Stefanie Marie and her mother took drags from their cigarettes while waiting for a cab under the neon glow of Mango’s Tropical Cafe.
To celebrate Marie’s 21st birthday, the Miami Beach resident and her mother spent hours at hotspots along Ocean Drive — a high-octane scene fueled by booze, laced with drugs and teeming with people looking for sex. It’s a major draw for tourists, but usually not for locals. Especially with mom.
“People from Miami usually don’t come here,” said Marie, as people lined up to get into Mango’s around 3:15 a.m. “But it’s my birthday.”
This boisterous epicenter of the Beach’s reputation for partying well into the wee hours could be drastically changed by the city’s voters.
Today, bars can serve until 5 a.m. In November, a binding ballot question will ask the electorate if it wants to cut off alcohol sales at 2 a.m. for certain venues on Ocean Drive between Fifth and 15th streets. Only indoor portions of bars that are completely enclosed and located entirely within hotels would be exempt.
At least eight establishments with outdoor areas would be directly hit, including marquee bars like Mango’s and the Clevelander. All fear an earlier cutoff would not only hurt servers who depend on wages earned in the late hours but damage South Beach’s brand as a nightlife capital.
The ballot question is effectively a referendum on Ocean Drive’s identity, which could end up anywhere from a gaudy magnet for debauchery to the flashy party central it is today to a calmer, quieter promenade known more for swanky dinners and upscale nightlife.
The debate over how to police the party on Ocean Drive, which has raged off and on for years, was reignited most recently by a shooting during Memorial Day weekend.
Ladarian T. Phillips was killed during an argument over a parking space about 10:30 p.m., well before the proposed 2 a.m. cutoff. Even so, Mayor Philip Levine used it to revive his contention that an earlier last call would deter troublemakers from coming to Ocean Drive.
On Wednesday, he also linked crime on Ocean Drive to the loud music coming from the clubs and won the commission’s approval for an experimental crackdown on noise. While it won’t be strict enforcement, clubs will be cited for violating the noise ordinance if someone complains.
In deciding to put the question to voters, Levine and other elected officials said the problem is Ocean Drive is seedy and dangerous.
Under the swirls of cigarette smoke as she and her mother prepared to head home, Marie had a different assessment. She said the area could be safer at night, but the late hours make the Beach fun.
“I want it to stay open late,” she said. “They should just have more police.”
The city has shifted eight additional police officers to patrol the area. The city is also in the process of filling almost two dozen more police positions, which will allow the department to move more experienced officers into four more slots on the Ocean Drive team. On top of that, business owners have added extra private security.
For a snapshot of the atmosphere on an average weekend, Miami Herald reporters roamed South Beach’s entertainment district between 2 and 5 a.m. on two recent weekend nights. On these two occasions, reporters observed plenty of drunken sloppiness, partygoers and people watchers.
THEY COME FOR THE PARTY
It’s about 2 a.m. on a Saturday and streams of music from multiple venues clash to create a din of noise on Ocean Drive between Eighth and 10th streets.
As pop music jams blast from the Clevelander, a woman in a skimpy white bodysuit is sprawled spread-eagle on the sidewalk. With her friends helping her, she climbs atop the nearest taxi while the driver sits inside, wide-eyed and grinning. She twerks, grinds and straddles the rooftop advertisement for a cheering audience of two dozen people hoisting cellphone cameras.
Multiple hands slap the woman’s backside. Screaming with excitement, she slides down the windshield and stumbles away with a group of friends.
“This is the first time it’s happened to me,” said the taxi driver, who declined to give his name, laughing. “ I just stayed in the car and saw what they did.”
Some people who want changes on Ocean Drive say loud music agitates big, drunk crowds. On this night, it sparks spontaneous dancing on the sidewalk and in the street and public make-out sessions.
Friendships between strangers blossom quickly here. Dave Donahue and Leon Cisineros have known each other all of 15 minutes before enthusiastically embracing and shouting “I love you!” in front of the Clevelander at 2:30 a.m.
Donahue, 31, is in Miami from Boston for a bachelor party. Cisineros, 53, is a businessman from Denver who traveled all the way to Miami to buy a flashy new car. Cisineros, who tells a reporter he is on a “beautiful cocaine bender,” dances salsa around Donahue.
