The World According to Carr

Cynics say that to explore the depths of South Florida culture, all you have to do is scratch the surface. Dade County archaeologist Bob Carr digs deeper and knows better.

And Bob Carr himself? Well, on first glance he seems an odd figure to inspire such hyperbole. Vaguely fortyish, on the low side of medium height, like as not wearing beatup jeans and battered hiking boots, he looks as though he could be pouring concrete for a living. Which isn't surprising for a guy who spends a good chunk of his time either getting dirty on construction sites or rattling between them in a county Dodge with no air conditioning. What is surprising is the inward intensity with which Carr approaches his job -- an intensity so tightly concentrated it hardly touches his easygoing exterior. You can catch a glimpse at most, generally around his eyes, which are locked in a laserlike scan of the ground between three and six feet in front of his boots. Every so often you hear a trace of it in his voice, especially when he's on a site, directing the motley digging crews employed by the nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, which he helped found in 1979 as an independent conservation and advocacy group. But for the most part it stays hidden, humming quietly on a level that one Carr colleague, historian Bill Steele, equates to "the 220 wall socket, where the oven goes."

Carr possesses another quality that sets him apart from the 110-volt general population: He moves in a mental landscape that is a composite of present and past, where Mazdas share Old Cutler Road with mammoths, and Seminole War soldiers sack out next door to Madonna's mansion in Coconut Grove. Call it the Lost World of Bob Carr, a South Florida hidden just below the surface of the one known by most of us. Its gates are concealed, its monuments subtle and without inscriptions -- holes in the ground, most of them. But Bob Carr knows where they are. And better than almost anyone else, he knows what they mean.

Between Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Bay, next door to a house once owned by Dade County Commissioner Maurice Ferre, lies an enormous, gaping pit. Big enough to hold several semi-trailers, gouged twenty feet down into gray-green oolite limestone, it looks like something the Maya might have left behind in the Yucatan A an entrance, perhaps, to some long-forgotten underground city, filled with treasure missed by the conquistadors, just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid adventurer. In fact, the pit is just over a dozen years old, a relic of Miami's late-Seventies real estate boom. The true treasures here are buried in the small corner of land between the big hole, the bay, and the parking lot to the south.

Beneath a faded, fringed lawn umbrella, an unlikely looking, four-person crew scrapes away at the ground with shovels and hand trowels, carefully sifting through metal screens the dirt they remove. In comparison to the cavernous excavation just to the north (left behind by failed earlier developers), the results of their labors are positively Lilliputian A a few hundred square meters taken down to the limestone; several unusual holes in the exposed rock. Not much by the standards of Ugo Colombo, whose CMC Group plans to transform this site into a foundation for the 51-story Santa Maria condominium project, the last brick in the wall of high-rises between Brickell and the bay.

But this tiny dig carries a significance altogether out of proportion to its size. A little less than 200 years ago a Bahamian family of English descent raised a house here, supporting it on posts set deep into the rock. For almost 40 years the Lewis clan made their lives on the bluffs overlooking Biscayne Bay. Then as now it was a good place to live. There was fruit from the orchards they planted. There were fish from the bay. There was plenty of water from the springs that flowed from the bottom of the bluff. There was a breeze to cut the heat and the mosquitoes. And there were at most two other white families within 200 miles.

In 1835 a devastating hurricane and the outbreak of the Second Seminole War combined to drive the Lewises -- South Florida's first known homesteaders -- from their land. In the century and a half since then, almost all evidence of their existence had been erased. Then, six months ago, Bob Carr and his team set up shop on the Santa Maria site, prompted by its imminent makeover at the hands of Ugo Colombo.

As he walks toward what has become one of Dade County's richest archaeological sites, Carr bends forward slightly at the waist. The stoop is a Carr trademark. In the field or out, he habitually moves as though exploring a cave with a low ceiling. The archaeologist's stoop varies with the terrain underfoot; here, on ground already surveyed by his group and heavily chewed by earth-moving equipment, he leans forward only a little bit more than he does in his office. Instead of a briefcase, he carries an olive-drab satchel marked with the Israeli paratroopers' insignia -- a small concession to the common cliche of the archaeologist as adventurer, as Raider of the Lost Ark.

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