The Battle of Biscayne
Desire and Felicity shamble down the scorching sidewalk, sodden makeup smearing sullen faces. They're looking for the telltale sign from a driver rumbling through midafternoon traffic on Biscayne Boulevard: prolonged eye contact and a chin nod. Or maybe the reliable standby: "Excuse me, miss, but I need directions." Both women are black, and both claim to be twentysomething, though it's difficult to see faces behind the impassive mask of the professional sex worker.
Felicity, who insists that's her real name, and Desire sometimes Desirée who refuses to admit her name and says you can call her anything if you're willing to pay, are hot and tired. They cross Biscayne at 69th Street and enter the refrigerated air of Starbucks, the clean, well-lit beacon of impending gentrification everywhere.
A mop-topped kid with Buddy Holly eyeglasses and iPod earbuds connected to his laptop sits in a comfortable chair next to the entrance. He smirks at the sweat-stained prostitutes and looks back down at his screen. "Fuck," says Desire. "That's my favorite chair."
A soccer mom in khaki capri pants and a white blouse tries not to look at the two women. Desire is dressed in a pink-and-white floral print smock and house slippers, Felicity in black flats, a black pleather miniskirt, and a purple halter-top. Mom chirps her order, "Fresh-squeezed OJ and a salad," and accidentally bumps Desire as she scurries out the door. She apologizes without slowing down and hops into a silver Navigator whose back window bears stickers depicting a happy nuclear family.
The women are still laughing as she pulls out of the parking lot. They order grandé iced mochas with whipped cream and sit on the couch in the coffee shop's corner.
The effects of a condo boom just a few miles south in downtown, which includes 12,000 units and more than a half-billion dollars in city-approved condo and retail construction, has sown the seeds of change along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami's Upper Eastside long Miami's Skid Row. From tasteful tapas bars such as Mosaiques (at 70th Street) to brie-on-a-baguette sandwicheries like Uva 69 (at 69th), more than a dozen cafés and restaurants have opened in the area since 2003 and at least six have survived.
Last year a pair of businessmen decided to spend more than four million dollars to purchase and renovate the dilapidated Vagabond Motel at 73rd Street. Developers of new condo complexes such as Kubik and The Bank want to bring approximately 400 new units to the Boulevard at 80th Street; Nirvana, a five-building apartment complex being converted into condos, has 347 units for sale at NE 64th Street. Spas and upscale furniture stores are popping up where convenience stores and corner boys once thrived.
Property values in the Upper Eastside have doubled in the past five years, according to the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team.
"It's nice, I guess," says Felicity, when asked about the recent emergence of upscale fare in the neighborhood. "There's more good food and everything, but it's too much money sometimes."
Desire, busily sucking away at a mound of whipped cream through her straw, snorts. "Too much fucking money. Way too much."
Felicity laughs when she's asked whether the changes on the Boulevard mean the end of drugs and prostitution. "It's not going anywhere. I've been out here for a little while, and it's not going anywhere. It might move up and down the street, but it's not going anywhere really."
Jazzed by the coffee confections, the two women hit the sidewalk again, parading south past the new display windows and the dog-walkers and bicyclists from Belle Meade and Morningside who until recently wouldn't have set foot on these gritty sidewalks. But some things never change: A white-haired man in a gleaming pearl Cadillac slows down and pulls into a turn lane across the street from the girls. "I guess I'm about to make some money," Felicity says and nods at the man. She turns onto a tree-lined street and heads away from Biscayne. The Cadillac eases into a street one block north, and Felicity saunters off.
Desire continues down the Boulevard, fanning herself with her hand.
In the Fifties and Sixties, the stretch of Biscayne from 36th to 87th streets was relatively family-friendly. Vacationers from parts north stayed in happily tacky motels and then drove to Miami Beach.
All of that changed as Miami convulsed into the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Crack cocaine, race riots, and waves of poor immigrants, particularly those from Central America and Haiti, changed the neighborhood. By the Eighties, the Upper Eastside was an urban nightmare of motels that had become nodes for the local drug and prostitution trades.
And though Miami Beach has morphed into an international hot spot in the past decade, places on Biscayne like the Vagabond, Stephan's International (63rd Street), and the Camelot Inn (71st Street) have continued to be blackened teeth in Miami's supermodel grin. While boutique lodgings like the Delano have become the norm on South Beach, the Boulevard motels have stayed grimy.