“I need another bump, with or without you,” sings Cisineros to the thumping music. A fedora crowns his bald head. After saying South Beach reminds him of a smaller version of Las Vegas “sans gambling,” the first-time visitor to the Beach is shocked to hear about the movement to stop liquor sales at 2 a.m.
“If they did that, it would ruin everything good about this place,” says Cisineros, while spinning around Donahue.
Over at Voodoo Rooftop Lounge and Hookah, those with orange wristbands grow impatient as the line for rooftop access grows longer. It’s 2:40 a.m.
Inside, Joshua S., 39, of Chicago, sits at a table with six of his friends. He has two more days to party in Miami, and said if bars were to close early, tourists would suffer.
“It’s Miami,” he says. “It’s party central. How would they accommodate tourists?”
One table over sits Jason Sanders, who was celebrating his last bachelor weekend with his childhood best friend, Mussad Bush. Sanders says he picked Miami to celebrate because of the late-night scene he can’t find in his native Philadelphia or nearby Atlantic City.
“It’s a vacation spot,” says Sanders, 29.
“The later the better,” adds Bush, also 29. “People don’t like to come out until late.”
Some visitors come just looking for a change of pace.
Omar Alsad, a 28-year-old business exchange student from Saudi Arabia, stands in line for Voodoo clad in a plain button-down shirt and worn-out red Nike shoes. He smiles nervously, revealing a gleaming row of silver braces.
I am in awe of this place. I do not even know how to take it all in.
Omar Alsad, tourist
There is virtually no nightlife in Nebraska, where he’s a graduate student, he says, so he booked a weekend plane ticket to Miami to escape.
“I am in awe of this place. I do not even know how to take it all in,” he says.
Outside Voodoo at 3 a.m., people are still lining up. A woman dressed to the nines takes a long nap at a table in front of a nearby pizza window.
Down on Ninth Street, just south of Mango’s, revelers are spilling out of the club after the power goes out. They probably don’t know that this stretch of street plays a key role in the debate over late-night behavior.
Mitch Novick, who owns the Sherbrooke Hotel directly behind Mango’s, has surveillance cameras pointed down at Ninth Street. He routinely posts videos on his YouTube page of what he sees from his second-floor home: fights, fender benders and general drunken buffoonery. Ocean Drive, he says, is a cesspool that needs less noise and alcohol.
An earlier cutoff for alcohol won’t necessarily end the problems that Novick films, some argue. It will just push the party up a few hours.
“The people would simply start drinking earlier,” says Ignacio Misiano, 25, of Argentina, after strolling down Ninth Street with a flute of champagne in one hand and the open bottle in the other. Even if last call is moved up on Ocean Drive, he says, visitors will continue the festivities elsewhere.
“They aren’t going to bed at 2 a.m.,” he said.
Misiano’s friend, Augustin Barba, 26, starts to share his views with a reporter when he’s interrupted by a man walking by.
“It would kill tourism. It would hur —”
“Hey, papi, how are you? I got weed. I got coke.”
Everyone declines the offer.
In this same spot three weeks later, New York resident Joe Smitty says he comes to Ocean Drive because he can drink and party in a beautiful locale by the beach.
“That’s something that anybody would want to walk through and anybody would want to experience because they don’t get to do it at home,” he said. “Miami’s a getaway.”
The party is still raging inside Mango’s at 3:30 a.m. The sweaty dance floor is packed tight with people kissing, grinding their bodies against each other and circles of women dancing together. The pulsing beat of reggaeton music blasts as colored lights wash over the crowd.
Upstairs, sitting at a table while her friends dance below, Nayeli Ortiz, 27, says she appreciates Ocean Drive’s vibe because she encounters a mix of cultures. On vacation from California, she thinks the proposed rollback on alcohol sales is “probably a bad idea,” but it wouldn’t impact her enjoyment of the street.
“I’m not a drinker, so I don’t really care,” she said.
Two Miami Beach police officers stand outside the club entrance as people line up to get in. Men wearing white sneakers and thick gold chains turn their heads as a woman with a dress slit up to her hip walks by. Later, a man wearing nothing but black briefs ambles by, looking dazed and garnering double-takes.
