The North Beach Bandshell is making a comeback

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Growing up on North Beach in the 1970s, Laura Quinlan remembers Big Band Night at the Bandshell.
This paragraph has been changed to reflect the correct year Quinlan grew up at the Bandshell.

The intimate open-air venue just a block away from the beach would transform into a tropical ballroom as the sun set. Dozens of Miami’s elderly residents dressed to the nines would dance the fox trot and cha-cha-cha under the starlit sky. As a young girl, Laura lived in the neighborhood and would hear the music as she walked past to buy ice cream at The Sweet Spot on Collins.

Today, Quinlan is creating new fond memories of the Bandshell. As the director of the Rhythm Foundation, the North Beach native is curating a new generation of cultural excellence in the neighborhood.

The Rhythm Foundation has been putting on shows at the Bandshell since 1999, but in April 2015  Miami Beach government officially gave them keys and a five-year management agreement. It’s been a little over a year since they were put in charge. Since then they’ve brought acts like Ibeyi and Denzel Curry, revived Band Nights, and reestablished the venue as the neighborhood’s cultural epicenter.

“Doing an annual festival and running a venue are different animals,” says Quinlan. “So I think just through regular consistent programming, a lot of people from Dade County have discovered North Beach.”

For Quinlan, reviving the Bandshell is driven by a commitment to bringing positive change to the neighborhood. Historically, North Beach has been a blighted, high crime area. Today that’s behind the neighborhood, but it’s confronted with another challenge: development that, while a boon for the area, could displace longtime locals.

“There’s a push to redevelop happening in the neighborhood and locals are very passionate on either side of the divide because it is such a special place,” says Quinlan. “The people who live here want to protect the small scale quality of life that they have.”

In the last year, the Rhythm Foundation has hosted 66 events at the Bandshell and 44 of them have been free, including the monthly Dance Band night. Quinlan refers to it as their “calling card to the neighborhood.” She hopes the consistent programming cultivates a sense of community since people are coming out every week. This month, they are hosting a weekly contra dance class, where North Carolina meets Miami.

On a recent night the pit was cleared of bleachers as South Carolina band Corn Bread took the stage, leading dozens of couples in a traditional line dance.  Some of the weekly participants are longtime contra fans, others have never heard of the style.

“In the summer it’s really hot, kids are out of school, so we wanted to come up with a dance style that was just easy and very family friendly,” says Quinlan.

Before they took over the Bandshell, Quinlan had decided to focus on festivals and series since they didn’t have a venue. That’s when Big Night in Little Haiti, a beloved monthly cultural celebration at the Little Haiti Cultural Center came about. Every third Fridays Haitian food would be sold and friends and family of the community would dance to live Haitian bands and entertainers.
“We had such a good time with Big Night, it was transformational for us,” says Quinlan.

The Rhythm Foundation ran out of funding to support a monthly Big Night in Little Haiti in April.  So they’re relaunching it as an annual festival in November, when Haitians commemorate their revolution. As crazy music and culture lovers, they remain committed to honoring Haiti’s legacy in Miami.

Meanwhile, they’ve adjusted to North Beach’s quirks, like the 10 p.m. noise ordinance. That means no onstage encores, but that’s OK, Quinlan says, because down the block from the Bandshell is On the Rocks, a dive bar where they host after-show events.

In April, somebody drove their car through the front window of the bar. In most places in the county, they would board it up. But in North Beach, that is not the case.

“It’s still open and there’s no more window, they just put up a sign that says ‘Drive in’,” says Quinlan. “That’s really North Beach.”

Want to hear more? The Rhythm Foundation compiled a playlist that highlights their best musical moments of the last year. Find it on Spotify or here