Now the motels lining Biscayne in the Upper Eastside are the object of a tug of war between opposing forces. Developers, the city, and local residents, who all want things cleaned up, are squaring off against the pimps, prostitutes, dealers, and businesspeople who hope to preserve the Boulevard as an underpoliced free-for-all.
It's difficult to say who is winning.
On July 27 at 7:33 p.m., a short black man with a T-shirt over his head burst through the door of Room 18 at Stephan's International Motel and shot 22-year-old Matthew Williams in the stomach. A witness identified the shooter, a Boulevard regular with three felony charges, as 25-year-old Monee Williams (no relation). Miami Police Det. Frank Sanchez, primary investigator on the case, says Matthew died at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "This was an individual who had been robbing several hotels, and this was either a robbery or an attempt to silence a witness," Sanchez says. (Monee was caught by police January 4 and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a firearm, felony weapon possession, and threatening a witness. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.)
Eight blocks north at the Camelot, crime was so rampant that police visited the motel, a squarish slab of worn concrete and stucco, more than 50 times between July and December. During a September bust, police even arrested the manager, 53-year-old Michael Kelbel, for "renting a room for the purposes of prostitution." The sheer volume of criminality earned motel owner Dinesh Paliwal a trip to the city's Nuisance Abatement Board in December. The NAB, a five-member body, has the power to fine or even shut down businesses deemed a blight on their neighborhood.
Ofcr. Darrell Nichols, MPD's neighborhood resource officer for the Upper Eastside, says another Boulevard inn, Motel Blu (77th Street), will likely go before the board next. Police records show sixteen incident reports at that location in the past six months, from robberies to attempted murders.
One highlight: On July 12 at 4:07 a.m., MPD Ofcr. Nathaniel Dauphin was on foot patrol on the Boulevard at 77th Street when he heard gunshots. Seconds later, 28-year-old Juaqiuan Gibson ran at Officer Dauphin, yelling, "He robbing him!" and pointing to the back of the Motel Blu property. There Dauphin found a young, thin black man standing over an older man who was prone on the concrete. The two were fighting over a nickel-plated revolver, which they dropped when Dauphin ordered them to do so. Thirty-nine-year-old Glen Smith told police the younger man, 21-year-old Thaddeus Martin, robbed him of $140 and his jewelry.
Linebacker-size Motel Blu manager Ronnie Shova squints suspiciously when informed he might be summoned to appear before the NAB on behalf of NYMI Enterprises, the Long Island-based company that owns Motel Blu. "The what board?" he asks glumly, resting his shaven head in his massive palm. Told that the board keeps track of calls made to police for a given business, Shova explodes: "Who the fuck are the police around here?" The manager stands up, his massive frame silhouetted by the Israeli flag that hangs in his office. "I am the one who tries to clean the place up," he says. "I am the one that has to deal with the problems. I can't control what people do on the street, but I tell them to keep out of the illegal stuff in here."
He sits again. He thinks for a moment as he watches a black Mercedes slide through the motel gates. "You know what? I don't really have a problem with the police. They do their job, I do my job."
The district's new commander, David Magnusson, is focusing on the drug and prostitution trades that have thrived in Boulevard motels, a fact that has the former Israeli soldier out of his chair again. "You know what they call a hooker in South Beach? An escort. And she costs $300 instead of $50. Why don't they care about that?"
Some motel owners are hoping to cash in on what they think will be a totally new image for the Upper Eastside. Entrepreneurs Eric Silverman and Octavio Hidalgo, new proprietors of the Vagabond, are reviving the faded kitsch of the Fifties icon by painstakingly restoring the décor and raising room rates from $30 per hour to $129 per night.
"Some people are turning things around because they see all the economic opportunity," says Officer Nichols. "Other people are doing it because they have to."
After the shooting at his motel in July, Stephan's International owner Naran Prasad closed the place and put it up for sale. Directly across the street from the shuttered Stephan's these days: a sales center for walled-and-gated condo complex Nirvana, whose banners proclaim is "Your Urban Oasis."
And Dinesh Paliwal, who assumed the lease for the Camelot last April, appeared before the Nuisance Abatement Board in December to explain the trouble at his inn. Paliwal's contrition earned him the right to continue operating. He agreed to evict all the tenants as their leases ended, and to renovate. He even moved into the motel himself.
Paliwal professes horror at the bad publicity surrounding his motel, but he declines to comment in detail. Says the police department's Nichols: "[Paliwal] seems to be making a good-faith effort, but he needs to come up with a management plan."
Gerardo Rios exemplifies the challenges that can face budding businessmen moving into the city's core.
