An Interview with Manny and David Schechtman

 

Completed on November 12, 2004

By David Crawford (ENC 1101)

 



 

DC      Where were you born?

 

MS      New York

 

DC      And when did you move to Miami?

 

MS      ‘56

 

DC      And how old were you when you moved here?

 

MS      A little over a year old

 

DC      And why did your family move here?

 

MS      Because my father moved here.

 

DC      Why?

 

MS      My father moved the business to Miami.

 

DC      And they bought this property here.

 

MS      Yes

 

DC      Was it always called the Tower Hotel?

 

MS      Yes.

 

DC      Where did you go to school?

 

MS      What part?

 

DC      Starting with elementary school…

 

MS      Shenandoah, Dearborn, and Miami Military Academy.

 

DC      Are any of those schools still existing?

 

MS      Shenandoah.

 

DC      Where is that?

 

MS      Between 8th & 10th and between 20th and 22nd Avenue somewhere around there.

 

DC      And what was the second place you mentioned?

 

MS      Dearborn.

 

DC     Was that the high school?

 

MS     No it was a private school that no longer exists.

 

DC      And Miami Military Academy that's very interesting does that still exist?

 

MS      No it no longer exists.

 

DC      And your brother told me the other day that you were Jewish. Did you go to a Synagogue when you were kids?

 

MS      Yes.

 

DC      Is it still around?

 

MS      No.

 

DC      What happened to it?

 

MS      The Cubans came and bought it out at first it became a YMCA. I don't know what it is now, something… I don't know what it is it doesn't exist anymore.

 

DC      OK. And your parents are from New York?


MS      Yes.


DC      Where were they from originally, Europe?

 

MS      New York

 

DC      There parents were also from New York?

 

MS      Europe

 

DC      What part?

 

MS      Russia

 

DC      And your family moved to Miami in 1959?

 

MS      '56

 

DC      And as a kid did you grow up working around the hotel doing odd jobs?  At what point did you become involved with the hotel?

 

MS      Sweeping halls somewhere around 9.

 

DC     And your parents paid you a little on the side?

 

MS     No, just came in and you swept.

 

DC      Part of the job. And I'm assuming that your parents died and you guys just continued  operating the hotel?

 

MS      My mother did, my father is still in a nursing home.

 

DC      Oh, I'm sorry that was a stupid assumption.

 

And, uhm, these are just kind of some background question and then I am going to ask you some more about your feelings about how the neighborhood changed. Have the kinds of people that stay here changed over the years?

 

MS     Yes

 

DC      Tell me a little about that.

 

MS      The earliest that I can remember was people that were here, started coming, because it was the only place you could come, it was the closest hotel to Hialeah Race Track. So a lot of the people that came here was because of that, and oh, um construction workers. And the way that my father had this place you could stay here a month or a year or six months it didn't matter. And that's what I remember as a kid it was mostly construction workers and people coming here for the gambling.

 

DC      For the horses.

 

MS     Yes

 

DC      And the horses were just during the winter, right?

 

MS     Yes

 

DC      So your business, I guess like most hotels in Miami, was busiest during the winter.

 

MS      The rest of the year was just people in the trades, construction trades.

 

DC     Why construction?

 

MS      That's just what I remember as a kid, all of these guys, always with concrete, carrying their levels, trowels, their pouches, that's what I remember as a kid.

 

DC     Do you remember what area they were building? Were they building downtown, Brickell?

 

MS     I don't know.

 

DC     As a kid did you guys did you guys ride into downtown, was that a place where you hung out?

 

MS     Yes

 

DC     And how did you guys get down there?

 

MS     By bus

 

DC      And when you wanted to play in the neighborhood here was there a park that you used to play in?

 

MS      The closest one was the Orange Bowl. We played in the streets.

 

DC      In the streets. And for example what games did you do?

 

MS      Name the sport, soccer, football, stickball, anything, hide and seek, it didn't matter what it was.

 

DC     What are your memories of downtown as a kid?

 

MS     The courthouse was the tallest building downtown, and I went there for the movies.

 

DC      For the movies. That's interesting. And tell me about the Tower Theatre over here (pointing).

 

MS      The Tower Theatre was more, uh, all the movies that they showed were double or triple movies so you could spend two to six hours there at a time.

 

DS now joins the conversation

 

DS      They had the best hot dogs in town.

 

MS      Yeah, great sausages.

 

DC      And this is as far back as you can remember?

 

MS      There, I could go there for six RC (Royal Crown) bottle caps you could get in the movies for free. That's why we used to go over there. We used to go around find these machines, whatever the special was. It was only a quarter here, downtown it could be fifty cents.

