Jimbo's Place is closing, and a crazy family feud is to blame
Miami reacted with horror last week to news that the end is nigh for Jimbo's, the open-air beer-and-smoked-fish joint that's been Miami's weirdest, most beloved hangout for nearly six decades. But no one has yet told of the Old Testament-style sibling feud — including accusations of drug use, insanity, and theft — that's finally killing the legendary spot.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon on Virginia Key, the ongoing war is easy to see. Like rival generals in a guerrilla camp, brothers Bobby and Bubba Luznar stew with their allies on opposite sides of Jimbo's Place.
"He just sits there and stares at us," Bobby, a gaunt, sprightly fellow in a baseball cap with a fishing fly attached to it, says of his younger brother. "He won't quit drinking. Every day there's two bottles of tequila in his trash."
Bobby's right-hand man, Mike Harvison, nods in agreement. He's a burly man in a camouflage bucket hat. "I smoke a little pot," Mike says, "but I've never taken a hit and started beating on somebody or started arguing with myself... and lost the argument!"
The object of their scorn is a placid bearded guy a few hundred feet away, sitting on an overstuffed couch plunked in the dirt. "I do like to drink," admits the extremely Zen Bubba, AKA Jimmy, AKA James Luznar Jr. As if on cue, he swigs from a bottle containing a cocktail of energy drink and tequila. "But he's got a whole lot more problems than I got."
Bubba's sidekick wants to sum up the situation. "Let me put my fucking teeth in," says the man known only as Jamaican Paul, a dude who looks like Willie Nelson in a beret and speaks in an island patois. In plop the dentures. "This is like in the biblical days," JP announces. "It's a feud for the land. Jimbo's was a promised land, a special land. But now it is just another material place."
There is, however, one thing both Bobby and Bubba have in common: a mutual resentment of their sister, Gail Araujo, who is exercising her power of attorney to close the venerable hangout founded 58 years ago by their ailing, 85-year-old father, Jimbo Luznar. "She's trying to pull the plug on it," Bobby snaps, "and it's none of her business."
The three-way family fight spells the end of a storied haute-hobo hideaway, which throughout its existence has successfully stared down municipal foes. Jimbo's Place — along with its lumpy bocce court, collection of impressively lazy dogs, and revolving population of semihomeless squatters — has been an unlikely backdrop for dozens of big-time beachfront productions, from Flipper to 2 Fast 2 Furious. It has won countless Best of Miami awards from this publication, including Best Smoked Fish (a food item that Bubba was arrested for selling without a license last year). And just last September, Esquire named Jimbo's one of the best bars in America.
Jimbo's is a grandfathered barnacle in a protected national park. But last Wednesday, Jimbo agreed to return the land to the City of Miami. Given the old man's contentious history with the city — in 2010 he told a reporter he was keeping the bar open "out of spite" — this latest development is sort of like Mexico gift-wrapping the Alamo to Davy Crockett. "This mess has accomplished what Miami couldn't do for 40 years," opines Susan Cross, a gregarious woman who lives at Jimbo's in a broken-down, junk-strewn yacht. "If anybody's going to screw you, it's going to be family."
Jimbo's Place was founded in 1954 after the city evicted Jimbo Sr.'s shrimp operation from the downtown waterfront property currently home to the Miami Herald. As a consolation prize, he was given a rent-free, lifetime lease on land nobody really wanted — a small patch of stinky, buggy Virginia Key waterfront adjacent to a sewage treatment plant.
City officials probably didn't expect Jimbo to stay half a century. Shrimping became bar-keeping, if that's what you call digging domestic beer from ice coolers. Skyscrapers sprouted along the bay, but Jimbo's vibe was Key West with a healthy splash of Mad Max. As Jamaican Paul likes to say: "Jimbo's is irie."
The trouble began in the mid-'00s, when Jimbo, suffering from chronic neck pain and the onset of Alzheimer's, ceded operations to his son Bubba. According to Bobby, his brother is notorious for drinking too much, snorting starter fluid, and getting into fights. Bubba calmly downplays that characterization: "I think if I drink a little bit of tequila, my mouth gets me in trouble."
Bubba hired as a manager a notorious semihomeless man named Diego. (He has since disappeared and could not be located, so we're not using his last name.) Diego raided the cash registers, say Bubba's siblings, and liked to berate customers and spray them with fire extinguishers. "He busted my head twice," Jamaican Paul recalls. "He had a bit of a drinking problem."
"I was in the process of getting rid of Diego," Bubba insists. Then in December 2009, Bubba's trailer burned down. "There were too many extension cords, and it created a fire," City of Miami project manager Robert Weinreb says. The city shut down Jimbo's electricity until the establishment fixed its fire hazards. It never did.
Bobby, a handyman and shrimper, staged a coup last September. "I found out my brother got the place upside-down," he says, "and it's a free-for-all and people are selling drugs."
Using Florida's Baker Act, Bobby — who claims his brother is a diagnosed schizophrenic — had Bubba evaluated and committed to a psychiatric institution for 72 hours. Then a couple of weeks later, he had Bubba committed again. "Unfortunately, I hate Mr. Baker," remarks Bubba, who denies he has any mental illness, "although I've never met him."
Bobby says that after wresting control of the bar, he was able to clean up the place. He tore down ramshackle buildings and replaced them with shipping containers. On February 20, Bobby's wife, Jennie Luznar, wrote a letter to the family, demanding that Bubba leave the property by March 30. She claimed that Bubba — whom she calls Jimmy — was making money through associates "selling 'crack cocaine' out of the front door of Jimbo's Shrimp shack" and using the drug himself. "I refuse to allow anyone in my family," Jennie wrote, "to be sacrificed to 'hide' Jimmy's disorder that Jimmy can control IF he chose not to drink, not take drugs, not sniff starting fluid and REALLY take his medication."
Bubba denies any crack trafficking or use or, for good measure, "whoring out" members of the female semihomeless population, of which he says he's also been accused. (Bubba's never been charged with such crimes. Over the years, he has been accused in court of battery and marijuana possession, as well as a litany of aquatic infractions such as game and fish violations.) In turn, he claims Bobby racked up thousands of dollars of charges on a Jimbo's corporate credit card by buying tires and dental work for his son. Bobby blames an associate, whom he says used the card without his knowledge.
Last week, Jimbo's daughter Gail — who works in yacht sales — officially stepped into the fray. She announced her intent to close Jimbo's. "We're looking at the financial end of it," the even-toned Gail says. "It's losing money for us. The hope was that the brothers were going to be able to make it work. It's just not proving financially beneficial to my parents."
Bobby believes that his sister is worried only about her inheritance, not her father's historic bar: "To me, it's sickening."
But on Wednesday, Jimbo himself signed a letter to Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. "The time has come for me to retire from operating Jimbo's, as I am no longer able to be on the site on a day to day basis," the letter read. "I would like to give the site back to the City of Miami to become a City park for public use." He added that the family "would like some remembrance left at the site for future generations to keep the memory of Jimbo's alive."
According to his family, he is on a cocktail of pain medication and unable to be interviewed. But his wife, 84-year-old Ruby, says of the forfeiture: "It had to be. We've lost money since last August. He's 85 years old. It's time for us to move on."
Despite the letter, Bobby maintains that Jimbo was coerced into giving up his bar and that the old man learned of his daughter's decision on Monday. "He was shocked," Bobby says. "But then I dropped some shrimp on him, and he just started peeling. He still loves to peel shrimp."
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