Wynwood Bar Owners Claim That Cops and Downtown Clubs Are Conspiring Against Them
photo illustration Miche Ratto
The "blowjob shots" were just beginning. It was after 3 a.m., and Shots Miami was living up to its name. Hundreds of customers sucked down slugs of brightly colored booze -- some from between each other's legs. All night long, partiers had flocked to the neon-painted bar on NW 23rd Street to don costumes and play drinking games. Like the rest of Wynwood, Shots was booming.
Amid the revelry, no one paid much attention to two men sidling up to the bar. They were clean-cut, in their 30s, and dressed in jeans and button-down shirts. After checking their watches, they ordered a pair of Red Stripes.
Moments later, Shots owner Oscar Zapata glanced at the surveillance cameras in his office and saw squad cars pull up. The 31-year-old raced outside. Cops were everywhere, pushing patrons out. When Zapata explained he was one of the owners, police slapped handcuffs on him and sat him next to the three bartenders who had served the undercover officers their beers. Zapata was hauled to jail, where he spent 15 hours -- all for selling booze at 3:10 a.m.
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Zapata and his bartenders weren't the only ones busted. Eleven other Wynwood bar owners or employees were arrested in February and March during Operation Dry Hour, when cops raided or inspected 17 establishments. Half a dozen were shut down. At least one has yet to reopen.
To Wynwood's bar owners, the crackdown was a strategic assault against the up-and-coming neighborhood arranged by their competitors -- the 24-hour downtown clubs. It's more than an idle conspiracy theory: Those megaclubs have a cozy relationship with police thanks to a half-million bucks they've paid to off-duty officers for security in the past two years, not to mention political clout with Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.
"This whole operation isn't about safety; it's about pursuing certain clubs," says Aaron Goldstein, whose club, Villa 221, was shut down by police. "The entertainment district is behind it. But fuck it. If Space and Mekka want to bully everybody out of the game, they are going to get an eye-opener."
Those downtown clubs, though, counter that they just want their competitors to play by the rules. Miami police, citing illegal all-night warehouse parties, argue that Wynwood needs reining in.
"Wynwood is out of control," says Michael Slyder, Mekka's co-owner. "The law is the law. It's black-and-white."
One things is clear: Wynwood's wild days are over. The neighborhood that made its name with edgy, all-night partying suddenly must deal with a new reality. And it's not yet clear whether it will survive the shock.
Twenty-three years ago, the neighborhood faced much different problems. Then mostly poor and Puerto Rican, Wynwood exploded into flames and riots December 3, 1990, after Miami police officers were acquitted of fatally beating local drug dealer Leonardo Mercado.
Over the past decade, however, developers led by SoBe savior Tony Goldman bought empty warehouses and invited in art galleries. Art Basel's satellite fairs brought investors. In 2008, the first fancy restaurant, Joey's, moved in. Then came graffiti murals, bars, gentrification, and the ever-increasing madness of Second Saturday Art Walk.
By 2012, Wynwood was again exploding -- not with riots but with crowds of rich and hip visitors. The New York Times even christened it "the next Meatpacking District," after the swanky Manhattan neighborhood.
Oscar Zapata at his Wynwood bar, Shots
Zapata wanted in on the action. The half-Cuban, half-Colombian whiz kid comes from a family of entrepreneurs in Kendall. After studying computer engineering at Florida International University, he began designing cooling systems for local gaming company Alienware. But the pay sucked, so Zapata returned to FIU for a business degree. David Estrada, another ex-Alienware employee, had visited a bar in Medellín where customers had to dress up or do stunts with each shot. Soon the two friends were scouting for a location of their own.
With cheaper rent and a mellower vibe than downtown, Wynwood was an easy choice. Initially, Zapata and Estrada thought they could start the bar with just $40,000. "It was a quick reality check," Zapata says with a laugh. Instead, the duo ended up investing nearly half a million dollars into Shots. But it's more than money on the line for the young entrepreneur. With a wife and infant daughter, he can't afford to fail.
Shots opened December 4 at the height of Art Basel. Police and code enforcement officers arrived just three days later with warnings. "They gave us a laundry list of things to do," Zapata says. "And we did them."
So Zapata was shocked to find himself in the slammer February 24. He doesn't deny that Shots was selling booze past 3 a.m., but he says everyone was doing it. "They never enforced this shit before," he says.
(In the February 24 arrest report, cops said they also found a plastic baggie containing potential cocaine on Zapata. The bar owner says someone threw it on the counter during the bust and he was just trying to throw it away to avoid any trouble. Zapata was not charged over the baggie.)
Indeed, beginning in early February, cops inspected more than a dozen other Wynwood bars as part of Operation Dry Hour. Some, like Bardot on North Miami Avenue, were forced to close at 3 a.m. despite having a 5 a.m. liquor license. "It's annoying," owner Amir Ben-Zion says. "The wrong name was written on some document somewhere. I wish they would be more flexible and treat us like businesspeople."
