1997 Year in Review

Mayor Glenda Hood stared sternly down from her elevated place at the center of the Orlando City Council. Her eyes seemed to flash. One of the roomful of young late-night supporters had shouted out of turn, and the 45-year-old mayor was having none of such raucous shows of dissent. The next "disrespectful" one, she warned, would be thrown out of Council Chambers.

This single act, as much as her statements and vote later in favor of a 3 a.m. closing time for downtown clubs, seemed to define the city's overly protective approach to ensuring Orlando remained "The City Beautiful" in 1997 rather than embrace the diversity and overlapping identities that characterize truly major cities.

"It's kind of like getting our hands slapped," says Jim Faherty, an owner of the downtown Sapphire Supper Club, who collected signatures from downtown businesses opposed to the 3 a.m. closing. "We're like the stepchild being treated different from the rest: Mom's got to shut us down early."

Preserving this almost sterile atmosphere downtown -- an effort by this and previous mayoral administrations to mimic the faux perfection of the theme park landscape -- also required Orlando to continue to sweep the less fortunate from its main streets. With almost a month to go in 1997, record numbers of people already had been arrested by Orlando police for disorderly intoxication, camping, loitering or panhandling, four city ordinances designed to prevent homeless persons from hanging downtown. In taking 1,267 to jail through Dec. 3, the vigilant police had cleansed the streets of virtually twice as many "violators" as in all of 1995, and three times as many the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

And it was the intolerant mentality of city officials and business leaders that prompted police to sweep the downtown district of street performers (except those who passed auditions by the operators of Church Street Market) whose offbeat color lends personality to downtown entertainment districts in New York, San Francisco and other big American cities. In this purge, police were able to employ city codes that leave the sidewalks under the control of the businesses they front or the City Council that Hood controls.

While homeless persons and gypsy musicians can be made to disappear like magic, the campaign to rid downtown of the all-night "rave" parties was hard fought for most of the year by the kids and the club owners whose livelihoods hinged on the loyalty of customers who were psyched to party way past 3 a.m. Hood threw her political weight behind the extreme position after a citizens committee she appointed failed to arrive at such a position after months of wandering debate. The committee's only youthful member quit coming and its only club owner was a rock-and-roller with an admitted dislike for Jon Marsa, the owner of the targeted Club at Firestone. Yet, personal agendas aside, the group dominated by clergy and lawyers eventually compromised on a 4 a.m. closing of clubs that previously operated well past sunrise.

It wasn't severe enough. Tampa-area lawmaker John Morroni earlier had pushed an even more extreme measure through the Florida Legislature, setting the bewitching hour at midnight, although local governments could set their own standards; bowing to the heavy tourism lobby, anything within five miles of attractions -- such as Disney's Pleasure Island and the new Downtown Disney West Side -- was exempted. Then, a week before the Orlando council vote, Polk County officials piled on, hassling and arresting youths -- including one of the promoters -- of the Zen Festival, an all-night event featuring electronica performances and catering to the same dance crowd put on the run here. (Marsa and friends were organizers and backers.) And so, after feigning compromise in meetings with Marsa, the City Council followed the mayor's intolerant lead.

The Sept. 8 vote effectively killed the late-night scene that had earned Orlando international recognition as the latest hotspot for electronica, even while it shocked some of the clean-and-pressed churchgoers who shared sidewalks on Sunday mornings with pierced and painted youths strung out from all-night dancing, if not drugs and alcohol.

"We do have an obligation and responsibility to deal with the health and safety of our citizens," Hood said. "There comes a time when operations need to cease." And cease they have.

Opportunists have tried to capitalize, with electronica and late-night hours at clubs in suburbs and unincorporated Orange County. And "house music" has been featured at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney. Meanwhile, downtown club owners are worried about their future in a city apparently bent on replacing nightlife with something more tame. Hood's continued push for a performing arts center looms large, with added emphasis from the Sentinel's nascent campaign to create a downtown theater district.

"The people who don't participate downtown dictate what goes on downtown," says Faherty. "They used the raves as a scapegoat. They sent a very cold message to people coming downtown."

As the new year beckoned, Marsa was weighing the implications of a legal challenge. Having been the target of city vigilance before, Marsa worries that too extreme an action might trigger still more pressure. Indeed, city officials plan to study the 3 a.m. closing to determine whether any changes should be made. "We're going to revisit raves," says Jim DeSimone, Hood's spokesman. All indications to the contrary, DeSimone insists, "We want it to be a vibrant business and entertainment district."

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