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Written by John Dorschner, BT Contributor   
November 2016

Barred Aventura book finally comes into focus

EBramson_3ight years after he started research, three years after the city warned his publisher that it didn’t authorize publication, Seth Bramson’s book on Aventura has finally gotten into print.

“It was certainly unusually circuitous,” says Bramson of the book’s publication path, but he adds, “I am nothing short of thrilled to see it (at last) appear in print.”

The 160-page book, stuffed with historic photos, is titled Aventura, Florida: From Marshes and Mangroves to Cityscapes and High Rises, published last month by Marc-Martin Publishing of Hallandale Beach, after the original publisher backed out, frightened by a chilling letter from Aventura’s city attorney.

The book already has one big critic: Donald Soffer, the patriarch of Aventura development. “Some things...are factual,” he tells the BT, “and some aren’t.” More on that in a moment.

The Aventura book is Bramson’s 26th, many of them photo-laden histories of cities, “from Homestead to Hallandale Beach,” as he likes to say. In some cases, the cities paid him to write a book and then agreed to purchase at least 500 copies. In these cases, the cities occasionally asked for small changes, which he explains he was happy to make. He has another eight books in the works, he says.

The Aventura book saga began in 2008, when some local leaders suggested that the city hire Bramson to write its history.

The author says he signed a contract with city manager Eric Soroka; he was given a copy but “it’s been misplaced.” He recalls the deal being for $10,000 or $12,000, with a third paid as a retainer on signing. The city also agreed to buy 500 copies.

Bramson went to work, researching the history of Ojus, an unincorporated community in northeast Dade that preceded Aventura.

Bramson_1He tracked down rare photos of Ives Dairy, the farm that once occupied much of the land that’s now Aventura. He had extensive interviews with members of the Lebowitz and Soffer families, who in the 1960s purchased about 800 acres that were to become the core of the future city. Each family received a lengthy chapter.

In the spring of 2009, Bramson says, he e-mailed the manuscript and proposed photos to city manager Soroka, who later asked him to a meeting to discuss the work. When the historian arrived, Soroka and then-Mayor Susan Gottlieb were waiting for him.

When asked to comment for this article about the book and Bramson’s versions of events, Soroka replied: “I have not read it and have no comment. Much of the information in your e-mail provided by Bramson is incorrect.” He did not respond to follow-up e-mails about what was incorrect. Gottlieb’s response: “It was a long time ago and I do not recall it at all.”

What follows is Bramson’s version; the direct quotes are taken from e-mail exchanges he provided to the BT:

At the meeting, Bramson recalls, Soroka did virtually all the talking, telling him they weren’t happy with the book.

They wanted almost all the photos to come out, as well as the material before the city incorporated in 1995, which meant eliminating the chapter on Ojus and mentions of Ives Dairy. They wanted the Lebowitz family section reduced. Most of the photos in a chapter on the Aventura Marketing Council should be cut, as well as photos of the police chief and the famed Mo’s Bagels. And they wanted more to be written about Williams Island.

Bramson recalls saying: Shouldn’t I be able to explain?

Doesn’t matter, Soroka reportedly replied. The meeting lasted about an hour and a half.

Later Soroka sent Bramson a heavily edited manuscript; about half the original material was gone, and the manager wanted to include some small, low-resolution photos.

Bramson_2When asked if he still has the edited version and the accompanying photos, Bramson says it could be somewhere in his Miami Shores house, but his place is stuffed to the rafters with historic documents and memorabilia, and he has no idea where it might be.

Bramson’s friend, Adam Rogers, who has handled the photos for his history books, told him the low-resolution copies weren’t publishable. Rogers recalls that he e-mailed Soroka several times to ask for better-quality photos but received no response.

The April 30, 2009, deadline for submitting the manuscript to the publisher came and went. “I just let the matter die,” says Bramson. “I was not going to jeopardize my standing in the community with a petty dispute.”

The city paid him nothing after the retainer and never sent money to the publisher for the 500 agreed-upon copies. Bramson says the city never asked for the retainer back.

Several months later, on August 26, Soroka sent Bramson an e-mail that reads, “Good morning, Seth. Any news on the Aventura book? Hope all is well.”

This set off an exchange that lasted throughout the day. Bramson first responded that Soroka had never replied to the problem of the photos.

The city manager wrote back that he’d never seen any e-mails. “Once we provided you with the pictures and the documents,” Soroka wrote, “we thought the book would be developed into a draft by you for one final review. We need to resolve this ASAP.”

Bramson e-mailed back that the photos weren’t the only problem: “I do hope you understand that we are going to, essentially, have to start from scratch, as we need to submit six to ten chapters and 128 pages with 180 to 200 photographs, hence there is a good deal of rewriting and re-working to do.”

Soroka: “Seth...I do not understand why we would have to start from scratch at this point.”

Bramson: “The material that you have sent is -- and not meaning in any way to be disrespectful -- simply not voluminous enough for a book on the city. Hence we need to essentially rework what I wrote and what you and the mayor wrote so that we can turn in, to the publisher, the material needed.”

He wrote that Rogers would once again contact Soroka about the photos.

Bramson_4With that, Bramson says, the e-mail exchange ended. Occasionally, he says he saw Mayor Gottlieb at social gatherings. When he brought up the book, he recalls, she told him it was “a dead issue.”

