This Memorial Day weekend was a test for Miami Beach. For the first time, the city scheduled a massive air show during the unofficial Urban Beach Week, with the not-so-secret goal of ending the gathering that draws thousands of mostly black hip-hop fans to South Beach. Could the two coexist?
After a chaotic holiday that saw two men killed in shootings and another stabbed in a brawl, the answer is pretty clear. Now a political tug-of-war is erupting over what to do about the violence. Mayoral hopeful Commissioner Michael Grieco called for an outright end to Urban Beach Week, but this morning the current mayor — and gubernatorial hopeful — Philip Levine will hold an "emergency press conference" where he's expected to announce his plan: a new crackdown on Ocean Drive's rowdy bars and clubs.
"He's going to announce what I've been advocating: noise abatement along Ocean Drive," says Sherbrooke Hotel owner Mitch Novick, who will speak along with Levine this morning. "At this point, it's a crisis situation."
Levine might also hit back at Grieco, who called for a massive shutdown of bars and clubs to make "Urban Beach Week a thing of the past."
"I was taken aback and appalled at his comments," Novick says. "I thought it was outrageous that a commissioner would try to ban any specific group of tourists, and I viewed it as racist."
But Grieco insists race has nothing to do with his demands. "This is not a black or white issue," he says. "We have significant amounts of African-American and Caribbean guests who come during all our weekends, and we do not experience one fraction of the issues we experience during Memorial Day weekend. There's a criminal element, regardless as of race, that uses Memorial Day weekend as an opportunity to turn Miami Beach into a shooting gallery."
This year's Memorial Day weekend was fairly tranquil until 10:30 Sunday evening. That's when a white BMW carrying a 19-year-old Brooklyn rapper named Jeffrey Alexander tried to maneuver into a tight parking space near Second Street and Ocean Drive. When the BMW repeatedly hit a gold Buick, that car's driver complained.
The fight escalated until Alexander whipped out a gun and fatally shot a 30-year-old Homestead man named Ladarian Phillips. Alexander hit another man in the leg before the BMW fled north. Police caught up with the car at Fifth Street and Alton Road, where they opened fire and killed an unidentified man in the car; Alexander was later arrested.
There was more violent drama on Ocean Drive Monday. Around 3 p.m., a huge brawl involving more than 30 people broke out near Sixth Street and Ocean Drive. One man in the melee was stabbed multiple times and rushed to the hospital.
Grieco says the violence is simply too much. He acknowledges the difficulty of shutting down an event that's decentralized and fueled by nightclubs booking shows around Miami-Dade County, but he insists Miami Beach can do more.
"Memorial Day weekend should be about Memorial Day, not about tallying up arrests or making sure that people don't get shot," says Grieco, who proposes closing bars and clubs as early as 10 p.m. and adding more alternate events such as the air show. "There's no other weekend that sees a mass exodus of residents."
But Novick sees the Memorial Day problems as simply a symptom of the larger ills of Ocean Drive, which for years has been bedeviled by rising crime and fleeing retailers. He blames the political influence of large clubs and bars on the strip, which have successfully lobbied against crackdowns on noise and unruly crowds.
"Right now, it's a spring break mentality on Ocean Drive, and our resort taxes are plummeting," Novick says. "People blame Zika, but I say otherwise. People are afraid to come here because of the violence. It's quite sad."
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Grieco, though, says he has concerns about proposals to tightly reign in the bars on Ocean Drive. He says they're not the problem; the issue lies with nightclub promoters who unofficially organize Urban Beach Week. "The Ocean Drive conversation, to me, is a separate conversation," he says. "I worry most about all the people who work there at Ocean Drive establishments and the money they would lose."
Update: At his press conference, Levine clashed with David Wallack, owner of longtime Ocean Drive mainstay Mango's Tropical Cafe: