A Skid Row Sleepover

Wherein our intrepid writer attempts to pierce the veil of sleaze on Miami's main street

The first motel owners, mostly white, sold their establishments mostly to Indians and Koreans, relatively new immigrant groups that have a history of operating businesses in the inner city. During the late Eighties the Yahwehs, an African-American religious sect, bought a motel at NE 74th Street, cleaned it up, and drove off drug dealers and hookers. The arrest and conviction of six members of the group and its leader, Yahweh Ben Yahweh, for conspiracy to commit murder, put an end to that effort.

But the stately homes east of the boulevard never abandoned their aristocratic heritage. The modern history of Biscayne is replete with instances of homeowners refusing to surrender to the dealers and hookers. In 1989 several Morningside residents, fed up with the boulevard's flesh market, took to the streets chanting anti-prostitution slogans and carrying signs reading "No hookers," "Jail that tail," and "Does your wife know?" In 1990 then-Miami Police Chief Perry Anderson created a special squad to target the prostitution and drug dealing on the boulevard and in the motels. In its first month the squad arrested ten people, all employees of Biscayne Boulevard motels. They were charged with abetting prostitution.

In 1992 the city formed the Nuisance Abatement Board. Since then the NAB has forced seven Biscayne motels to close for between three and nine months because of drug and prostitution activity. The Best Value, Seven Seas, Star Dust, the Metro (now the Camelot), the Bay Point, the Laurel, and the Shalimar all were disciplined. The Laurel never reopened.

Joyce Schuller, a manager of the Seven Seas Motel at NE 59th and Biscayne, after finding out the board was investigating her establishment, told the Miami Herald: "We are always asking for security. We call [police]. We write up people who are hanging out. We tolerate no traffic after 11:00 p.m. We really try hard ... but it's a losing battle."

The Vagabond is easily the most visually pleasing motel on this stretch of Biscayne. Its façade is vintage Fifties, complete with a statue of cavorting nymphs. It boasts the only pool I've spotted so far. Alas, it's raining. The room is like all the others: tired. A roach crawls across the floor when I enter and I crush it. There's a small refrigerator in the corner. It is unplugged and its doors are open. The TV has HBO and the requisite hard-core porn channel. Through a locked door that connects to the room next to mine, I hear a couple arguing. I can't make out the words. I lie back on the bed and try to imagine decades ago, when dad in his porkpie hat and mom in her beehive would have parked the Chevy station wagon and booked the kids into the neighboring room. The image disintegrates when I imagine them turning on the TV and seeing The Erotic Network's current offering, which involves a closeup of the intersection of three people's genitalia.

In the morning as I head to my car, I notice a young white couple loading up a vehicle. I approach and introduce myself. They are Michael Mayer and Christine Huber, Austrian tourists on their way to the Keys. "It was the first [hotel] we looked at and it was cheap," Christine says. Then, with a serious look on her face, she adds, "I think it's not the finest, how do you say, quarter of Miami."

That may be, but Miami Police Ofcr. Gregory Bavonese, who was assigned to the Biscayne beat fifteen years ago, has witnessed immense change on the boulevard. "In 1984 there were ten hookers per intersection. The sidewalk was lined with guys drinking, pimping, doing whatever from bus benches. And that was in the daytime!" he recounts. "This is Disney World compared to then."

Robbery and burglary arrests in the area are down from years past, Bavonese asserts. During the first six months of 1993 there was a shooting a month on the boulevard. Now there are far fewer. And police run about two prostitution stings per week. On average the cops arrest between fifteen and twenty johns in about five hours.

Several nights later, I return to track down Sonny. I find him in front of the Amoco station at NE 69th Street. "Wow, I was so drunk that day I saw you, that after you left, I fell asleep behind the gas station," he explains, apologizing for our missed lunch appointment. He's ready to talk now. We find a secluded spot and sit down. Sonny, 30 years old with dirty blond hair, nurses a can of Budweiser. He holds a six-pack on his lap. During our conversation he downs three beers.

"I started hanging out on the boulevard about ten years ago, when my addiction hit bad," he starts. "Crack. Then the alcohol hit worse. As soon as I started hanging out on the boulevard -- I was twenty at the time -- guys started hitting me up. And I'm straight. I remember the first time was like after a couple of days. Some white guy tried to give me ten dollars [for oral sex] and I said, 'Hell no,' because I had never done that before. I told him it was going to be at least $100. He said I was in the wrong place for that, so I got out of the car."

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