Chaos in clubland

In true South Beach style, no matter how heated a recent three-hour meeting of the Washington Avenue Task Force got, few of the local club owners in attendance stopped answering their cell phones. Instead they simply got up from their chairs at the tightly packed conference-room table inside Miami Beach City Hall, strolled to a corner of the room, and then resumed chatting away on the phone -- usually with an angry planning-board member sounding off at the table not six feet away. Whether you call it rudeness or simply business-as-usual for clubland, those actions served as a perfect metaphor for the tense mood permeating South Beach nightlife these days. There's lots of emotional talk, but very little actual listening. Meetings called to smooth relations between city officials, Beach activists, and club figures quickly devolve into rounds of bitter accusations and veiled threats.

At the center of this acrimonious debate are the clubs clustered along South Beach's Washington Avenue that are either the pumping heart of the district's economic rebirth, or the greatest danger to the area's long-term financial health and residential well-being, depending on your position (and which properties you own: clubs or condos).

The chasm between the two sides was revealed early on as club promoters enthusiastically flocked to task-force meetings. Using as a springboard the city's drawn-out battles with the Amnesia nightclub over noise complaints and perceived violence spilling from the club onto the street, the idea was to enact a more logical, fair, and easily enforceable set of nightclub regulations. Yet despite the obvious momentum for stronger codes, club promoters spoke out in favor of expanded hours of operation, insisting that nightclubs and restaurants be allowed to stay open an extra hour, until 6:00 a.m. They contended this extra 60 minutes would give inebriated patrons the chance to dance off their drunk before hitting the street.

The politics of dancing: City hall takes aim at South Beach’s clubland
The politics of dancing: City hall takes aim at South Beach’s clubland

During one chaotic meeting, a bemused Assistant Chief of Police Jim Scarberry, who has since departed for the calmer environs of Hollywood, sat with a wry smile. One promoter passionately tried to emphasize the economic importance of allowing "European" adult patrons to dance on Café Tabac's tables at 6:00 a.m. vs. banning high schoolers, rolling on Ecstasy, from wiggling away past dawn at the Mix. Again and again promoters pointed to the Mix -- not to their own venues -- as the source of the Beach's problems. Although the intention may have been to separate the Mix from other clubs promoters believe are unfairly tainted, the constant references to underage drug use left several city officials visibly shaken. "Does the Mix offer anything besides drugs to attract people?" asked Lynn Bernstein, the city's service delivery manager.

The Mix may have become a victim of its own success. Because it doesn't have a liquor license, the club is unaffected by liquor laws, thus enabling it to open during the weekends at 4:00 a.m. and remain pumping until brunchtime. The music featured there (predominantly sugary trance spun by resident DJ David Padilla) may be scoffed at as disposable fluff by many electronic-music enthusiasts, but it's become a huge crowd pleaser. Not only does the club fill up weekend after weekend, it's even spawned its own double-CD set (on Miami label Max Music) offering a representative DJ mix from Padilla. Attesting to the club's now international notoriety, Max Music head Rama Barwick claims The Mix Afterhours is one of his best-selling releases.

The Mix's growing financial success failed to impress Roberto Datorre, however. At this most recent task-force gathering, the Miami Beach planning-board member and prominent real estate broker angrily jumped to his feet. Pointing across the table at the Mix's manager, Iovanny "Gee-Ohh" Lobo, Datorre shouted, "I walk past your club on the way to Crunch [the gym] every morning at 9:00 a.m. and I've seen stuff out on the sidewalk that isn't even in porno films! For a club that doesn't serve alcohol, I've never seen so many people wasted!" A flustered Lobo began to defend his club, citing the Mix's neo-new age philosophies and the "smart drinks" served in lieu of liquor. Saul Gross, another planning board member and (as the head of Streamline Properties) an influential figure in Beach politics, rolled his eyes, snapping in response: "Oh yeah, you're a real service to the community." Gross later hinted that the entire concept of allowing after-hours clubs should be re-examined. "If we can't control the clubs that close at 5:00 a.m., we have no business having clubs open from 5:00 to 8:00 a.m.," he said.

When talk turned to where the police fit into this equation, Lobo mentioned off-duty police officers had been hired by the Mix, and then withdrawn on the order of the police department. All eyes turned to Capt. Casey Conwell, the police officer currently in charge of Washington Avenue. He refused to elaborate publicly, saying only, "We pull off-duty officers because either the Mafia owns you, or you refuse to fix problems [inside your club]." It was a startling announcement, dramatized further by a one-on-one postmeeting conversation between Lobo and Conwell, in which Conwell spoke of investigating several Mix employees for dealing drugs inside the club.

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