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"Dick Hill - that's the happeningest place in this park," says a homeless man who calls himself Errol. "There's all kinds of things like that here. You see all kinds of things here you never dreamed of, if you look hard enough. What is it they say about, `In the dark you see the things you can't see in the day'? That's what this place is all about."
Aside from its homeless population, Bicentennial Park is not entirely unused. In 1983, Miami Motorsports Inc. staged the first Grand Prix of Miami, with cars racing around a two-mile circuit that included Bayfront Park and a tract of land owned by the Florida East Coast Railway, separated from Bicentennial Park by a wide deep-water slip. Five years ago, in order to make way for Bayside, the racetrack was redesigned to snake through Bicentennial instead of Bayfront, and Miami Motorsports has a contract to continue staging the event, which attracts more than 200,000 spectators, through 1998. The park hosts other annual events, including a motorcycle race, the Jamaican Awareness Festival, and the Caribbean American Carnival. Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus baseball squad and area amateur softball teams use the park's two impeccably kept diamonds, which were added in the late Seventies. On weekends picnicking fans and players number in the hundreds. And in the evenings, especially during the winter, crowds of shrimpers gather on the sea wall at the northeast end of the park near the MacArthur Causeway bridge, to sling their lanterns over the side and cast their nylon nets. On a good night they stand shoulder to shoulder, attracted by the plentiful crustaceans, easy access to the water, and good lighting to keep would-be criminals away.
Homeless people who camp at Bicentennial blame most of the park's current crime on outsiders, troublemakers wandering through. And for the most part, other park-going regulars agree. "I've never seen any problems with the people who hang out here," says George Ankelein, a 62-year-old machinist from North Fort Lauderdale who's been shrimping off the sea wall for about four years. "Once in a while they might come up and ask for some change, a pack of cigarettes, that's all." And the park's homeless say they are often the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. "Most of the people here, they're good people who stick together," says Chris. "It's the wild ones you get coming through here that cause you trouble. People here stick together, so they can't take on one of us or they'd have to take on all of us, you know."
"It's almost blasphemy to say it, and as soon as you do, you have environmentalists at your throat saying, `You don't like trees.' But in my opinion, the public demand and need for pure passive space is greatly overrated," says Jack Luft, development coordinator in the city's Department of Development. "All you have to do is look at the repeated failures to attract people with passive, lush, well-designed parks. If you look at the city and the options people have for satisfying recreational needs and the instincts to get away from the city, there is not that much need for some of the pastoral green spaces that have always been viewed as essential."
Critics offer varied theories about why the park hasn't fulfilled its promise: deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood; high crime; the lack of visibility from the roadway; a negative feeling about the downtown area in general. But a missing facet of the site's failure, Miami city planners argue, is rooted in the philosophical argument about what an urban park should be. "When you look at Bicentennial Park, what you are seeing is an example of the concept, dating back to the Nineteenth Century, of public parks as an antidote to the evils and excesses of urban life," says Luft. "But there are different ideas now of what a modern park can and should be to make them successful."
The traditional concept for park planning was proposed by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the 840-acre Central Park in Manhattan. Olmsted's theory, which arose in response to the realities of life in a densely packed urban area, holds that people entering a park should feel as if they are leaving the city behind. The urban environment is inherently dirty and dangerous; nature is wholesome and pure. "The idea is that the park should be rooted in nature," says Luft. "It should be the breathing point, the lungs of the city. It should be a threshold where people can transform from urban creatures to mystical interlopers in the Garden of Eden."
Such an argument, Luft argues further, is based on the outdated and inappropriate premise that a park is in direct diametrical opposition to a city. "The design of Bicentennial Park was nothing more than the lineal pattern of thinking from the Nineteenth Century playing itself out once again," he says.
Bicentennial Park's designers agree, but they say the city knew what it was getting when it signed the development contract. David Armbruster, a partner in the firm of Stone and Associates, says most major development plans at the time were reserved for Bayfront Park and what eventually was to become Bayside near the business district; a comparatively small amount of money was invested in Bicentennial. "It was a situation of getting the most for the money, which really was not a considerable amount for a park this size," he says, adding that most of the funds went toward reclaiming the old port site, which was full of piers, sea walls, concrete slabs, and polluted water.