Downtown Miami's streets are a stop-and-go roller coaster designed by a renegade gang of evil Disney Imagineers. If you time it wrong — say you arrive right at the end of a Heat game or concert at Bayfront Park (or both, which is a particularly apocalyptic traffic scenario that happens at least a few times a year) — you could find yourself sitting on Biscayne Boulevard for hours, surrounded by distracted and possibly drunk drivers who are more invested in their Instagram feeds than the structural health of your rear bumper. Oh, and you'd like a parking spot? That's cute.
But despite all of the above, some people still forgo Uber and drive downtown. And these are precisely the kind of questionable decision-makers a fellow named Hassan loves to see pull down NW 11th Street, a road that bisects Miami's only 24-hour club district. It's a single, sweaty city block that's home to the clubs Heart, E11even, and the infamous Space — easily the most fanatical nightlife scene in Florida today. And this week, thousands will descend upon it for Miami Music Week, the city's annual summit of all things dance music that marks an indispensable profit point for these clubs.
Hassan (real last name none of your business) is better known as "New York" in these parts. It's a nickname inspired by his place of birth. The wiry 61-year-old credits his youthful aura to healthy amounts of marijuana and sex and, he says sweetly after pantomiming both, "a sense of humor." He does not technically work for any of the nearby clubs. But his job is nonetheless important: to keep the "crackheads and junkies" from breaking into the cars that line his stretch of 11th Street. At 11:30 p.m., he's armed with only a flashlight. "They stop the generation of money for the clubs," he says of the break-ins. So he trudges up and down this street till about 6 a.m. In return, he asks only a $5 fee. Or maybe a cigarette. Whatever you can spare, really. His brand of self-starting entrepreneurship is common in this part of town, where everybody seems to have devised a technique to make your wallet lighter.
(His favorite method is to bet passing idiots $20 that he can spell their first and last names despite the fact they have told him neither. If the simpleton accepts the bet, he'll gleefully begin spelling out f-i-r-s-t and so forth and so on until you pay up, which you should, because he's incredibly persuasive and it's cheaper than replacing a car window.)
Mr. York has been patrolling 11th Street for four years and has lived in Miami for decades. He remembers a time when the only tourists who walked these streets were hopelessly lost and, frankly, terrified.
The area has a long history. In the early 1900s, it was invigorated by a new railroad that shipped goods to the Port of Miami from bustling warehouses on NE 11th Street. But then the Port relocated in 1960. Those warehouses were vacated, and for decades the district was left to rot. Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz once described 11th Street as a "crack-filled alley."
But then the new millennium came along, and one brave nightlife entrepreneur, Louis Puig, had a vision for those abandoned warehouses: a club that never closed. It would be raw and dangerous and decidedly un-South Beach. With nothing to lose, the city played along, granting his new Club Space a previously unheard-of 24-hour liquor license.
They came. They danced. It worked.
Five years later, largely at the behest of the late Miami-Dade County Commissioner Arthur Teele, the area was christened an entertainment district. The endgame was to create a mainland tourist haven with restaurants, art galleries, the works. A little more than 4,000 days later, Teele's vision is closer than ever to realization. But as was evident during a recent 12-hour visit, 11th Street is still a long way from family-friendly — more Fury Road than Lincoln Road.
If you're looking for a nightclub on 11th Street, you have several options. There's Space, the first of the 11th Street venues, as well as two relative newcomers, E11even and Heart. There are also a few smaller places to get a drink, including Floyd and the Corner.
But for all of the above, 2 a.m. is a bit on the early side, which is why three young men visiting from New York City are currently huddled around a yellow fire hydrant and wearing the unmistakable look of disappointment. Their flight home is in a few hours. Hoping to redeem their perhaps disappointing trip, they decided to stop by Heart for one last hurrah. Sadly, the 20-year-olds struck out in all metrics of nightlife success and are now cashless, sober, and, unless one of them has a thing for yellow fire hydrants, won't be getting laid tonight.
"We listen to mostly EDM," one of the New Yorkers says, "and the music here is, like, not at all EDM." The boys are right. They probably would have been happier in Miami Beach, where mainstream DJs still draw thousands into big-room clubs such as LIV and Story. But for all of its success across the bay, the EDM boom has never found firm footing on 11th Street. And Heart's music director, Travis Rogers, would like to keep it that way. "At the end of the day, my goal was to book stuff I like," he says a week later over the phone. Tonight's headliner is Damian Lazarus, an electronic artist known for being more of a mystic shaman than a DJ. He occasionally shows up to a set dressed somewhere between Abu from Aladdin and a Russian Orthodox LSD salesman.
