortaditos and bash Fidel, past newsstands where El Tiempo of Bogota and La Prensa of Managua are more plentiful than the Miami Herald. Flash go the strobes in the electronics-store windows. Flash-flash. Flashing oblivious to the rain. Flashing without change. Flashing tourists into their parlors, the merchant spiders to the shopping flies.

Here the Latin American weekend mercado has plopped down in a splash of vibrant color, where twelve polychrome signs are better than one, where it's not enough to flaunt just a single brand name; only every brand name in the store, from Aiwa to Zenith, will do. This is Flagler Street, the namesake of railroad pioneer Henry Flagler, a slow train from Latin America, from the Third World, on a different track than the suburban mall express. This is where the real "Gateway to the Americas" opens. It comes to life in the eyes of the dark-skinned Jamaican children laughing at the dancing Coca-Cola cans in the windows of toy stores, in the faces of the Day-Glo-clad Venezuelan teen-agers crooning over the $19.99 deal on a portable tape recorder, in the voices of the white-haired Cuban grandmothers oohing over bolts of cheap fabric and tiny pink, blue, and white children's dresses that look as if they were lifted right off the top of a wedding cake.

We're barely a block into the downtown shopping labyrinth when my mother says it's time to make a deal. A 59-year-old native of Colombia with 40 years of Flagler bargain-hunting experience, she originally intended to seek out only one pair of shoes on this Saturday, but the storefront temptations have proven to be too much. "Oh, let's go in here and see if I can get a cheap calculator," she says, steering us past the red-neon-ringed windows and the many-brand-name sign at 263 E. Flagler, into Jimmy's Electronics. It takes only seconds for Daniel Briff to swoop down, hungry for a sale. Behind him, colorful cartoons beckon shoppers to a bank of television sets; glass cases and shelves stuffed with cameras, phones, radios, watches, video equipment, personal computers, and other high-tech goods line the walls. Briff, a 35-year-old Argentine in black jeans and baggy pullover, pulls two calculators - a $49 Sanyo, and a $45 black Royal EZ Vue - from a glass-case island in the middle of the store. A quick sale? At Dadeland, maybe, but not here. On Flagler, if you want to buy smart, you've got to bargain.

"Those aren't fixed prices, right?" Mom ventures in Spanish, pointing at the Royal. "I'll give you $39."

Briff's mouth drops in mock disbelief. "How many do you want?" he queries.
"What do you mean how many? One, of course."
"I'll go to $44," says Briff.
"$42, and I'll take it right now."

A roll of the eyes and a rub of the grizzled chin. "Okay. I'll do it for you because you're simpatica."

Everything's cool until the time comes to charge tax. "What? The tax isn't included? You're kidding," says Mom. "That wasn't much of a bargain if you're going to charge tax on top. If I find the same calculator for cheaper somewhere else, I'll bring it back, right?"

"You won't find it, you won't find it. This is the best place," Briff retorts. "Man, she's tough," he whispers under his breath.  

But Mom's not done. She decides she's been in need of a portable radio for quite some time. Briff darts over to a wall of waterproof yellow Sony boom boxes. "This is a very, very good one. This is the one you want," he says, pulling a $79 machine from a glass case. Mom isn't impressed. He shows her a smaller, black model. "It's $57, but I'll give it to you for $55."

"I think $45 is a better deal," says Mom. "Just think, every time I listen to it I'll remember the deal you gave me."

Briff closes his eyes, a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth. "She's tough," he growls. "Fifty dollars, and no less."

Mom goes the other way. "If you can go down to $50, you can sell it to me for $40."

"No way, no way." Briff begins to hop in place in his black Reeboks. He reaches out and grasps Mom's arm in supplication. "I have to get at least ten-percent profit. At least ten-percent profit or they'll fire me. I can't. They'll fire me. They'll fire me. I can't. You can't take my shirt."

Figuring she's pushed hard enough, Mom agrees to $50. (She does, however, attempt to wheedle a two-dollar discount when Briff can't squeeze the radio back into its box.) "She's hard. She's very hard, your mother," Briff remarks, before launching into an argument about whether Mom will pay cash or write a check.

