For nearly 20 years, Memorial Day in Miami Beach has been synonymous with Urban Beach Week, an informal hip-hop event that draws hundreds of thousands to the city for a days-long party. But that changed this year.
The city for the first time hosted a huge air show, which officials described as an effort to "rebrand" the holiday weekend as more "family-friendly." From its conception in 2015, the move drew strong criticism from detractors who blasted it as a racist attempt to drive out the mostly black tourists who flock to Urban Beach Week.
Now city commissioners are set to discuss today whether to continue with the experiment — fresh off a city memo suggesting taxpayers would have to foot the full $274,000 bill for the event because of "challenges" with finding sponsors. But Commissioner Michael Grieco, who proposed the event, says he wants to see it expanded.
"I think it was a success," the mayoral hopeful tells New Times. "I think it actually was more of a success than I could have imagined."
The holiday as a whole didn't go as smoothly as city officials had hoped: The weekend was disrupted by two deadly shootings and a stabbing. The violence sparked a political tug-of-war between Grieco, who called for an outright shutdown of Urban Beach Week, and Mayor Philip Levine, who re-upped an old proposal to restrict alcohol sales on Ocean Drive.
City commissioners approved the Air & Sea Show in December 2015 after Grieco suggested it as "alternative programming." Critics emerged soon after, and civil rights attorney John De Leon told New Times at the time that it was a clear attempt to suppress the Urban Beach Week crowd.
“A significant number of hotel rooms typically used during Urban Beach Week will be booked in order to deprive African-Americans of the opportunity to enjoy their weekend,” said De Leon, a past president of the Greater Miami ACLU. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Ocean Drive during Urban Beach Week
Photo by George Martinez
Grieco has repeatedly insisted his stance on Urban Beach Week has nothing to do with race — even getting into a heated argument last month with NAACP leaders at a city commission meeting. Instead, he says, it's in response to public safety concerns. Memorial Day weekend has in the past seen high arrest rates, and in 2011, police fired more than 100 rounds at a car flying down busy Collins Avenue, killing the driver and injuring four bystanders. In recent years, the event has been relatively calm.
Until the Sunday-night shooting, this year's Memorial Day weekend was also mostly calm. Arrests were down from 2016, and the throngs of people on the beach were mellow. Both the city and the promoter insist the air show was a success, and Grieco says diverse crowds enjoyed it.
"Seeing people of all walks of life — black and white, old and young, rich and poor — appreciate this thing that I brought to the city. It was probably my proudest moment as an elected official," he says.
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The event producer wants to expand it next year and potentially include music events and athletic competitions, according to the city memo. Grieco says he'd also like to see more "multicultural" programming, such as jazz, R&B, or rock shows.
But to put the show on next year, the city would likely have to spend more than anticipated. The memo says the event producer has indicated "that he will not be able to produce the show again unless the City agrees to cover all expenses for City services both inside and outside of the venue footprint."
Originally, the producer was set to cover expenses inside the venue footprint for this year's show and any in the future. But the city agreed to cover all city service costs after the producer had difficulty securing sponsorship. Estimates put the total cost at $274,418, though a final number is not yet known.