The show that redefined Miami

Miami Vice debuted 30 years ago with cool cops and a New Wave soundtrack, transforming the world’s view of Miami – and ultimately, Miami itself.

It’s hard to imagine now, amid the sea of luxury high rises and shiny sports cars, but during the early 1980s, Miami was a disaster of a city. Well-armed drug lords, better known as cocaine cowboys or marijuana millionaires, helped transformed the place into a warzone; Miami had the highest murder rate in the world. Yet amid all that blight, a couple of guys saw gold. TV writer Anthony Yerkovich teamed with producer Michael Mann to create a cop drama that would redefine television and the city in which the show was set: Miami Vice.

Cue Crockett and Tubbs.

The show premiered in the US 30 years ago and was ultimately syndicated in 77 countries, introducing viewers to two dapper undercover narcotics officers played by too-cool-for-school Don Johnson and hot-as-hell Philip Michael Thomas. It also introduced a fleet of cigarette boats, sports cars and bikini clad women set against the backdrop of Miami’s Art Deco architecture. Add Jan Hammer's thumping theme song and a killer New Wave soundtrack, and Miami Vice created a character arguably sexier than Armani-clad Crockett and Tubbs: the city of Miami.

Does that Miami – the show's Miami – still exist? I wanted to find out.

I didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes in the city to see that Miami has spruced itself up considerably since the '80s. But the city is a work in progress; more than a few cranes loom above multi-million-dollar condo construction sites.

I strolled through the Brickell neighbourhood, just south of Miami's downtown, past the intersection that was home to the show's Organized Crime Bureau of the Metro-Dade Police Department, better known as Miami Vice. The building – covertly labelled in the show as "Gold Coast Shipping Company" to keep their anti-narcotics operation undercover – was where Crockett and Tubbs debriefed cases. Today, the building is just a memory, and the intersection of SW 7th Street and SW 2nd Avenue where it sat is shadowed by a looming luxury apartment complex; a brightly lit Publix supermarket lies steps away.

But I didn’t have to travel far to reach another iconic Miami Vice location. Just south of the show's former headquarters along Brickell's bayfront lies the 20-storey Atlantis Condominium building with its shocking, square hole in the centre – the building was featured in the show's opening credits. The Atlantis telegraphed just the kind of futuristic cool image that producers wanted. As the sleazy racketeer Vinnie DeMarco played by Joe Dallesandro remarked in one episode, "If Miami hasn't got it, they haven't invented it yet."

But 30 years later, the Atlantis' dark, mirrored exterior and relatively squat height look dated, particularly compared to neighbouring buildings – newer, sleek white towers with gleaming, pale-tinted glass and balconies.

Of course, Miami's shimmering turquoise water featured prominently in the show, and just north of Brickell in Miami's downtown I found the Miamarina, a marina filled with flashy yachts and speedboats where Crockett docked his houseboat, the St Vitus Dance.

The marina now houses the sprawling Bayside Marketplace, a hub of shops, restaurants and bars. Crockett's dock no longer exists; the place has been completely remodelled since the ‘80s, and the St Vitus, portrayed by three different yachts over the show's five lifespan, is long gone from the marina.

The marina makes the roster of sights visited by one local tour operator, Speedboat Tours, whose boat also zips past Hibiscus Island and a mansion whose exterior and waterfront deck stood in for a drug dealer's house.

"Really, if it wasn't for Miami Vice, the tourists wouldn't be here," said tour guide Michael Lynch. "The show transformed the city. In those days, people used to call Miami 'heaven's waiting room’. It was old people playing chess and waiting to see God, and it was also the deadliest city in the country."

But Miami changed. In a way, it was life – city life – imitating art.

"People started filming music videos, doing fashion shoots here," Lynch said. "This drew models and people looking to be discovered, and then, tourists from around the world."

South Beach and the Art Deco buildings along Ocean Avenue were an ideal backdrop for videos and photo spreads, and not surprisingly featured heavily in countless scenes throughout Miami Vice's five seasons.

By the time filming of the show commenced in the early 1980s, groups like the Miami Design Preservation League had succeeded in getting the city’s Art Deco District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but designation offered no protection from demolition; only local ordinances could protect the buildings from being razed.

When Vice was filming, producers noticed the decaying Art Deco buildings, and also their bland, beige colours. Producer Mann had taken the extraordinary step of declaring that no earth tones be used in the show. Something had to give.

"Location scouts would see they wanted to shoot a particular building, but the colours were wrong," says Judith Frankel of the Preservation League. "They would actually find the building's owner and ask if they could paint it."

Suddenly the area was awash in vibrant hues: pink, green, turquoise, yellow.

"The colours became synonymous with Miami Beach," Frankel said. "People are seeing these bright colours and associating their liveliness with Miami."

Investment followed, and then local ordinances were passed to protect the buildings.

South Beach and its Art Deco buildings appear in all five seasons of the show; in fact, they’re viewers' first glimpse of Miami in the show's two-hour premiere.

Among the show’s Art Deco stars was The Carlyle Hotel. In one episode, Crockett, in his usual aloof, linen-bedecked glory, stands outside, watching in distaste as a street dancer busts a move on the otherwise empty blacktop. "Five thousand street corners in Miami,” he said, “and Gumby here has got to pick ours."

The Carlyle didn't look half bad in the show – a little seedy maybe, but with potted plants out front. Walking past the Carlyle today, I noticed it shines neon-bright as one of Ocean Drive's sleekest hotels. At night, crowds of club-goers teeter past on stiletto heels or swig booze out of margarita glasses the size of their faces.

In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, creator Yerkovich noted, "When we got there, the Art Deco district was somewhat threadbare ... Now it's up to its Ray Bans in espresso.''

The thing is, there's still an awful lot of espresso here, and really, a remarkable number of Ray-Bans.

Glimpsing the ghosts of Miami Vice in Miami isn't hard. After five seasons and more than 100 episodes, great stretches of the city made their way onto the show. Incredibly, Miami Vice highlighted everything wrong with the town – drug cartels, corruption, loads of violence – but did so in a way that made Miami look gorgeous.

If Miami Vice worked to make a troubled city sparkle, today Miami dazzles on its own.