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?"

Accordingly there was plenty of loaded symbolism as news broke two weeks later that come August, the Source magazine would be staging its annual Hip-Hop Music Awards at the Jackie Gleason Theater. Ted Lucas, president of Miami's own Slip 'N Slide Records (home to Trick Daddy, Trina, and Iconz), excitedly announced to the Sun-Sentinel: "I'm going to have the biggest party the Beach has ever seen, [even] if I have to have it outside in the streets."

That kind of promise (or threat, some would say) only helped fuel fears of a Memorial Day redux. Indeed one of the chief reasons the Source awards show relocated from Pasadena, California, was an effort to avoid a repeat of last year's embarrassing spectacle wherein slugfests in the audience led police to clear the hall and cut short the affair barely halfway through its program. With that in mind, reporters searched in vain for a comment from Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez.

Both men were unavailable, having traveled across the Atlantic to Switzerland, where they were celebrating their capture of a very different sort of high-profile show. The Art Basel fair was finally set to arrive at the Miami Beach Convention Center in December, in no small part because of Kasdin's wooing over the past few years. With its Swiss parent expected to gross $250 to $300 million in art sales this year, even a small slice of that pie (not to mention its jet-setting clientele, for whom a six-figure painting is a leisure purchase) would be welcome relief to an increasingly jittery local business community.

So can the American Riviera and Chocolate City coexist? Of course, says Source editor-in-chief Carlito Rodriguez. Whatever problems occurred over Memorial Day weekend were simply the result of a handful of individuals pumped up on "testosterone and alcohol," he explains. "Nobody wants a repeat of anything negative. We're going to do whatever we can to prevent any nonsense," Rodriguez adds, citing meetings this past Monday with Mayors Kasdin and Alex Penelas, as well as members of the Miami Beach police force.

In the end the controversy over hip-hop on the Beach will be resolved not by issues black and white, but rather green. As witnessed by the imminent arrival of the Latin Grammys, corporate poobahs of the record industry may be able to accomplish in Miami what decades of brave activism could not. When faced with the loss of an estimated $35 million should the city spurn the Grammys and its possible inclusion of heathen Cubans, el exilio's leadership finally dragged itself kicking and screaming out of the Cold War.

"Money is the bottom line," Rodriguez agrees, warming to the topic. "So all these people saying hip-hop events are never going to happen on Miami Beach -- the chamber of commerce, hotel owners, and whatnot -- are all eventually going to turn around and say, 'Fuck it! Okay, we'll take the money,' because they see the potential behind it. If you want to get into economics, the awards show is in August, the off season. Nobody wants to come to Miami in August!"

So greed will help everyone overcome prejudice?

"That'd be ironic," Rodriguez laughs, "but it would be all right."

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