You Can Get There From Here

Mrs. Yellow Dress was not about to give her name to a stranger in a canoe, but she didn't mind talking, and she said it had been a very long time since she had seen anybody pass her house in a boat. Having run out of crab holes to fill, she was polishing a pair of brass mermaid figurines set atop the Venetian-style barber-pole moorings at the edge of her back yard. She explained that the mooring posts and imported Italian mermaid figurines were installed by her father when he built the house for $20,000 in 1947, naming it "Villa Cost-a-Lotta." Her father, returning from the war, had dreamed of living on the canal, then a busy and sociable thoroughfare that ran unobstructed for eight miles from Hialeah to the bay. The father achieved his dream, but before long it began to shift subtly out from under him.

In the second week of September 1947, as the house was being completed, a hurricane hit the area south of Lake Okeechobee. A month later another hurricane hit Miami. More than 10,000 people were evacuated from the communities of Miami Springs and Opa-locka, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that $59 million worth of damage was done. When Mrs. Yellow Dress first arrived at her father's new house, it was half underwater, and she was surveying the scene nervously, from a skiff.

Most of the death and damage caused by the hurricanes resulted from flooding. Dikes that had been built to contain Lake Okeechobee were washed away by torrential rains. In Miami the several canals that had been dug to convert swampland into real estate proved totally inadequate to manage the deluge. Almost overnight the swamp rose up and took back the earth. And the experience was like a long, bad flashback; the same thing had happened a generation before in 1926 and 1928, when storms took 2000 lives near Belle Glade on the southern edge of the giant lake, and landholders throughout South Florida abandoned their farms or refused to pay taxes that supported the Everglades land reclamation program.

So Mrs. Yellow Dress and her father moved into the house when the waters receded, but soon their neighborhood changed. As part of the massive effort to drain the swamps and create dry land, more than 1000 miles of canals and levees had been constructed in South Florida, beginning soon after the turn of the century (see sidebar). One of the consequences of all the digging was that saltwater from Biscayne Bay began to flow up the canals during dry months, threatening to contaminate underground sources of drinking water. So numerous salinity dams were constructed to hold back the bay. After the Little River was dammed, it was no longer easy to bring larger craft down the waterway to the bay, or from the bay west to Hialeah. Drinking water and flood protection took precedence over weekend boating parties and recreational transportation. The Venetian barber poles faded and became more exotic for lack of use; the canal turned quieter, less fun, became hidden from the city around it. In its immediate vicinity, the dam evolved into a social and economic barrier between the placid wealth of an aging residential neighborhood on one side, and the hubbub and mixed ethnicity of the urban core on the other.

The Little River had once been wild - so much so that the United States government paid farmers to settle its banks after the Seminole Wars as a guard against Indian raids. In the 1920s and 1930s - Miami's golden age of ditch digging - the river had been dredged and straightened and extended to provide transportation for people and materials bound for newly habitable Hialeah. And now Mrs. Yellow Dress was left alone at the end of a forgotten waterway, kicking dirt into land-crab holes and pondering the slow eclipse of her own life. We talked for a while longer, cordially, and then I paddled on. When I looked back, she waved the light-fingered wave of a young girl.

An hour later I was still thinking about Mrs. Yellow Dress when a piercing moo erupted from the left bank of the canal. The bovine yammer was so loud and startling that for a moment I thought a cow had crept over the gunwale and into the back of the canoe. But in another instant I saw a jumbled mess of old trucks, a broken-down mobile home, several wooden fish-cleaning podiums, a bonfire pit, and a tiny shed. The front section of the shed, a small corral, was home to a mare and her foal. In the dingy back section, two cows were lying down and mooing. I halooed the mobile home hidden under a stand of Australian pines, and when no one answered, I tied off the canoe and went ashore.

Part 2

Since leaving the city limits of Miami for the wilds of unincorporated Dade, the houses along the Little River Canal had become more and more bizarre. Some appeared to be crack dens, barred, boarded up, but still inhabited. Some looked like do-it-yourself mansions, half-finished, ill-planned estates into which people had poured more money than care. Garbage was strewn through the exposed roots of trees, and hundreds of birds roamed about: herons, egrets, Muscovy ducks with dozens of tiny yellow ducklings in tow. The lots were of irregular sizes and shapes, and the foliage along the canal had run riot over many of the yards. At this bend in the waterway between NW 103rd Street and 22nd Avenue, I knew I had discovered The Land That Zoning Forgot.

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