Treasured Isle

This time next year an RV campground will occupy Virginia Key. Say sayonara to one of the city's last patches of green.

Until the 1830s, when a hurricane ripped through the area and created Norris Cut (the water that separates Virginia Key's north shore from Fisher Island), Alvarez's little secret was part of Miami Beach and the rest of the South Florida mainland. The east coast of the key is delineated by Bear Cut, notorious for its ripping currents. It remained undeveloped, in its primordial state, until construction of the Rickenbacker Causeway began in the 1940s; that came to a halt when World War II created a shortage of building materials. During the war, German submarines patrolled Biscayne Bay, and a Nazi U-boat torpedoed a 7500-ton Mexican oil tanker right off Virginia Key in May 1942; it burned spectacularly within eyesight of the mainland.

Three years later, the county tapped Virginia Key Beach as a place for "Negroes" to swim. For two decades, blacks had been expressing a fervent desire to be allowed to swim in the ocean, but were forbidden by law from doing so. On Sundays groups of blacks would visit Haulover area beaches in hopes of being arrested, thereby forcing the issue to be taken up by the courts. Dade County government wanted to avoid such a showdown, so on August 1, 1945, the beach area on Virginia Key was set aside as a swimming spot for Miami's black population. Because the Rickenbacker Causeway still was under construction (it eventually opened in 1947), black beachgoers were required to take a ferry to the key from an embarkation point on the Miami River at Northwest Fifth Street and Seventh Avenue. According to former Miami News editor and local author-historian Howard Kleinberg, blacks were charged 65 cents, plus a 15-percent tax, for the round-trip ferry ride. In the 1960s, desegregation opened all beaches to blacks, and Virginia Key's popularity decreased.

Miami-Dade Community College history professor Paul George recalls that Virginia Key was marked for development as early as the 1930s. "There was serious talk of building a municipal airport there," he explains. "And in the Fifties there was talk of making it part of the Port of Miami. But instead, Key Biscayne was developed, and Virginia sort of became a natural preserve."

He remembers partying there as a youth in the early and mid-Sixties, when the place was nicknamed Sewer Beach. Rock -- and much later rap -- concerts were sometimes staged on the beach. Miami Marine Stadium was built, and by 1970 it was drawing huge crowds to religious services and concerts and boat races. Up to the beginning of the Eighties, parts of the Virginia Key beach area were favored by nudists; later, gays claimed it. Dunes were torn up by people riding all-terrain vehicles there, until police were called in to put a stop to the illegal activity. (The park area was unregulated until 1985.)

The idea to develop the key's eastern shoreline originated in 1981 when the county deeded the Virginia Key beach property to the city in exchange for land on Lummus Island near the Port of Miami (the city already owned much of the key). A public campground was suggested at the time, but the city was too broke to fund such an ambitious project.

In 1986 the Rickenbacker was widened, and a year later Luft prepared a master plan for Virginia Key, reviving the campground notion. Still, there was no way to pay for its construction from public funds. Five years later Hurricane Andrew had its say in the key's fate.

Trees downed by Hurricane Andrew only recently were removed from the island. Initial clean-up work was paid for in the amount of $340,000 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "We're finalizing the FEMA portion [of the cleanup]," explains Dianne Johnson, a coordinator for the City of Miami's Department of Development. "Then a biological assessment will be done in the more sensitive areas by a biologist we'll hire, and we'll work with DERM [state Department of Environmental Resources Management] for long-range restoration. All this will take a couple of years."

More than a million dollars in state funding will pay for removing exotic pest species such as the Australian pine and Florida holly that have taken root on the key. Approximately ten percent of that money has been earmarked for beach renourishment along 3000 feet of shoreline in the public beach area. These efforts are expected to be completed by the end of this year, with an herbicide program to eliminate pest species continuing beyond that time. Luft's proposal calls for the campground construction to be integrated into the clear-out project.

So Virginia Key enters its last few months as one of the city's last relatively unspoiled refuges. On a recent morning, its inland shoreline is not particularly messy, marred only by a few plastic bottles and a Snickers wrapper found among the trees in the hardwood hammock. An assortment of abandoned apparel, shirts and pants, adorns the crevices of the boulders that form the jetties jutting into the water. The rocky northern tip of the island is strewn with garbage, but the beach areas are relatively free of debris. The raccoons do what they can to eliminate the trash.

This summer, when the creamy sands become crowded with beachgoers, the sounds of gulls crying and breezes rattling through jungle will be replaced by the hubbub of development A the building of the campground. And some months after that, Virginia Key will be a different place for generations to come.

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