As crowds stumble along South Beach's most iconic strip of art deco hotels and restaurants on a hot Saturday in July, the chipper sidewalk hostesses do a quick mental calculation, looking for a phrase that might lure passersby. "Table for two?" they hawk. "Happy hour!" "Two-for-one drinks!"
It's 5:45 p.m. on Ocean Drive, and a line is already snaking around Wet Willie's, where people brave stifling humidity in a long wait for $13 frozen daiquiris. Just up the street, the smell is weed and the sound is a stream of piss hitting the pavement in a back alley, where a man is relieving himself. A private party is happening in front of the Clevelander, where Drake's "Controlla" blasts over the speakers.
At Ninth Street and Ocean Court, a cry suddenly erupts: "Hold up, hold up, hold up!" Two men bum-rush a third guy, knocking him to the ground. "Hey! Hey!" someone shouts.
A woman runs up, holding up her cell phone to record the fight. She throws a weak punch, and soon a half-dozen people jump into ruckus. As passing cars try to avoid the brawl, the seething participants chase one another up and down the middle of the street.
It's just another afternoon on Ocean Drive, the beating tourist heart of South Beach. But to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, scenes such as this one represent "a 15-year slide into the abyss," tarnishing the city's reputation.
"It's become a scene of chaos and crime, from prostitution and drug dealing to muggings," he says. "The story goes out all over the world. How do you quantify the cost of negative advertising that is for the brand of Miami Beach?"
To Levine and other critics, a string of recent armed robberies is the final straw proving that Ocean Drive needs an urgent cleanup. Last year, robberies rose 13 percent and burglaries climbed 39 percent over 2014, which is one reason the mayor has been calling for drastic action such as crackdowns on liquor licenses and even rolling back last call from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.
"I think he finally understands that the only way to characterize this neighborhood is a crisis situation of utter lawlessness," says Mitch Novick, owner of the nearby Sherbrooke Hotel. "There are bloody street brawls, hit-and-runs, robberies. It's very disturbing what has happened to this neighborhood."
But other longtime business owners say Levine and his allies are threatening one of Miami's true tourist draws. An end to early-morning liquor sales, they say, would devastate the hospitality business that draws millions of visitors wanting to party the night away. They dismiss criticisms of Ocean Drive as exaggerated or racially motivated.
"Miami Beach is different. It's not Palm Beach; it's not Boca Raton," says Mark Soyka, who has owned and operated News Cafe on Ocean Drive since 1988. He believes it's no coincidence that much of the complaining has come amid an influx of black tourists. "The truth?" Soyka says when asked what the fuss is about. "Black and white."
As the fight over Ocean Drive's future spills from sidewalk cafés to City Hall, the iconic strip's future hangs in the balance, and it's clear that some change is inevitable.
Even Jerry Powers, founder of Ocean Drive magazine, says he would never dream of putting the street's name on a publication these days.
"We have turned Ocean Drive into one of the most horrible streets in America," Powers says. "I think if LeBron was coming here today, he'd say, 'I'm taking my talents to Wynwood.' "
Decades before he started selling $12 mojitos to hordes of tourists at Mango's Tropical Cafe, David Wallack made his name slinging a very different kind of drink. It was a cherry-flavored English concoction called a Brompton cocktail that required a doctor's prescription. And his customers were all octogenarians.
"The thing with morphine was you got out of pain, but you went to sleep. It was nice that you weren't in pain, but you couldn't be with your family," says Wallack, who later turned his Eastern Sun home for the elderly into Mango's. "When I read up on Brompton's cocktail, it was a mixture, in a cherry base, of morphine, heroin, and cocaine, and the balance of that, it would keep you up. You were out of pain and up."
Like Wallack's business, Ocean Drive too has dramatically transformed over time, from a playground for the rich in the '20s to a destitute waiting room for the elderly in the '60s to a nightlife celebrity hot spot in the '90s. Throughout that time, regular battles have raged over the identity of the beachfront stretch.
