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Tony Goldman remembers the first time he rounded a corner in Miami Beach and saw Ocean Drive. He saw past the drug dealers and the elderly sleeping in front of crumbling old hotels. He saw the future South Beach. Transforming those 10 blocks took perseverance. At first, he wielded a baseball bat to chase off the drug addicts. But even then, Tony saw what it would be today, 26 years later: a tourist draw with sidewalk cafés set beneath pastel-colored art deco jewels.

Ocean Drive, however, wasn’t Tony’s first attempt at urban redesign. He started out renovating brownstones on Manhattan’s West Side and helped transform SoHo. After South Beach, he helped bring residential living back to Manhattan’s financial district. He nosed around Philadelphia and started developing near a seedy red-light district downtown. Lured by Miami again, he targeted a warehouse district north of downtown and reinvented it as an art district. (Surely you’ve walked the Wynwood Walls by now.)

Tony sees dead neighborhoods and helps bring them back to life: “Guts R Us,” he says, chuckling, “but we’re not as crazy as we seem.” The “we” is Goldman Properties, which the 67-year-old entrepreneur still runs from New York despite a double lung transplant a few years ago. Every five to seven years, he starts a new project. These days, he’s working on a plan to save New York’s Coney Island, and he’s been asked to shape a vision for the forgotten part of Ellis Island. He’s looked into the Buffalo, N.Y., waterfront, thanks to his brother Mark, who lives there. (Google “Venus de Silo Buffalo” to see how those grain silos and elevators might look on your next trip to Niagara Falls.)

In 2010, the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave Tony its highest award, honoring him for 40 years of transforming depressed, undervalued urban areas into thriving global destinations. Tony’s a New Yorker, an urbanite, who has one guiding philosophy: “I want people on the streets. I want them walking,” he says. “It’s my attempt to change some of the social norms we have today because we’ve become suburban based.” He widened the sidewalks on Ocean Drive, and suddenly tourists and families were walking the neighborhood. “People there don’t care if you are black or white, gay or straight. Put people on the street and … it depolarizes us,” he argues.

Tony’s plans start simply. OK, first, Tony has the vision, then he buys a critical mass of property “cheaply and quietly.” He brings in community groups and even competitors to shape long-term development. He tries not to tear down anything. Usually, he starts with an architecturally interesting landscape, as he did in New York and Philadelphia and Miami Beach. But his latest project in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood broke the mold. A blue-collar area with ugly single-story warehouses in the shadow of downtown, it had no architectural gems. It did have scores of art galleries — and a successful restaurant run by Goldman’s son, Joey.

To create a “town center,” Tony commissioned 15 artists and street taggers, including Futura, Os Gêmeos, Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf — to graffiti the warehouse walls of the neighborhood. The Wynwood Walls project is flanked now by Joey’s place and the new Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, run by Tony’s daughter, Jessica. “Feed the people and the people will feed the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s a really important component to turning the light on in a neighborhood.” Though Wynwood’s still dicey, it rocks on each second Saturday of the month for the Wynwood Gallery Walk, with thousands pouring through the Walls and stopping for dinner.

Tony has his critics (Ocean Drive is too touristy for some these days), but he’s not deterred. “It’s a patient, patient game. The long-term motivation is both profit and creating a community where there was none, bringing people to the streets,” he says. “This is spadework — in-the-trenches, old-style community-development work.” The payoff is the view from the café seat.