Blacker than Thou

When the Marlin Hotel canceled Louis Oliver's Friday-night soiree, it sent a mixed cultural message

At 11:00 on a Friday night, former Miami Dolphins safety, now event promoter Louis Oliver, shoulders through the side door of the Marlin Bar at Twelfth and Collins. He's carrying a bouquet of balloons with the words "Thank You" printed on the sides. His six-foot three-inch frame is packed with more than 230 pounds of muscle. His neck is as big as a normal guy's thigh. A snug black bandana binds his size triple-X skull. Looking oddly delicate, he gingerly ties the Mylar globes to brushed-steel Deco railings. Then, moving from the lounge's pillowed "opium" den to its upstairs balcony, he is stopped every two steps, it seems, by hugs, hearty handshakes, and kisses from arriving guests.

After three and a half years at the Marlin, Oliver's regular party has attracted a sophisticated and eclectic mix of professionals -- from sports stars to hospital technicians. Like other parties that draw the well-to-do and glitterati, Oliver's affair is decidedly casual and upwardly mobile. Unlike the others, however, the former All Pro's Friday-night soiree is a mostly black affair. In fact, it is the party for what is known in the hip-hop world as the bougie (for bourgeois) crowd. Regulars meet and mix in the Marlin's intimate setting as R&B and hip-hop thumps above the rising din. Despite occasional baggies and football jerseys, this crowd is groomed to impress. Women in spaghetti-strap halter tops mingle with men in linen shirts. On the porch, plans are made over silver StarTACs sutured to earringed ears. The flavor is casual-sexy-cool, and revelers tilt martini glasses and champagne flutes both indoors and on the glam veranda; a line forms at the hotel lobby entrance.

But a sadness hovers over the velvet ropes tonight. Oliver has been told by Marlin management that this party, June 29, will be his last at the hotel lounge. He received a letter, about a week after Memorial Day, notifying him that the hotel was seeking an alternative direction on Friday nights. No explanation was offered, Oliver says, except that management wanted a change. Despite the news, Oliver seems all cheers and handshakes while handing out slices of goodbye cake with his wife, Tonya. As he pours drinks, he tells his guests he'll soon announce where his weekly party will resurface. He's the ultimate host, reveling in the attention showering him, ignoring the blues.

Goodbye cake: Former Dolphins safety Louis Oliver savors a bite of the sweet life at his final party at the Marlin, Twelfth and Collins
Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Goodbye cake: Former Dolphins safety Louis Oliver savors a bite of the sweet life at his final party at the Marlin, Twelfth and Collins

But beneath his cool façade, Oliver can't help feeling a little stung. In the aftermath of big-time Memorial Day negative publicity, when the hip-hop nation -- unwieldy in its youth, arrogance, and gangsta posturing -- descended on South Beach and shook the city to its core, and hoteliers, club owners and residents began pressuring government and police for "more control," Oliver was forced to defend his own event, Urban Fashion Week, too. Some people blamed UFW for sparking the parties that brought the unruly throng to town (when in fact, the hip-hop influx was due to heavy radio promotion in northern cities). Oliver's name has since become linked with the chaos that erupted that weekend, despite the fact that his "older" fashion show went on without incident, and his weekly mixers cater to a mature, much less volatile crowd. (It also is interesting to note that of the 199 persons arrested over the Memorial Day weekend, 106, or 53 percent, were black, while the other 93 were white and Hispanic. Total arrests were only 21 more than last year, when a large black presence was not a factor. So the idea of blaming the hip-hoppers for a tidal wave of volatility, simply is wrong.)

Seated at a table on the balcony of the Marlin, Oliver leans back on a velour bench, thrusting his huge arms outward as if fending off an invisible guard. "I have so much to say about this," he declares. "You'd think that people [were getting] beyond this shit." While he hesitates making a direct connection between the Memorial Day noise and the Marlin's decision to cancel his party, the matter clearly doesn't rest easily in his mind. "It's like our money isn't good enough," Oliver gripes. "They know my events; they know we've had no incidents. They want to give me a lot of bullshit reasons. But the reason why is simple ... this party is just too black for them. My diversity is not eclectic enough."

The accusation is more than ironic. The Marlin is part of the Island Outpost chain of hotels, owned by music and film magnate Chris Blackwell, the man who brought reggae "prophet" Bob Marley to the white world. Blackwell, who has close business and personal ties to Jamaica, is one of the most prominent promoters of black artists in pop culture worldwide.

The Marlin's managers would not comment, but Island Outpost reps are quick to deny Oliver's assertion. Brad Packer, the hotel chain's spokesman, says cutting the party had nothing to do with Oliver's notoriety in the wake of Memorial Day. The party's complexion, he insists, was not a factor. "That is not what our decision was based on," Packer says. "The decision not to have Louis's party at the Marlin was part of a bigger plan to change direction. It was not a knock against hip-hop, or any type of customer."

