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Strike Up the Bland

Boogie man Mitch Chonin, cabbie by day, is fighting to keep his night job
Juan Carlos Rodriguez

The mime who painted himself green and performed near the Nexxt Café on Lincoln Road was truly silenced by Miami Beach police for posing without a permit. The baby-faced clown lady no longer ambles around the Euclid Oval on her stilts, twisting balloons into animal shapes for kids. The disco dancer who used to do his thing in front of the Britto Central gallery is fuming about his right to hustle in public now that a city ordinance has forced him to turn off his boom box and put away his platform shoes. Street performers and trinket vendors, once a whimsical component in Lincoln Road's eclectic mix, have been ordered off the sidewalks by city leaders who feared the open-air mall was degenerating into a grungy, lowbrow street bazaar.

Since the new ordinance took effect August 6, pedestrians have encountered far fewer sidewalk attractions that might deter them from fulfilling the Road's mission: separating people from their money. Today the rustle of shopping bags and the clatter of silverware and dishes at sidewalk cafés dominate the soundscape. No more blues riffs from the old black guy by the movie theater. Gone are the percussive melodies of the steel-drum musician near Meridian Avenue. Beaded jewelry, illuminated nature photos, psychedelic moonscapes on canvas -- all gone. Even the romantic guitaristas who once strolled amid the dining tables have been steamrolled by city bureaucrats and Lincoln Road shop owners.

Ansel is one of the roving troubadours who still serenades on the sly. But before stopping tableside and strumming his guitar, he furtively looks both ways for code-enforcement officers. "It's outrageous that in Miami Beach, the world capital of tourism, they don't support the arts," he says in impassioned Spanish. "These commissioners are very ignorant and arrogant. They don't know the first thing about the arts, and they don't know the first thing about love." Despite the newfound hardship, Ansel remains an avid ambassador for the city. His guitar is decorated with palm trees and glittering letters that read, "Welcome to Miami Beach."

Lincoln Road's street vendors, long-time nemeses of shop owners whose rents have reached the stratosphere, have virtually disappeared. For some it's no great loss. "[The street merchants] were asking for it because they were getting too greedy with the space," says sixteen-year-old Christopher Motano, while munching French fries at the Euclid Oval. "Now I can finally sit on the circle and not get kicked out by the artists."

In an effort to preserve some semblance of gentility on Lincoln Road and to protect merchants from what they claimed was unfair competition, Miami Beach commissioners on July 18 voted unanimously to clamp down on the sidewalk hawkers. They passed an ordinance that allows only five street vendors or performers to do business at specific sites on Lincoln Road and three to operate along Ocean Drive. The locations were selected by city staffers after a series of workshops and community meetings with residents and Lincoln Road business operators. Those who wanted to continue their alfresco enterprises would have to apply for permits through the city licensing department.

In order to qualify, vendors were required to submit photographs of their artwork and merchandise, statements verifying that the items are original work, and pictures of the studios where the merchandise is made. They also had to provide proof of appropriate tax registration and release the city from liability or threat of lawsuits. Performers had to submit a photograph of themselves and a description of their act. Application fees: $15 for performers; $50 for vendors.

Only nineteen vendors and one performer submitted applications by the August 6 deadline. About ten hopefuls showed up at city hall for a lottery-style drawing. The task of implementing the ordinance fell to Jorge Montes, the city's revenue supervisor, who explained the rules and regulations. "You can't throw rugs on the floor [sic] or sell from the floor," Montes said. "We have the right to confiscate all materials and send you home if you have a booth that looks like a flea market."

The vendors could only do business from 8:00 a.m. till 30 minutes after sunset Monday through Thursday. Friday through Sunday they could operate until midnight. They must keep their sites clean and not obstruct foot traffic. In addition they would be restricted from selling drug paraphernalia or items bearing obscene messages.

This first round of permits, Montes continued, would last through December. All succeeding permits would be good for just three months. Those who paid the application fee and were not picked could re-enter the drawing over the next twelve months without being charged again. "This is an opportunity for you to make a living, not to take over Lincoln Road," Montes lectured. "Those of you who don't like it can go."

Then he assigned each applicant a number and wrote it on a strip of paper, which he folded and deposited in a box. Holding the box aloft (to prove he was not picking favorites), Montes drew eight names. Henna tattoo artist Petar Velitchkov; jewelry artisans Hector Godoy and wife, Meike Zuechner; and painters Aliza Surut and Juan Attias Maya won spots on Lincoln Road. Peruvian musician Juan Blanco, the only performer to apply, lost out. (Commissioner Nancy Liebman, chief proponent of the ordinance, laments the fact that only merchants won the prized spots on Lincoln Road. She'd like a better mix. "The ordinance could be improved," Liebman concedes. "We took the first step. Now we need to tweak it and make it better.")

Gone now are any more opportunities for spontaneous cultural exchanges like the one that took place the weekend before the ordinance became law. On a sultry Saturday night, a group of Portuguese university students graced Lincoln Road with an impromptu concert at the Euclid Oval. Dressed in black suits and white shirts, they sang heartbreaking folk songs for beer money. Under the new ordinance these unlicensed minstrels could have been arrested.

With nearly all competition eliminated, the five winning Lincoln Road vendors should have increased their market share and profitability. But just the opposite has happened. The licensed vendors say it is now tougher than ever to make a living on the Road, in large part owing to the obscure locations mandated by the city, and also because they are prohibited from providing their own night-time lighting. They report frequent visits by police, who check to make sure their merchandise is properly arrayed atop a single table and that they use no eye-catching displays to attract passersby.

Those who won spots in areas that are fully exposed to the afternoon sun have been told by police and code-enforcement officers that they cannot use an umbrella or lounge chair for comfort. "I think the entire ordinance is a mockery," complains jeweler Hector Godoy, whose revenue has plummeted since he moved to his permitted spot off Pennsylvania Avenue. "The city is telling us “Yeah, we're going to allow you to sell,' but with all the restrictions it's impossible."

Some street performers and vendors are considering a legal challenge to the ordinance. Resident artist Rara Kuyu, whose colorful murals grace the Haitian restaurant Tap Tap on Fifth Street, is organizing the effort and consulting with attorneys, though he won't identify them. "Because [the artists] are in the street, people think they are lowlifes and they are nobodies," grumbles Kuyu, who did not apply for a city permit. "This is wickedness, and they are going to pay for their stupidity."

Perhaps the most noticeable change on the Road is the absence of Mitch Chonin, the pudgy disco dancer who boogied nearly every night in front of Britto Central, wearing bell-bottoms, Gypsy scarves, and a Solid Gold attitude. A cab driver by day, Chonin has never depended on the money he collected from dancing, but that fact hasn't diminished the bitterness he feels at being given the proverbial boot. (Chonin says he didn't apply for a permit because he hopes to join with others in suing the city.)

"I have a very special talent. No one has the dance moves or technique I have," Chonin insists, adding that he developed his repertoire of some 5000 steps from years of training at Arthur Murray Dance Studios and from watching American Bandstand. "I'm just dancing. The city can't dictate to me where I can dance or when I can do my art. They are infringing on my constitutional rights."


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