The Battle of Biscayne

A place where hookers and drug dealers roam becomes Miami's Soho

It's difficult to say who is winning.

On July 27 at 7:33 p.m., a short black man with a T-shirt over his head burst through the door of Room 18 at Stephan's International Motel and shot 22-year-old Matthew Williams in the stomach. A witness identified the shooter, a Boulevard regular with three felony charges, as 25-year-old Monee Williams (no relation). Miami Police Det. Frank Sanchez, primary investigator on the case, says Matthew died at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "This was an individual who had been robbing several hotels, and this was either a robbery or an attempt to silence a witness," Sanchez says. (Monee was caught by police January 4 and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a firearm, felony weapon possession, and threatening a witness. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.)

Eight blocks north at the Camelot, crime was so rampant that police visited the motel, a squarish slab of worn concrete and stucco, more than 50 times between July and December. During a September bust, police even arrested the manager, 53-year-old Michael Kelbel, for "renting a room for the purposes of prostitution." The sheer volume of criminality earned motel owner Dinesh Paliwal a trip to the city's Nuisance Abatement Board in December. The NAB, a five-member body, has the power to fine or even shut down businesses deemed a blight on their neighborhood.

Motel Blu manager Ronnie Shova says prostitution goes on 
everywhere — there are just nicer names for it in the city's 
wealthier neighborhoods.
Motel Blu manager Ronnie Shova says prostitution goes on everywhere — there are just nicer names for it in the city's wealthier neighborhoods.
A room at Motel Blu
A room at Motel Blu

Ofcr. Darrell Nichols, MPD's neighborhood resource officer for the Upper Eastside, says another Boulevard inn, Motel Blu (77th Street), will likely go before the board next. Police records show sixteen incident reports at that location in the past six months, from robberies to attempted murders.

One highlight: On July 12 at 4:07 a.m., MPD Ofcr. Nathaniel Dauphin was on foot patrol on the Boulevard at 77th Street when he heard gunshots. Seconds later, 28-year-old Juaqiuan Gibson ran at Officer Dauphin, yelling, "He robbing him!" and pointing to the back of the Motel Blu property. There Dauphin found a young, thin black man standing over an older man who was prone on the concrete. The two were fighting over a nickel-plated revolver, which they dropped when Dauphin ordered them to do so. Thirty-nine-year-old Glen Smith told police the younger man, 21-year-old Thaddeus Martin, robbed him of $140 and his jewelry.

Linebacker-size Motel Blu manager Ronnie Shova squints suspiciously when informed he might be summoned to appear before the NAB on behalf of NYMI Enterprises, the Long Island-based company that owns Motel Blu. "The what board?" he asks glumly, resting his shaven head in his massive palm. Told that the board keeps track of calls made to police for a given business, Shova explodes: "Who the fuck are the police around here?" The manager stands up, his massive frame silhouetted by the Israeli flag that hangs in his office. "I am the one who tries to clean the place up," he says. "I am the one that has to deal with the problems. I can't control what people do on the street, but I tell them to keep out of the illegal stuff in here."

He sits again. He thinks for a moment as he watches a black Mercedes slide through the motel gates. "You know what? I don't really have a problem with the police. They do their job, I do my job."

The district's new commander, David Magnusson, is focusing on the drug and prostitution trades that have thrived in Boulevard motels, a fact that has the former Israeli soldier out of his chair again. "You know what they call a hooker in South Beach? An escort. And she costs $300 instead of $50. Why don't they care about that?"

Some motel owners are hoping to cash in on what they think will be a totally new image for the Upper Eastside. Entrepreneurs Eric Silverman and Octavio Hidalgo, new proprietors of the Vagabond, are reviving the faded kitsch of the Fifties icon by painstakingly restoring the décor — and raising room rates from $30 per hour to $129 per night.

"Some people are turning things around because they see all the economic opportunity," says Officer Nichols. "Other people are doing it because they have to."

After the shooting at his motel in July, Stephan's International owner Naran Prasad closed the place and put it up for sale. Directly across the street from the shuttered Stephan's these days: a sales center for walled-and-gated condo complex Nirvana, whose banners proclaim is "Your Urban Oasis."

And Dinesh Paliwal, who assumed the lease for the Camelot last April, appeared before the Nuisance Abatement Board in December to explain the trouble at his inn. Paliwal's contrition earned him the right to continue operating. He agreed to evict all the tenants as their leases ended, and to renovate. He even moved into the motel himself.

Paliwal professes horror at the bad publicity surrounding his motel, but he declines to comment in detail. Says the police department's Nichols: "[Paliwal] seems to be making a good-faith effort, but he needs to come up with a management plan."

Gerardo Rios exemplifies the challenges that can face budding businessmen moving into the city's core.

The diminutive 52-year-old Cuban native lives in a two-story building at 67th and Biscayne (most recently assessed at $593,000 by the City of Miami), where his shop, Rio's Flowers, has been located for a decade. He is well known in the neighborhood for a Valentine's Day display that includes — among other things — pyramids of teddy bears, giant hearts, and fake flowers.

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