Construction on Ocean Drive didn't really get going until after the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, says historian Paul George. The '30s saw a tremendous boom of art deco hotels as visitors flocked to South Beach. Prohibition was more or less ignored for the sake of tourism.
"It was completely flouted; nobody observed it at all," George says. "Tourists, when they're on vacation, want to cut loose, drink, and party, and you can't do that very well if you don't have alcoholic beverages."
By the late '60s, though, hoteliers had moved north on the Beach, abandoning the old art deco buildings. Entertainers left the local clubs for a fatter paycheck in Las Vegas. Elderly residents moved in, and Ocean Drive became more or less a retirement community.
Wallack, born in 1948, saw many of those eras firsthand. His family owned the Park Sea and Surf Sea Hotels at 900 Ocean Dr., a building that has been in his family since he was 7. He grew up folding towels for guests at the budget accommodations, a mix of road-trippers, Cuban families on summer break, and wintering snowbirds.
He never planned to take over the family business, though. After flunking out of the University of South Florida twice and then trying his hand at real estate, he enrolled at the University of Miami, where he earned a degree in political science and later headed to UM's law school.
During his senior year, he was clerking for a law firm that dealt with hospice when he came across a law about adult congregate living facilities. It gave him an idea: The hotel business wasn't so hot anymore — what if he could run an assisted living home at his parents' property? The timing was great — his father was ready to retire anyway, and his folks gave him their blessing.
"I began studying death and dying work," Wallack says. "I was very much getting into Eastern philosophy and holistic health, so we created the Eastern Sun, which was the first holistic health-care facility for the elderly."
At a time when the strip was largely abandoned, his facility was at capacity and turning a profit. "I thought that would be my whole life, really," he says.
But while business was booming for Wallack, the rest of the neighborhood was falling into decay. As depicted in 1983's Scarface, South Beach had become home to cocaine cowboys battling for territory, as well as Marielitos, the tens of thousands of Cuban refugees who had landed in South Florida in 1980, many of whom were either criminals or psychiatric patients. Eastern Sun residents were so panicked after one break-in that Wallack agreed to install a gate at the front of the building that remains today.
"I cried, actually, when the gates went up," he says. "There was shooting in the street. The police went in four-car convoys. Police didn't go alone. Those days were the days of darkness."
That all began to change in the late '80s, when New York developer Tony Goldman came to town and began snatching up abandoned properties. The area was prime for rebirth after preservationist Barbara Capitman helped put the Art Deco District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In preparation, the city expanded sidewalks and rezoned the area to a mixed-use entertainment district.
"Tony, being an entrepreneur and a visionary, saw something unique on Ocean Drive," says Soyka, a longtime friend and business partner of Goldman, who died in 2012. Goldman enlisted Soyka's help renovating the Park Central Hotel, a project Soyka expected would take six or seven months before he went back to New York. But neither of them ever wanted to leave. "It was a strange era then," Soyka says. "Even with all the crack addicts and Marielitos, the ocean, the smell, all of it was very intriguing. I fell in love with Miami Beach."
In 1988, Goldman and Soyka opened News Cafe. "It was right away busy. There was only one other place open on Ocean Drive," Soyka says. "There were a lot of police cars, but you couldn't ever tell whether it was really the police or Miami Vice," which ran from 1984 to 1990 and often filmed in Miami Beach.
Wallack was thrilled to see creative, ambitious people moving in near his eldercare facility. "That was like the Beatles coming together," he says. "It was like getting high, that kind of joy of camaraderie."
Wallack had gotten into the habit of taking mile-long morning swims just off the beach. Sometime around 1990, midway through one of his swims, he had an epiphany.
"I was headed south and swimming along, swimming along, swimming along, when I thought, Mango's Tropical Cafe," he says. He envisioned a bar like one he'd seen in Negril, Jamaica, with live music and a vibe that welcomed everyone and wasn't too "chichi." He opened March 30, 1991.
But even in those heady pioneer days, the entertainment industry was often at odds with residents. Beginning in 1989, police were ordered not to enforce the county's noise law. One retired captain told the Miami Herald the city pressured cops "to allow those open-air clubs to do whatever the hell they wanted."
