|Downtown After Dark|
|Written by Adam Schachner - BT Contributor|
An experiment to find nightlife in the city’s center meets with disappointment
I have a theory that downtown Miami is ripe for a walking nightlife.
By day, of course, downtown is bustling with shoppers, courthouse traffic, students attending Miami-Dade College, and people on county business. For many, this is a part of town where they have to go, whether they want to or not.
I wanted to prove that, when the sun sets and the steel rolling shutters come down on row after row of commercial outlets, downtown still could be ignited by more casual strollers intent on exploring local pubs, cafés, and so forth, until beauty sleep beckoned.
To prove this point, I devised an experiment involving a cross-section of friends, both locals and transplants. The test was simple: We would take a downtown bar hop, and do it on a Thursday night. (That happened to be the night we all had free, and it’s generally a good night for happy hours.)
Each of us would find our way to a discrete downtown meeting place, in this case the Filling Station on SE 1st Street. The challenge would be to arrive on foot or by public transit, rather than the standard commute in a hermetically sealed personal vehicle. We’d kick off with beer, appetizers, and standard pub fare. From there, we’d work our way to three other establishments: Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue on NE 1st Street for dinner, Elwood’s Gastro Pub on NE 3rd Avenue for after-dinner drinks, and Kork Wine and Cheese on S. Miami Avenue for a final nightcap.
When proposing this endeavor to my companions, I could sense a testing bias owing to the novelty of the plan. Had I suggested doing this on Lincoln Road or in South Miami, I’m certain that no adrenal thrill would have accompanied the plan; we’ve crawled those places.
So we broke the mold on many levels. Everyone gathered at the Filling Station, all arriving car-free and within ten minutes of 6:30. No one was on “Miami time.” As I downed the night’s house special -- a Sea Dog Blueberry Ale -- and snacked on some tater tots smothered in cheese, I listened happily to the group review work, discuss transit, and make introductions where needed. It was a good start to the evening.
Our first walk took us past electronic and wristwatch boutiques. Daylight dimmed as we meandered the sidewalks. Only a few stragglers remained on the streets, waiting for buses and jitneys to whisk them home. Pleasantly full of ale and the promise of dinner, I had hopes we’d meet fellow walkers soon.
Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue on NE 1st Street was bumping with classic rock and the food smelled like glory. The proprietor, Hans Seitz, introduced himself with a brilliantly mustachioed smile and a clear passion for having diners who appreciate his good work. We feasted on roast chicken and divine veggie burgers, all drowning in Sparky’s hoisin barbeque sauce, a creation that gives me hope for peace among all mankind.
Wrapping up dinner around 9:30, we walked the several blocks to Elwood’s. Night had fallen and the pavement was sparsely populated, but I wasn’t ready to abandon my vision of a nighttime scene popping up.
The pub was empty but happy to accommodate us. Brightly colored paintings lampooned the pastel Miami seascapes of Guy Harvey and Romero Britto. These contrasted the cool and dimly lit atmosphere Elwood’s maintains. A placard on the table advertised live comedy monthly, on the first and third Tuesday. I pointed this out to my fiancée, who nodded and observed, “It’s a destination. People make a point of coming for it.”
We lost some of our numbers at 10:30, after Elwood’s kitchen closed. So we shuffled out. The five of us who remained sauntered across the grid, working our way to Kork at S. Miami Avenue and Flagler. I could tell we were losing steam, and a little motivation. The landscape between destinations was disheartening. Rows of vertical steel shutters secured storefronts of electronic goods, luggage, and formal wear. This was the after-hours downtown I hoped no longer existed: a silent, lifeless lunar landscape devoid of inspiration.
One of our walkers, my brother-in-law visiting from Boston, looked at me with bemused but wordless inquisitiveness. Where were all the people?
Trying to justify my experiment to him, I realized the allegory in this experience. Downtown Miami is a microcosm of South Florida. There are many destinations, but little cohesion. One would no more stroll on a random whim between venues downtown than take a walk from Wynwood to the Upper Eastside, or from Coral Gables to the Grove.
Miami is a collection of attractive islands for activity, places to which we deliberately drive. The spontaneity of getting lost on foot and seeing what comes next is missing from our otherwise remarkably active community.
As a Brickell resident frequently passing through downtown, my concept of the area has evolved dramatically. Growing up in Kendall, if I informed my parents I was spending the night downtown, I would likely have been locked in my room for my own protection. The downtown of my youth was a reputed haven for degenerates, where young people disappeared in search of drugs or went for a good mugging.
But that was the Miami of the 1980s and 1990s. This reputation has changed in the past decade, as more social draws have worked their way to our city center.
Our pub crawl ended on S. Miami Avenue, where the only other nighthawks to be found were a couple of police officers chatting between squad cars, and a homeless woman leaning against large potted plants, staring intently at nothing. Glancing up the avenue, it was clear Kork was closed. Several yards beyond, the brightly lit Metromover station beckoned. We instinctively pursued it like moths to a fluorescent light.
We departed in separate directions. Two friends unlocked their bikes back at the Filling Station and cycled off into the distance. My brother-in-law caught the Metromover to Bayside, as my fiancée and I hopped on a Brickell tram.
The only other occupants were a young man who claimed to be a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, asking for spare change, and a stoic disciple of Yahweh ben Yahweh, brandishing golden adornments and a very large stick. The four of us quietly evacuated downtown on a limited-service public transit pod.
At about 11:00 we reached the financial district, the last stop on the line. Below the platform, the squawking chatter and pulsing bass of socializing was just getting rolling at Segafredo on S. Miami Avenue. Finely dressed professionals strolled about.
Twelve city blocks can make all the difference in the world.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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