In other words: like, not at all EDM.
But Lazarus won't go on till at least 4 a.m. Right now, around 2:30, things are still in first gear. The second-story dance floor — spread out beneath a ceiling of lush vines — has a light sway to it, more wheat in a gentle breeze than popcorn in a skillet. That chaos won't happen until much later. Heart is unapologetically for night owls, and Saturdays sometimes extend to 9 p.m. Sunday.
The club is a bit of an underdog story. In its previous life, it was called Nocturnal and was a semiformidable room that nipped at the heels of Space when it opened in 2005. But Sunday, September 18, 2011, an argument broke out on the terrace. Bottles were thrown, insults were hurled, and a gun was pulled. The packed room stampeded down the stairs in terror. When the dust cleared, six were wounded and a 26-year-old North Miami man was dead. Nocturnal shut down shortly after and remained shuttered for years. A club named Bekkoi tried to take over the venue in August 2015 but lasted only months.
And then Heart opened September 11, 2015, with almost no warning or advance press. The club has since reinvented itself, remodeling its first floor and resurrecting the second-story rooftop, where a capacity of about 600 can enjoy the sunrise to the sounds of dance-music gods like John Digweed and Nicole Moudaber.
Now Heart and Rogers, having booked heavy-hitters such as Thomas Gold, Marco Carola, and Markus Schulz, are heading into their second Miami Music Week with confidence. But the club still has an uphill battle to face in both fierce competition from its neighbor, Space, and Art Teele's grand vision of downtown, a future evident in the sounds of construction mere blocks away. Rogers is optimistic about the immediate future, but to him, the bigger picture looks bleak. "I don't think the nightlife future is going to be huge in downtown Miami in, say, ten years or even existent," Rogers says,"unless it's inside a hotel."
Four a.m. is about the time when your night is heading in one of two directions. You are either (1) in it for the long haul, resigned to see this thing through till the bitter end, possibly, if you're lucky, with the help of a beautiful stranger. Or you are (2) bleeding from the eyeball.
Sadly, option number two is happening just outside E11even. A man in skintight white jeans and gold sneakers is holding court before an audience of attentive bouncers. He is explaining his side of things and, no, he will not calm down and, yes, he wants to press charges. It's unclear what started the fight but very clear who won it. The poor guy's right eye is already plump and purplish. A single tear of blood funnels down between his collar bones and into his shirt.
This is not how it was meant to be. Just ask that gentleman over there, the one sporting a leather vest and a shiny newsboy cap that looks like it's made from the carcass of several disco balls. "I'm from a different time in New York, where we weren't so aggressive with the girls, where you danced with space," says the man, who prefers to remain anonymous. Now in his early 40s and a doctor by day, he's been clubbing in Miami for decades. He was here when Space opened in 2000. And, let him tell you, those were the days. Before he moved here, he was partying in the legendary era of Peter Gatien's New York City, a truly sinister playground of flesh. And it wasn't just the music or the drugs that made it unique — though, in all honesty, the drugs didn't hurt — there was something more metaphysical. "I wish I could take people back in time... There was sort of a code we grew up with, the way you behave in there, the way you act.
"It was just," he sighs as if remembering a lost love. "It was just great."
This all might seem a bit dramatic — like the dance-music-saved-my-life spiel heard all too often from high-schoolers returning from their first Ultra Music Festival. But it's important to consider the history of the modern nightclub and its relationship to dance music. Separate your preconceived notions of glowstick, Bieber-esque EDM from the pioneering roots of early house music, a dangerous sound that grew from the ashes of disco into warehouses full of people whom society considered far too strange or weird or black or gay or black and gay. These clubs were more than an excuse to get high and fuck people and take selfies. They were sanctuaries of self-expression that offered a catharsis from racism, oppression, and all the milquetoast Wally-and-the-Beaver-looking motherfuckers who dominated pop culture at the time.
These oases existed across the United States in the '80s and '90s in cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, and especially Miami, where '90s South Beach clubs like Salvation, Amnesia, and Velvet brought together gays and straights of all races and cultures. They gave this city the identity it still cashes in on today.
