Conflict in Clubland

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

By far the most popular venue hosting all-ages parties has been the Amnesia International Nightclub, at 136 Collins Ave. Amnesia is the nightspot that city officials are not allowed to forget.

The club has posed a problem almost from the day it opened in February 1994. The most dramatic incident occurred recently, in the early hours of April 7, when the Miami Beach Police hotline received a harrowing call. The dispatcher heard only two words: "Amnesia boom!" A phalanx of officers rushed to the site of the presumed bomb threat and ordered the management to evacuate the estimated 1500 patrons, most of whom were teenagers, according to police. The mob poured out into the street, less than pleased with the turn of events. Fights broke out. "It was a genuinely ugly scene," remembers Beach police spokesman Al Boza. "When I got there I saw a wave of kids coming down the street. This was scary."

Even scarier was the explosive device, which turned out to be a small -- but very real -- pipe bomb placed near a fuse box in the alley behind the club. Police disarmed it. Within a week they had detained two Coral Gables brothers, Manny and Angelo Varas, ages twenty and nineteen. The fledgling nightclub promoters were hosting a rival all-ages party on the same night at Salvation, a club at the opposite end of South Beach. The brothers, police agreed, had watched one too many Mafia movies.

The management cannot be blamed for the bomb, obviously. But the club had already collected an unusual number of enemies in its four years of operation. Amnesia -- a structure featuring classical columns, staggered dance podiums, and a dance floor, all situated in an open-air courtyard -- is located in a largely residential section of South Pointe. Its sleepless neighbors have pressed Miami Beach politicos to either make it quieter or close it down. In fact, they assail city officials for having approved the club in the first place.

The city claims the owners of Amnesia misrepresented their project from the get-go. Amnesia attorney Dennis Bedard admits that the owners' original application was for a "supper club," but the place was never operated as such. Amnesia evolved into a noisy beast of a nightclub, known especially for its raucous foam parties. "The city pictured a place where doctors and lawyers would go for a little supper and dancing, and instead they got kids, and kids make noise," says Bedard. He stresses that the city never responded to that original application for a supper club but issued the owners a standard license receipt, which lists Amnesia as a "restaurant (bar, lounge)," just like other clubs on the Beach. For that reason, the owners are not breaking the law, he insists.

That argument angers city officials who have waged a war of attrition against Amnesia. It is that war that spilled over to the other clubs last month. Code Compliance -- the municipal agency that ensures enforcement of building and zoning regulations -- has written violation after violation against Amnesia for too much noise. But the club has persuaded judges to void the violations, according to Bedard, and keeps operating. In April 1997 then-City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa briefly attained the status of neighborhood hero when he closed the club. The din, caused by thumping music, the squealing of foam-divers, and traffic, constituted an environmental emergency, he explained. A judge quickly declared the closing illegal. Within days Amnesia reopened.

Soon after, the city discovered a new weapon: Amnesia's certificate of use stipulates that it must serve meals at all hours of operation. This past October, the city ordered Amnesia closed because it didn't operate its kitchen according to the law. The owners were serving up plenty of foam, but not enough eats. Thanks to legal maneuvers, the club has remained open, but it could face closure in the near future.

In the midst of their campaign against Amnesia, city legal strategists realized they had left themselves vulnerable. Enforcing the "no-kitchen" provision against that one club could lead to a legal counterattack on the grounds of selective enforcement. According to Code Compliance director Al Childress, this is why the city launched its April 11 late-night offensive against other clubs that weren't serving food, although none of those businesses had ever been required to serve meals before and had never pretended to be supper clubs. "That's the city, all right," opines veteran Beach promoter Woody Graber. "They had a problem, and instead of going at it with a surgeon's scalpel, they went at it with a shotgun."

But the city again begs to differ. The trouble with disruptive teenagers isn't confined to Amnesia and its immediate neighborhood. Other clubs -- such as Salvation, Bar 609, Cream -- have also hosted teenage events. The problem affects all of South Beach.

The county curfew stipulates that all kids under seventeen must be off the streets by 11:00 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. But police say it is impossible to check every club to make sure the younger kids are out on time. They also say youths seventeen to twenty are not covered by the curfew but also cause trouble, especially when they are denied entry to clubs that have age limits of 21. (A New Times photographer was accosted by such a group of young men while taking pictures for this article outside Groove Jet the night of May 12.)

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