When the city announced plans in June 1991 for a law requiring clubs to turn down music after midnight on weekends, Wallack and other business owners pushed back hard. Although the ordinance eventually passed, the Herald noted that club owners found it "too restrictive" and residents "too generous."
The change didn't kill Ocean Drive's growth, though. In 1992, fashion designer Gianni Versace moved into a mansion at 1116 Ocean Dr. and invited his celeb friends over. Madonna and Cher regularly tagged along in his star-studded entourage.
That era came to a screeching halt July 15, 1997, when Versace was gunned down by fugitive serial killer Andrew Cunanan upon returning home from News Cafe. "By shooting Versace, [Cunanan] put his bullet right into this place's heart," fashion photographer Aldo Mann said in an interview at the time.
By the early 2000s, the party was fading. Now competing with all-night downtown clubs such as Space, Miami Beach business owners in 2001 proposed pushing closing time to 7 a.m., a measure that went nowhere. Just two years later, the pendulum swung the other way, and residents pushed to roll back last call to 2 a.m., also to no avail.
The 2000s also saw an influx of black visitors on Memorial Day weekend, an event that started in 2001 and became known as Urban Beach Week. The first year, police arrested 211 people and investigated three shootings, three rapes, and 15 robberies over the course of the weekend. Over time, many residents left the Beach for the holiday while Ocean Drive and the surrounding area more or less became a police state. In recent years, crime has died down, but the panic felt by residents and business owners has largely stuck around.
Though Wallack agrees Ocean Drive's glory days have passed, he blames the downturn on the city dismantling the street's business-improvement district in 1996. But just because business isn't as great as it once was doesn't mean it isn't still pretty good in 2016.
"From Mango's to the Clevelander, we have 2 million customers. Nobody does those kinds of numbers," Wallack insists. "It's the longest-running off-Broadway show in the country, with live singing and live performances seven days a week. Where do you get that outside of Las Vegas? Where else is there an oceanside cabaret? Nowhere. It's a unique thing."
Mitch Novick lay in bed in his studio apartment, staring at the ceiling on a Thursday morning in May, willing himself to sleep. But something was keeping him up, a creeping feeling that something just wasn't right on the streets below his bedroom window.
Suddenly, four shots rang out, one after the other. Novick leapt from his bed to look out the window as a white Toyota peeled off through an alley. Inside a silver Mercedes, a man and a woman sat bleeding from gunshot wounds.
After living for nearly 20 years on the corner of Ninth Street and Ocean Court, just behind Mango's, Novick says he has an almost sixth sense of when trouble is about to go down. "Call it like a premonition that people sometimes have before an earthquake," he says. "It's just like something in the air, this ebb and flow."
Novick has used that sense — plus the 22 outdoor surveillance cameras outside his hotel — to document hundreds of hours of fights, shootings, and other bad behavior spilling off Ocean Drive. In this case, he turned the footage over to police, which he does about twice a month. No one ended up dying in that shooting, and detectives soon arrested a person of interest on other charges (although not for the shooting).
To Novick, it was yet another reminder of how the area has decayed since he moved into the building in 1992, chaos he believes has noticeably ramped up over the past two years. "If nothing happens, more crime, more mayhem is going to continue," he says.
Novick is the loudest voice banging a persistent drumbeat that Ocean Drive is in grave danger. He regularly uploads his videos to YouTube and his Facebook page, which he cheekily calls the "South Beach Sludge Report," and has sat on a city task force formed to address the problems. Although many of his videos feature people of color and are titled with suggestive names such as "Hoodstock" and "ISIS Characters Take Over Miami Beach," Novick says he's motivated by nothing more than wanting to clean up the area.
"When I shoot my videos, I don't see color — I see bad behavior," he says.
Novick grew up in Long Island, but his parents bought a winter home in Aventura in the '70s and he ended up going to eighth grade and some of high school in North Miami Beach. In his early 20s, he graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in criminology. Like Wallack, he went to law school but never practiced, dropping out after his first year. He told his family he was moving to Miami Beach to try his hand at real estate, to the horror of everyone except his grandfather.