When the steel security shutters roll back from Flagler's storefronts and Celia Cruz commences her daily din and the eggs and onions begin to sizzle on the grills in the Cuban cafeterias, Uncle Sal's Army/Navy Surplus store at 275 NE First Street opens for business. Darting from racks packed with T-shirts past stacks of cardboard boxes, 42-year-old Yoshua Sal Behar searches for air-gun pellets for three tourists from Surinam toting imitation leather luggage. Moments later the stocky Behar, his black-and-white-striped shirttail creeping out of his waistband, agrees to save a pair of size-twelve combat boots for a Haitian customer while carrying on a running conversation in Spanish with a young Venezuelan couple looking for a portable refrigerator and an underwater metal detector. In between he teases three Brazilian regulars, pilots for Varig who want to haggle over a leg holster for a Beretta handgun.

"You come here and get good service, fine goods, the door is open, and we kid around with you. That's a service worth paying for," Behar tells the pilots in Portuguese, Spanish occasionally seeping in. "Besides, if I didn't speak Portuguese, you wouldn't be able to ask for a discount." The three Brazilian men roar with laughter. Behar's eyes, points of light in his youngish face, flash as he leans over piles of folders, bills, and boxes and reaches into a counter packed with Buck knives. Sal is usually ready to cut a deal, but in this case $65 is what the black leather holster is marked, and $65 is what the pilots pay. "Here they can bargain all they want," says the native of Cuba, who took his first job on Flagler at Mary Jane Shoes, just after he graduated from Miami Beach High School in 1966. "I'll listen to anything. It doesn't mean I'll agree, but I'll listen."

Usually the customer walks away happy from Uncle Sal's. And sometimes the customer returns the favor. "About three months ago a Brazilian guy came in and asked me for a discount on something or other," says Behar, a knot of keys jangling at his hip as he dashes back to the Buck-knife counter. "So I tell him, `You ask me for a discount and you don't even bring me a gift.' He says, `The next time I'm in Miami I'll bring you something.' Well, a couple of days ago he stops in to give me two bottles of aguardiente. That's the way we are down here."

Only moments after purchasing the calculator and radio, Mom wanders into the Galeria Internacional, a quiet, aging arcade just west of Jimmy's Electronics. At the Cosmetic Center she finds a four-ounce bottle of her favorite perfume, Ysatis by Givenchy, for $39.99. "The cheapest I've found this anywhere else is $43," she says, but she wants to look around some more; maybe she'll find an even better deal. Next door is El Mundo de Maletas, the World of Luggage, where Mom inquires about athletic bags. Not until next week, says the salesman, but well worth the wait. They run about $14. "They're usually about $47 everywhere else," Mom says skeptically. "They probably aren't the same bags."

In the same arcade is Downtown Interprises Inc., a bonanza of $10 to $20 watches. Row after row of plastic watches in every conceivable color combination line the window shelves. Mom buys a dark brown, leather watch band for four dollars - three dollars for the band, one dollar for installation - but not before trying to get a dollar discount. Across the hall at Pars Oriental Rugs, she admires an intricate Tabriz Persian carpet of blue, gold, and brown, its silk weave shimmering even under the dim fluorescent lights. "It goes for $3700," the salesman ventures. A little out of bargaining range for now, Mom decides. She browses but doesn't buy upstairs, where M & Q Auto Parts is sandwiched between Commercial Audio and Video and Golf Flagler, with its Mizuno, Yamaha, Wilson, and Tommy Armour clubs. Then it's back down the stairs, past the Cuban lunch counter where teen-agers shopping with their parents munch on $1.99 ham-and-cheese, tuna, or chicken-salad sandwiches, to daylight and the hubbub of Flagler.

When 56-year-old Miguel Brazlavsky arrived from Havana in 1962, Flagler already was catering to a predominately Latin American market. After his first job, at Bently Men's Wear in the Olympia Building, he moved to Briggs Men's Wear, which he purchased in 1965. Meanwhile black Americans replaced Anglos, then were themselves replaced by Haitians, as the minority market supplementing the Latin American regulars - Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians, Argentines, Brazilians. Although Canadian, European, and Asian tourists regularly have searched out deals here over the years, Latins have been Flagler's pan y mantequilla. So much so, in fact, that the entire area - which consists of more than 800 businesses and is bordered roughly by Sixth Street to the north, the Miami River to the south, Biscayne Boulevard to the east, and Interstate 95 to the west - has long been a weather vane for tempestuous Latin American booms and busts, thriving and suffering through good times and bad in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

In the early Sixties, captives from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba returned from prisons on the island and spent their U.S. government back pay on Flagler. "Back then there were very few Spanish-speaking merchants in the city," recalls the gray-haired Brazlavsky, leaning against a circular rack of polyester men's pants, staring out the front door of his shop at 75 E. Flagler. "So they went to the place where there were Spanish-speaking salesmen, which was here. And they came to spend money. Those were good times for us. We weren't hurting for anything."

