South Beach Goes Palm Beach

So you thought that barbecue you held last weekend was a blast? Check out these eyewitness testimonials to a recent shindig on Miami Beach:

"... animal farm ..."
"... unrestrained licentious behavior ..."
"... For hours people were hanging out, eating, drinking, and CHANGING THEIR CLOTHING in front of the Bentley ..."

"... an overwhelming number of people running up and down Ocean Drive, to and from the beachfront with alcoholic beverages on hand ..."

"... free for all ..."
"... crowds of loud and drunk maniacs ..."
"... a wild stampede ..."
Now that's a party!

It seems, though, that not everyone had a good time. The killjoys were Ocean Drive property owners and merchants who dispatched the aforementioned reports -- intended as anything but endorsements -- to Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa.

The bash in question was Carnival Miami South Beach, an all-day March 2 event that was part of the weeklong celebration of Hispanic heritage called Carnival Miami. The Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, which promoted the festival, had never before exported its fling across the causeways. And the revelers didn't come quietly: They arrived with a parade, a beach-soccer tournament, and five Latin music bands that performed on a towering oceanside stage. A crowd estimated at 150,000 poured into the city to frolic.

"It was a great turnout. People behaved really well; all the comments from the city officials were that it was great," says Jose Marban, executive director of the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana. The fete appeared to be a success by other measures, too: Only two people were arrested, injuries were few and minor, and the streets were clean by noon the following day.

But several Ocean Drive merchants and property owners had a different view. In the days following the event, they banded together and deluged the city with letters and phone calls that described a wild bacchanal the likes of which hasn't been seen since, oh, about the time of Caligula. Wrote Albert Hartkorn, president of 1390 Ocean Drive Condominium Association, Inc.: "I have been authorized by [the condominium association] to formally advise you of the association's opposition to future events, such as the 'South Beach Carnival,' which serve only to demonstrate to residents and visitors that the City of Miami Beach is unable to discern the difference between a world-class event ... and events that promote unrestrained licentious behavior; that promote filth, garbage, and debris; that promote the open orgy of alcoholic beverages, defecating in alleys and parking facilities. What a showcase of Hispanic flavor and South Beach! What an event for the tourists to tell to their friends back home!"

The manager of Gianni Versace's residence at 1116 Ocean Dr. reported structural damage and trampled bushes at the designer's manse. Some business owners complained that their sales plummeted that day.

Marban says the criticism perplexed him. Not only was the festival well organized, he contends, but Ocean Drive merchants knew long ago that it was going to take place and chose not to cooperate. "They had an opportunity to put a food stand in front of their businesses but declined," he says. "Obviously they didn't really want the event."

The city's special and cultural events coordinator, James Quinlan, confirms Marban's account: Though Ocean Drive business and property owners were invited to participate in the planning discussions for Carnival Miami South Beach as early as September, he says, their attendance at the meetings was spotty. Quinlan also points out that at the time the party was being organized, a business association that represented Ocean Drive mercantile interests was being disbanded. "Maybe the administration of the Ocean Drive Association didn't communicate with its constituents," he surmises.

The letter-writing campaign, which was coordinated by the management of the News Cafe, has prompted a series of meetings between merchants, property owners, city officials, and the festival's organizers. According to Quinlan, the sides are going to hash out a set of criteria by which all future events on Ocean Drive will be planned. Their next meeting is a so-called Ocean Drive events workshop April 8.

"Ocean Drive as an entity doesn't need these things," declares Alfie Feola, who owns the building at 760 Ocean Dr.; it houses several businesses, including Ben & Jerry's, the Body Shop, and Wet Willie's. If Ocean Drive must host block-party-style events, says Feola, "we'd like to see them have a little more class." By way of example, he mentions the Luciano Pavarotti concert on the beach two years ago, which drew more than 100,000 people. "It was nothing but good!" he exclaims. "People left in an organized and civilized manner. People respected the flowers and plants. People were responsible."

The flap over Carnival Miami highlights the contradictory identity of Ocean Drive. For years private developers and the city labored to transform the strip from a den of thieves and poor retirees into its current manifestation as an international entertainment hot spot. Now the question is not how to attract the crowds but rather how to control -- or thin -- them.

"The city may not want to continue these sorts of larger events," comments Ronnie Singer, special assistant to the city manager. "I think there was a time when these events were much more desirable than they are now. We're not hungry for just any kind of attention. It's the right kind of attention that we need."

Marban vows to return. Quinlan, however, says it won't happen without some modifications. Among possible changes, he suggests that the organizers might want to rethink the lineup of bands. "You had some teen heartthrobs up there -- it was great, it drew really well," he notes, but adds that the selection could be balanced with acts that might draw a more mature audience. Latin jazz, perhaps, or, as he puts it, performers "of a more Julio Iglesias, A-list type. I really believe that there are ways to tailor the carnival to make it compatible with Ocean Drive."

Marban is wary of such talk. "They mentioned the Pavarotti concert," he notes. "But Carnival is what you saw there: average people out there having fun. That's Carnival all over the world, that's what you get -- the flow, the dancing, the fun, the families. You have a city, you have a public, and the public wants it!


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