 

DS       We used to get a string and tie it to a magnet, put it down the machine and pull the bottle caps up. And then once or twice a year if you brought in any canned goods, we used to go to the dumpster at Food Fair, find damaged cans and bring them to them, and with two cans you got into the movies free.

 

DC       That's funny. And the Food Fair was where?

 

MS       Where the el Presidente market is.

 

DC       And you said that this place was called the Tower Hotel?

 

MS       Yes

 

DC       Would you say that the best days of the hotel, in terms of the class of people who stayed here, were behind even before you guys moved here? Because you’re telling me the theatre was already...

 

DS       This place was converted into a hotel in the late 40's or early 50's.

 

MS      Whoever my dad bought it from converted it.

 

DS      It was Riverside Hospital before then.

 

MS      It was a hospital that became the VA hospital/retirement home and then the guy that my father bought it from converted it into a retirement hotel.

 

DC      That's funny. So the neighborhood had more or less peaked really before you guys even got here in terms of the economic status of the people who lived in the neighborhood?

 

DS     No.

 

DC     No! It was still going up?

 

MS     It was an old Jewish/Itallian neighborhood.

 

DS      Most of the Jews were even gone.

 

MS      It was Jewish, Italian, and Georgia Crackers.

 

DS     When I was bom in "59 is when Fidel Castro came into power and that's when it all changed, when the Cubans came. That's when the big change came.

 

DC     Who do you remember as being your first neighbors? What kind of people were they? As far back as your memory goes.

 

MS     As far back as my? Cubans, as far as that goes.

 

DS     I was all Cuban. I mean that's when I was born.

 

MS      I remember we had right next door some Russians. Down the street there was an Italian family. Other that that, across the street we had a mix, uh, one parent was Japanese, one was Chinese. There kids were older than me so I didn't socialize with them. Everyone else was Cuban.

 

DC     Can you remember the Russians name by any chance?

 

DS       (Unintelligible)

 

MS      (Unintelligible)

 

DC     Which one was it?

 

MS     Pysek.

 

DS     Nick was our friend. Nick and Olga.

 

MS      Nick and Olga. And all the rest were too young.

 

DS      They became very Cuban too, like me, cause they were younger than my brother.  We were the only, the only other American family I knew was (unintelligible), right next door. That was the only other American family I knew. Everyone else was Cuban.

 

DC      So your saying that they became like you, more Cuban.

 

MS      They’re even more Cuban than me. They spoke better Spanish that I did. And they really thought they were Cuban. And uh, they weren't into education either, so, they were more street kind of people, they didn't turn out so hot.

 

DC     What happened to them?

 

DS      I think, uh, they married young, drugs, alcohol, in and out of jail, dead now. The father was an alcoholic.

 

DC  So the Cuban culture influenced you because that's all you knew.

 

DS      That's all I knew. The Cuban culture, they grew Miami, that's what made Miami.

 

MS      When they came, that’s when Miami started getting up. They took over, this street.  There  used to be many wooden houses. They tore them down, built apartment buildings. Renovated houses and put stucco on the outside. And because of them, this is something that I would call ornate, which is (unintelligible),,,

 

MS      They took a lot of pride in themselves, and they still do to this point, renovated these houses, fixed them up real nice. And that's the way it has always been. These older Cubans, and also they were very educated, too. Not like the new Communist ones. You can't compare them to the ones coming over now. Totally different element. I mean any old Cuban will tell you that, even they don't like them. This is also a demonstration of how Communism doesn't work. I don't know if you are as liberal as Janet (mutual friend who introduced us).

 

DC     No, uh, sometimes I'm conservative and sometimes I'm liberal, I'm all fucked up. OK, that's good. And do you speak Spanish?

 

DS     Yep.

 

DC     And did you learn it growing up? As your language?

 

DS      Only on the street. I never took it formally in school.

 

DC     And what about you?

 

MS     Uh, I, no. I went to a military academy. And I went into the army. And when I came here that's when I was forced.

 

DC     And who's Spanish is better between you two?

 

DS     Mine.

 

DC     And why do you think that is?

 

DS      I started younger.

 

MS      I went to military school. They were either Americans, or they were richer, (unintelligible), they were not Hispanics.

 

DC      And did the people who live around here, was Spanish as prevalent as it is today, the Spanish language, or was there an effort, by those people at that time, to learn English?

 

MS      Back then, my friends, I can't speak for my brothers friends, were telling their parents, "You've got to learn how to speak English; we live in America now." And uh, none of their parents spoke English, I had to fight with them to communicate, to use the Spanish I knew, almost all of my friends, because they came here young too spoke English, so I didn't have to speak Spanish. I was kind of a rebel type and refused to speak Spanish.

