Andy Sweet captures the forgotten Jewish tribe of Miami’s South Beach

Andy Sweet, a photographer who lived and worked in Miami Beach during the late 1970s, dedicated his time photographing the old Jewish community in the then-distinguished South Beach, before he was tragically murdered at the age of 29 in 1982. Leaving behind a legacy and extensive body of work, Sweet’s images are a historical marker into a period of time that seemed to have gotten lost in the depiction of Miami’s cultural heritage.

Having been collated in the form of a hardback publication, titled Shtetl in the Sun: Andy Sweet’s South Beach 1977-1980, the book shines a light on the previously unseen photographs that document Miami’s South Beach’s once-thriving and now-diminished Jewish world – a project he first launched in 1977 after receiving his Masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It’s an era that might come to some as a surprise, and less so a replication of the Miami that we all know it as today. “Upwards of 20,000 elderly Jews made up nearly half of the Beach’s population in those days – all crammed into an area of barely two swear miles like a modern-day shtetl, the small, tightly knit Eastern European villages that defined so much of pre-World War II Jewry,” says Brett Sokol, award-winning Miami arts journalist who’s written the forward and edited the publication. “But these New York transplants and Holocaust survivors all still had plenty of living, laughing and loving to do. That much is strikingly clear in Andy Sweet’s photographs, which capture the community’s daily rhythms in all their beach-strolling, cafeteria-noshing, and klezmer-dancing glory.”

Originally, the small island was at first “taken from Native Americans of the Tequesta tribe, and bought in 1870 for seventy-five cents an acre by a father and son named Henry and Charles Lum,” writes Lauren Gross, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author, in the publication’s introductory essay. Miami was, for a long time, a coconut and avocado plantation grounds, and soon enough in the twentieth century it was cleared and built upon then filled with mansions, houses, hotels and golf courses. “When the hurricane of 1926 hit, Miami beach lost much of its popularity among the rich, and poorer vacationers moved in,” writes Lauren. “Small hotels and rooming houses sprang up in what is the Art Deco district nowadays. Jewish oldsters from New York can down, felt the sun on their skin and tasted the citrus on their tongues, and their delight in this relative paradise brought more Jews weary of Cold New York.” It got tainted, however, during the early eighties when the Medillín “cocaine cowboys” used Miami as their portal and in the spring of 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans landed in Florida to move to the appealingly affordable South Beach.

This interval of a flourishing community filled with delis, kosher hotels and Yiddish formed the premise of Sweet’s photography work. “The proof is suffused through Sweet’s photos, which show not only a thriving world, but one whose live-and-let-live ethos served as a beacon for the rest of Miami,” says Brett. He recalls the demise of South Beach during the 1980’s arrival of Cuban refugees as being “unfairly tarred as simply an influx of crime”. He adds: “the uncomfortable truth is that among its desperate exiles were a number of criminals, most of whom resettled in South Beach where the rent was cheap and the doors were open. They quickly found easy prey amongst their new neighbours.”

Brett continues: “Gary Monroe, who often photographed the area alongside Andy, recalled a group of elderly beachgoers who would meet before dawn to watch the sun rise above the Atlantic. By the end of the summer, their break-of-day gatherings amidst the waves were no more – too many had been mugged in the darkness as they walked the few blocks from their front doors.”

This scenario protrudes to the modern-day. What’s fascinating, however, is this missing chunk of history that somehow managed to get lost. “Now, because of Sweet, we know the missing chapter,” says Brett. “A rich portrait of the lives that unfolded between the paparazzi-chronicled Beach visits of Dean Martin and Madonna, after the local reign of Jackie Gleason’s TV show but before that of Courtney and Khloé Kardashian.”

“This book’s sun-dappled tribe and the world they built is long gone. But thanks to Sweet’s work, it is not forgotten.”

Shtetl in the Sun: Andy Sweet’s South Beach is available at Letter16 Press.