Strong Latin American currencies guaranteed a steady stream of Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and other tourists through the end of the Sixties. And when Venezuela basked in an oil boom in the mid- and late Seventies, Flagler flourished along with it. Equally, merchants suffered when oil prices plummeted and inflation battered Latin America in the early Eighties, devastating the tourist trade. "That's when everything changed," says Brazlavsky. "A lot of people thought the boom was going to last forever. Well, nothing lasts forever. A lot of people sure found that out the hard way."

Many of the merchants who survived the lean years held on by gearing their businesses toward lower-income shoppers; those who couldn't withstand the slump were replaced by electronics and jewelry dealers who were willing to pay high rents to secure a place downtown. "We used to have a lot better mix of stores," Brazlavsky recalls. "Ladies and men's stores, restaurants. We lost two department stores - J Byrons moved out and Richard's went out of business - and who knows how many other stores. Now the mix just isn't there."

Just west of the Galeria Internacional, Mom walks past three Haitian men stacking white plastic garbage bags stuffed with calculators, watches, and batteries they've purchased from an electronics shop across the street. As employees of the store ferry over more plastic sacks on hand carts, the three men stuff the goods into worn green duffel bags. All they'll say is that they're taking the wares back with them to Port-au-Prince. Mom, meanwhile, disappears past mannequins outfitted in Day-Glo Bay Boy's Gym and Panama Jack Original T-shirts and black-and-green sweat suits, into Sports U.S.A. at 243 E. Flagler. A saleswoman peeking over a mountain of shoe boxes acquiesces meekly to demands for a deal from Mom, who by now has become a bargaining bully. She leaves the store with a gift for her granddaughter: a pair of size-seven L.A. Gear aerobic shoes that were marked $79 but ended up costing $50.

Next it's on to Bijoux Terner at 223 E. Flagler, a maze of costume jewelry mounted on black-plastic backing and hung on stainless steel hooks or piled in bins that stretch in every direction: red plastic sea-horse earrings for five dollars; $8.50 for a tiny pair of yellow, white, and green earrings shaped like clown faces; pentagonal glass earrings with steel spokes sticking out, marked $68; pearl necklaces draped like serpents along the wall; cotton shirts fluttering in the air conditioner's breeze. Apparently the price tags are for show; the saleswoman says everything is half-price. Mom looks at a black cotton shirt, a rhinestone rainbow splashed across its front, finally settles on two similar shirts, earrings, and a bracelet. Total tab: $82.50.  

Outside the breeze has picked up, rustling the black olives, whipping the metal wires on the Dade County Courthouse flagpoles down the street into a frenzy of tin hammers tap-tapping on hollow pipe. The storefront stroll continues, interrupted by a quick search for the old soda fountain in the Walgreens drug store at 200 E. Flagler, which Mom recalls was once the meeting place of the Flagler powerful. The search bears no fruit. "It must be long gone," she remarks. Further west, past the Capital Mall - the "Puerta de las Americas" with its second-floor tropical scene of parrots and peasants shaped of stained glass - the olives give way to palms, the functional-looking light poles to fancy replacements painted in pastel hues, the potholes to patches. Past East First Avenue, the block of Burdines department store and McCrory's, is the city's idea of what things ought to look like.

In 1965, in order to "improve downtown," the Miami City Commission formed the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a semiautonomous city agency funded by downtown property tax revenues. In the fall of 1988, as Flagler merchants were beginning to see improvements from their financial straits of the early part of the decade, the agency used part of its budget (currently $1.6 million) to initiate a one-block, $250,000 demonstration project between Miami Avenue and East First Avenue, to show how a physical upgrade of Flagler might look. Eighteen black olive and palm trees were replaced with hybrid maypan palms. New telephone booths, trash receptacles, concrete flower pots, and light poles were installed. Sidewalks were repaired, concrete benches removed, street signs consolidated. Some landlords and merchants responded, taking advantage of a citywide program that pays 70 percent of facade improvements up to $2000, and making further improvements of their own. But for the most part, Flagler remains unchanged. "The demonstration project was supposed to be a catalyst for the property owners to step in and continue the improvements," says Clyde Judson, DDA's director of urban design. "That just hasn't happened."

