Conflict in Clubland

Streets lined with rowdies, fistfights, gunshots, cops in ski masks. Is this what an entertainment district is supposed to look like?

At 12:40 on the morning of April 11, Yves DiLena, the owner of Warsaw Ballroom, was summoned to the front door of his legendary Collins Avenue nightclub on urgent business. He emerged from his office and waded through the warehouselike venue, which was throbbing with industrial-strength rock and multicolor strobe lights. He weaved across a dance floor thronged with young men, many of them bare-chested. He passed by the bar, on top of which male dancers often perform clad only in briefs and combat boots. He eventually reached his lobby, which is adorned with an oil painting of naked nymphs. Nowhere along the way did DiLena pass anything resembling a dinner table -- or even a breadstick.

When he reached the door, he found Miami Beach Code Compliance officer Angelo Paloumbis. "He asked me if I had a kitchen and if I served meals," says the 44-year-old DiLena. "I told him no. I've owned this club five years and never served a meal. The club has been here eight years and never served a meal. You don't come to a place like mine to eat. Code enforcement people have been in and out of here all these years and know perfectly well I don't prepare food. But now he gives me a ticket at one in the morning because I didn't serve supper. I thought it was a joke."

It wasn't. Paloumbis and his Miami Beach Code Compliance colleagues descended not just on Warsaw but on three other prominent South Beach clubs -- Groove Jet, Lua, and Salvation, all of which cater to a predominately straight clientele. Each was hit with the same middle-of-the-night notice as Warsaw: Open a kitchen within 30 days and start dishing up eats or you'll be shut down. Period.

"It made absolutely no sense," recalls 35-year-old Greg Brier, owner of the extremely successful Groove Jet nightclub on 23rd Street. "But then we started to hear about the other clubs getting violations. We know how the city does things, and we put two and two together and figured where it was coming from."

The owners concluded that the crackdown was intended primarily to close yet another club, Amnesia, which has been locked in a four-year legal battle with the city. But the events of that night signaled something more worrisome to the nightclub proprietors: that despite a recent cease-fire, the running battle between their clubs and the municipal government for the past several years had broken out again.

"It's an amazing situation," says Eric Milon, the 45-year-old Frenchman who is part owner of the upscale Living Room on Washington Avenue. "Without the nightlife industry, there is no South Beach. There is no business, no profits. People used to come here for the Art Deco. Now they come for the nightlife. But it seems the city is always wanting to put us out of business. They are not just implementing the law. They are making your life impossible. They are trying to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

Miami Beach officials argue that the goose that deposits those golden eggs also leaves unpleasant droppings -- armies of teenagers from all over the county, including gang members, who cross the causeways and gather on South Beach. Many are well behaved, but some get drunk, do drugs, fight, break into cars, and even, from time to time, shoot at each other, police say. Because a number of clubs lure this element to the Beach, the industry as a whole must contend with the crackdowns. Until the entertainment industry fixes this problem, all clubs, no matter what their age policies, will inevitably feel the city's displeasure.

This bad blood between the clubs and city has flowed for some time, with no lasting solutions. But this latest clash might just provoke important changes in the way South Beach operates. A new mayor and a group of unified club owners forged a task force for that reason after municipal elections last November.

"We've been telling business owners for a long time that they have to decide what they want to be," says Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto, who participates in the task force. "You either want to be this wild scene, with tattoo parlors and whatever, that attracts the wrong element, or you want to make it a place that will bring well-to-do adults to South Beach."

Steve Polisar, an attorney and long-time South Beach investor also active in the task force, explains: "What we're looking at is working a transformation, attracting an older, upscale crowd, creating an adult Disney World."

What that means is a move to end the Mickey Mouse operations on South Beach that cater to high school-age kids. All-ages parties have become big draws on SoBe. At least one is staged on most weekends, especially in the off-season when clubs are desperate to pay the bills. They are often organized by independent promoters who rent club space for the night. Those parties permit teenagers to populate some of the same clubs that on other nights draw the supermodels and film stars of South Beach legend. At these kid events, the liquor cabinets are closed or remain open only in areas of the clubs restricted to those 21 and older. Youths pay a cover and can buy soft drinks. Most do their drinking -- or sniffing or pot smoking -- before strolling through the doors, police say. "They drink out of the trunks of their cars," chafes Chief Barreto.

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