Smooth Operators

Miami Beach and urban hip-hop make up for last year

The five-day Memorial hip-hop weekend on Miami Beach began with a gang fight and a stabbing. So how surprising would it have been if city officials, including rookie police Chief Don De Lucca, were the first to get freaky? After all, the cops were caught unprepared last year, and the city had spent thousands of hours and budgeted $700,000 to make sure that wouldn't happen again.

"I knew there would be sporadic incidents," said De Lucca, age 41, who became the city's top cop last October. "But I wasn't troubled. I knew we would respond professionally."

The forecast for what's become known as Urban Beach Week called for nasty weather, big-name music acts, and as many as 400,000 young party-hearty visitors, most of them black. To greet the tourists the city had a revised major-events plan, 500 on-duty police officers (and backups), 300 extra trash bins, helicopters circling overhead, and a blueprint to ban traffic from Ocean Drive and even shut down the causeways if gridlock paralysis set in. And if all else failed, the Miami Beach Police Department's 48-member field force unit had been issued new weapons that fire immobilizing pepper balls. "It hits hard and then it releases a gas," explained police spokesman Ofcr. Bobby Hernandez.

"Too calm," says Maine, a transit worker from Brooklyn. "Last year, we were packed in here"
Steve Satterwhite
"Too calm," says Maine, a transit worker from Brooklyn. "Last year, we were packed in here"

Early Sunday morning the field force unit was called out, and officers did test the new armaments, firing several times to subdue three men who were fighting on Washington Avenue, just a block or so from police headquarters (the pepper balls worked).

And that kick-off stabbing? The victim, representing one of two rival groups from Baltimore and Philadelphia who first clashed inside Spin, a nightclub at 320 Lincoln Rd., fortunately did not get cut so severely that he could not make a dash for his $400-a-night room at the Delano Hotel at 1685 Collins Ave., where police say he collapsed in the lobby. He was treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital and later released, police said.

"We have stabbings from time to time on a normal weekend," says City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. "No, in all I'm very pleased with how things turned out. We had large crowds, but it was controlled and orderly. All that time and effort planning for what might happen paid off."

Indeed, the city was prepared, even overprepared. Gonzalez admits that the predictions of 400,000 visitors were wildly overstated. "We did not reach those numbers," he says. "I think we were about where we were last year, 200,000 to 250,000. Not all hotels were sold out."

Gonzalez says now he is uncertain where that 400,000 figure -- which ballooned to 500,000 at times -- came from. In weeks leading up to the weekend, "special events promoters" were often cited as the source, and Gonzalez and other city officials preparing for the storm eagerly passed it on. A better count of how many people showed up will not be known until the end-of-the-month resort tax collections are tallied, Gonzalez reports.

Nonetheless, a year after a near-riot when police admit they lost control of the streets, the suggestion that the biggest throng in city history was headed for the island was probably enough to hold down the numbers. It's unclear if some potential hip-hoppers from out of state -- checking the rising room rates and the weather map, which showed a low-pressure system heading this way -- changed their plans. What is apparent, however, is that the causeway crowd -- those who normally drive to the Beach from Miami and points west on weekends -- stayed away, and many of the locals went away. Even the city-run parking garages never filled up. "We have a totally regular clientele, and on Saturday they just were not here," said Patricia Ferraro, manager of Joe Allen Restaurant at 1787 Purdy Ave., on the bay side of the island.

North-of-South-Beach establishments such as Joe Allen did not expect to pull any hip-hop customers over the weekend. But even some businesses on the tourist mainline were hurting. "It was a sweet crowd, but there were food booths outside, and people were just hanging out," said manager Grettel Usatorres at the Café Cardozo in the Hotel Cardozo at 1300 Ocean Dr. With few diners, Usatorres closed up early. Mark's South Beach, the acclaimed restaurant in the Nash Hotel, closed early Friday and Saturday nights, leaving the restaurant's front steps in the 1100 block of Collins Avenue as a prime viewing spot for the passing parade. "People just weren't coming in," said general manager Scott Klein. "It was a nightmare for us."

Gonzalez says, "My impression is that the crowd who came this year is not as affluent, or at least they [were] not spending as much as last year."

Fears of widespread mayhem went unrealized. Urban Beach Week did not become a crazed version of Atlanta's Freaknik, or a hip-hop riot, but rather a polite street party that never seriously threatened to explode. "This is like one big fashion show," observed 28-year-old Manhattan stockbroker Lincoln Decosta, in what sounded a bit like a complaint.

One measure of success might be the number of arrests, a weekend total of 94 through Monday, according to police. That compares with 149 over the same period last year. "Ninety percent of those are for minor offenses," Hernandez adds. "Last year it was felonies."

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