By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Perhaps the best reading was taken by just wandering around South Beach, enjoying the full moon, a cooling southeast breeze, and an ambiance that more resembled an awkward college mixer than an edgy street festival with explosive potential. High on hope, men reached out to touch the hands of women promenading in twos and threes. The women laughed and kept on walking. "Hey, girl, come over here and holler at me," implored one would-be romantic as his dream drifted off into the night.
To be sure, there was a lot of bare skin and miles of skin-tight, low-rider jeans on display, as well as an All-Star lineup of NBA jerseys (Jordan 23, Sprewell 8, and Pierce 34 were very popular). But in the crowds also were teams of broad-backed men wearing black T-shirts with the words "Crime Suppression Unit" emblazoned in white, and at almost every intersection knots of uniformed officers, squad cars and fire trucks, and overhead, helicopters with prowling search lights. In the event that show of might was too subtle, the cops also staged nightly field force drive-bys, in which siren-whooping convoys of fifteen to twenty squad cars, lights flashing, zoomed down Washington Avenue and then onto the beach. The message: Don't even thinkabout getting rowdy.
And with a few exceptions, this crowd did not. "We've heard this is the hottest spot in the U.S.," observed 30-year-old Dionne Mullings, a nurse at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, who on Friday evening had a streetside seat at a Collins Avenue restaurant, within touching distance of the sidewalk paseo. "The vibe is nice here."
Nice, dawg. Ivy League college sophomores with video cameras outnumbered wannabe gangbangers. The mob most visible in showing its colors on the street was the God Squad. When spotted by the police, those few revelers who dared flout the city's open-container law politely obeyed instructions to ditch their drinks.
There were banks of portable toilets, rapid-response crews to empty trash containers, and dozens of yellow-shirted goodwill ambassadors, who seemed underemployed amid a crowd that arrived radiating goodwill.
And the music? The tunes wafting from the stereos of some of those Cadillac Escalades sounded more like Love 94 cool jazz than window-rattling hardcore.
What this street party lacked was a dominant soundtrack. Last year the traffic crept along Ocean Drive, thumping out bass to the jam of pedestrians shuffling rhythmically alongside, and while all that congestion was impractical, inefficient, and potentially explosive, many veteran partiers missed it. "Too calm here," said a twentysomething transit system conductor from Brooklyn who gave his name as Maine. Standing in the middle of Ocean at Eleventh Street, he spread his arms to indicate the open space. "Last year we were packed in here."
Except for steady crowds in front of Fat Tuesday's and Wet Willie's, Ocean Drive closed early. By midnight the food vendors had packed up, as did those hawking African art and T-shirts for impresario and rapper Luther Campbell: "2K2 Memorial Day Weekend: Where da thongs lay and da playas play."
(Campbell had troubles that went beyond poor T-shirt sales. The party he had scheduled for Saturday night at the Miami Beach Convention Center flopped because of low advance sales and the walkout by his guards, the Black Muslim security force Fruit of Islam. "His event was too loosely brought together, too late in the game," says Gonzalez.)
The biggest crowds of the weekend formed each midnight outside Level, the popular club at 1235 Washington Ave. As scores of people lined up to see Fat Joe, Ja Rule, and reformed NBA bad-boy guard Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers, hundreds more hung around to watch, creating a crush that threatened to bend barricades. When people spilled out into traffic, the ever-watchful police quickly directed the overflow to the west side of the street.
Inside Level there was barely room to exhale. Early Monday police responded to a fight inside the club and found two people who had been cut, one with a wound to the chest and another with one to the head. Hernandez said the club closed at 4:00 a.m., an hour earlier than usual, and pedestrians were cleared from the street out front.
Inside the courtyard at Billboardlive, 1500 Ocean Dr., a chant of "Bullshit" rang out Saturday from about 100 women waiting to see P. Diddy and Jermaine Dupri when a rumor spread that the fans would not be admitted for free as promised. They finally were, though, and then competed for the attention of a band of champagne-drinking high rollers, who were selecting companions to join them at tables onstage.
But all the partying did not take place on the streets or in the clubs. The hotels were ready, too. At the sold-out, 250-room Shelborne Beach Resort, at 1801 Collins, general manager Alex Machin had his staff issue colored wristbands to guests enjoying rounds of raucous beachside blasts that roared well into the morning. "We knew everyone wanted to come in for the party, and this was a way to control it," explained Machin. "Last year we had people show keys, or checked names off a list and it was a big mess."