Activist state

Spring break crackdown puts focus on South Beach’s future


People visit Miami Beach, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)


Miami Beach officials have spent the past few years trying to control the loud crowds, public drinking and increasing violence associated with the notorious South Beach neighborhood during spring break.

Business owners say they are being unfairly targeted by regulations, and civil rights advocates say the city is trying to scare away black tourists who make up most visitors.

Two shootings that injured five people last weekend, prompting the city to impose an emergency midnight curfew this weekend, have refocused attention on the future of the glamorous waterfront – as entertainment district or whatever. The city’s mayor, a Democrat, insists the crackdown is about bad behavior, not race.

The 10-block stretch of Ocean Drive known for its Art Deco hotels, restaurants, and bars sits between areas that cater to more affluent tourists, as well as locals. Many longtime residents have learned to treat spring break like a hurricane: stay indoors and hang in there until it’s over.

Resident Pedro Herrera, 40, said spring break is great for business at the hotel where he works, but stays away from tourist areas when not in time.

“Before spring break, you can go for a walk on Ocean Drive,” Herrera said. “At the moment I prefer to stay at home, because I know that if I go there, something will happen.”

Mayor Dan Gelber said spring break and several holiday weekends throughout the year have been a problem for the city since before he took office in 2017. He sees the long-term solution as a fundamental change in the area around Ocean Drive from an entertainment district to a cultural district, replacing all-night bars and clubs with boutique residential and office development.

“We don’t need an entertainment-only district,” Gelber said.

Developed in the 1920s and 1930s, Ocean Drive is the center of Miami’s Art Deco District, comprising hundreds of buildings showcasing the style’s bold geometry and intense colors. The area fell into disrepair but experienced a cultural and economic renaissance thanks to TV shows like “Miami Vice” in the 1980s and fashion designer Gianni Versace moving into a seaside mansion in the 1990s. bars and nightclubs flourished as South Beach became a destination for models, musicians and other entertainers.

“Now we have this business model of big drinks and big volumes all night long with tens of thousands of people,” Gelber said. “Which just doesn’t work for our city.”

Gelber said he was still pursuing a 2 a.m. liquor ban in South Beach, which was blocked by a circuit court judge earlier this month. Last call is at 5 a.m. in most of Miami Beach, and South Beach businesses have pushed back against the proposed rule that only targets their part of the city.

Clevelander’s legendary hotel and bar on Ocean Drive sued the city for alcohol curtailment last spring. Although not part of the lawsuit, Joshua Wallack, chief operating officer of neighboring Mango’s Tropical Café, said the proposed rules give bars and clubs outside the target area an unfair advantage and threaten businesses inside. inside the zone of a possible closure.

“They’re pushing for a 2 a.m. ban but with exemptions,” Wallack said. “Do you really think they want to close the Fontainebleau?

The Fontainebleau Miami Beach is an iconic luxury hotel over a mile north of the South Beach area. The hotel’s nightclub, LIV, stays regularly open until 5am

Some civil rights advocates believe city officials are concerned about visitor demographics. South Beach began to become a popular destination for black tourists about two decades ago, as developers staged Urban Beach Week over Memorial Day weekend. Many locals complained of violence and other crimes associated with the event, leading to an increased police presence. But the event’s continued popularity correlates with an increase in dark tourism throughout the year, including spring break.

Stephen Hunter Johnson, a lawyer and member of Miami-Dade’s Black Affairs Advisory Council, said the emergency curfew was an overreaction to last weekend’s shootings. He argued that if two non-fatal shootings in two days were enough to warrant a state of emergency, then the entire county should be under a state of emergency indefinitely.

“The only emergency in Miami Beach is that there were black people there,” Johnson said.

More than 1,000 people were arrested last March when the city imposed an 8 p.m. curfew. At the time, authorities sent in military-style vehicles to disperse predominantly black crowds with rubber bullets, drawing criticism from black activists. In an attempt to discourage large crowds, the city had canceled all programs amid the pandemic, leaving a void for tens of thousands of people gathered with nothing to do.

Johnson said this year’s Miami Beach Live concert series, the city’s attempt to bring the lineup back to spring break, completely ignored the young urban demographic by booking artists like 1990s alternative rocker Alanis Morissette and Broadway performer Bernadette Peters.

Miami Beach’s mayor dismisses the idea that the city is somehow trying to discourage black visitors.

“The issue this weekend was obviously behavioral and not race related,” Gelber said. “We had spring break for three weeks without asking for a curfew, without invoking emergency powers. We did it in the morning after two shootings.

Many visitors feel it’s unfair to be surprised by restrictions after planning their spring break weeks or months in advance, but most are still determined to have a good time.

Anwar Hassan, 21, visiting from Washington, DC, said he would just find something else to do after curfew.

“I’m not going to let this limit my trip,” Hassan said. “I’m just going to go do something else somewhere else. He doesn’t have to be at the beach. This place is huge. We’ll find something.