In Miami Beach, Novick joined a friend's real-estate company and scooped up his first property in Bay Harbor Islands in 1989. He bought his first unit in the co-op that's now the Sherbrooke Hotel in 1992 for just $14,000 and has lived in that apartment ever since.
Back then, most of the building's tenants were grizzled Holocaust survivors who still had numbers tattooed on their arms. Over time, residents sold their units to Novick, who converted them into hotel rooms. Today he lives and works at the hotel; besides his housekeeper, he is its only employee.
Despite a number of high-profile robberies near Novick's home — including one in which a couple from Texas was robbed at gunpoint and the woman was sexually assaulted — police say there's been only a modest 2 percent increase in major index crimes, not the apocalyptic scenario presented on TV news. Robberies are actually down 27 percent since January, according to a July memo from police.
A New Times public records request for police reports from Ocean Drive in June showed only 15 people were arrested there the whole month, mostly for disorderly conduct and drug charges. The more troubling incidents ranged from a Miami man grabbing the breasts of an Ocean's Ten hostess, to a homeless man who was sucker-punched with a flashlight and stabbed in the leg by an unknown perpetrator, and a Georgia felon jailed for illegally carrying a gun in the waistband of his jeans.
But Novick says there are deeper, systemic problems on Ocean Drive, mainly driven by inconsistent zoning.
"It's very difficult to either sleep in a hotel room or residence when you're abutting a nightclub that's not contained within," he says, adding that stronger noise laws could curtail crime. "The unrestricted noise is a green light to troublemakers that we can do whatever we want here, party 24 hours a day."
To Novick and his allies, the latest example of that willy-nilly zoning came June 23, when an email began circulating about a new business coming to Ocean Drive. The email claimed that King of Diamonds, a strip club that's been name-dropped by rappers such as Drake and 2 Chainz, had plans to open up shop in South Beach. Many residents panicked.
"I cannot tell you how upset people at the north end of Ocean Drive are... They are calling it the final nail in the Ocean Drive coffin," resident Jo Manning wrote in an email to City Manager Jimmy Morales. "This will be the worst aspects of Memorial Day weekend... every weekend... Drugs and guns and the degradation of women."
But some critics say the complaints are just the latest sign of Miami Beach's long history of intolerance toward blacks. Last year, the ACLU protested a series of racist emails sent by some of the city's police officers and decried the heavy police presence on Memorial Day weekend "which are almost never used any other weekend."
Akinyele Adams, former owner of King of Diamonds and current owner of the controversial new club on Ocean Drive, agrees racism lingers on the Beach. Sitting at a table on his club's terrace overlooking Ocean Drive, the '90s rapper most famous for his hit "Put It in Your Mouth" says he has big plans for the second-floor restaurant space — but he insists the club is most definitely not a strip joint. His vision is a soul-food restaurant, currently named Venue South Beach, with cornbread, mac 'n' cheese, and "the beautifulest bartenders, the beautifulest waitresses."
"No nudity, no girls pulling a rabbit out their ear, nothing like that — just entertainment," he says. "Pure, fun, legal entertainment catering to a certain demographic that I was born with."
Akinyele, in fact, isn't an outsider coming into the area. After his rap career had mostly fizzled out, he moved in 2008 into a Miami Beach apartment above Lario's on Ocean Drive. Though he always had fun partying along the strip, he says, it felt strange there wasn't a restaurant or bar catering to the hundreds of black patrons each night.
"When you go to Mango's, they give you a Latin experience and they cater to a Latin crowd, but they're open to everyone. That's all we wanted to do," he says. "Just like when you go to the Palace, they cater to a gay audience, but still, if I'm straight and I sit there, they give me the same respect. We want to cater to a different demographic, but we're open for everyone to come enjoy this experience of who we are."
Akinyele says people jumped to conclusions about his place being a strip club (perhaps understandably so, considering the promo videos he released with B-roll of dancers sliding down a pole).