The diminutive 52-year-old Cuban native lives in a two-story building at 67th and Biscayne (most recently assessed at $593,000 by the City of Miami), where his shop, Rio's Flowers, has been located for a decade. He is well known in the neighborhood for a Valentine's Day display that includes among other things pyramids of teddy bears, giant hearts, and fake flowers.
But for Rios, a friendly fellow who looks half his age, life hasn't been all flowers and chocolates. Trouble has followed him almost since his arrival from Cuba in 1980. According to public records, Rios's first conviction in America was for burglary in 1983. He served five years.
In 1989 he pleaded no contest after police said he sold two crack rocks to an undercover police officer at his flower shop. He told the judge, David Young, he was supporting a bad drug habit. He was sentenced to three years and served one.
Rios who acknowledged having a criminal record but would not talk about specifics stayed clean for four years. But then, perhaps short of goods in preparation for his Valentine's Day extravaganza, Rios wound up in possession of about $6000 worth of stuffed animals, balloons, and romantic trinkets that had been stolen from Fantasy Flower Shop on Coral Way on February 4, 1993.
Rios told police he had been out of town the night of the burglary. "I bought them from someone called José," he admitted to authorities after they confiscated the stolen goods and a crowbar with green paint on it from his shop.
Rios told police that José, a man he had never seen before, had shown up with the goods.
But Fantasy Flower owner Gladys Piedra testified that she began calling other florists the day after the theft. "I heard that at such-and-such a place they sell very, very cheap and they sell stolen goods," she said, referring to Rios's shop. So she informed police that Rios might be the culprit. An officer took Piedra's son Obdulio to Rios's shop, where he immediately recognized the merchandise. Rios was arrested the same day.
Gladys Piedra later testified that she recognized Rios after his arrest: "That gentleman had been at my flower shop that week two times, asking for prices of different items. He promised to come back to buy something."
A jury convicted Rios in July 1993, and a judge sentenced him to three years of probation plus restitution to the Piedras.
Comments Rios: "I have no more problems. I don't want any trouble."
But Justin Hughes and Jaime Klein, thirtysomething entrepreneurs, complain that Rios is trouble. In January of 2005 the two men opened a sports bar called Kingdom in Rios's building. Since then they have feuded nonstop with the owner, who they say is trying to find a way to kick them out of the space they spent $100,000 renovating. Hughes, who co-owns a nutritional supplement company with his wife Tracy, and Klein, a former manager of the Polo Club, say they made their plans clear from the beginning. They contend that Rios promised them a liquor license and then didn't deliver. After an October police raid, Klein was jailed for not displaying the proper licensing.
Rios claims he never knew the pair planned to have liquor at their bar. Though he sued the tenants for eviction this past November, a judge threw out the case January 23. "We cleaned this place up and tried to keep the bad element away, but we got screwed anyway," Hughes says, adding that he has spent almost $10,000 on legal bills.
Both Hughes and Louis Bredeson, a Rios tenant who owns a barbershop in the building, say Rios has threatened them by referring to "dangerous friends."
"I have no friends," Rios responds.
Sinuhe Vega owns Uva 69, the successful breakfast-and-lunch café two blocks north of Rios's building. He says budding businesspeople should be wary when they venture into Miami's urban core, a lesson he learned when he opened Cane à Sucre one block west of Biscayne on 35th Street in 2002. "My first restaurant I opened was in a neighborhood that was sort of just beginning the gentrification process, and I got stuck with a landlord who saw me as fresh meat someone to take advantage of," Vega says. "I learned a lot."
Leroy Griffith is short, stout, and polite. He favors clothing that is expensive but not ostentatious, and the diamond ring winking on his pinkie is more expressive than his face. He has been on the Boulevard longer than most. In 1970 he bought the pastel blue Art Deco strip club/nightclub/porn theater at 7778 Biscayne, which has been called the Pussycat Theater, Club Madonna II, and Black Gold, among other names. Though the club may have lost some of its notoriety to Club Madonna on South Beach (which he also owns), Griffith says he intends to hold on to the property, which was assessed at $1.1 million in 2005.
Ever diligent, the 73-year-old has arrived at his Biscayne office at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday. He climbs the stairs slowly, stopping halfway to look down at the darkened club's interior. "I have a new plan for this place," he says. "I'm going to open it as a singles' club with maybe a couple of strippers on the poles."
Griffith's plans, however, conflict with those of the city. Though he recently paid $281,000 to stop Miami from foreclosing on the property, it is still the focus of a full-scale legal assault. Griffith says authorities want to turn his place into a parking lot, which would better align with city planners' vision for the neighborhood.
