Bar some: What's fueling SoBe's underage-drinking crackdown?

Have you considered a night out at CocoWalk? That was the message last Wednesday from Miami Beach to South Florida's kinder, as Beach commissioners voted 6-1 to bar those under age 21 from setting foot in their city's nightclubs. Of course underage drinking itself had little to do with the momentum behind this ordinance, a fact alluded to during that spirited meeting by Commissioner David Dermer as he rhetorically asked of the room: "Why do you think all the media is here? We've got three camera crews and writers here!" Referring derisively to an earlier discussion over the Loews Hotel and its massive subsidies from Miami Beach, he continued, "When we give millions and millions of dollars away ... nobody's here. But when we deal with whether an eighteen-year-old can go into a club, everybody's here!"

Indeed all the commissioners knew exactly why a cluster of TV news crews and local scribes had descended on city hall. While the official line is to cite Art Deco as the catalyst for South Beach's rebirth, rare is the public official who won't privately concede that it isn't historic preservation, sun, or surf that has fueled the Beach's dramatic economic explosion -- it's sin. Or, to be more specific, it's the embodiment of sin in South Beach's clubland, making it the grazing spot of choice for European jet setters, Latin-American capital slingers, Hollywood celebs, and Prada-shod fashionistas. In turn soaring real estate values, record hotel-occupancy rates, and packed restaurants all flow from this '90s conglomeration of star power, décolletage, and cold cash.

It's hard to erect a spectacle to conspicuous consumption and keep it a secret, however. Consequently South Florida's unwashed masses have refused to content themselves with vicariously experiencing this glittering adult playground by breathlessly running their fingers over the glossy pages of Ocean Drive. Instead they've decided to try and crash the party. Thus over the past few years, we've seen weekend nights on Washington Avenue transformed into a bizarre mix of a frat-house beer bash and Village of the Damned; come dawn both the roving packs of teens and ominous police presence retire, leaving only a morass of broken glass, vomit, and the last of the nightclub stragglers wobbling either home or to an after-hours joint for round two. So much for streets full of glitz and glamour.

It's all about the Benjamins: Miami Beach's crackdown on underage drinking has little to do with alcohol
Steve Satterwhite
It's all about the Benjamins: Miami Beach's crackdown on underage drinking has little to do with alcohol

Reigning in clubland's goose without killing off its golden eggs has been a source of continual tension between club impresarios, city hall, and nervous real estate developers. It was a state of affairs that seemed to reach a heated apex last August, when, during a contentious meeting of the Washington Avenue Task Force, planning-board member (and real estate heavyweight) Saul Gross looked straight ahead at several prominent club owners and declared firmly: "If you don't deal with the problem clubs, the city is going to deal with them for you."

It's a message the true movers and shakers in South Beach's club scene seem to have taken to heart. Their business philosophy was expertly articulated by Commissioner Nancy Liebman when she declared during the May 10 meeting that "our nightlife is for adults. We want adult people to come into the clubs, and we want to attract back all the adults who have been frightened off by all the kids.... We're raising the quality of the city." Although Liebman has often been painted as the archnemesis of clubland by the lotus eater crowd, when she added that she was devoted to "getting rid of the wannabe clubs that [cater to] the wannabes," she merely was voicing aloud the concerns of South Beach's velvet-rope-cordoned establishments.

For smaller clubs like the Living Room, as well as more expansive rooms such as crobar and Level, catering to high rollers is the name of the game: celebs and the gentleman willing to pony up $300 per bottle for the privilege of sipping their vodka in those celebs' presence. If you can't even scrounge up the resources for a fake ID, it's doubtful you fit into either category; you're an element that's as undesirable to these clubs' owners as you are to the police.

It's for precisely this reason that the Beach's less tony after-hours clubs and bars have found themselves standing alone in their protests and lawsuits against the city. Not only have their upmarket brethren conspicuously failed to offer any support, they'd be downright overjoyed to see places like Club Deep and the Mix shuttered. Witness the about-face of Gary Thoulouis. When he attended last summer's Washington Avenue Task Force meetings (then as a freelance promoter) he was an outspoken opponent of the city's efforts to enact new nightlife restrictions, even angrily charging Commissioner Liebman with seeking a "Footloose solution."

There Thoulouis was last Wednesday, however, calmly approaching the microphone, facing Liebman, and after announcing his current title as marketing director for the Living Room (situated on the 600 block of Washington Avenue, ground zero for police attention), announcing -- perhaps not coincidentally -- that he was now completely in favor of the under-21 ban.

In line with this thinking, the imminent arrival of a host of new nightclubs in downtown Miami (and its incipient threat of competition) elicited little concern from either commissioners or Beach club owners. The implicit consensus seemed to be that if Miami officials are so desperate for live bodies on their downtown streets at night that they're willing to embrace the drunken hoi polloi blowing chunks on its sidewalks, well, they're more than welcome to that crowd.

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