Ocean Drive with Miami Beach PD out in full effect. Photo by the author
It's Friday night, and Rhiver Portorreal, a willowy African American 21-year-old college student from Brooklyn, is chilling on the sidewalk across the street from the Congress Hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. She's chatting up her friend, 22-year-old Chad Daley, shortly before midnight—about a week after spring break revelry on Ocean Drive turned into a near riot that forced Miami Beach Police to call for reinforcements from Miami proper to help restore order. (After publication, a city official said Miami Beach canceled its request for backup at the last minute because local cops got the situation under control.)
That weekend capped off with the shooting death of a young man near an Ocean Drive hotel.
According to media reports, Miami Beach Police, with assistance from Miami PD, shut down a portion of Ocean Drive for more than an hour on March 11 in order to corral party goers who had shifted from the beach into the street. Police officials said several small fights broke out, and some people threw objects at passing cars. On March 13, shortly after midnight, another fracas near the Clevelander Hotel ended the life of 20-year-old Antoinne Decade. Witnesses told TV reporters that they saw Decade fighting another male, who pulled a gun and shot him in the chest. Decade was pronounced dead after being taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital.
That melee prompted Miami Beach officials to implement drastic measures usually reserved for Memorial Day Weekend, when a predominantly African American crowd comes into town for some fun in the sun. Just a few feet away from Portorreal and Daley, Miami Beach Police officers in regular and tactical uniforms stand guard near metal concert barriers erected at the intersection of 10th Street and Ocean Drive. A police mobile command center is parked on the sand near Lummus Park, which is located on the beach side of Ocean Drive. A six-block section of Ocean Drive has been closed off to traffic and cars rerouted to nearby Collins Avenue between 7 PM and 7 AM. Cops have also deployed automatic license plate readers around Ocean Drive to nab anyone with outstanding warrants.
A whiff of California medical-grade weed jolts the air as Portorreal makes an observation about the heavy police presence. "Seeing all these cops is a little intimidating," she says. "I guess you just have to deal with it." But Daley, who is also African American, has no problem with the all the police officers keeping watch on Ocean Drive.
"Some people might see it as a nuisance," Daley says. "Honestly, if that's what it takes to keep everyone safe, then I am all for it."
Miami Beach cops on Ocean Drive on a recent Friday night. Photo by the author
The fracas during the first weekend of spring break was not an isolated incident. For the last decade, Miami Beach's world famous street has been experiencing the pains of gentrification as big corporations and national developers move in to remake Ocean Drive for the masses, which in turn attracts small bands of young people eager to infiltrate the raucous party scene—or just fuck some shit up. The attendant crackdown has also been tempered, critics say, by fear on part of local politicians about being perceived as grumpy old racists.
"It has become an environment where the criminal element feels like it is welcome," says Miami Beach City Commissioner Ricky Arriola. "We need to fix that. Ocean Drive is our city's front door. If everyone starts to think of it as Bourbon Street, then our brand gets tarnished."
City leaders like Arriola have promised to clean up and restore Ocean Drive to the chic, world-class destination that at one time attracted some of the biggest names in the fashion industry, like photographer Bruce Weber and the late fashion designer Gianni Versace. But locals who lived and breathed Ocean Drive's halcyon days say there's no turning back the clock.
"For anybody who wants to recreate Ocean Drive from twenty-five years ago, it's not going to happen," says Louis Canales, who spent the late 80s and early 90s hosting soirees inside the lobbies of Ocean Drive hotels and was once dubbed the "pied piper of the South Beach scene" by the Wall Street Journal. "What made Ocean Drive a destination years ago for trend spotters no longer exists."
Located a block east of Collins Avenue, Ocean Drive—and specifically a ten-block section of it that runs north and south between Fifth and 15th Streets—is home to Miami Beach's oldest art deco hotels. After World War II, the street began a gradual steady decline that lasted 30 years. By the 1970s, Ocean Drive hotels had turned into the final resting spot for elderly snowbirds in their twilight years. A decade later, as the Cocaine Cowboy era took a violent hold of Miami, drug dealers began using Ocean Drive hotels to consummate illicit deals.
