Anatomy of a Party

How do you prepare for a holiday bash with 400,000 guests? Very, very thoroughly.

The Memorial Day hype is washing over Miami Beach like a wall of water kicked up by some distant earthquake. And as often happens when a place becomes submerged in oceans of hype, nothing is as it seems -- Luther Campbell being the prime example, but that's another story (see "Kulchur," page 17). Party promoters, for whom hype is a tool in trade, are predicting that anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 young, middle-class, black revelers will soon descend upon one square mile of South Beach for a wild, star-studded, crowded holiday weekend.

City officials appear to believe it, and chastened by last year's fiasco they've rolled out an elaborate plan worthy of a Category 5 hurricane. It remains to be seen whether this level of preparation will be too little, as some think; overkill, as others believe; or just about right, as the city reassures its business and residential communities.

In the two weeks remaining until the fateful five days (May 23 through May 27) when America's black bourgeoisie struts onto Ocean Drive, the Beach seems pressure-packed with expectancy. The big question: How many people will be coming? The answer everyone agrees on: a whole lot. Assistant city manager Christina Cuervo says the 400,000 (and even 500,000) figure her boss Jorge M. Gonzalez has been tossing around in public meetings is based on "what the special-events promoters have given us," as well as reconnaissance of local hotels. "We haven't reported a firm number," she emphasizes. A tourism official says a hotel survey indicates the occupancy rates will be 100 percent on the Beach and 75 to 80 percent at several hotels in the City of Miami.

Memorial Day 2001: The boys just want to have fun, and this year there'll likely be a lot more coming to town
Cindy Karp
Memorial Day 2001: The boys just want to have fun, and this year there'll likely be a lot more coming to town

Other than that, the main indication of the potential size of the crowd has come from promoters, radio advertisements, and Websites such as blackbeachweek.com. Ronald Pope, an executive with Atlanta-based Affiliation Entertainment, says the word is out that Miami Beach will be big. "I've heard it's the place to go this year," he offers. "A lot of record executives are talking about going down there for private parties on Star Island." Holleratus.com, a St. Louis-based promoter offering airfare-and-hotel packages for Memorial Day weekend, provides this advice to potential partiers: "There will be all kinds of people representin'.... Athletes and Celebs, Black Professionals, Ballers and Goldiggas, Thugs and Hoochies, Bustas and Chickenheads.... The police are tolerant, but after last year's unexpected crowd, they'll be a little more strict."

The city's plan to manage the crowds is aimed at striking a balance among the perceptions of visitors, business proprietors, and residents -- who often see things very differently. The last thing the city wants is a reputation as a resort town that discriminates, a charge as potentially damaging as news reports several years ago about European tourists being killed here. On the other hand, it doesn't want the headaches of Fort Lauderdale's spring-break pandemonium during the mid-Eighties.

Last year's Memorial Day weekend was marked by residents and businesspeople laboring (sometimes unsuccessfully) to couch their criticisms in nonracial terms; by overwhelmed cops so sensitive to the race issue that some officers, in coded radio transmissions, referred to groups of blacks congregating on street corners as "Canadians"; and by a miffed local black community epitomized by Bishop Victor T. Curry, who resigned as head of the NAACP's Miami chapter after the national organization chastised him for suggesting the NAACP hold its 2003 convention somewhere besides Miami Beach.

David Wallack, owner of Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive, resigned from the city's planning board a few days after his inflammatory comments about the hip-hop crowd appeared in the Miami Herald. "Their culture is violence," he reportedly griped. "That's their only means of communicating with each other." This year Wallack is on his best behavior, as are most city officials and businesspeople. "Our concerns are the same we've voiced for years -- we want it to be clean and safe," he asserts. "I'm going to look at Memorial Day weekend the way I do any big weekend. Mango's will put on our best food, our best show, and our best foot forward."

As to the city's efforts, Wallack believes the test will come only when the full scale of the event is realized. "It's a test of the machine," he says. "We'll find out if it can handle it. At the same time it's about how the crowd handles itself. If the crowd handles itself in a beautiful way, then it should be a great weekend."

Among the city's preparations is a welcome pamphlet with useful information and a somewhat condescending recitation of Miami Beach rules governing drinking, boom boxes, and cruising. The pamphlet will be distributed to hotels and goodwill ambassadors. Also at the ready are lots of portable toilets, vigilant sanitation crews, and a 24-hour information hotline. The city produced a videotape of last year's Memorial Day weekend and sent it to the county as part of its request for assistance. The county responded with offers of police, volunteers, and the assistance of its Community Relations Board, which will oversee an African arts and crafts festival on Ocean Drive. City Manager Gonzalez also asked the CRB to conduct "cultural sensitivity training" for police, fire, and city staff.

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