Zapata wasn't the only bar owner led out in handcuffs, either. At Ricochet, cops arrested the manager and a bartender for selling booze just minutes after 3 a.m.
"The truth is that it's political," says Alan Roth, then the owner of Ricochet, which has since been sold. "There is energy and action happening in this area, and now they want to crack down?"
At least one club, the Electric Pickle, has yet to reopen after the arrests. When it was raided February 3, co-owner Tomas Ceddia was taken to jail for selling liquor outside of his license. And Goldstein, Villa 221's owner, says he lost more than $200,000 when cops arrested him and shut down his club March 24 during Ultra. He spent all week trying to secure proper permits, so when police arrived at 3:30 a.m., he figured they wanted to see his papers again. Instead, a cop placed him in handcuffs.
"What kind of police work is this?" Goldstein says, arguing that cops should have booked his wayward bartender instead. "If somebody decided to be a loose canon and serve a drink [after 3 a.m.], my personal opinion is arrest that motherfucker."
Half a dozen clubs complained to New Times that the crackdown came without warning. Police say they held a training session February 20 to discuss ramped-up inspections. The only problem: None of the Wynwood businesses was invited.
"That was a miscommunication," admits Wanda Mendez, one of the officers leading Operation Dry Hour. "We apologize for that."
But Wynwood bar owners' complaints go beyond the Miami Police Department's shock-and-awe tactics. Instead, they believe the neighborhood is being singled out by cops at the behest of their biggest rivals: 24-hour clubs downtown that are losing business to Wynwood.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this is happening now because clubs in Park West are complaining," Zapata says.
Those fears aren't without some basis. In 2000, Miami commissioners voted to create a special "entertainment district" along North 11th Street downtown where booze could be sold 24 hours a day. Following a rising tide of crime and code violations in 2010, several 24-hour clubs formed a nonprofit called the Miami Entertainment District Association (MEDA). Miami PD doesn't allow off-duty cops to work for individual clubs, so MEDA began hiring police to patrol the area.
According to Mekka's owner, Slyder, who is also MEDA's president, the nonprofit has spent nearly $500,000 on off-duty cops in the past two and a half years. Last month, MEDA paid for more than 700 hours of police patrols downtown.
The nonprofit also has some political clout. During the past election cycle, MEDA donated the maximum $500 to Commissioner Sarnoff, and Slyder says he regularly speaks with Sarnoff's staff.
But both the police and MEDA deny any type of collusion. MPD points out that 43 percent of clubs checked during Operation Dry Hour were downtown, including six MEDA members, although it appears no arrests occurred there. "This is about ensuring safety all across Miami," says MPD Commander Lázaro Ferro.
He says police began receiving complaints about illegal warehouse clubs in Wynwood last year. In September, cops shut down a pop-up club at 550 NW 29th St. that didn't have any permits. "Nobody wants another nightclub fire like in Brazil," Ferro says, referring to the inferno that killed at least 241 people this past January.
Slyder also insists MEDA has no influence over police operations. He points out that his business partner was once arrested for a noise violation. "We don't get special treatment," he says.
But Slyder does admit that MEDA has asked police and Sarnoff to clamp down on Wynwood clubs serving liquor after 3 a.m. (Ferro, the police commander, also says he's discussed Wynwood clubs with the commissioner. But when called by New Times, Sarnoff denied any knowledge of Operation Dry Hour. "I don't get involved in police business," he said.)
Bizarrely, police are now encouraging Wynwood businesses to join MEDA or at least establish a similar organization to hire off-duty cops.
On April 9, Ferro organized a meeting among police, Wynwood bar owners, and MEDA at Shots. But the only Wynwood owners who showed were Zapata and Estrada. ("I'm not going to negotiate with terrorists," one bar owner said of MEDA.)
At the meeting, Slyder slammed Zapata's neighbors, calling Wynwood "the Wild, Wild West." He emphasized, however, that he'd called the meeting to dispel rumors about MEDA, not to recruit new members. But Zapata remained suspicious. Slyder had spoken repeatedly about fairness, but the entertainment district's 24-hour exception was itself an unfair advantage, Zapata said.
"Everything that is happening is by the book," he said while sitting at the bar. "But even if it's legit, do you really want to be forced to comply with the group that is behind the complaints? They are having police enforce the rules, but that's because the rules work for their concept [of 24-hour clubs]."
At the moment, Zapata is caught between police officers who say they are cleaning up Wynwood and bar owners who think cops are killing it. While Ferro wants him to organize the owners, Zapata just wants to keep Shots -- and his family -- afloat.
"It bit us in the ass at first," he said of the arrests before pausing to sip a Red Bull. "But what it shows is that they are starting to feel the pressure over in Park West. Wynwood is growing. And it's going to be a player."
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