Nightlife on the Edge

There's something distinctly different about downtown Miami's Club Space. Maybe it's that party-animal cop who's beating the crap out of a defenseless customer.

Despite being in business since March 17, Club Space, the nightclub pioneer in downtown Miami, held its “official” grand-opening party five months later, on August 19. In keeping with the grand traditions of hype, the opportunity to capitalize on such a misnomer was not lost on promoters Emi Guerra and Esteban Tettamanti, who masterminded the Saturday-night affair. But even under their watchful eye, not everything that happens on the frontier can be controlled, especially when a rowdy cop is involved.

The club, located at 142 NE Eleventh St. in the tumbledown Park West neighborhood, has been a pioneer in assaying the nightlife possibilities off South Beach. Its proprietors, Luis Puig and George Nuñez, know something about pioneering and frontiers. Both are veterans of the South Beach renaissance, and both were in attendance at their new venture's faux grand opening. The trim, dark-eyed Puig wore a sleek, collarless Asian shirt, while Nuñez, deep in thought, roamed the establishment Dracula-like, the frilly sleeves of his shirt in sharp contrast to his black suit.

Puig attempted to explain what makes Club Space different from its many competitors across the causeway. “We're shooting for a crowd that loves music and doesn't want to deal with $20 parking and European snobbery like a French doorman,” he said. Pause. “Wait a minute,” he caught himself. “My grandmother is French. But she's not a doorman.”

Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Photo by Seth Browarnik
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Photo by Seth Browarnik
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Photo by Seth Browarnik
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler
Photo by Seth Browarnik
Partiers revel at Club Space, where the velvet rope is kinder and gentler

Puig has been in the club business since 1976, logging fifteen years as a DJ and mixing the turntables at New York City's Limelight and Palladium. In the early Eighties, he ambled south and threw in his lot with Club Z, the first of the New York-style discos to bring a velvet rope to Miami Beach. It was located at 1235 Washington Ave., where Level is now. Four years ago he teamed with Nuñez to launch Club 609 in Coconut Grove, modeled after his Washington Avenue concern, Bar 609. Nuñez himself owned legendary nightspots Warsaw and Lua.

The two have invested about $950,000 in the project. Spanning some 20,000 square feet and reconfigured from four adjacent warehouses, Space has got plenty of space, though on the evening of the grand opening every square inch of it seemed occupied. Only the VIP areas were uncrowded. The complimentary liquor, which lasted until midnight, was all but inaccessible, cut off by thick walls of bodies pressed hard against the club's seven bars. With three rooms to choose from and an outdoor patio featuring Latin music, the club, which operates only Friday and Saturday nights, has the liberty of opening dance floors progressively, based on occupancy. Not long after midnight the place was hitting on all pistons.

In the azure-illuminated Blue Room, producer Oscar G of Funky Green Dogs fame was brought in to whip the place into a frenzy, and for the most part it seemed to be working. Rotating light machines sprayed the room with daggers of color. A video screen throbbed with a continuously mutating design that suggested the melting surface of a distant planet or perhaps the implosion of a brain cell rolling on Ecstasy. On a Blue Room stage to the right of the dance floor, a young man furiously spun glow sticks in a figure-eight pattern. Like insects lured by the eerie light, seven dancing club kids leaned toward him, as if worshipping.

“There is less of an attitude at the door here,” Puig continued, trying hard to define the distinctive character of his new enterprise. “I have door people from the Beach and I told them: “Whatever they do on the Beach, don't do it anymore.'” Perhaps forgetting for a moment that he had just dissed the continental pretenses of clubs across the bay, Puig went on to embrace a Eurocentric aesthetic ideal for Space: “We're trying for a more New York, more European feel, more industrial, more underground -- something like South Beach was years ago.”

Less European and therefore less exclusive? Or more European and thus more musically sophisticated? Who knows? One thing does ring true: The entry here feels more egalitarian than at other places. “We're nice because we have to be nice,” Puig went on. “And the customer is always right. And when you are doing something new, being nice is being different.”

But being nice evidently is not enough. The pressure to attract customers has been intense, and Space promoters Tettamanti and Guerra have gone to extremes to draw people to the area. Decked out in a gray pinstripe Hugo Boss suit, 24-year-old Tettamanti settled into a leather chair in the business office to elaborate. Guerra, the precocious 22-year-old marketing director, also joined the powwow. The two young men have cooked up a bouillabaisse of schemes for attracting patrons to the out-of-the-way destination, including a blinking traffic sign along I-395 that flashes “Club Space open; 24-hour liquor license,” and most recently -- the peg on which the “grand opening” precariously dangled -- the elimination of gay Saturday nights in favor of a repeat of straight Friday nights. That change was the occasion for the new grand opening. “Now it's more inclusive,” ventured the dapper Tettamanti a bit sheepishly. In fact it's the proverbial bottom line that led to the elimination of the gay night. According to Puig the gay club crowd simply failed to turn up in significant numbers. Why? “They're more into the circuit parties now,” he declared.

A supercharged promotional drive has been the platform from which Tettamanti and Guerra have launched their gimmicks. Club Space sales reps regularly canvass businesses from Palm Beach to Kendall, crying out the virtues of partying downtown amid the warehouses and winos. At the end of their day, the reps provide their supervisors with business cards they've collected -- proof of contact. Tettamanti proudly leaned over and pulled opened a file drawer crammed with stack upon stack of the cards, bound in rubber bands. “We're doing more business than the competition ever expected,” he boasted. And the promotional fever hasn't been confined to the business office. In the men's bathroom, attendant Josh Alency said he has pitched the club to his friends in Fort Lauderdale, where he lives. And, he insisted, they are coming.

Puig would not discuss revenue figures, but with a $20 cover charge and up to 3000 people jamming the place at peak capacity, billowing profits are a no-brainer. And considering that he and Nuñez fork over only about one-tenth the rent they would be paying on South Beach, there's little doubt they're raking it in.

A kinder, gentler experience at the velvet rope, and the come-one-come-all pitch may pack the rooms and fill the cash registers, but there are liabilities as well. The grand opener proved that point. Around 2:30 a.m. a half-dozen beefy, testosterone-enfused alpha males -- the kind you might see fewer of, say, on gay night -- burst from the hip-hop room on to the Latin patio. To a soundtrack of vapid merengue, they tumbled ahead, heads down and fists pumping, scattering dance-floor couples amid the mayhem.

At the center of the fray, a man was immobilized in a headlock as two others mercilessly pounded him in the ribs. Club security soon descended upon the scene. A bouncer loudly demanded that everyone involved in the fight be thrown out. Just then one of the brawlers, who had viciously pummeled the headlock victim and then took a swing at a club employee, reached into his pocket and pulled out a leather billfold, which he flipped open to reveal a badge. “I'm a cop!” he yelled. “I'm a cop!”

The officer, tall and thick, quickly made his way to the nearest bathroom, where he was surrounded by five bouncers. Broken gold chain dangling from his neck, black hair tousled, silky polo shirt torn at the collar, the cop asked to be allowed to stay. But an angry employee shot back: “You took a swing at me! I want you the fuck outta here!” After a tense standoff, the bouncers walked away in a huff, cursing under their breath.

Club Space operations manager Marcus Westricher was tending to the front door when he learned of the incident and its outcome. “That's not the way things work around here,” he uttered ominously. Flashlight held high above him, he made an about-face and disappeared like a coal miner into the dark recesses of the club, in search of a bad cop.

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