"It was automatically assumed; I was stereotyped and put in a category of hey, this is King of Diamonds," he says. "I'm still not open, and I'm being accused of a crime I didn't commit."
He says it evoked a time when Miami Beach was openly hostile toward black people, who weren't allowed to live or stay in hotels overnight there and needed a special pass to even be on the Beach to work. Even now, in 2016, he may well be the first black business owner on Ocean Drive, as far as anyone can remember.
"I felt like if this was 35 years ago, I probably would have had a cross burnt in front," he says. "I don't feel like all white people are bad. I just feel like some of them are against me, and some of them are against me for the wrong reasons."
Novick, though, says his opposition has nothing to do with race. When Novick was first forwarded the email about the new business on Ocean Drive, he said he was troubled. But after thinking about it some more, he says he gets it.
"I think it's the perfect place for a strip club right now," he says sarcastically. "I can understand why they want it there."
From his office on Convention Center Drive, Mayor Philip Levine hears a scratch at the door. It's his dog Earl, a boxer who entered the limelight while paddling through the streets of Miami Beach in a memorable campaign ad about flooding. Levine lets the dog into the conference room and pats his head.
"Come on, Earl-y bird. Come on, boy," the mayor says. "Earl, you don't go to Ocean Drive ever, never."
It's not just his dog that Levine has been discouraging from hanging out on the iconic stretch. The mayor has spent the past year leading a charge to clean up what he terms a "disgusting" and "terrible place," pushing everything from a task force to an earlier closing time.
"What was once the area that symbolized the renaissance of Miami Beach, Ocean Drive has now begun to symbolize, unfortunately, urban decay," he says.
What's next for Ocean Drive largely depends on whether city commissioners follow Levine's call to action. Commissioners Michael Grieco and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez have argued that rolling back closing time won't lead to improvements, and even Levine has admitted he might be alone in voting for limiting club hours. There are also allegations that campaign cash from Ocean Drive businesses is stalling reform.
Levine's push for change began last year, when he introduced a plan to stop alcohol sales at sidewalk cafés on Ocean Drive at 2 a.m. That measure went into effect in May 2015. That same month, Levine commissioned a nine-member Ocean Drive Task Force. This past January, the group came back with a list of 29 recommendations, including enforcing vehicular noise restrictions and charging visitors more for parking in order to fund improvements.
In July, Levine proposed limiting all Ocean Drive alcohol sales after 2 a.m. But he says even that dramatic move won't be enough, and policing additions won't help either. He attributes a rash of recent robberies around Miami Beach partially to the fact that many of the city's officers are tied up on Ocean Drive instead of out patrolling other areas. And he says the city's nearly $400 million plan for a futuristic streetcar is an investment that would benefit from a cleaned-up Ocean Drive.
"We're not doing it so that someone can get on that and get to Mango's easier at 3 o'clock in the morning," Levine says. "That area will change into more of a creative area, with potential high-tech startups, cool coffee shops, and a place where residents want to take their families."
If it sounds like a plan to gentrify Ocean Drive, Levine insists it's not. "I don't want them to go," Levine says of the existing businesses. "I want them to be more responsible. I want them to change their behavior."
Other commissioners have different plans, though. Rosen Gonzalez believes the city needs to enforce its existing rules before creating new ones such as the 2 a.m. last call. At a recent meeting, she told Levine she had gone to Fat Tuesday on a Friday night, ordered a frozen daiquiri, and asked to take the drink with her out on the street. A bouncer said it was fine as long as she hid it in her purse.
"What I proceeded to do for the next two hours was walk up and down Ninth to 11th Street with my open container, holding it up like this, so that somebody would come and say to me, 'Put your open container away — that's illegal,' " she said. "And guess what? Nobody came. There were no police."
Commissioner Grieco also says placing more cops on Ocean Drive and enforcing current laws would be more effective than limiting booze sales.
"This isn't about the cops not doing their jobs. It's about there not being enough uniformed police officers out there deterring crime," he said at a July meeting.