Yes, it can seem silly now, hearing evangelical testimonials like the one above, but it was serious back then because outside of those clubs, danger lurked in the form of closed fists, hissed slurs, and maybe worse if you caught the eye of the wrong group of good old boys. And while you're thinking about this history, it's also important to consider the contemporary sociopolitical climate of our country and ask yourself: "Gee, could such a place of unconditional acceptance and empathy have any sort of use in society today?" And if your answer is a big fat yup, well, we have good news, Miami. That place is being built — uh, rebuilt— right this very moment.
But it's going to need your help.
The sunrise is as universal a routine as this planet has ever known, but it still sneaks up on you somehow. Maybe it's like many of life's big moments: love, children, sex, doughnuts — things we experience that almost always blindside us with their greatness or scare us with their power. Forgive me. Things begin to feel sentimental around 7 a.m., particularly when you haven't had breakfast yet. Scientists have actually found short-term sleep deprivation — around 12 hours' worth — to be a quick method of alleviating symptoms of depression in somewhere around half of the sad little mice they tested. It's temporary, though, and generally wears off after a good night's sleep.
At 7 a.m., clubgoers' brains are full of a neurotransmitter called adenosine, which slowly builds all day, eventually causing the familiar sensation we know as sleepiness. But if that poor adenosine is ignored — especially by a big room of people dancing to loud, pulsing music — some truly weird and incredible things start happening.
In the final moments of the night's darkness, there is an anticipatory buzz in the humid air of Space's Terrace. Light begins to creep through the translucent roof, dim at first before reaching a brilliant white. There are those who planned for this moment (the ones reaching into purses and pulling out sunglasses) and those who didn't (the ones staring at the roof as if aliens had just burst through it, anal probes in hand).
Club Space has long been known as the place to be in Miami when night gives way to day. This has been true since it opened in 2000 in its original location, a one-story warehouse a block east from where it stands now. The club was a ground-breaker in many ways. It was the first true 24-hour nightlife concept in the city and the leader in gambling on Miami's then desolate and unsexy downtown.
Space's founder, Louis Puig, described his club thusly in a 2013 open letter: "Space was ahead of its time; it was the antiestablishment to the South Beach commercial VIP clubs with the French velvet-rope attitude that unfortunately still prevails today. Space was underground and so separated from the norm that few gave it or me a chance of success."
Of course, there were hiccups. After Space earned a druggy reputation, the DEA raided it in August 2003 and arrested 11 people, including two employees, on drug-related charges. But the club remained open, and if anything, the drug hype only added to its mystique. Eventually, other clubs invested in 11th Street and the lucrative 24-hour operation licenses. It wasn't long before thousands of revelers flooded the area each weekend. But that wasn't exactly a good thing for Space.
Soon crowds shifted to the unsavory. The club's staff, bouncers in particular, gained a nasty and abusive reputation. In 2013, when Puig announced he was selling his venue, the same club kids who had helped build Space wouldn't be caught dead inside it.
The new owners, the wildly successful Miami nightlife duo of Justin Levine and Roman Jones, kept the club afloat, but Space never regained its sheen or inclusive reputation. It became better known for lawsuits than parties. There was one case against Puig himself for allegedly violating a noncompete agreement by working with Heart (the case has since been settled). And there was a particularly hilarious suit with an airplane banner company that flew a sign over downtown Miami, pleading, "Club Space — Please Pay Your Banner Bill!" (the case is still open). By the end of last year, rumors swirled that Space was on death watch, liable to close its doors at any moment.
That wasn't the case, but Space was in rough shape. Levine and Jones were weighing options. Still, they saw potential in the club and knew that, under the right leadership, it might be able to rise again to the top of Miami nightlife. So Levine called an old friend, David Sinopoli, the cofounder of Miami's III Points Festival and music director at Bardot.
For Sinopoli, it was both a thrilling and terrifying prospect. On one hand, it's Space, but on the other, it's Space. "The reputation to me, especially over the last few years, is a little bit of a gift and a curse," Sinopoli says. "In some sense, I would have loved to have the infrastructure with a brand-new slate to start my first club, but the opportunity with this place — if you can turn it around — there isn't a real ceiling to it." So he said yes, and by December, he had his very own club. He wasted little time assembling a team. To help in the monumental task of remolding Space, he tapped Davide Danese and Coloma Kaboomsky, two local promoters and music directors who helped turn Treehouse into one of the few successful underground dance clubs in Miami Beach. None of them is over age 40, by the way.
