Conflict in Clubland

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

Crime statistics have dropped just about everywhere else in Miami Beach, but on South Beach they are burgeoning. A whopping 25 percent of all arrests in the city are made on Washington Avenue alone, police say, and many offenders are under 21. "These are mostly arrests concerning the keeping of order, fights and such, curfews," Chief Barreto says, "but also car break-ins and car thefts."

"If you live in mid-Beach and never see a patrol car at night, it's because we're always down here," says another Beach cop.

So are lots of other people.
It is 2:00 on a Saturday morning. South Beach is in full flower. Bevies of young women wend their way to their favorite clubs, dressed in their most brazen Saturday-night best -- lots of decolletage and legs. Carloads of young men cruise Washington Avenue, offering color commentary on the ladies. The traffic is bumper to bumper. Music and strobes pulse in the clubs. The night is young.

On the median strip in front of the Living Room, Bash, and Berlin Bar, between Sixth and Seventh streets, stand three policemen wearing shirts emblazoned with the words "Multi-Agency Gang Task Force." It was newly elected Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin who persuaded County Mayor Alex Penelas to dispatch county police to help patrol the Beach. A six-man patrol sweeps down the next block. In front of the Equus Club, between Ninth and Tenth streets on Washington, Miami Beach bicycle patrol officers order two young men to sit on the sidewalk while being questioned. Four young men in wool ski caps, three of them dressed in camouflage, swagger down the street. A young woman they pass is overheard complaining of "the gangsters" on the Beach.

The police patrol every median strip between Fifth and Fifteenth, stopping cars, checking IDs, detaining teens for violating the curfew. Officers haul the these youths to headquarters, to a room known as "the nursery," where they will be detained while their parents or guardians are called. In front of the Cameo Theatre, members of the gang unit have detained eight young men. One cop questions a boy in a Wu Tang Clan T-shirt about the tattoos on his arm. He wants to know if they are gang markings. Yet another policeman is wearing a ski mask, presumably to protect his identity for undercover work.

As much as club owners laud the police presence on Washington Avenue, they wince at scenes like this. "We want the police protection, but we don't want it to look like a war zone," says Eric Milon of the Living Room. Chris Paciello of Liquid concurs: "Having a bunch of kids on their stomachs in handcuffs on the median outside your club is not an inviting sight to prospective customers."

Assistant Police Chief Jim Scarberry insists the entertainment industry has only itself to blame. "Some clubs advertise in high schools," he says. This is done by promoters who distribute flyers. They also place ads on radio. "They tell the kids it's an all-night party and no ID is required," says Scarberry. "Then [other] clubs want the police to keep the kids away. It doesn't work that way. We favor no one under 21 being admitted to clubs, and we also favor licensing the promoters." This would mean requiring promoters to purchase bonds making them legally liable for any public costs that result from their parties. Scarberry says he has not seen enough movement in those directions for his taste.

Nor has his boss. "You get these clubs that plan to attract a certain crowd, and when they don't, they go for anybody they can get to make a buck," Chief Barreto says. "Well, the city shouldn't allow that to happen."

Barreto recalls that five years back, the businesses of Ocean Drive fought off a similar flood of underage kids. The clubs adopted voluntary policies against admitting high-schoolers, got police to end cruising on Ocean, and pooled their money for additional private security. That pushed the kids west to Washington Avenue, where more clubs were opening. Some owners disliked the influx of teenagers from the start, while others invited them in to fill empty space.

Barreto insists it is time to take a more comprehensive approach to the problem. "What we need here is a master plan," he says. "No clubs within a hundred yards of each other, or no more than three to a block, whatever. No tattoo parlors. No all-ages nights. We need licensing, rules and regulations that will create the ambiance that's desired."

The club owners moan at the notion of more rules and regulations, more government interference with commerce. No one is more vociferously opposed to that concept than David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, which represents the owners.

Kelsey holds court at the association headquarters, housed in a garden apartment at Twelfth Street and Drexel, just across from Beach police headquarters. It was here that a raucous group of club owners gathered several days after the late-night Code Compliance crackdown of April 11. They represented about twenty clubs, not just the ones ticketed. "Everybody knows when the city goes after one set of owners, it's just a matter of time before they come after you," says Kelsey, a partner in the Park Washington, Taft, Bel Aire and Kenmore hotels on Washington Avenue. Several of the angry participants waved their code compliance citations the air and grumbled threats of a class action suit. "It was noisy and angry," Kelsey recalls. "I haven't seen the members this upset or this together since the 'three strikes and you're out' campaign the city tried to pull on us last year."

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