Overtown's Underground

A strip of funky venues offers respite from sterile superclubs

Earlier this year, Back Door Bamby took a vacation and forgot to come back. The 10-years-running Monday-night party was the last of its kind on South Beach, a holdout from the days when freaks of all stripe — gay, straight, and in between — still partied together. This past spring, promoter Carmel Ophir told us the bad-ass bitch was on vacation, and both he and Bamby dropped out of the spotlight. A little more of the Beach's meager remaining spark and color instantly disappeared.

But while Ophir stayed off the radar, astute observers of the nightlife landscape might have noticed a few rumblings around the space formerly occupied by I/O, on 14th Street near North Miami Avenue. And now he's ready to go public. With partner Ronny Mayo (owner of Blue and Lost Weekend locally, and Respectable Street Café in West Palm Beach, among several other venues), Ophir has bought the spot. They've completely gutted it and revamped everything from the toilets on up to the sound system. And instead of turning it into yet another ho-hum posh palace, it's envisioned as a down-to-earth spot where everyone can party side by side, from aging Bamby acolytes to sweaty indie kids to maybe even a post-theater crowd from the nearby Carnival Center. The name? Um ... the Vagabond.

"Okay, to the layman, that's a fucking bum," Ophir says on a recent evening, charging around the still-raw main room of the venue, describing its future features in his trademark dizzying, go-for-it, motivational-speech cadence. "But you know what it really means is a wanderer by choice. It's kind of a reference to Bob Dylan — the original vagabond poet. And then Keith Richards, the vagabond rocker. And of course you can't forget 'these vagabond shoes' — Sinatra!"

With that sort of eclectic, gypsylike vibe in mind, he and Mayo are planning the space as three distinctive environments, each with a markedly different atmosphere. The entry room is a chilled-out bar area, with a small DJ booth but plenty of seating and an organic, earthy vibe. Ophir is designing it himself, down to the poured-concrete bar. So he's found vendors for a concrete bar? "Well, sure, like you go to Home Depot and mix it up." Grassroots indeed.

The main event is in the adjacent room, spruced up acoustically with a cushioned dance floor meant to sustain revelers' knees just a little longer. The main addition here is yet another bar, nonexistent in the old I/O, as well as a retro-futuristic look (think Barbarella). And to further express the anything-might-happen idea, the old permanent stage has been replaced by a flexible setup that can accommodate everything from star DJs to small live acts. And as in its previous incarnation, the back patio will remain a bohemian outdoor lounge, with mellow sounds and a fire pit.

The planned musical program is as eclectic as the crowd Ophir envisions: old-school hip-hop and classics nights, hipster dance nights, and more than a few mod-garage psychedelic freakouts. What he won't do, he says, is start a Saturday night that would drain crowds from Circa Saturdays or Poplife, whose promoters' followers all overlap.

Poplife is another name that's been sadly, largely absent from the nightscape for a while, and is also getting a very welcome resurrection in the same hood. After eight years at the forefront of Miami's alternative nightlife scene, what began as a flagship party has become a brand with offshoots (much like Revolver, which started up around the same time). After also postponing its trademark Saturday night earlier this year, the Poplife crew stayed in the picture, running the short-lived Dirty Disco at Pawn Shop, and the under-the-radar standby Loop on Fridays at PS 14. But without the Poplife party itself and its mixed-age, friendly, slightly unwashed crowd, something was definitely missing.

Enter White Room, another new venue just around the corner from the future Vagabond, on 13th Street. With little advance fanfare, it threw open its doors last Saturday for the crazy traveling fashionista party called Style Wars. A throng of the sweaty and stylish packed the place to check out the new digs and ogle amateur models who had offered themselves for an on-the-spot contest to design with found materials. (Local haute knitwear genius Karelle Levy scored top honors, naturally).

It's a setup similar to Poplife's last long-running home, at the District, with lots of sleek white glass block and a few rooms. The entertainment planned here is eclectic as well; its other future resident is Thursday night's Money$hot party, a debauched mashup/hip-hop/ghetto-tech night where partial nudity is the norm.

The advent of these new spots cements a bubbling-up of a solid underground on Overtown's edge, or at least an alternative to the boring bottle service across the causeway. It also helps to solidify the budding so-called Park West entertainment district, anchored by Space and Nocturnal on 11th Street. Although the intended audience of a place like the Vagabond certainly isn't the typical Space after-hours terrace crowd, a host of options makes for a less segregated Miami club culture. One might stop by White Room for a drink before hitting up a superclub, or head to a dance party at the Vagabond after a concert at Studio A — or even after the Carnival Center. Who knows? The more different reasons there are to check out the area, the better for every nightcrawler involved. The Vagabond has soft openings planned about six weeks from now, and Poplife's first night at the White Room is December 1. And I can't wait.

 
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