The demonstration project was part of a blueprint for the revitalization of the Flagler area drafted by DDA, the city's planning department, and the Downtown Miami Business Association in November 1986, the nadir of the business crunch downtown. Titled the "Flagler Street Initiative," it laid out a four-year plan, proposing improvements for storefronts and streets and suggesting ways to ease traffic congestion. The initiative also urged that landlords and merchants establish a management district, tax themselves, and hire a professional team to coordinate everything. "Setting up the district is really a key part of the plan," says DDA's Judson. "It's something that would really make things come together and work."

Last fall Flagler's landlords and their tenants agreed to form the district, but not to the extent Judson and the DDA had hoped. "The idea with forming a special district was to give merchants and property owners the same level of development strategies as a shopping center," Judson explains. "They could hire a team to manage and promote Flagler Street in things like maintenance, security, signage, even tenant mix - so you don't get too many stores doing the same types of things. A manager could use special marketing schemes, like group advertising, and run special events and sales like a shopping mall might. There would be marketing of downtown, as opposed to individual marketing by store owners."

But instead of adopting the initiative in its entirety, property owners agreed to tax themselves only enough to pay street-cleaning crews and to hire an auxiliary law-enforcement group to patrol from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. "It's not that many merchants wouldn't like to hire a management team," says Maira Diaz, executive director of the 141-member Downtown Miami Business Association. "But you have to realize they are taxing themselves. A lot of them just can't afford it."

This past January DDA paid $3000 to Fort Lauderdale-based economic and development consultant Hammer, Siler, George Associates to prepare a major market study of the Flagler retail area. Although they presented various options for development, the consultants emphasized as their goal the attraction of "more affluent" consumers. To that end, they suggested that a second department store be sought to join Burdines, Flagler's long-time anchor. Or an "International Village" might be created, they wrote, "to provide a worldwide flavor to a segment of downtown Miami's retail core." Other strategies involved varying the mix of shops, or constructing an independent major mall downtown.  

Such proposals and objectives raise the eyebrows of many merchants, including Miguel Brazlavsky, whose $10.95 Sierra Pacific shorts and $150 polyester-and-viscose Raffinati suits are probably not what the "more affluent" shopper has in mind. "A guy who goes to Bal Harbour or Mayfair has already made the decision of where he wants to go," says Brazlavsky. "I know if I offer the same shirt with a different label for half the price, he won't buy it. He wants the label."

"Downtown could certainly use some improvements," adds the business association's Maira Diaz. "But we're talking about cleaning the streets, filling potholes, improving the lights - not turning it into a mall. Downtown is a special place. You're talking about people who have been there for 30 years and have done things the same way for a long time. Most of them don't even advertise. Can you see them putting up those signs and blasting music in a mall? Forget it. They just don't have the same mindset as most store owners."

Brazlavsky, who helped found the Downtown Miami Business Association and who also sits on the 29-member appointed board of DDA, is especially wary of wholesale revisions. "Sometimes I look at what the planners at DDA want to do, and I tell them, `You're dreaming. It's all a dream,'" he says. "This is not a Mayfair in the Grove. This is not Bal Harbour. If they want to turn it into that, they might as well forget it. That's not what this place is about. It will never work. Not in my lifetime. People who go to those places do not come here."

Many Flagler merchants take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. Despite concerns about the current threat of recession, Brazlavsky is quick to point out what's really important to the area. "What I would like to see is more restaurants and nightlife," he says, "so when people come downtown to Gusman [Center for the Performing Arts] and walk the street after the show, they look in my window, and my neighbors' windows. Then maybe next week, maybe next year, they'll remember my store. Projects like that, that's what we want. That's what we will support."

Meanwhile business still flourishes, and lease rates for downtown retail space average $40 per square foot. It's about twice that in other Dade County locations such as the Falls, Mayfair in the Grove, and Dadeland. The rent goes up to $100 per square foot for prime Flagler Street frontage, which is virtually never vacant. And Flagler outlets for national retailers report among the highest sales volumes in their companies. (Oaktree, Three Sisters, and Payless Shoe Source outlets on Flagler, for instance, this past year netted among the highest sales volumes in their chains nationwide.)