But some believe Grieco's opinion is tainted by the $15,000 he recently received from 15 Ocean Drive businesses, as documented on his last campaign report for the 2017 commission race.
"We know we need to do something about it, but isn't it unbelievable how it's hard to get the political willpower to do something about it?" Levine says. "None of these commissioners go to Ocean Drive. None of them hang out there. None of them take their families there. None of their friends go there. They hear about it at cocktail parties and meetings how disgusting it is."
Grieco denies any impropriety, saying every commissioner has accepted money from Ocean Drive businesses at some point or another.
"My campaign, my contributions, my fundraising has zero to do with how I vote or policy," he says. "This isn't about campaign contributions. It's about what's right for the city."
A half-hour before closing time, bartenders at Mango's shout for last call. Women exit the bar with their strappy heels in hand, pressing bare feet against the sidewalk, now damp with rain. A bouncer bums a cigarette from one of them.
A couple of blocks north, two Midwestern-looking guys in khaki shorts ask strangers for a ride to Coconut Grove. A guy in a wifebeater tank top whispers toward passersby: "Coke, coke, coke?"
Hungry clubgoers file into News Cafe, where a woman in one of the red leather booths intermittently snaps at the waitress and makes out with the stranger she just met. "Lady," the woman yells, un-suctioning her face from her breakfast date, "can we get some water?"
Soyka, the cafe's owner, says a certain amount of bad behavior by Ocean Drive customers comes with the territory. "Things are changing, but I don't see it changing for the worse," he says. "It's a party district, you know. People get a little drunk."
Talk to Soyka or any old-timer, and it's clear the fight about Ocean Drive's identity is nothing new. Almost since the beginning, someone has been yammering about the glory days or a plan for revitalization or the crime rate or balancing the needs of residents with the necessity of the tourism industry. But the sky hasn't fallen yet.
The City Commission is on recess until September, at which point a compromise seems likely. The Clevelander has submitted one such proposal, sponsored by Grieco, that would reduce the number and size of tables and umbrellas on the west part of the sidewalk. New chain restaurants and stores would be banned, and a "cabaret district" would be created from Ninth to 11th Streets, where businesses would fund at least two cops between 2 and 5 a.m. Businesses outside the district would be banned from having live entertainment or serving alcohol after 2 a.m., and "hawking" by hostesses outside restaurants would become a criminal offense.
The proposal has some support: Grieco, for one, says it contains some good ideas, although "there's no easy fix, no silver bullet." And Levine hinted at a July meeting that he was open to compromises such as the Clevelander's.
"There are probably over 100 different things we could do, but a lot of them make more sense than others," Grieco says. "This is not something that happened overnight, and it's not something we can get solved overnight."
Whatever happens, neither Novick nor Wallack plans to leave South Beach. Novick gives credit where credit is due: Though he doesn't often view the entertainment district as a good neighbor, he appreciates that Wallack has engineered a sound system to limit the noise coming from Mango's.
"We're like family. We shake hands with each other," Novick says of Wallack. "Right now we have a little friction between us, but to me it's not personal."
In fact, Novick is building himself a new rooftop apartment on his hotel. He seems sure the insanity has reached a tipping point. "This can't sustain itself," he says.
For his part, Wallack says he'd like to get the business-improvement district back up and running and have the off-duty police program reinstated so more officers circulate the street throughout the night.
"I would only want to keep it well managed, keep it clean, keep it resilient," he says.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Asked if he ever gets the itch to try his hand at something else, Wallack just laughs. "Should Joe's Stone Crab do something new?"
Besides, what he's created at Mango's seems to work just fine.
"I've always looked at South Beach as Disneyland in a different way," he says. "This is Pirates of the Caribbean, and we're Space Mountain. A lot of people don't like chichi clubs that charge you $50 to get in and charge $1,000 for a bottle and $20 for a drink and are so loud inside sometimes I can't even take it. I don't really go much — it's not my thing."
He pauses for effect. "But that's why Disneyland doesn't have only one ride."