The Memorial Day hype is washing over Miami Beach like a wall of water kicked up by some distant earthquake. And as often happens when a place becomes submerged in oceans of hype, nothing is as it seems -- Luther Campbell being the prime example, but that's another story (see "Kulchur," page 17). Party promoters, for whom hype is a tool in trade, are predicting that anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 young, middle-class, black revelers will soon descend upon one square mile of South Beach for a wild, star-studded, crowded holiday weekend.
City officials appear to believe it, and chastened by last year's fiasco they've rolled out an elaborate plan worthy of a Category 5 hurricane. It remains to be seen whether this level of preparation will be too little, as some think; overkill, as others believe; or just about right, as the city reassures its business and residential communities.
In the two weeks remaining until the fateful five days (May 23 through May 27) when America's black bourgeoisie struts onto Ocean Drive, the Beach seems pressure-packed with expectancy. The big question: How many people will be coming? The answer everyone agrees on: a whole lot. Assistant city manager Christina Cuervo says the 400,000 (and even 500,000) figure her boss Jorge M. Gonzalez has been tossing around in public meetings is based on "what the special-events promoters have given us," as well as reconnaissance of local hotels. "We haven't reported a firm number," she emphasizes. A tourism official says a hotel survey indicates the occupancy rates will be 100 percent on the Beach and 75 to 80 percent at several hotels in the City of Miami.
Other than that, the main indication of the potential size of the crowd has come from promoters, radio advertisements, and Websites such as blackbeachweek.com. Ronald Pope, an executive with Atlanta-based Affiliation Entertainment, says the word is out that Miami Beach will be big. "I've heard it's the place to go this year," he offers. "A lot of record executives are talking about going down there for private parties on Star Island." Holleratus.com, a St. Louis-based promoter offering airfare-and-hotel packages for Memorial Day weekend, provides this advice to potential partiers: "There will be all kinds of people representin'.... Athletes and Celebs, Black Professionals, Ballers and Goldiggas, Thugs and Hoochies, Bustas and Chickenheads.... The police are tolerant, but after last year's unexpected crowd, they'll be a little more strict."
The city's plan to manage the crowds is aimed at striking a balance among the perceptions of visitors, business proprietors, and residents -- who often see things very differently. The last thing the city wants is a reputation as a resort town that discriminates, a charge as potentially damaging as news reports several years ago about European tourists being killed here. On the other hand, it doesn't want the headaches of Fort Lauderdale's spring-break pandemonium during the mid-Eighties.
Last year's Memorial Day weekend was marked by residents and businesspeople laboring (sometimes unsuccessfully) to couch their criticisms in nonracial terms; by overwhelmed cops so sensitive to the race issue that some officers, in coded radio transmissions, referred to groups of blacks congregating on street corners as "Canadians"; and by a miffed local black community epitomized by Bishop Victor T. Curry, who resigned as head of the NAACP's Miami chapter after the national organization chastised him for suggesting the NAACP hold its 2003 convention somewhere besides Miami Beach.
David Wallack, owner of Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive, resigned from the city's planning board a few days after his inflammatory comments about the hip-hop crowd appeared in the Miami Herald. "Their culture is violence," he reportedly griped. "That's their only means of communicating with each other." This year Wallack is on his best behavior, as are most city officials and businesspeople. "Our concerns are the same we've voiced for years -- we want it to be clean and safe," he asserts. "I'm going to look at Memorial Day weekend the way I do any big weekend. Mango's will put on our best food, our best show, and our best foot forward."
As to the city's efforts, Wallack believes the test will come only when the full scale of the event is realized. "It's a test of the machine," he says. "We'll find out if it can handle it. At the same time it's about how the crowd handles itself. If the crowd handles itself in a beautiful way, then it should be a great weekend."
Among the city's preparations is a welcome pamphlet with useful information and a somewhat condescending recitation of Miami Beach rules governing drinking, boom boxes, and cruising. The pamphlet will be distributed to hotels and goodwill ambassadors. Also at the ready are lots of portable toilets, vigilant sanitation crews, and a 24-hour information hotline. The city produced a videotape of last year's Memorial Day weekend and sent it to the county as part of its request for assistance. The county responded with offers of police, volunteers, and the assistance of its Community Relations Board, which will oversee an African arts and crafts festival on Ocean Drive. City Manager Gonzalez also asked the CRB to conduct "cultural sensitivity training" for police, fire, and city staff.