"I'm a good businessman, been doing this a long time in a tough area," Griffith grumbles. "Don't know why they want to give me all this trouble."
The city has chosen a battle-hardened opponent in Griffith, who began his career as a teenager working a concessions stand at a Saint Louis burlesque theater. Over time, he has made a living owning and operating burlesque shows and strip clubs. He has also purchased failing first-run movie theaters and converted them into porn movie houses. Griffith has been operating clubs, burlesque and otherwise, in South Florida since 1961. When he bought the Biscayne property for $165,000, it was a movie theater showing Patton.
He estimates he has owned and managed more than 40 such businesses over more than five decades from Portland to New York. He declines to reveal personal financial details, but public records show he lives in a $650,000 home in exclusive Bay Point and drives a new black Mercedes sedan. He also donates thousands of dollars to political campaigns and police and firefighters' benevolent associations.
He shakes his head as he describes the source of his current troubles with the city. "Here's the whole thing," he says, emphasizing gruff proclamations by tapping his small, well-manicured hand on his desk. "Am I or am I not guilty of running a parking lot?"
Miami first imposed a twenty percent parking surcharge on paid parking lots in 1999 (the surcharge was later amended to fifteen percent). Griffith says he had been collecting at his lot "for years" by the time the surcharge went into effect.
At issue is exactly what he was collecting for. Griffith says those who used his lots paid ten dollars but that the ticket was for his adult theater, not for a parking space. In 2001 the city's code enforcement department began citing Griffith for not paying the surcharge, saying his lot was used primarily by people who paid the seven dollars for a space so they could walk to the Immigration and Naturalization Service building a block away. The proof was a videotape of people doing just that. Griffith refused to pay, and the city pursued him through code enforcement hearings and eventually into circuit court, where a judge ordered him to pay up in December 2005.
Griffith sums up his legal defense in classically concise fashion: "People pay for a room at the motel; they park their car; nobody makes them go into the room. People buy a ticket for the theater; I don't follow them in." He contends that the city wants his property for something other than an adult theater. He points to e-mails that emerged during the court case.
On April 13 Miami's chief financial officer, Linda Haskins, wrote to Miami Parking Authority Deputy Director Frederick Bredemeyer: "If we succeed in the foreclosure, we would probably look at putting a fire station there." Mark Trowbridge, another MPA deputy director, wrote to Bredemeyer: "Fire station? Add a parking deck!!!"
Tim Dodson, who handles PR for the MPA, e-mailed New Times after a reporter contacted Bredemeyer about the case. "MPA has never been involved in any discussion regarding possible future uses of the property in question, beyond that brief e-mail exchange you read," he wrote.
Griffith paid the penalty and fines to stave off foreclosure on January 12, but he is suing to get his money back. Though the city's attorney, Joe Serota, insists it is a purely legal matter, Griffith says the city simply wants him out. "They got all this development coming in," he says from behind his desk at the club. "Suddenly a guy like me doesn't belong here."
Real estate analyst Michael Cannon puts the neighborhood's problem succinctly: "In the Upper Eastside, you have tons of nice neighborhoods lining the Boulevard, a built-in client base for stores and restaurants. You just have to convince them that it is safe enough to come out."
Crime was down sharply in the Upper Eastside in 2005. According to police statistics, burglaries in the area have dropped by twenty percent in the past five years, robberies by almost thirty percent. Assault is down by about twenty percent.
Whether or not crime remains a constant in the Upper Eastside, other changes are on the way. The northwest corner of 79th Street and Biscayne, now a low-end shopping center, is ground zero for the largest planned development in Miami since the Midtown project got underway three miles to the south. This past December, developers the Easton Group and the Related Group announced plans to team up for a $430-million retail/residential megaplex including a 52-story condo tower including 2470 residential units and 200,000 square feet of retail space.
The city is paying for aesthetic improvements as well. A groundbreaking ceremony January 9 marked the starting point for $13.2 million in public works projects, covering a 2.5-mile segment between NE 37th and 67th streets. The work will include drainage, traffic signal improvements, wider sidewalks, decorative streetlights, and median landscaping. It's scheduled for completion in a year.
But Felicity, who still works the Boulevard every day, remains skeptical. She says she doesn't know where she'll peddle her wares if the neighborhood gets too clean for her kind. Then again, she doesn't think that will ever happen. "Some girls done worked their whole lives, lived and died on Biscayne, and that's not going anywhere. We may move up the block, but we're not going away as long as there are men in this city."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.