By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Even before its Independence Day dedication in 1976, the park, officially named New World Center Bicentennial Park, was hexed. In 1972 city voters passed a $40 million "Parks for People" bond issue to purchase waterfront land on Biscayne Boulevard as part of a plan to create a continuous greenbelt from I-395 to the mouth of the Miami River. Some of the money was earmarked for the reclamation of the old Port of Miami, which had been vacated after Dodge Island was developed in the late Sixties. Almost immediately, opponents of the plan criticized a proposal to commercialize the park site with a restaurant. But then-Mayor Maurice Ferre pushed the plans through, arguing that if Bicentennial were merely a passive space, devoid of activities to draw visitors, "the only people who will use it are the drunks, the derelicts, and the pigeons." In December 1974 the Miami City Commission approved a plan by Edward D. Stone, Jr., and Associates, a Fort Lauderdale architecture firm, to design an arrival plaza and fountain, open fields, a picnic area, grassy mounds and overlooks, two fishing lagoons, a 300-seat open-air restaurant, a chess and checkers area, and a sensory garden for the blind.
Bicentennial Park was originally slated to open January 1, 1976, coinciding with the start of the nation's 200th birthday year. But when that date came and went with work far from done, opening ceremonies were rescheduled for July. In the spring, landscape contractor Julio Pestonit disappeared, having completed only one-third of a $485,000 contract. M.R. Harrison Construction Co., the project's chief contractor, took over, but work was slowed by summer rains that filled newly dug ditches and washed away dirt mounds before they could be sodded. Despite the fact that the park remained unfinished, the July 4 dedication day was celebrated with an ice-cream social and a tree planting. Revised completion dates passed in July, October, and December, with the site still in need of further work.
By early 1977, when nearly five million dollars had been spent and the park was finally finished, certain shortcomings immediately became evident. For one thing, because city officials had wanted as much park land as possible, no parking spaces had been built. The nearest parking sites were either under I-395 or at the now-defunct Bayfront Park Auditorium. Fearing that no customer would trek all the way to the southeast corner of the park, no concessionaire was willing to assume management of the restaurant. Further, the sod-topped concrete walls along Biscayne Boulevard blocked the view from the street; and because pedestrian traffic along that stretch of the boulevard was limited, potential visitors were hard pressed to locate and recognize the park's entrance.
Some changes were made. Tram service was initiated to and from downtown, and a 115-car parking lot was added at the southern edge of the park. By late 1977, weekend attendance had increased to about 800 people per day, soaring to 100,000 for a three-day music festival on Veteran's Day weekend. However, those who visited were not always met with peace and quiet. On New Year's Day 1977, an eighteen-year-old woman told police she had been raped in a park bathroom. After investigating, detectives decided the woman had made up the story, and city officials breathed a sigh of relief. But other rapes were reported, and in September, a 56-year-old drifter was clubbed to death as he sat on a bench near the water, his body dumped in the bay.
Despite the violence, the city found a concessionaire who was willing to run the restaurant. But on opening night, July 4, 1978, four men tried to rob the new Portside Cafe, and as 50 people looked on, three of the robbers brutally beat co-operator Harvey Green. The four were arrested, and security was beefed up, but less than three weeks later, a drifter was mugged, nearly killed when his throat was slit from ear to ear. Within two years, the restaurant failed for lack of customers. Park crowds dwindled, especially after federal funds to run a park ranger program ran out in 1982. Daily attendance today is difficult to determine - the city no longer keeps attendance figures.
Just north of the restaurant, a grassy hill towers over the rest of the park, its crest crowned by David von Schlegell's El Nuevo Mundo, a $90,000 stainless-steel sculpture reminiscent of a giant staple or a croquet wicket. "Dick Hill," as park dwellers call it, is the focal point of the area's nighttime activity. Paved trails circle the hill through the shade of sea grapes. The view of the blue-green water of the bay is spectacular; so is the scent of stale urine. By day, homeless people slumber on benches beneath the trees.
"Us girls stay away from that hill. There's bad shit going on there," says Sable, a 29-year-old transvestite prostitute who lives in the sculpture garden and borrows her name from a character on CBS television's Dynasty. "That's where you're going to see people get beat up and robbed."
After nightfall, young men stroll through the shadows, sit patiently on the park benches. Sooner or later headlights appear, and a car, often a Cadillac or a Continental, drives past along the curve of the racetrack, slows, stops. The men flock down the hill toward the visitor, or wait as a figure emerges from the car and approaches. Then two men walk into the darkness, away from the racetrack, toward the water. A short time later, the headlights reappear, the car drives away. The same scene is repeated again and again, until the sun comes up.