Beach police plan to close Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic between Fifth and Fifteenth streets from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. for the entire Thursday-to-Monday holiday. Collins and Washington avenues will be restricted to north-south traffic; many side streets will be barricaded. Police also plan to make more room for pedestrians on the east side of Washington by blocking off one traffic lane. Shuttles will run continuously down the two avenues in a loop from the convention center and from city parking lots.
Capt. John DiCenso told a group of nightclub owners last week that officers will be posted at intervals along Fifth Street from the MacArthur Causeway to direct traffic to commercial routes and away from residential neighborhoods. There will also be electronic signs on the causeways directing tourists to parking, as well as a contingency plan for closing the MacArthur if the Beach becomes seriously overloaded. In the heart of the Deco District, officers will be stationed at every intersection. More will be on foot and bicycle patrol.
At 6:00 p.m. Thursday evening Miami Beach police will begin working double shifts until Monday. More than 200 officers will be on duty at any one time, supplemented by 87 county cops, a few dozen state troopers, and police from surrounding municipalities. "We will have a little over 500 officers total, with around 380 Beach officers, the county, other cities, and FHP," says Ofcr. Jerome Berrian, who will supervise 100 to 200 goodwill ambassadors, volunteers in bright yellow shirts who will walk the streets assisting tourists. Berrian is also hoping to have 50 or so local clergy form an orange-shirted God Squad. Such volunteers, he says, have worked well in Daytona Beach and at last year's Source Awards. "They get more respect than even the goodwill ambassadors," he explains. "They are the most effective. Nobody wants to mess with the God Squad."
This contingent of official peacekeepers, though, will be dwarfed by the private security expected to be retained by clubs and hotels. One firm has told the city it plans to have 300 to 500 guards working the Beach that weekend. Andrea Melotti, general manager of the plush Sagamore Hotel, 1671 Collins Ave., says his resort will employ more private security than normal, plus two off-duty state troopers, to protect an extensive art collection spread throughout the hotel. "We are also not accepting large groups and no major parties because even if the organizers are strict, [a hotel party] can attract attention from the street," Melotti adds. "At the same time, we don't want to be discriminatory. Our best guest lately has been P. Diddy."
Jeff Abbaticchio, spokesman for the Loews Miami Beach, 1601 Collins Ave., says the city has done an exceptional job of planning this year. "Last year," he recalls, "everybody got caught with their pants down." Including the Loews. The very expensive wedding of a wealthy couple from New York was frighteningly interrupted last year by what some described as a "near riot" situation and pepper spray in the adjoining lobby. What is the Loews doing to prevent that kind of horrific scene? "Well, we're not having any weddings this Memorial Day weekend," Abbaticchio laughs.
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Sharone Tzalik, general manager of the Best Western South Beach, 1050 Washington Ave., says the upcoming weekend has been booked for more than a month. He views the holiday crowds as a huge economic boost. "Our reputation is on the line," he acknowledges. "The city, they'd rather be careful than sorry. But I think it's maybe a little too much."
But there are others, notably residents, who feel the city isn't doing enough. Morris Sunshine, a South Pointe activist who lives at the intersection of Fifth Street and Ocean Drive, says many of his fellow residents are "deeply concerned that there will be a huge amount of unnecessary traffic, excessive noise, rowdyism, drinking, and trash. We are concerned there's just not enough police power," Sunshine complains. "We're acting in my building like we're under siege. We will go to the store to buy four or five days of supplies, and basically we'll hole up. For those four days we basically don't own the city -- they do."
David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, reports that at a recent meeting of the Ocean Drive Association some residents said the National Guard should be put on standby for Memorial Day. "The city kind of laughs at the idea of having the National Guard on hand, but it's no laughing matter," he argues. "To squeeze that many people in just a few blocks -- do the math. You just can't fit that many people in. Nobody wants to overreact. [The city is] always very cautious about anyone being able to make claims about racism. If it were anybody but a predominantly black crowd, there would be no question about what they should do. I think they are genuinely afraid to take action."
As far as city officials are concerned, however, they are taking action -- lots of it. "This is the most extensive planning we've ever had for a special event," Officer Berrian says. "We want everyone to come, have a good time, be safe, and come back."