Mom says it's time for a quick break, and steps into glitzy Flagler Station, an indoor shopping mall built in what once was the Kress Building at 48 E. Flagler, just east of Burdines. She strides under the neon entrance sign, across the tile floors, and up the stairs to the bustling food court. English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Creole are spoken by families, shopping bags stacked at their sides as they munch on Cuban sandwiches, sweet-and-sour chicken, and Greek salads. In the mezzanine a smiling pianist playing a black baby grand slides from "En Mi Bello San Juan" to de Falla's "Ritual Dance of Fire" to "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Thick, green vines spill over from above, where Natan Rok rules his Flagler empire.

Natan Rok is the top dog, a king among landlords in downtown Miami. The Cuban immigrant's first venture into business here was Dandy's Men's Wear, a small retail store at 72 E. Flagler, which he and his uncle opened shortly after Rok arrived in Miami in 1964. Today Rok owns more than $50 million worth of property in the downtown area alone, with about 225 tenants in more than twenty buildings.

Rok pioneered the practice of subdividing downtown buildings into small retail spaces, despite predictions he would fail. With Flagler Station, his transformation of the five-story Kress Building (originally constructed in 1926), Rok has set a trend businessmen like Brazlavsky say might be the compromise between modernizing Flagler and retaining the present flavor of the area. The $25 million renovation, completed in 1985, consists of a shopping mall, a food court, the main offices of Transatlantic Bank, as well as Rok Enterprises, Inc., and Manny Medina's two-million-dollar Monty's Downtown, the first of what downtown merchants hope will be many more night spots.

Emerging from the south end of Flagler Station, Mom, shopping bags slung over her arm, wanders east along SE First Street, past Gordo's, a narrow green passageway of a Brazilian restaurant, where Portuguese-speaking patrons sip guarana, a Brazilian soda, and argue business over feijoada completa - black-bean stew with pork, chopped collard greens, and manioc-flour dressing. Mom ignores the salesmen lurking in the doorway of Suaya's Supershops at 155 SE First St., where bright-red brand names - Fila, Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, Pony - blaze from white backgrounds. On the next corner, at 165 SE First Street, Juan Canal sits behind the counter of his newsstand and watches the traffic go by, as he has done from the same spot for the past fifteen years.  

While technically it's not on Flagler, Canal's stand is Flagler, a four-window stall that serves as a touchstone for downtown's Latin American masses, a soapbox for its proprietor's political outpourings, where customers sometimes are ignored in the heat of debate. On portable pipe-metal carts, passersby can choose from La Tercera and El Mercurio of Chile, El Universal of Venezuela, La Nacion of Costa Rica, El Pais of Spain, Le Monde of France, even the hard-to-find Carribbean Week - about 100 foreign papers in all. Canal has the society magazine Hola! of Spain, the fashion Collezioni Donna of Italy. He has batteries and Italian bonbons, rickety frames filled with racy paperback novelas whose titles translate to "Savage Dogs," "Thirst for Vengeance," and "Where Death Rules." And Canal himself, a 55-year-old Spaniard from Santander, has an opinion about everything. Especially politics. The greatest men of the Eighties, he maintains, were Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"Flagler has changed remarkably in the past ten years, so much you wouldn't recognize it if you saw it then," Canal says in Spanish. "Change here is inevitable. The metamorphosis of this place is impossible to halt. This is a young city, so change is inevitable. But no one group can decide that change. The economic force will decide, and that's the people who buy my papers, the people who take a cab from this corner, the people who stop to eat here, all the way up to the guy who buys one of these buildings. Those will be the people to decide. There have always been Hispanics here, and there always will be. If they push out the ones that are here now, new ones will come to replace them. That's just the way it is."

At 37 E. Flagler, down a drab hallway in the basement of the Seybold Building, the wall suddenly comes to life with photographs of the boxing greats. Ali. Duran. Kid Chocolate. An autographed portrait of Mike Tyson. A closer look behind the paraphernalia reveals a three-seat barbershop. An even closer inspection uncovers a connection between the boxing photos and the silver-haired barber. Bernie Soto, 57, whose business card introduces him as "The Puerto Rican Rocky," is the referee in most of the pictures. "That's me all right," says Soto, pointing to the wall of photos. "Eighteen years a professional ref. I've seen all the greats. Thirty-two world-title fights. And 22 years on Flagler."