The Marlin is "changing the atmosphere" of its Friday nights, Packer said, to a less crowded, more subdued and "loungy" feel. Replacing Oliver's Friday fete will be an ambient, electronica-based evening called Mosaic. Black parties, Packer says, will not be denied. The hotel will host performance-based events, such as open-mike poetry and hip-hop nights twice per week, with local spoken-word diva Rashida Bartley -- whose audience is mostly young and black -- on the bill for Wednesdays. The fact that the Marlin cancelled Oliver a week after Memorial Day is "just bad timing," Packer says. "It was coincidental," he claims. "We have been looking at repositioning the property as whole. So it's not based on any one particular event."

Other promoters and club owners say that Oliver had been looking for a larger venue for his weekly party before his Urban Fashion Week, anyway. Oliver admits he may have outgrown the Marlin space, which is basically a semicircular bar adjacent to the hotel lobby. Still, he was fond of the cozy setting, and credits it for some of his success there. (At press time, he hadn't named a new spot.) But regardless of the reason, ending the Marlin gig so close to Memorial Day sent a bitter message to black people who want to come out and party. "What it says is that no matter who you are and how much of a professional you may be, you can never run away from your blackness," spouts hip-hop producer and rapper Luther Campbell. "You are still considered black, and people still see black people as bad. Deep down, that's what it says."

The change at the Marlin is just one of many rumblings that have taken place in the wake of Memorial Day. Since then, nightclub owners and promoters have been meeting with city officials to define ways of better assessing when large crowds are coming to town. Club owners say the city needs to better "control" how it markets itself. The city administrators are saying the club owners should inform officials about parties. Regardless of who is responsible for Memorial Day, city staff and most of the club owners agree, there needs to be cooperation. "We need to assess what is right and wrong," Assistant City Manager Christina Cuervo told club owners at a special June 6 meeting. "Any one of us can drag us all down."

The city will be seeking ways to enforce a 1999 ordinance that requires promoters to pay for licensing events with the city. The promoters have skirted compliance by being temporarily "hired" by the clubs. As club employees, the promoters are not required to license their parties. To address these issues, the city is forming a coalition of nightclub-industry owners and managers to advise Miami Beach about the machinations of the nightclub world. "Memorial Day was a catalyst," says attorney Steven Polisar, who represents several South Beach nightclubs. "Does it bring new accountability [to the clubs]? I think it does." He adds that club owners now must be selective about which events to host and take some responsibility for what goes on outside their clubs, too. "When you get this kind of publicity, you've got to watch what you do."

The effort to better communicate with the nightclubs is part of an overarching "Major Events Plan" that city manager Jorge Gonzalez has been developing since Memorial Day. On June 26 Gonzalez sent Mayor Neisen Kasdin and the Miami Beach City Commission a ten-page memorandum which outlined how police, code enforcement, public relations, and all other departments would coordinate during holidays and special events to prepare for potential crowds. Likened to the city's Hurricane and Emergency Management Plan, the new initiative relies on increased vigilance of hotel occupancy levels and nightclub promotions to better assess how to prepare on given weekends. The surveillance will begin as early as three months before a given event and culminate two weeks ahead of it. Police will be in contact with hotel security managers, and detectives will be surfing the Internet, looking for party postings. "The main issue that came across loud and clear after Memorial Day is that communication lines could be better," Gonzalez says. "We need to communicate more and sooner so that we can plan accordingly."

The effort comes as The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards, which promises to bring back the fast and furious hip-hop set August 17 through 20, looms on the horizon. City officials have been meeting with Source show producer David Mays and party promoters to work out a "control" plan. Miami Beach police have secured interlocal agreements with the Miami-Dade County and City of Miami police departments to provide extra help with expected traffic and crowds. Officials also are ironing out details with Fruit of Islam, a black Muslim security organization best known for guarding Louis Farrakhan, hired by Source to patrol the August 20 show.

Although that event is weeks away, the city kicked off its sprawling plan over the Fourth of July holiday. Though the week passed with few problems, police were ready, with standard "operations" scenarios for future special events and holidays. Beginning June 29 and extending through July 9, for example, the department has more than doubled its presence in the area between Washington Avenue and Ocean Drive, and from Lincoln Road to Fifth Street. Thirty extra officers were assigned overtime shifts -- with most intersections in the area regularly manned by at least one patrol. The cost of the increased vigilance will be about $100,000.

Code-enforcement officers fanned out on the streets armed with hand-held decibel readers, ready to cite supersonically noisy cruisers. The increased security was most obvious on Ocean Drive between Fifth and Eleventh streets as police cars parked between palm trees in Lummus Park and bicycle patrols roamed the sidewalks, writing tickets and taking alcoholic drinks away from problematic pedestrians. However this time instead of the wild ruckuses of Memorial Day, police had to contend with disgruntled underage kids who'd been caught holding an illegal drink in public.

"I felt like a little dope," complained one gel-haired youth, who was forced to pour out his frozen concoction in front of four young women in tight hip-huggers he'd been trying to impress: "The cops are assholes."

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