 

DS      To this day a lot of the older Cubans don’t speak English because there is no need to. They all spoke Spanish. My in-laws don't speak English. Most of their family, most of the older ones I know don't speak very good English. There’s no need to. This is a Cuban community. Spanish community. Even later on when the South Americans came, they spoke Spanish, everyone spoke Spanish.


DC     How is crime? How has it changed over the years?

 

MS      This neighborhood was virtually crimeless until 1980. The Mariel Boatlift changed this neighborhood.

 

MS      That's when all the bars went up everywhere.

 

MS      Yep. And once again I was in the military, I was in Key West. I'm unloading boats at gunpoint with all the Mariels coming off, taking knifes, machetes off of them, uh, round them up. We put them in little camps and a nightmare. I did it for two months and I saw, everyone I asked: where did you come from? (answer) prison, where did you come from? (answer) mental institutions. Why are you here? Because, uhm, they were low lifes or they had diseases, they didn't know how to treat them. Back then we didn't know what it was; they just said they had this disease, which later we found out it was AIDS. And, uhm, they were just bringing them over; I was watching them come off the boats, and it was horrible.

 

DC      And they picked Little Havana because it was a relatively affordable place? Part of Miami?

 

DS     It was a Cuban community.

 

MS     Right, it was a Cuban community.

 

DC      So at the same time the boat lift was going on the Nicaraguans were coming also?

 

MS      They started coming in little by little. I think just like everything the wealthy came first, in the Nicaraguans, then the El Salvadorans, then the Colombians, they came first. Then later on, when things got really bad, that's when the poor started coming.


DS      Then crack came in.

 

MS     They all started coming, and the worst of the worst started coming all at the same time. Around 1980 or 1982 (unintelligible) it was horrible.

 

DS      Cocaine was prevalent.

 

DC      How did crack change this neighborhood?

 

MS      Crack came to this neighborhood around '86.

 

DS      Mid-eighties, late eighties. Once crack came in it was terrible.

 

MS      From what we knew about crack, this is what I know, this is my memory, I never saw it so bad as after Hurricane Andrew. I saw it in the neighborhood but man, I mean after Hurricane Andrew, that's when this neighborhood became infested with crack.

 

MS      That was '92. That's when it started. They used to be in this parking lot here (points) right here on the side, our parking lot, on 14th Avenue. There would be ten or fifteen people just hanging out selling crack, and it used to drive me crazy, I used to go out there with sticks and yell at them. I mean, that's when we, a little bit earlier we started setting up cameras everywhere, but man it would be like termite infestation. It was terrible. They were like everywhere man.

 

DC      Weren't you afraid that someone was going to kill you?

 

DS      At that time, uh, they were more afraid of us. They were so intimidated and frail that we could push them around without any problem. I mean they were low level crack dealers nothing of any money that would intimidate us. But I mean there were a lot of them. We'd call the Police. There was nothing the Police could do, nothing at all. 

          

DC     What did the Police say?

 

DS      Nothing. There was nothing they could do. Couldn't bust them, couldn't get them, and if they did, they were out the next day.

 

DC      Were they Latin or black?

 

DS       Mostly Latin because it's a Latin community.

 

DC     And is it better now?

 

DS      Its better but we've gotten a couple problems. What happens is some of the buildings, once you get a crack dealer in the building it hurts. We've got a few right now. We have a few problems right now.

 

MS      But for a couple years it was pretty good. And now, on every corner, across the street  in the two story building is a crack dealer. Across the comer over here (points) is a crack dealer. Uh, on the middle of the next block there’s a crack dealer. And 6th street is infested.


DC      I thought crack had pretty much peaked.

 

DS      Make money selling it. We would have people come in the hotel, looked real nice, pretty girls, decent guys. They would go out here and start doing crack. You could see the metamorphosis. You could see the change. You could see the change in the walk, the would start walking like this (leans back), pretty girls get dirty, guys get sloppy, the next thing you know we got people here that we gotta throw out. Uh, I can see people just in the neighborhood, nice decent people, get involved with crack and completely change. People couldn't even come to this neighborhood because they were influenced by crack. It hurt us a bit because people used to come here, they would get influenced by crack and on the street they'd go right back to it, get addicted to it, and we'd end up throwing them out. And that was a common occurrence around, you know there were a lot of problems because that was available here. It did influence a lot of young people that came here.  Going back to a little, a little while back, my father really bought this property because he had a nightclub on the comer. Nightclub was called Ball and Chain. And he had the most famous people in jazz. Every single big entertainer: Count Basie, uh, Billy Holiday. Billy Holiday used to babysat my brother once.

 

MS     Louie Armstrong

 

DS       She was shooting up heroin (Billy Holiday) and my mom got pissed off at her. My mom would have to clean her up to perform. Uh, Louie Armstrong gave my brother this little mouth piece, this silver mouthpiece, gave it to my brother. My father used to sneak in black entertainers to the back here, just to let them stay here because they weren't allowed to stay in this neighborhood; they'd have to stay in Overtown. They used to jam over here; we used to have to sneak them in because you couldn't let the Georgia Crackers see them either. So he was always helping them those black entertainers out giving them accommodations, uh but we had every single big name. So that was originally why he bought this. In order to buy the house you had to buy the hotel with it. He wanted to be near the business and that was then. And there’s a lot of other colorful things that happened in our childhood because growing up here, and uh, you know, just uh, the camaraderie uh, European Jewish. My father was raised Italian but Jewish. There was always a closeness, family knit, but by father's background is Judaism to Cuban. They all have tight families; that's why we all got along really good. Strong families.

 

DC      Yes, I have a Jewish mother, and my mother is Italian, and I have a Cuban mother. You love them and yet they also make you crazy.  Yea but it's a strong family… Yea a strong family. You told me that you had a lot of colorful stories. Can you tell me the one story that stands out I wouldn't be caught telling any of my stories on tape (laughs) There’s a zillion of them. I can  tell you a quick story that I can remember. A lady that lived in the hotel, her name was Ann Miriam, I remember coming and showing us these newspapers saying her daughter, what was her name?...

 

DS      My father used to buy loads of clothes, from flea markets, and you know certain places and send them overseas, you know they said they were stolen goods. They were always trying to get him because of his affiliation. But he always told us, he was strict with us, he said listen, no drugs, no gambling, no prostitution. Those were the big things you know he said stay away from that.
He was from the old school of alcohol and bootlegging, and, uh, you know heists
and stuff, you know. Drugs were the big thing.

 

DC      So you guys were never tempted to smoke a rock?

 

DS      No, never.

 

DC       Uh, this is interesting, I didn't know that this area had nightclubs. When I hear about the old days in Miami I hear about Overtown and that. Tell me about the clubs that were going on here back then.

 

DS       (unintelligible)

 

MS       Ball and Chain was the only club in this neighborhood and uhm, that's why everyone would come, it was more of an after-hours because in this neighborhood back then other places had to close by 1 o'clock or 12 but in this neighborhood my father (unintelligible) I think that he was allowed to keep his club open to like four or five o'clock in the morning, so he was considered like an after hours club. That's why everyone, when the clubs were closed, they would come here and jam. They had big jamming sessions. You name the act or the most famous person you could think of, and they were there. Even white: Connie Stevens, uh, Lena Horne, well she wasn't (white) but Lena Horne was here.

 

DS     Lena Horne, she went with my mom to Sears.

 

MS      With me.

 

DS      My mom was real dark when she got tanned (unintelligible) and they stopped her and Lena they couldn't go in Sears because they were black.

 

MS      They pointed to a sign and the sign said: No Coloreds, No Dogs, and No Jews allowed and I said to my mom, I said "Why can't we go in there?" and my mom just grabbed my hand and said, "Lets go" and I remember Lena saying, shaking her head like this (gestures) saying (unintelligible). There used to be stores right here on eighth street that used to have those same signs. (Unintelligible)

 

DS       (Unintelligible)

 

MS      There was a drug store, right up here, that had a sign. Some did say no Jews, but most of the time it said No Coloreds, No Dogs, No Jews allowed. I mean, Jews were the worst of the worst.   

    

DC     This is the Sears downtown on Biscayne?

 

MS      Yea, the Sears downtown. My mother could go to Sears in Coral Gables, and she started going there; she said she'd never go to Sears downtown again.

 

DS       Yeah, but that wasn't (unintelligible)

 

MS      Well later, whatever it was.

 

DS       That's why my father had to sneak in, through the back, the alley (unintelligible)

 

DC      Was there liquor served in the club? After like, three in the morning.

 

MS       Well in the beginning, my father did have, (unintelligible)..

 

Interview ends.

 

 

Reflection

The Tower Hotel had probably already seen its best days by the time their father purchased it in 1956, moving the family to Little Havana from New York City. Manny and David experienced this neighborhood growing up as boys during the late 1950's and 1960's. However, in some ways their experiences would not be the same. David, who was born in Miami, would learn how to speak Spanish from his friends and on the streets. Manny, who was older, resisted. "I was kind of a rebel. I kind of refused to speak it." But both can easily recall that when looking towards downtown on eighth street the tallest building there being the old court house.