World Boxing Association ref of the year in 1988, Soto himself won the National Golden Gloves championship in 1956, an award he wears proudly around his neck in the form of two miniature gold boxing gloves. ("I had the diamonds put in. They didn't do that for me.") The Puerto Rican native's shop, its shelves stuffed with scrap books and photos, boxes, folders, bills, hair brushes, and scissors, might be the last place downtown where you can still get an eight-dollar haircut. "I've watched the ups and downs of Flagler from this place," Soto says. "I've been a barber for fathers, their sons, and their grandsons. This is truly a wonderful place. All these plans may be good for some people, but not for me. When it comes time for me to leave, it won't be to move. It will be to relax and retire."

If Flagler is a treasure chest, the Seybold Building that houses Soto's shop is a mother lode that rivals Mel Fisher's finds. In the otherwise unremarkable ten-story building beats the heart of downtown Miami's 1500-store jewelry industry. This is gemstone central, 280 businesses in all, from glass-lined retail shops to upstairs offices where jewelry chieftains cut deals behind closed doors.

At Italian Jewelry on the ground floor, customers stand elbow to elbow at the counters. Crafted coils of fourteen- and eighteen-carat gold hang like Spanish moss from posts in the windows and behind the counters. Boxfuls more line the shelves. Stone-studded rings and earrings, pins and pendants, necklaces and bracelets. Gold hearts and sea horses, sand dollars and dollar signs, gold leaves, a pair of Aladdin's shoes. St. Barbaras and St. Marys, St. Christophers, St. Lazarus with his dogs. Boxes and boxes and boxes of crucifixes - flat ones, round ones, wide and narrow ones. Here too, prices are negotiable. A short bargaining session and the price of an eighteen-carat-gold peacock highlighted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and amethysts is cut from $4250 to $2125. "The first price is retail, but we'll give it to you wholesale," the saleswoman says.  

After more than five hours of trudging, Mom reaches the air-conditioned, surreal stillness of Burdines. The street carnival races silently by outside, framed in the glass doors. Smartly dressed salespeople stand at attention behind counters piled with silk scarves. Mom halfheartedly touches two or three scarves, glances at the lavish Christmas decorations already set up at the top of the stairs, and heads for the shoe department. After a day of dickering, of wandering from shop to shop, of buying electronic doodads, clothing, and accessories, she still hasn't found that pair of shoes.

But the peaceful confines of Burdines are a letdown after the excitement of the mad rush of Flagler, and it doesn't take long for Mom to miss the intoxication of the hard sale, the good buy. "Somehow I just can't bring myself to buy shoes here now," she says, tossing aside a pair of Brazilian-made leather pumps. "I'll have to go back to Flagler."

Outside it's business as usual on Miami's street of dreams, where a bargain is a bargain and a deal is a deal. Merchants offer. Customers demand it, consider it their right to haggle. In the end, this mutual determination may be what will save the character and soul of Miami's mercado. "The powers that be will try to dictate the changes down here," observes Uncle Sal. "But it's the people who shop here that will decide what happens. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it will always be. Anything that goes against that is a sure formula for failure."

Flash go the strobes in the windows. Flash-flash. Flashing oblivious to the rain. Flashing without change. Flashing tourists into their parlors, the merchant spiders to the shopping flies.

"I have to get ten-percent profit or they'll fire me," the salesman says to Mom, hopping in place in his Reeboks. "I can't. They'll fire me. I can't.

You can't take my shirt."
"Here they can bargain all they want," says "Uncle Sal" Behar, who has been on Flagler since he graduated high school in 1966. "I'll listen to anything. It doesn't mean I'll agree, but I'll listen."

At Sports U.S.A., a saleswoman peeking over a mountain of shoe boxes acquiesces meekly to demands for a deal from Mom, who by now has become a bargaining bully.

"The demonstration project was supposed to be a catalyst for the owners to step in and continue the improvements," says DDA's Clyde Judson. "That just hasn't happened."

Merchant Miguel Brazlavsky: "A guy who goes to Bal Harbour has already made the decision. If I offer the same shirt with a different label for half the price, he won't buy it. He wants the label."

"These people have done things the same way for a long time," says the business association's Maira Diaz. "Can you see them putting up those signs and blasting music in a mall? Forget it."

Newsstand owner Juan Canal: "Flagler has changed so much in the past ten years you wouldn't recognize it. Change is inevitable. But no one group can decide that change."

"Somehow I just can't bring myself to buy shoes here now," says Mom, tossing aside a pair of pumps. "I'll have to go back to Flagler.