Ocean Drive’s energy is unmatched in other parts of South Beach’s entertainment district on both mornings. Save for a few Washington Avenue clubs that punctuate moribund blocks lined with empty or closed storefronts, that noise and commotion don’t compare.
On the Saturday morning, a large family from Madison County, Mississippi, fills the porch of a hotel on Collins Avenue, a few blocks away from the noise. Teenagers and adults sit around the table chatting, some looking at their smartphones, in front of the Nassau Suite Hotel.
Robert Luckett, 41, says he drove his family 14 hours down to South Beach for a good time in a beautiful place. He’s felt safe during his stay, and says he would come back because the people are nice and the weather is perfect.
While he’s not in line for a club at the moment, he’s seen plenty of night owls strut by on their way to the action. Killing alcohol sales at 2 would turn off a lot of other tourists, he says.
“People come to Miami to party,” he says, adding that if safety is an issue, adding more police should resolve it.
Cousins Mo Mosley and Rob Harold stand outside the Fat Tuesday nightclub, taking in the sights. It’s almost 3:30 a.m., and they’ve been partying since 11 p.m.
“It’s not like this in Pennsylvania,” said Mosley, 31, of York, Pennsylvania. “There are beautiful women out here.”
Harold, 30, said they plan on staying out “until the festivities end” or until “someone gets lucky.”
At 3:30 a.m., Lummus Park is full of people dancing, smoking, laughing. They trade kisses. Some trade drugs. Other people just sit and chat on the park benches facing the ocean, which is aglow with ships in the distance.
“It’s cool just to see people hanging, doing crazy things,” said Alex Blanco, a gym owner from Coral Gables. “It’s time to relax.”
Blanco, 21, of Coral Gables, said the “crazy” things people do make Ocean Drive so special.
“Everyone does everything everywhere,” he said. “There’s no shame. It’s just natural.”
Three weeks later in the early hours of Sunday, Marguerite Jones, 22, sits on the rock wall in the park with a friend while they chat with two guys they met at Mango’s. Jones says she’s enjoyed her first visit to Miami Beach and she hasn’t felt uncomfortable or unsafe that night.
“I didn’t, and even if you do for a moment, there’s police around,” she said. “I feel pretty safe and protected.”
As the hour creeps closer to 4 a.m., the morning crowd begins to rise. In the predawn hours on the Saturday, a man wearing nothing but a Speedo sprints barefoot across the beach.
Just after 4 a.m, Jordan Lee sits atop his bright yellow 2017 Camaro. Next to him is Kassidy Horton, who he just met. She’s wearing a suede, body-hugging dress.
“We approached each other. I said, ‘How you doin?’ ” says Lee, 29, who lives in Miami.
The two were “connecting and vibing,” Lee says. “It’s a good time. We’ve been watching tourists pay $36 for a drink.”
Other people-watchers are getting a workout in the early hours down at Muscle Beach.
Harry Santamaria is dead lifting weights on the sand while three friends cheer him on. It is 4 a.m. and there is no talk of ending their night out and heading to bed any time soon.
“I am leaving for Fort Benning in two weeks,” says Santamaria, who has enlisted in the U.S. Army. “So my friends called me up and we ended up in Miami tonight.”
The group of four drove from Orlando to send off their friend in style on their first night ever in South Beach. They spent the beginning of their evening bar-hopping from Club Mango’s to Voodoo Lounge, before they took to people watching and weight lifting at South Beach’s pseudo-muscle beach.
“We were excited about coming here after all of the wild stories we’ve heard,” says Troy Parrish, 23, a rowing coach at University of Central Florida. “We knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. Miami promises a laid-back atmosphere and a sleepless scene.”
By 4:25 a.m., even the liveliest parts of Ocean Drive are beginning to quiet down. While the music from The Clevelander is still blaring and lights are flashing, the crowd is thinning and the tables are littered with half-empty drinks. The floor is littered with personal ads. A small group of people dance up near the deejay booth.
As 5 a.m. approaches and the music fades, people trickle back to theirs cars or hotels. Some ladies hold their high-heeled shoes in their hands as they walk away from the bars. Couples get into rideshare vehicles. One man munches on a slice of pizza he bought from a window that just closed.
The party is winding down just before dawn for a daytime repose until the late-night crowd returns in the evening, like it always does.