Conflict in Clubland

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

In early 1997 club owners spotted a mind-boggling measure on the city commission's agenda. It proposed that any three code violations issued against a business -- whether they be sins against the fire code, building code, or trash, noise, or parking regulations -- would mean the automatic closure of that business. The club owners were convinced that this bureaucratic brainstorm was aimed exclusively at them.

Starting in late 1996, they were confronted with a plague of code enforcers, the owners say. "I was used to them coming one at a time, and now I would have four of them in my place at once," says Greg Brier of Groove Jet. Chris Paciello of Liquid, the Washington Avenue club he runs along with Madonna buddy Ingrid Casares, recalls that code enforcers became regulars in his place -- as regular as his best customers. "A lot of the club owners got very nervous," says Paciello. "People have a lot invested here, and suddenly they could close you down for almost nothing, if a valet parker screwed up or someone left a trash can uncovered."

To make matters worse, inspectors suddenly started enforcing a new interpretation of the overcrowding rule that limited clubs to one patron per eleven square feet. "You can't even dance together that far apart," Kelsey says.

The man behind this alteration in the city's attitude was then-City Manager Garcia-Pedrosa, who was in the process of trying to put Amnesia out of business. "He never understood South Beach and what we do for the city," Brier says. "He didn't know the difference between South Beach and Kendall."

Garcia-Pedrosa's hard line went hand in hand with a police offensive against crime on South Beach, according to Chief Barreto. Police narcotics squads in ski masks led drug raids on packed clubs, made arrests, and closed nightspots. The now-defunct Paragon was accused of sponsoring live sex shows in VIP rooms. Other venues violated the 5:00 a.m. closing time for clubs and stayed open through the morning and sometimes into the afternoon. These included Paragon, Niva, Hombre, and Union Bar.

The clubs were corrupting the city, police say. Two Beach police officers, Hector Trujillo and Louis Dieppa, were arrested for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in bribes for protecting such after-hours rogue clubs. Trujillo was also accused of harassing proprietors who didn't pay him. Meanwhile, street crime flourished.

Commissioner Nancy Liebman started to see doom on the horizon. "That has been the history of the Beach," she says. "First boom and then bust. Over and over. I started to see the danger that it could self-destruct. Something had to be done."

The club owners acknowledged that problems existed, especially with drugs. But they say the "three strikes" edict was draconian and could close clubs that were trying to clean up problems. Some owners, such as Groove Jet's Brier, perceived a more ominous foundation in the city's actions. "We were starting to see all this big investment, high-rise investment, coming into South Beach," he says. "The new Loews convention hotel, the Portofino project. We were the small pioneers. We were the ones who took chances and put South Beach on the map. And now they didn't need us any more. So they were coming after us."

After months of this unwanted attention, the owners went on the offensive. Through public records requests they obtained code compliance paperwork and found preprinted forms listing some twenty clubs inspectors visited regularly; these included Groove Jet, Liquid, Bash, and Amnesia. "They didn't go to the Delano or the Fontainebleau or Joe's Stone Crab," Kelsey notes. "They went to the same clubs over and over. To us that illustrated a pattern of harassment."

The owners put their case before the public. Starting in mid-1997, they placed ads n local newspapers criticizing Garcia-Pedrosa's "three-strikes" rule and got it quashed. They also resuscitated the largely dormant South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association. "That was the first time I had ever seen owners act together," says Paciello. "It was an election year, and we formed South Beach Vote." The association registered voters and sponsored "candidate nights" in clubs. The club owners, purveyors of sin, were suddenly patriots.

How much real impact the effort had at the ballot box is unclear, but the owners felt they had gotten the attention of city government. Their association backed mayoral candidate Neisen Kasdin, whom they considered an ally. The association's own attorney, David Dermer, won election to the commission, and City Commissioner Nancy Liebman, who had taken special interest in the worries of Washington Avenue business people, was re-elected.

The association thought it had some allies in high places; the mindset of city government seemed to change after the election. Mayor Kasdin organized a government and business group called the Washington Avenue Task Force to tackle the problems of South Beach. The issuing of code violations slowed. "The last six months were pretty much all right," says the Living Room's Eric Milon. But then came the morning of April 11 and the "no kitchen" crusade. "Now all of a sudden they start threatening to close people down again" says Milon, who says he was baffled by the sudden change in attitude.

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