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."

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."

This year, Machin said, the weekend went so well that many guests checking out Monday were making reservations for 2003: "That's a good sign."

De Lucca was full of praise for his officers, saying, "They refused to give us that one incident that would put us in the papers." When the field force moved in on the Sunday-morning fight, for example, some in the crowd replied with "yelling, screaming, and bottles," said the chief. "But our officers took the high road."

So is Urban Beach Week now a fixture on the Miami Beach calendar? "This was our second year," says Gonzalez. "I'm not ready to declare that it is like the Jazz Fest in New Orleans yet. But I think next year will be the test. If visitors are happy with the way things turned out, not scared or frightened, I could see it turning into something regular. The momentum is there.

"This year was a major test. It is not often that any city in America can welcome a crowd [of a quarter-million], and not only handle it, but see smiles. Everybody knew this would be a test, and I think we passed it."

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