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 therein lies one of the biggest secrets of his success. Rather than blocking individuals' rights to develop their property, giving rise to much bad blood and business for the lawyers, the ordinance requires property owners to work out with Carr a solution for protecting the archaeological resources. That solution may be a salvage excavation paid for by the property owner, like the one at the Santa Maria along Brickell Avenue. (The nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy offers its services for such excavations, as do for-profit consulting archaeologists.) Or it may be an agreement to leave specific archaeological sites untouched.

A lunch with Carr at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay on Brickell Point A the second incarnation of the hotel Holiday Inn built there A offers an example of the latter solution. In the center of the hotel driveway, beneath an unassuming decorative island shaded by sabal palms and live oaks, is a plot of undisturbed soil once covered by the trading post operated by William and Mary Brickell. Entombed and protected in that traffic island are thousands of artifacts; hundreds of people walk by it every day without giving it a second glance. "It's kind of bizarre to think that something could literally be under their noses like this, right against such a development," Carr says as people and vehicles bustle in front of the Sheraton. "A lot of what we've done here in Dade County can be measured by things like this, small victories." Scattered all over Dade, such small victories have an additional virtue. They preserve depositories of artifacts in situ for investigations by future archaeologists, who will likely have at their disposal more sophisticated techniques. "I can see a day where, with the development of DNA analysis, organic remains as relative to animal bones and human bones are going to be used for all kinds of incredible demographic health studies," Carr speculates. "Things I don't even think we can imagine now."

But what about the owners who don't want to cooperate -- those who couldn't care less about any cultural or organic data bank for the future, who just want to be left alone to build on their land? These days such attitudes are rare in Dade, Carr maintains, and his construction-site confrontations are few, but memorable. For example, there was the time a turn-of-the-century bottle dump was uncovered during the building of the Miami Arena. The out-of-town construction company wasn't particularly helpful. "I sent somebody out there and they locked him in their office trailer and wouldn't let him out," Carr recalls. "I had to drive out and force them to stop work. That was maybe the worst, the most uncooperative scenario." And as for the stereotype of the preservationist standing in front of the bulldozer, Carr has been there, too. "I'm happy to report I haven't had to do that very often," he says. "I confront 'em when I have to. But my strategy isn't to hit 'em over the head with a stick. I think it's more a matter of communicating."

Former historic preservation director Margot Ammidown has her own theory about Bob Carr's human-relations skills. Carr, she says, has always been a collector -- of archaeological artifacts (his boyhood archaeological finds now reside in the Historical Museum of Southern Florida), of Floridiana (postcards, historical memorabilia, and more), of comic books (among his treasures is issue number one of Uncle Scrooge), and of one more thing, says Ammidown: "I also think in a way he collects people."

For four years Ammidown worked across the hall from Carr's office. Her version of Dade County's success with historic preservation is similar to his, if several shades less rosy; for the director, she says, "There are always crisis situations, there are always the big battles." But she consistently got a kick out of the odd parade of characters Carr seemed to draw to the office. Some came bearing gifts, items they thought would be of interest to the county archaeologist, such as the man who walked in carrying a human skull he'd found on a building site. Others came with information, bringing Carr word from the street, an archaeological version of Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. And a few A some of them academically trained, others, in Ammidown's words, "just people Bob has plucked out of the woods someplace, with some innate characteristic he'd sensed" -- came to work, to join Carr's collection. "He just seems to attract the interesting and the bizarre," Ammidown shrugs. "He has something about him; stuff just comes to him."

Part of the attraction can be attributed to archaeology's image, the alluring mix of exotic adventure and scientific discovery promulgated by National Geographic and the Indiana Jones movies. Then, too, Carr's personal tolerance and even enjoyment of the idiosyncrasies of those around him tend to make people feel welcome, whatever their human weirdnesses. But something else keeps them digging -- something more than the momentary thrill of discovery. In a place largely unaware of its past, the mystery of what has gone before is doubly powerful. When you're adrift in what Carr calls "a newly created plastic world," it's hard to get a fix on where you are. And Carr has a sense of that -- a vision, if you will.

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