At some point, Bramson was contacted by Myrna Mason, the daughter of developer Eugene Lebowitz, who asked about the book. He sent her a copy of the Lebowitz chapter. She was impressed and wanted to see the book published. The family agreed to prepay for 500 copies.

Bramson reworked his original manuscript, expanding the chapters on the Lebowitzes and Soffers, and tinkering with other sections. He added an epilogue about a nasty incident in recent city history: In 2012 a jury awarded Katherine Murphy $155 million in damages after she charged that the city had improperly fired her as principal of the city’s charter school and inflicted mental and emotional harm. Soroka was found personally responsible for $500,000 of the award. The judge threw out the verdict, but that decision is being appealed today.

Bramson says he wanted to include the case because it “was one of the largest jury verdicts in the history of the United States.”

In 2013, as he readied the revised manuscript for his long-time publisher, History Press, Aventura officials learned what he was up to. On August 27, the Aventura city attorney’s office sent a letter to the publisher: “Please be advised that the City has not authorized Mr. Bramson to write a history of the City or to use photos, papers or other property of the City in the proposed book. Likewise, the City has not authorized, and specifically denies any request to use the official seal or logo of the City upon or in connection with the book.”

The next day, Chad Rhoad, an editor at History Press, e-mailed Bramson about the “messy” situation. “If the city will not support this, it’s not a good sign for the book,” he wrote. “The controversy surrounding these issues would be a problem for us, and probably for sales. Nevertheless, it’s something we want to avoid. As of now, I have to cancel this project.”

Bramson replied that he’d written other city histories without official authorization and that hadn’t hindered sales. He said he wasn’t using the city seal, and that he had included only two photos from the city, and that these were from brochures that were public records.

History Press refused to budge.

Over the next three years, Bramson searched for a publisher, finally finding Marc-Martin, run by two veteran photographers, Al Barg and Jeff Weisberg, who specialize in upscale photo books of national parks. To make certain they recouped their costs, Barg says, the Lebowitz family agreed to buy 500 books, and Bramson 100 copies.

After all this controversy, readers might expect to find a book brimming with sordid incidents. Not so.

The introduction starts: “What a story! What a history! What a City!”

The chapters on the Lebowitzes and the Soffers are highly laudatory, including details of their considerable philanthropy. The two families at some point had a split about the direction of Aventura, Bramson reports, the Lebowitzes favoring low-density, the Soffers high-density; but this historic split is brushed off without detail.

The book also doesn’t mention that patriarch Donald Soffer has been married five times, or that the Soffer empire, which built the huge Aventura Mall and the sprawling Turnberry Isle development, suffered through several years of severe financial strain because of the bankruptcy of its Fontainebleau Las Vegas.

Bramson says he didn’t mention the Las Vegas problems because they involved primarily Jeffrey, son of the patriarch, and “just didn’t have anything to do with Aventura.”

Also getting easy treatment: Soroka, with several flat paragraphs describing his tenure as Aventura’s first (and only) city manager, ignoring media stories that have questioned why his wife worked for some years as Aventura city clerk, and the law firm that employs his son also serves as the city attorney.

Bramson says he saw developer Soffer recently at Bagel Cove and sold him several copies of the book. Soffer tells the BT that he liked the chapter on his family but called the Lebowitz chapter “just not true. They had little or nothing to do with Aventura.” The two families had been partners in the Pittsburgh area, but in Florida they quickly decided to go their separate ways. “Leave us alone down here and we’ll leave you alone up there,” Soffer says.

Bramson contends that the book is accurate; the families bought the land together and then later split, he says.

Myrna Mason, daughter of patriarch Eugene Lebowitz, responded that the two families “acquired the financing and development for the construction of Turnberry and Aventura Mall, for at least the first 10 years of the development of the 800-acre acquisition.” After that construction, the families “agreed to divide their extensive projects in Pittsburgh and Florida. Don Soffer decided to develop and to enlarge their holdings to what you see today.”

Other Aventura leaders -- including Cliff Schulman, chairman of the Aventura Marketing Council, and Enid Weisman, the current mayor -- say they haven’t yet seen the book.

Weisman asked how it could be obtained. The answer: not easily. The Aventura area once had two huge bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Both have closed.

In the book, Bramson is not overly modest, describing himself as “Greater Miami’s foremost and premier historian.” This is a view not everyone shares. When Michael Weiser, chairman of HistoryMiami, was asked to name the top local historians, he replied, “The best known among them are Arva Moore Parks and Paul George. Arva is a true scholar, the author of a series of books on Miami history and past chair of [HistoryMiami]. Paul is the museum’s resident scholar and widely recognized for his entertaining tours and lectures.” (He also writes the “Picture Story” column in Biscayne Times.)

Aventura has not been Bramson’s only problem. Last year the Miami Herald reported from Miami Beach: “City Manager Jimmy Morales fired city historian Seth Bramson...after deciding the manuscript wasn’t what the city wanted for its coffee table book about the centennial.”

One criticism: A chapter mentioning some scandalous incidents from the city’s past, including one-time commissioner Abe Hirschfeld, who spat on a Herald reporter, and former mayor Alex Daoud, imprisoned on a bribery charge.

He’s still looking for a publisher for that manuscript. “The book,” he laments, “was 95 percent positive.”

Publisher Al Barg says the Aventura book will eventually be available on Amazon. For now, he will mail copies for $26.16, which includes tax, shipping, and handling; call 954-458-1451, or write him at 214 NE 1st Ave., Hallandale Beach, FL 33009. The book can also be ordered through Bramson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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