That's rare in Miami nightlife, where for so many years the city's elite clubs were controlled by a tight circle of industry veterans. But Sinopoli, Danese, and Kaboomsky — or the "Space Invaders," as they've taken to calling themselves — are anything but establishment. And it's hard not to see their takeover as a tiny revolution in Miami club culture, especially when you hear some of their ideas, which range from the brilliantly simple to the wildly ambitious. Let's start with the latter: There will be a complete remodeling of Space's first floor, a cavernous room traditionally devoted to hip-hop and open format. The new ground floor will showcase live music ranging from local artists to midsize touring acts who have struggled to find an adequate venue since the closing of downtown's Grand Central. Space's adjacent club, which opened in June 2015 under the name Libertine, has been rebranded as Floyd, a jazzy spot that will host everything from the traditional quartet to spoken word and academic lectures.
On the simple side of the spectrum, Space has retrained its staff to use more welcoming language, such as "please" and "thank you." ATM fees and water prices have been slashed. Free cafecito and flowers are handed out at sunrise. A nonalcoholic menu featuring all-natural juices is forthcoming. And to the Terrace they've added — wait for it — seats. "That was a key," Kaboomsky says. "If you expect people to be there for 14 hours, they've got to be able to sit down." Again, brilliantly simple, sure, but these concepts are unique in their motivation, which puts profit behind customer experience — or, as Kaboomsky says, "making sure people don't feel like they're being fucked."
That's big, because in the eyes of the Invaders, Space will live or die based on one basic but very tricky thing: whether it can shed its noxious reputation. "We understood this in the first week, but we were bleeding money everywhere because there were old habits," Sinopoli says.
December was difficult for the new owners. "Some of the staff was really down because they hadn't been making money in a little bit. Some people really weren't happy that we were there." But by New Year's Eve, things began to turn around, and Space started to feel like home.
In the short term, things at 34 NE 11th St. are shifting into place. But the bigger picture raises uncertainty. The looming shadow cast upon downtown Miami by powerful developers grows wider every year. The $1.6 billion orgy of condos, retail stores, hotels, and apartments known as Miami Worldcenter has already pushed out venues such as Grand Central and Mekka.
For now, Sinopoli is confident in the contract he and his team punched up, which gives them a guaranteed five years and a five-year option to renew. "If they end up ever doing anything there, which is always an option, we have clauses that protect us," he says. But he admits even the strongest contract isn't impervious to the whims of the rich and powerful.
Right now, though, as the sun rises higher over Space's Terrace, the future couldn't seem further away. There is only one concern in the minds of the twirling, sun-kissed occupants of Space. And it's not what will happen in ten years or ten minutes or even ten seconds. It is the now that matters — the glorious, irresponsible now.
"You know, we're really going for a utopian place," Kaboomsky says. "We don't have romantic visions of a utopian civilization — we know it's not possible. But if you take it and put it inside of a building, it might be possible... even if it's for only ten hours on a Saturday night."
What do tourists dream about when they dream about Miami?
Do they skip around in fields of $100 bills, hopping to and fro on lily pads of Brazilian butt-lifts? Do they drift softly down a river of fizzy champagne on Gucci inner tubes while Pitbull passes them mojitos? Is every delicious sin in modern history competing for their attention?
If so, what must that tourist feel upon entering E11even? Is it quite literally a dream come true?
At 8 a.m., it can feel that way, surreal as if you tripped and fell into your TV screen and are now trapped in a never-ending music video. Time is meaningless inside E11even, a two-story fortress of concrete with an exterior that does little justice to the feast of the senses inside. The atmosphere is a perpetual state of 4 a.m. Unlike at Space, nobody here cares about the position of the sun. Topless dancers bounce and spin to the sounds of big-room EDM. Everyone is well dressed and has the facial expression of someone at the apex of a roller coaster — that tick-tick-tick right before the big drop.
Take every nightclub concept that has ever existed and throw it into a pot. Give it a stir. Soak a stack of money in the world's most expensive Russian vodka, light the bills on fire, and then toss them into the pot. Grab the nearest available famous rapper, take him by the ankles, and use him as a stirring spoon. If E11even had a recipe, it would look something like that.
Dennis DeGori, the creator of this strange land, has a go-to tag line for the common question: Just what in hell is this place? "It's exactly what you think it is," he'll tell you plainly, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense but sounds pretty cool. For DeGori, a 35-year nightlife veteran, E11even is a culmination of just about everything he's ever seen in a nightclub that's intrigued him. "I just wanted to set out to create something unique, exciting, theatrical, artistic, and, above all, fun," he says. "An immersive experience."