It's no coincidence that the goriest scene in Brian de Palma's 1983 reboot of Scarface, which tells the tale of a Cuban drug kingpin, takes place on Ocean Drive. Reflecting on the grisly and illicit history of Miami Beach makes you scratch your head a bit when officials like Arriola talk about the new criminal element taking over the beachfront. You might think some college kids letting off steam to the sounds of Future would be far preferable to a deadly cocaine trafficker like Griselda Blanco walking the block.
By the mid-to-late 1980s, visionary New York investors and developers like the late Tony Goldman were buying up and restoring the art deco buildings on Ocean Drive, as Canales recalls. The city helped their efforts in 1986 by rezoning Ocean Drive and the surrounding area to allow for restaurants and shops, along with the expanded sidewalks for outside tables and seating. The end result included a 20-foot wide promenade and outdoor concert stage on the eastern side of the drive.
Canales, who now works in Miami as a creative art director, says the street came alive once an eclectic group of artists, writers, photographers, and fashion models began moving in. When Ocean Drive magazine launched, its offices were located in the same building as News Cafe, a popular eatery that's still there today. Ocean Drive was also home to Irene Marie Models, one of the top agencies at the time and the subject of an MTV series called 8th and Ocean.
"You would have these perfect-bodied youths rollerblading in hot pants and tank tops carrying their portfolios from casting call to casting call," Canales tells me. "That created an energy and ambiance which was unique to the place and the moment."
Soon celebs discovered Ocean Drive, which had been re-dubbed "America's Riviera." In 1992, Versace purchased the old Amsterdam Palace apartment building on Ocean Drive, converting the property into his mansion, Casa Casuarina. There, he hosted famous pals like Madonna and the late Princess Diana. Five years later, crazed killer Andrew Cunanan gunned down the Italian designer on the mansion steps.
A Miami Beach policeman looks at the blood-stained entrance where Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed on Ocean Drive in 1997. Photo by Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)
Alan Roth, a former Miami Beach nightclub owner and ex-party promoter, worked at News Cafe as a teenager. "Ocean Drive had this incredible bohemian sexy surfer chill vibe," he tells me. "It wasn't about flashy cars and what you were wearing. It was a very special time in the history of Miami Beach."
Today, Ocean Drive is more of a tourist trap than a chill hotspot. Last year, the Miami Beach City Commission passed new regulations that ban the consumption of alcohol at outdoor tables on the street after two in the morning. The city also convened a task force of Ocean Drive business and property owners to recommend improvements. Even Miami Beach cops have gotten in hot water working off-duty security on there.
Meanwhile, some Ocean Drive proprietors say the area's alleged problems are being blown out of proportion. In a March 20 mass email to city officials and Ocean Drive stakeholders, Joshua Wallack, chief operations officer for Mango's Tropical Cafe—one of the longest-running bars on the street—defended the current state of Ocean Drive.
"Yes, we do have some unsavory characters who come over and 'hang out' from time to time (as any major city does)," Wallack wrote. "However, the streets are public property and we cannot and should not discriminate against people coming to have a good time... I spent fifteen years on the streets of South Beach in my career, and would never judge the whole visitor population by a few snippets of video taken here or there."
Indeed, videos depicting the debauchery posted by Ocean Drive activists feature predominantly young African Americans and Latinos. Canales says the racial aspect of cleaning up Ocean Drive is a very touchy subject in Miami Beach, where elected officials and the police department have faced criticism over the years for turning South Beach upside-down whenever people of color visit the city for a major event.
In a statement, Ernesto Rodriguez, Miami Beach Police spokesman, dismissed the idea that racial bias plays a role in adding more patrols and beat cops on Ocean Drive. "Our number one priority is safety," Rodriguez said. "We welcome all our visitors and encourage them to have a great time while here. We only ask they obey our laws."
Regardless of race, college-aged young adults alone on vacation are going to be rambunctious. "Look up any gathering of young people from any ethnic or racial group, the same things will occur," Canales says. "If they had been white or Hispanic, the city would have cleaned up Ocean Drive a lot sooner."
Despite the long history of violence committed on the black community by Miami city police and the staggering overrepresentation of blacks in Florida's prisons and jails, some longtime denizens actually believe local officials are treading lightly because they don't want any of the cleanup efforts in Miami Beach to be seen through a racial lens.
"It's the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about," Canales says. "The city has to do it without Ocean Drive becoming a police state where cops are pulling kids off the street and putting them into holding pens."
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This story has been updated.