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They cling to the chainlink fence that separates them from the water, a tributary of the Miami River. Upstairs, parents stare apathetically from their apartment windows. To them the vision confuses: a canoe on Wagner Creek, that fetid ditch cluttered with litter and rusted car parts and soggy furniture? But to the children it makes perfect sense: Of course there's a canoe on Wagner Creek. And more.
"I saw Flipper in there the other day! Really!" proclaims the biggest kid, a boy no older than six whose belly distends a Miramar Elementary School T-shirt. "Yesterday!" The other children spring up and down in assent. The sight of the canoe validates their most hopeful Huck Finn fantasies. "There are alligators in there. Crocodiles," reports another. No matter that it's been more than a decade since Dade's environmental officials last saw a mega-reptile of any sort wallowing in the shallows of the Miami River system. As for a dolphin that far upstream? Never. But to the kids, those are ignorant claims. For them Wagner Creek -- the most contaminated body of water in South Florida and perhaps even in the entire state -- has always been alive.
Indeed, were it not for the children and the homeless who have for years found refuge in the wild undergrowth of its banks, Wagner Creek would not exist. Sure, water would still flow along its two-mile course from Allapattah's Comstock Park to the Miami River, but who would care? The waterway is mostly blocked from public access and view, either by walls, fences, private property, and parking lots, or by a dense thicket. Its upper stretch -- half a mile long -- is actually underground, culverted in cement and inaccessible, unless you're a rat.
All in all, the creek calls to mind an age-old philosophical paradox: If a creek flows and no one notices, is the water really moving?
Wagner Creek roughly -- very roughly -- follows the route of a natural stream. Historically its headwaters were in the soggy Allapattah prairie, fed by the Biscayne Aquifer; it then meandered to the river. Over the years engineers have channeled and diverted it from its ancient path to allow for residential and commercial construction, turning it into a shallow drainage ditch for stormwater -- and trash and raw sewage and toxic pollutants running out of buildings and off the streets of central Miami. Its water sparkles in silver -- not from fish scales, but from a mosaic of soda and beer cans arrayed on the streambed. The surface glistens in rainbow hues: gasoline and oil. Where the gnarled roots of mangrove trees once plunged into the soft muck there are now shopping carts, stovetops, and bed frames half-submerged. The pollution is strangely and dangerously alluring: Drink this water, and you may die.
Recently observers other than the neighborhood children and the homeless have begun to embrace the creek as something more than a sewer. A small group of biologists, engineers, planners, and administrators from the City of Miami, Dade County, the federal government, the University of Miami, and the not-for-profit sector have begun to address the problems -- and potential -- of the stream. "We're focusing on Wagner Creek because the entire river is too big to try to tackle," explains Betty Fleming, executive director of the Miami River Coordinating Committee, which is leading the multiprong effort. "Also because the creek has the worst water quality in the state of Florida."
That, at least, is the popular assertion. Water- and sediment-quality tests rank Wagner Creek at the top of the list of contaminated waterways in Dade County. As for the ignominious statewide distinction, no formal studies have officially crowned Wagner Creek the filthiest. But the argument can be made this way: A report in the mid-1980s identified the Miami River as the most contaminated waterbody in the state based on the number and concentration of contaminants in the sediment; thus Wagner Creek, the river's most contaminated tributary, could rightfully claim the honors. As the creek goes, so goes the river.
The two streams meet at roughly the intersection of NW Fifth Street, North River Drive, and Seventh Avenue. It was near there, on the east side of the canal, that pioneer William Wagner built a mill in the 1850s to produce starch from the tubers of the native coontie plant. An army veteran, Wagner had moved to the infant settlement of Miami to open a sutler's store to serve military troops. He also built a homestead house near the creek. (Preservationists relocated the structure, the oldest-known home still standing in Dade, to Lummus Park in the 1980s.) At the time, the area was a wilderness of pine woods, the creek's waterline thick with mangrove. In fact, Wagner's settlement was so far out in the boonies that by the time the City of Miami was founded in 1896, his property still lay outside the city limits.