E11even, which celebrated its third anniversary in February, is nothing if not immersive. It features everything from aerial performances to New Year's Eve bashes hosted by Drake. Oh, and the club literally never closes. Ever. It stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also walk up to the bar and order breakfast in the morning. Get the SoBe wrap — a warm bundle of egg whites, spinach, mushrooms, and cheddar cheese — and the fellow to your left might stare longingly at the plate until you offer him a bite.
Before E11even came around, most folks emerged from 29 NE 11th St. stinking of regret, along with other less desirable fluids. It was called Goldrush back then, and it was a strip club not exactly known for its elegance. The club closed in April 2013. Its Yelp page, still preserved online, is rich with first-person tales of nights gone horribly awry and accusations of overcharging. One time, the prominent lawyer and founder of the Ticket Clinic, Mark S. Gold, sued the strip club because he claimed it had gotten him too drunk, forcing him to have "a complete loss of judgment [and] rational thought," at which point he apparently spent more than $18,000.
Despite that, DeGori says, he had his eye on the property for more than a decade. When it finally hit the market, he pounced. "I saw it in my mind's eye," he says. "Long before it was halfway built, I could stand in the middle of what we were doing, in the dirt, and just see it taking form." But even DeGori admits E11even's success has surpassed his expectations. In only three years, it has become one of Miami's most popular clubs, doing what popular clubs do best: earning a fuck-ton of money.
The E11even universe revolves around money, whether it's being tossed casually onto the backs of twerking dancers or filling up the club's fat bank account. E11even nabbed an "honorable mention" on Nightclub & Bar's list of the top-earning clubs of 2014, cracking the top ten with around $20 million in profit despite the fact that it hadn't been open for a full 12 months. Being diplomatic, DeGori won't say whether he thinks 2016's revenue will be enough to bump LIV from the position of Miami's highest-grossing club, a title it's held since 2012. But business certainly seems to be booming.
DeGori hopes to expand E11even beyond Miami and fears encroaching developers like a lion fears a housecat. He embraces the vision of a highly developed downtown and welcomes the day tourists roam the streets in search of more than just a dance floor. But, of course, he'll still welcome the ones seeking a good time. "I definitely see E11even here for the next 25 years." And in the next quarter-century, he better see you. "No matter when you walk through the doors, we'll be ready for you. It will be an experience."
Many questions hit you when the night finally ends and you walk out onto the street one last time, surveying a slightly sadder world through spread fingers. One of those questions might be: Why? Perhaps it hits you quickly, or maybe it waits till you're alone, head smooshed in a pillow sandwich.
Why — did I spend all my money; do I smell like gasoline; am I going home with this man who looks, in the natural light of morning, more and more like a hobbit with each passing moment?
Why do we dress up, primp in front of mirrors, spend hours on our feet in uncomfortable shoes, our only reward sometimes bloodthirsty headaches and regretful text messages? And then do it all again in a matter of days? You can ride this question far back in time, all the way to the ancient Romans and even further if you'd like. We are not the first generation to spend our nights so restlessly, and we won't be the last. We are social animals, and to gather and play is essential to our survival as a species. Put us on different continents with nothing but rocks and sticks, and we'll somehow find one another if you give us long enough. Give us even longer and we'll eventually create a place like 11th Street.
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Miami can feel lonely, right? It's weird. Everyone seems to belong to some tribe that's off-limits to you. The city's fantastical opulence is always, somehow, just out of reach. You look around and all you see is people having more fun than you. But there are certain places — and substances — that even the playing field, so to speak.
Maybe you hate the nightclub. How sad and vain and loud and expensive, you say. What a silly waste of time and money and brain cells. Such an utterly ridiculous mating ritual we have created for ourselves.
And it's easy to see things that way, especially from the outside looking in. But even if Heart or Space or E11even isn't your thing — even if you'd rather spend 12 hours in a dentist's waiting room than set foot inside a club — you should disregard your assumptions and try it. Just once. Shimmy onto the dance floor and close your eyes. Sweat. Think about life and how little sense the whole thing makes. Do you realize you were the one sperm out of hundreds of millions that made it inside the egg? Now open your eyes. Look to your left and to your right. Feel connected. Consider the fact that it's 80 degrees in March. Think about the last person you loved and the way her hair felt against your face. You realize Earth is spinning at more than 1,000 mph, right? Like, right now! Deep breath. One more time.
Now go home. And get some fucking sleep.