South Beach as Thug Central

Will Puffy, Pink, and Cash Money Crew replace Versace, Madonna, and Ingrid Casares?

A month ago Miami Beach city planners sat down and soberly mapped out their vision for the future of South Beach, specifically the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. It's a future in which families stroll along a high-end shopping strip and eat pricey meals unmolested by street performers and panhandlers.

But a different future body-slammed South Beach this past Memorial Day weekend. Namely that big black phenomenon known as hip-hop, which descended in an adrenalized surge. An estimated quarter-million revelers swamped hotels and restaurants, spilling into the streets in a bling-bling parade of ice, Lincoln Navigators, and Motorola two-way pagers, taking everyone by surprise. It all begs the question: Is South Beach ready to be thug paradise?

No one -- not city planners, not the police, not even the club owners -- was prepared for how popular South Beach had become to hot rappers and the middle-class kids who followed them here. The celebrity wattage lounging poolside that weekend could have powered a Los Angeles blackout. Performers Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, and Eve sashayed through the VIP rooms of clubs like Level and the Living Room. Boxer Pernell Whittaker, along with a roster of NBA players, muscled through the throngs. "It was the most affluent crowd I've ever seen on the beach," said Gerry Kelly, co-owner of Level. "And there was amazing star power here. The Beach needed this after the recession."

Hip-hop this! Mayhem on Memorial Day weekend at Ocean Drive
Jeff Greenberg
Hip-hop this! Mayhem on Memorial Day weekend at Ocean Drive

Indeed the area's nightlife staple of idle rich playboys, many from Europe and South America, and their requisite models has dwindled lately. The hip-hoppers are filling the void. South Beach's glitz is a natural gravitation point, especially since the musical genre is going through a phase of excess right now, much like the "arena rock" stage of rock and roll. The money's rolling in, and some think it's best to play it as it lays.

Club owners, thirsting for a little celebrity juice to enliven the strip, will eat hip-hop up as long as it means profits. Sure enough Memorial Day weekend's events, rowdiness aside, showed off the clout of the new black middle class, which may be sampling the former playground of the Euro elite. "The crowd that was here is not here anymore," says Shawn Lewis, who is involved in a variety of clubs on the Beach, including the Living Room. "So now we're marketing more to the urban hip-hop crowd."

The real marketing, however, went on in New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, by out-of-town promoters pumping South Beach as ground-zero party town. Angie Martinez, a DJ at New York's Hot 97, hosted her own bash here, as did DJs from Philly and Atlanta. Ironically the one city-sanctioned event, Louis Oliver's Urban Fashion Week, was hardly the catalyst for the deluge of attention. "Here in New York the radio just kept talking about all the parties in South Beach," recounts Elliott Wilson, editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine XXL. "Everyone in New York knew they were going to Miami. They just didn't know it in Miami."

Like Don King's hair, Memorial Day was black culture at its most assertive. Even if the crowd had behaved, all that gangsta-rap posing would have been enough to scare the Amex out of the mostly white, Anglo, Jewish, and Hispanic Beach residents and officials. But many of the revelers didn't behave, and after roughly two hundred arrests, three shootings, two stabbings, and three sexual assaults, nobody is about to say their fears were misplaced. That has prompted a racially coded dialogue. At a planning-board meeting in the weekend's aftermath, promoter Michael Tronn blamed the city for attracting "the wrong kind of demographic." Tony Miros, who writes a nightlife column for Miami Metro magazine, wrote an open letter to the city commission and the mayor. "The disgraceful, rude, and unlawful behavior that I personally witnessed on Washington, Collins, and Ocean Drive this weekend was something I thought I would never see. It was literally a nightmare. Our town was under siege," Miros vented. "Were our police officers overwhelmed? Were they too afraid to take the appropriate actions? Or were they trying to be politically correct and not take action on one particular group of troublemakers?"

Tronn and Miros's idea is to make the city more "selective" in what events it allows in the future. But at a press conference, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez declined to get embroiled. "I'm not sure canceling Urban Fashion Week will solve the problem," he said. "Remember, Miami Beach is a tourist destination."

City Commissioner Nancy Liebman says she wasn't happy with the way visitors "felt like they could do whatever they wanted" but attributes such behavior to the lack of force shown by the city, which didn't enforce its own rules, such as making sure promoters registered their events. "People talk about ďOh, it's a racial thing,'" she says. "But it's not. They can have hip-hop concerts and things here, but we have to have the right controls in place."

The concept of race was so problematic that the Miami Herald didn't use the words "black" or "African American" until its followup stories, a week after the action. Some Miami Beach police officers, paralyzed by the same issue, decided to substitute the word "Canadian" for "black" in radio transmissions, as in, "There's a large group of Canadians gathered on Washington and Fourteenth."

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