On Friday evening in Lummus Park, more than 100 people gathered on blankets and in lawn chairs to watch a screening of “The Birdcage,” the 1996 comedy starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as an openly gay couple from South Beach that was filmed in part just steps away on Ocean Drive.
It was the first event the city has planned this month to attract a different crowd than the young partiers who typically flock to the area for spring break in March, a response to local residents who have complained about noise and crime. The attendees included many Miami Beach residents who were older than the crowds that began to fill Ocean Drive’s bars and clubs as the night wore on and spring break unofficially began.
The sidewalks bustled with people and the street filled with cars and three-wheeled “Slingshot” motorcycle rentals. Music blared from hot spots like Palace, the Clevelander and Mango’s Tropical Cafe. Photographers snapped pictures of passersby who then huddled around to see the results.
A visitor from Memphis, who identified himself as John, said he and a group of friends from Chicago and Atlanta had flown in for the weekend. They had just been drinking at the Sugar Factory, he said, a highly Instagrammable bar and candy store with alcohol-infused treats.
“We’ve got family down here, and I’ve been meaning to come,” he said, noting that bigger spring break crowds would likely be coming later in the month. “It’s great. But it isn’t really spring break yet.”
In anticipation of the crowds, and as part of an effort to change the hard-partying tenor of spring break, Miami Beach officials have planned events for each weekend in March.
After the movie screening Friday, the city hosted the United First Responders Music Fest in Lummus Park on Saturday, featuring first-responder musicians from around the country including police from New York, Dallas and Puerto Rico and a group from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The event drew a crowd of passersby early in the day that grew larger later in the evening as the NYPD and Puerto Rican officers performed. After a group from the Plantation Police Department finished a rendition of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” the lead singer addressed the crowd.
“How does it feel to be at the safest concert in America?” he said. “Cops all over the place!”
“I think it’s cool,” said Grace, a former law enforcement officer from Cleveland who stumbled upon the concert with a friend. She said they were leaving on a Caribbean cruise the next day.
Others were less interested. A group of visitors from St. Louis who walked by the concert stage on Saturday afternoon said they knew nothing about the event and were just passing through to go to the beach. The group had gone to “a couple of clubs” the night before, said Nisha, 24, adding that she wasn’t deterred by the city’s past attempts to shut down the party atmosphere.
“It’s warm and pretty,” she said of the decision to come to Miami Beach.
City-sponsored events in the coming weeks may appeal to a more diverse range of visitors. Next weekend will feature a beach volleyball tournament, a Friday concert by salsa singer Tito Nieves to promote the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park, a Saturday night concert with a DJ set by Anderson .Paak and a performance by guitarist Nile Rodgers and his band CHIC.
The third weekend in March, often one of the rowdiest for spring break, will bring Carnaval Miami — a popular street festival run by the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana — to Ocean Drive from Seventh Street to 12th Street under the name “Art on the Drive.” The three-day event will feature music on three stages, arts and crafts and entertainment for children.
It remains to be seen if the young spring breakers who flock to South Beach will take to those events, and whether programming taking place in the daytime and evening might help quell a party scene that typically rages late into the night.
Miami Beach police and elected officials have previously been accused of fostering an unwelcoming environment for Black visitors who are a large part of the spring break crowd.
“The goal of the programming, I think, is to create a level of order and management in the city where you tend to get a block party, fights happen, guns may appear,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.
Gelber says the problems with spring break are about age, not race, and said he isn’t particularly concerned if some of the city’s events this month aren’t aimed directly at spring breakers looking to drink and party. He has been explicit about wanting those tourists to go elsewhere.
“We’re not seeking a spring break crowd,” he said.
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Gelber has said he hopes planned entertainment will ultimately take over the entire footprint of Ocean Drive during spring break and is courting major events for 2024 like a British motorsport festival, the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Organizers of that event recently raised concerns about the timeline and are now aiming for 2025.
“Our brand isn’t the young, let’s-do-something-crazy tourist,” Gelber said. “If that’s your goal, then we’re certainly not your city.”
Stephen Hunter Johnson, a member of Miami-Dade County’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said he sees it a bit differently. Considering officials’ stated desire for spring breakers to go elsewhere, the city’s approach comes off as an attempt to “counter-program in a very cynical way,” he said.
“There’s this idea that we can program Black tourists away,” Johnson said, adding that the city could instead collaborate with existing business owners and nightlife groups to promote safe events. “It’s the cynicism that they thought that would actually be a solution.”
A quiet first weekend
City officials said there were no major incidents on Ocean Drive this past weekend, although they noted that’s not unusual for the first weekend in March.
“You see us all smiling right now,” Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements said during Saturday’s first responder concert. “We’re hoping that we get smiles all the way through.”
Police were out in force. Miami Beach officers rode in patrol cars and ATVs and on bicycles, while a group of Miami-Dade officers also roamed the area on bikes. On Friday night, after a man appeared to jump in front of traffic near the Clevelander, approximately 15 officers descended on the area and the man was arrested.
Miami Beach police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez said just over 100 arrests were made citywide over the course of the week, a similar number to the first week of spring break last year. The majority of the people arrested were Miami-Dade County residents, he said.
Rodriguez said there was a non-fatal stabbing Saturday night outside the Chelsea hotel on Washington Avenue, a couple blocks west of Ocean Drive, after two men tried to intervene in a fight between a couple.
Still, the atmosphere on Ocean Drive was fairly calm — at least compared to the typical spring break peaks in mid-to-late March, when the party often spills out from bars and sidewalks into the road. The city has implemented curfews and shut down major causeways to visitors during spring break in each of the past two years, including last March after a pair of shootings injured five people.
Bigger tests yet to come
Officials expect crowds to grow larger over the next few weekends, which will put the city’s event-planning and policing efforts to the test.
Last year, Miami Beach police vowed to eschew a “zero-tolerance” approach after they faced criticism for utilizing pepper-spray balls, SWAT teams and a military-style vehicle in 2021.
Glendon Hall, the chairman of the city’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee, said the committee has called for both a less aggressive police response and more programming during spring break. The city ramped up its efforts last year with a concert series, the first iteration of “Miami Beach Live!”
“My opinion on programming is that it’s a method of crowd control,” Hall said. “You give the tourists something to do. You engage them.”
Hall added that, while this year’s offerings might not all appeal to young Black visitors, they do seem to feature a more diverse array of options than last year, when headlining acts included Alanis Morissette, Wilson Phillips and Juanes.
“The perfect can’t be the enemy of the good,” he said. “At least now we have programming.”
Police on horseback?
Johnson and Hall agreed that, regardless of any events the city holds, police must respond appropriately to spring break crowds.
Hall and other members of the city’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee have raised an objection to one of Gelber’s proposed responses — using police on horseback as a method of crowd control.
“As long as I’m a resident here, that is not happening,” Hall said.
On Saturday, two Miami police officers on horses were roaming Lummus Park and posing for photos with visitors during the first responders concert. Clements, the police chief, told the Miami Herald they would likely only be used during the daytime and not to control large crowds.
“You talk about bad optics?” Hall said. “The city has blind spots.”