 

They came from European Jews who immigrated to New York from Russia a generation earlier. They had a strong, closely knit family. At an early age the boys were expected to help with chores around the hotel. Education was a priority. They had a considerable extended family. And they had many of the same social values as of the families of early Cubans moving into the neighborhood at the time. The brothers believe this is one of the reasons why everybody basically got along back then.

 

The neighborhood had largely been abandoned during these years, giving way to Miami's newer suburbs. "Most of the Jews were even gone," said Manny. It still had some though, along with Russians, Italians, a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese, the ever increasing number of Cubans, and those they refer to as "Georgia crackers."

 

The hotel actually had its start as a Veterans Administration Hospital, later being turned into their nursing home. It was bought by the man who years later would sell it to their father. Mr. Schechtman, at about the same time, also bought a building on the comer and turned it into a nightclub. During these days the majority of the hotel's guests were either snowbirds betting on the horses at Hialeah, construction workers, people down on their luck, or people basically waiting to die.

 

The closest park in the neighborhood was the Orange Bowl. The boys played in the streets, everything from football to stickball, soccer, and hide & seek. They would spend many afternoons at the Tower Theatre, those days featuring double and triple shows. "It was only a quarter here, downtown it was fifty cents," says Manny. The brothers recall that you could actually get in free with six Royal Crown Cola bottle caps. They  sometimes would tie a string to a magnet and drop it down a soda machine to retrieve old bottle caps. Times would change. The theatre would close. Their synagogue would become the YMCA. The mom and pop bakeries (both Cuban and American), the meat and fish markets, the five and dimes, that did business on eighth street, would all give way to check cashing stores and pawn shops; some of whom bought stolen jewelry from the neighborhood crack heads.

 

Their father's nightclub, The Ball and Chain, attracted a late night crowd and featured some of the biggest jazz entertainers of their day. Louie Armstrong, Lena Home, Billy Holiday, and Count Basic all played there. For some reason their club was permitted to stay open later than most others in the city. Most would close around 2AM and many of their club patrons, employees, and entertainers would head over to the Ball and Chain. When it closed for the night, around SAM, anybody wanting to sleep through the morning could walk to the hotel, just a short distance away. And if you were black, back in those days, you would have to sneak in through the back alley so that you wouldn't be seen going into a hotel that you weren't supposed to be in. "They used to jam over there.


We used to have to sneak them in because you couldn't let the Georgia crackers see them. He (Mr. Schechtman) was always helping the black entertainers out, giving them accommodations," says David. The family developed a personal relationship with some of the entertainers. Billie Holiday babysat. One night she also got caught shooting up heroin before going on stage. They're mother got angry, cleaned her up, and got her to perform. Louie Armstrong gave Manny a silver mouth piece to one of his trumpets.


David points out that his brother, unfortunately, would sell it. Manny recounts a particularly alarming story about a trip he made with his mother and Lena Home to the Sears downtown. "They pointed to a sign that said: NO COLOREDS, NO JEWS, & NO DOGS." Manny continues, "I said to my mom, why can't we go in there? My mom just grabbed my hand and said lets go, while Lena Home just shook her head." He said that his mother would never go back to that particular Sears, instead shopping at the one in Coral Gables. He can recount different stores on eighth street having the same sign. Their father would eventually close the club because of an $8,000. lean Count Basie had placed against it.

In 1980 the Mariel boat lift brought a new wave of refugees into Little Havana. "That's when the (window) bars went up everywhere," says David. Manny adds, "The area was virtually crimeless before then." The first wave of South Americans followed shortly after, mainly Colombians and then Nicaraguans. As an interesting side effect of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, crack cocaine would hit its peak in popularity there.


According to both brothers, crack cocaine became prevalent around 1986. "But after the hurricane, that's when the neighborhood became infested with crack," says Manny. Their problem, though improved somewhat, remains today. Says David, "We would have people come into the hotel look real nice: pretty girls, decent guys. They would go out there and start doing crack. You could see the metamorphosis. You could see the change. You could see the change in their walk. Pretty girls get dirty, guys get sloppy, and the next thing you know we got people here that we got to throw out."

 

The hotel continues on today. Most of their business comes from European tourists that learn of it, among other ways, from the hotel's web site on the internet. It also has a steady stream of business travelers from the Northeast. If one doesn't mind doing without a few amenities and a little atmosphere; the front desk resembling a large, air-conditioned utility closet. The Tower remains a good value. A room there can currently be rented for as little as $130 a week.