The Color of Hip-Hop

As Miami Beach soon will learn, it's not black or white -- it's green

Every woman has her breaking point. Amy Gerstenfeld's arrived at the crowning moment of her wedding vows. As her family and friends sat gathered before her on Memorial Day weekend inside a banquet room at South Beach's Loews Hotel, she listened solemnly to her rabbi pose that all-important question. Then she turned to her fiancé, Robert, and softly said, "I do." The newlywed couple paused, savoring the moment before the groom crushed a glass beneath his foot, a Jewish tradition that stands as the final consecration of the marital bond. What occurred next, however, was not in the Torah.

Loudspeakers in the room and throughout the hotel suddenly blared to life: "IF YOU ARE NOT A GUEST OF THE HOTEL, PLEASE EVACUATE THE LOBBY!"

"I literally almost fainted," Gerstenfeld recalls. "I just stood there numb, in complete shock, with my mouth wide open until the end of the ceremony. Finally we walked back to where no else could see us and I completely lost it."

Big pimpin' in Miami: Hip-hop fans and fashionistas square off over the future of South Beach
Cindy Karp
Big pimpin' in Miami: Hip-hop fans and fashionistas square off over the future of South Beach


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Meanwhile several confused wedding guests began complaining of burning eyes and sore throats, the apparent effects of clouds of pepper spray being discharged by hotel security in the adjoining lobby, where one onlooker described a "near-riot situation" in progress. (A spokesman for the Loews did not return calls for comment.)

A month after that weekend, which saw upward of 200,000 predominantly young black partiers converge on South Beach, the city is still reeling, engulfed in bitter recriminations of civic neglect and counteraccusations of racism on the part of locals. Media accounts have largely centered on questions of law enforcement, turmoil in the streets, and coded examinations of hip-hop music (it was the critical-massing of hip-hop's glitterati that served as the main draw for many out-of-towners). Yet the reason that weekend still dominates local conversation centers on a more overarching question: What is the future of South Beach?

The Loews Hotel incident merely offers a dramatic example of two starkly different visions colliding with each other -- literally. "I could've bought a house with the money I spent on the wedding," Gerstenfeld freely admits of her sumptuously catered affair, which filled 70 pricey hotel rooms with guests from New York. "I grew up in Miami, and I used to go to South Beach every weekend. It's a stylish, upscale, unique collection of personalities. Sure there was drugs and partying, but in a classy way." She catches herself and begins laughing: "If you can put those two words -- drugs and class -- together." That, no doubt, is music to the ears of the real-estate developers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and nightclub magnates who have actively conspired to burnish the Beach's international reputation as the so-called American Riviera.

This same group, though, is alarmed at the prospect of their sun-bleached playground morphing into what George Clinton once imagined as Chocolate City. In their eyes, a Jay-Z video sprung to life along Collins Avenue may be a lot of fun, and may even provide some short-term profits. But if these thong-clad arrivistes are going to send the Amy Gerstenfelds of the world packing off to the Hamptons, never to return, it spells financial ruin.

"I would like not to concentrate on the issues of this past weekend," gingerly declared the Miami Beach Planning Board's Mel Schlesser as he opened a special workshop session Tuesday, May 29. Which, of course, ensured that Memorial Day weekend would dominate the meeting.

A standing-room-only audience of residents, Beach commissioners, police officers, nightclub owners rarely spotted moving at the ungodly hour of 1:00 p.m., and no less than six television news crews all stood by expectantly, waiting for answers. What they got was Steve Polisar, a well-known local attorney and self-described expert on the entertainment industry.

"The sky is not falling despite Chicken Little running around," Polisar announced, and then began a rambling speech on just what city hall needed to do. Or rather not do. After he'd droned on for what seemed an eternity, Schlesser broke in. Are there too many clubs oversaturating the market? asked Schlesser, a prominent Miami Beach developer. How do we retain high rollers? Is the development of downtown Miami's nightlife a factor? And what about the prior weekend's turmoil -- how do we avoid a repeat?

"Let the market decide," Polisar intoned in response, as if uttering a Zen mantra from on high. At this point several of Polisar's own nightclub clients in the audience became audibly distressed at their lawyer's apparent failure to grasp the gravity of the situation, or at the very least to sound coherent. Finally, as Polisar turned his attention to the nightclub Chaos, several exasperated voices in the crowd cried out: "Chaos is closed!" reminding the flummoxed attorney that the once A-list establishment had changed owners, names, and customer bases nearly a year earlier.

It was an exchange that seemed to capture the current mood of the Beach's old guard: perplexed by the growing scarcity of the "high-end clientele" that once considered the area their grazing spot of choice and aggrieved at what they deem a lack of action to stem its receding tide. To put a fashionista spin on Pete Seeger: Where have all the models gone? Michael Tronn, co-promoter of Anthem, the popular Sunday-night gay shindig at crobar, wondered aloud about the city's lack of direction. "You take a slum, throw in some fashion people, some gay people -- and ten years later you have a Gap and Banana Republic," he concluded in puzzlement. "Why do you think Madonna sold her [Miami] house?"

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