News: Return to the Wild, Wild West?

South of Fifth Residents Fearful in Own Neighborhood

It was just hours before a high-profile stabbing of two women at South Pointe Park in March once again attracted regional attention to crime on South Beach. In the predawn hours, clubs in the South of Fifth Street neighborhood closed and a host of young people poured out onto the streets.

“They just decided to have a block party in the middle of the street, drinking, blaring music, making a lot of noise,” said Brad Stevens, a young father who lives at First Street and Collins Avenue. “I called police for an hour. No one showed up. As far as I know, the guy who stabbed those girls could have been at that block party.”

Just this week, Leo Ostreicher was on the porch of his building at Euclid and Fourth Street when a cooler came flying over the fence, hurled by a gang of passing youths, and nearly crushed a female neighbor.

Earlier this year, in January, Karis Fahrer, a resident of an apartment at Meridian and Fourth Street and a nurse by profession, bought a handgun and acquired a permit to carry it.

Residents of the neighborhood generally referred to as “South of Fifth” feel the area, which they complain has long been mismanaged and neglected, is no longer safe.

Over the past decade, South of Fifth was routinely marketed as a prestigious new address, as Miami Beach’s Beverly Hills — and as an actual neighborhood. Only, as has been the case with similar marketing campaigns around Miami Beach, something went very, very wrong en route to the city’s residential utopia.

“I’ve been living here a long time, and I have owned an apartment since the late 1990s, before there was a ‘South Beach,’” Ostreicher said. “I remember the late 1980s when this was a drug-infested neighborhood. I never had a problem with the drug dealers, addicts and criminal element then. They were here, but they made sure to stay out of the spotlight. They did their business, but they didn’t want to attract attention to themselves. This stuff is going on because of drunken gangs of kids and the city is doing nothing about it. We’ve had a shooting here and there, problems with hip-hop weekends — but never like this. There has never been a year as bad as this.”

Jim Powell is an international pilot who spends a good deal of time overseas and away from his South of Fifth condominium. He says he routinely hears uniform foreign perceptions of South Beach these days.

“The reputation has gone way down and the number one thing is that worldwide, crime is South Beach’s known commodity,” Powell said. “People would be surprised how much the word gets out. People in other countries are aware of the problem — probably more so than a lot of residents.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Over the past decade, South of Fifth was routinely marketed as a prestigious new address, as Miami Beach’s Beverly Hills — and as an actual neighborhood.

Only, as has been the case with similar marketing campaigns around Miami Beach, something went very, very wrong en route to the city’s residential utopia. Opinions abound as to the root of today’s many problems.

“The city permitted too many exemptions to building codes and allowed the area to be overpopulated,” Powell said. “We’re bearing that burden. Probably 70 percent of South of Fifth is not occupied and 20 percent of it has probably never even been seen by owners. If everyone showed up one day at the same time, the place would probably explode.”

Fahrer said that seemingly endless city improvement projects have led to a lack of streetlights, ever-changing parking regulations and residents living in a constant construction zone.

“It looks like a state of anarchy,” Fahrer said.

Complaints abound from many different residents on numerous issues of supervision and enforcement, ranging from dubious businesses pouring trash out onto streets; lack of police, parking officer and code enforcement; open containers on and routine trashing of the beach; urinating and defecating on streets; and public sex — to name just a few. Problems are exacerbated on weekends or during high local visitor traffic such as Spring Break and special events on or near the waterfront.

It seems many residents have horror stories they are willing to share.

Two nights after expensive decorative trees were stolen overnight from her building, Fahrer woke to the sound of an elderly neighbor screaming.

“She’d come across two people who had jumped the fence and were having sex right there in the open,” Fahrer said. “They weren’t drunk. They had the look of people who were on meth — a look I’ve become familiar with.”

Calling the police was an ordeal, Fahrer said. When no one responded to her call, Fahrer called back, only to be faced with a combative operator and then supervisor. As to what was done about the actual incident? Nothing.

That wouldn’t surprise Stevens, who remembers a call he made to police several years ago after noise from a nightclub next door had gotten out of control.

“One cop said, ‘What did you expect, this is South Beach,’” Stevens said. “Well, I made my investment here in multiple units when I was told that this was a neighborhood. Across the street is commercial — I would have no complaints about noise there. But this is a residential area.”

In reaction to recent complaints that have circulated widely on the Internet about numerous enforcement issues, the Miami Beach City Commission is scheduled to address the issue at its April 14th meeting.

Not that this has many residents confident.

“We’ve gotten the lecture from the government — that we are the problem for complaining and not the people doing the damage,” Powell said.

Several others echoed that sentiment.

“I think the way it will work out is that the city people pretend to care, maybe use a real show of force for a while to get people calmed down, and then everything will go back to normal,” said one resident who did not want to be identified. “In the past that would happen a few times, some people would get irritated enough that they would sell out and leave town. Only now, with so many people underwater in their mortgages, a lot of people can’t bail out and make way for the new round of suckers. This time it’s going to be a problem the city might actually have to address.”

Powell has had his apartment on the market for over a year now with no luck selling it. He actually had one prospective buyer and a deal almost negotiated. Then, the potential buyer was walking down the street and had his life threatened. The deal was off.

“That was during Art Basel, when you wouldn’t expect a real hoodlum crowd,” Powell said.

One clear picture emerges from residents discussing their personal safety concerns in South of Fifth. Over the past few years, the area has been attracting an escalating number of young, rowdy visitors from across the bay who bring in their own booze and drugs, party on the beach, and then roam looking for trouble.

“The word is out that South Beach is the place to drink and to do whatever you want with no worries about police — anything goes,” Ostreicher said. “A friend who came down to visit after a year said that the area looks like Beirut. I grew up in Brooklyn. I’m familiar with rough neighborhoods. But locals are scared to walk in their own neighborhood and it’s spreading.”

As the reputation for lawlessness grows, more and more young people — high school students as opposed to the college youth who made up Spring Break crowds of years ago — will come and express their dangerous and antisocial behavior, residents feel.

“The problem gets worse because of tolerance for it,” Powell said. “The city has a belief that these kids who come across the bridges somehow bring commerce. But it isn’t true. They bring in their own booze and drugs, they consume it here, cause problems here, throw their trash all over and then leave.”

Of course, residents having conflict with young people is historic in Miami Beach. However, what’s notable is that complaints these days aren’t originating with elderly residents — but, rather, with the very young professionals community leaders have long wanted to attract to the city.

Some residents also pointed out the irony of how little Miami Beach has learned from cities with which it has some connections. New York, for example, saw a major renaissance in the wake of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s zero tolerance stance on minor offenses such as those plaguing South of Fifth today. Meanwhile, though many criticized Fort Lauderdale’s decision to effectively end its historic spring break bacchanal a few years ago, the result has been entirely positive — the city is doing well with tourism and its beaches are popular, clean and generally safe.

“I’ve lived all over the world and I have never seen anything like this,” Stevens said.

Residents remain ready to work with city officials, even if many are jaded.

“My apartment is adorable and I don’t want to go anywhere,” Fahrer said. “I’m not one to back out easily. I want to try to work with the city. I’m cautious. I want to give them another shot.”

About Michael W Sasser

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