By Michael E. Miller
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Donald Bermudez first heard about the sacred freshwater spring from the widow Mary King, who lived across the street. He was just a boy back then, but he'd befriended many of the old folks in Southside, and they spun tales for him of the mysteries of the land.
In those days, some 30 years ago, the elderly ladies whiled away their afternoons playing bridge at the widow's house. Between rounds of cards, they told the boy all kinds of stories: how their forebears had arrived by sailboat in the 1800s. How they'd bought up parcels of land from William and Mary Brickell, who owned acreage stretching as far south as Coconut Grove, and west to present-day Little Havana. The settlers carved out tracts from the thick hammock of live oak and strangler figs and built houses near a tributary stream that flowed into the Miami River.
And the women told how, long before the first Spanish explorers came, before there were Seminoles and Miccosukees in South Florida, Tequesta Indians traveled and camped the region, living off the fish and game that teemed along the river's final journey to the bay. But the Europeans brought disease and war, and the Indians vanished from the land. In time, the stream disappeared, filled in for development. But stories of the sacred spring survived through generations, though it lay under years of accumulated earth.
"Come on, Mrs. King, you're bluffing," Bermudez used to say when he heard the tale. Oh, no, she'd promise. The spring is there, right across the street, on Gladys Suitter's property.
Southside, a solid middle-class community, rose up during the 30 years after the turn of the century, in one of the city's first development booms. Bordered by the Miami River to the north, the Roads neighborhood to the south, and the bay and SW Third Avenue to the east and west, the community sat just across the river from downtown. Most of the houses sported gables and eaves, and ample, unfenced lawns. Sabal and coconut palms lined the streets.
Back then, just as today, wealth was concentrated near the bay, where the Brickells owned most of the land. Miami's moneyed class built spacious mansions along the waterfront. Although geographically part of Southside and separated from South Miami Avenue by only a quarter-mile, the bayfront was another world. An early photograph of William Brickell, whom historians describe as a recluse, shows a pale, bearded man dressed in a dark suit buttoned tightly to the neck. The power player in the marriage, historians say, was his wife Mary, who handled the business and earned a reputation as a cantankerous and stubborn woman.
"She had a very definite idea of how the area she called the Brickell Hammock should be developed," says local historian Paul George. In December 1921, the year before she died, Mary Brickell wrote an open letter to the people of Miami, half justification, half advertisement, describing what she wanted to do with her still ample property: "Many times in the past I have been urged to sell this tract to subdividers but I have not cared to part with it for a number of reasons. The average real estate operator has but one object in view, viz: to develop the land to be subdivided as quickly and cheaply as possible, and to get it off his hands at an inflated value, and reap an exorbitant profit. But I have always had a vision of a subdivision 'de luxe' for Brickell Hammock." She wasn't against development per se, so long as it was done her way.
The Brickells bought the land in 1871 and then waited for more than 40 years, says George. "They knew that someday it would break, and they wanted to be here when the whole thing developed and they would be sitting in the catbird seat." They were self-centered, very insular, he says. "I don't think you got anything from them for free." But when it finally seemed that Mary Brickell's development dreams would come true, she died. As for the freshwater spring, no one knows exactly when it vanished and became the stuff of lore. Certainly before the Twenties, when Southside matured into a vibrant community, replete with small-town charm. A generation later, Brickell Avenue fell into decline, and office towers supplanted the old bayfront mansions. But farther west Southside continued on, relatively unscathed.
On the face of it, Donald Bermudez, a boy from the mountains of central Colombia, would seem an unlikely candidate for adoption by genteel old white Southern ladies. Yet soon after the Bermudez family -- one of the few Latin households in the neighborhood -- arrived in Southside, they became regulars for tea and cookies on their neighbors' verandas -- stout covered porches attached to houses built of hardy Dade County pine.
"We would sleep with the doors and windows open in the summertime," remembers his father Ishmael Bermudez, who arrived first, in 1957, to scout out Miami before sending for his family. In his heart the elder Bermudez hoped his move to Miami would be temporary. Back home, the dictatorship of Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was already crumbling and the strikes and violence that had wracked Colombia might soon come to an end. Yet with a nod toward pragmatism, Bermudez carried among his possessions a handful of avocado, papaya, and mango seeds. A skilled technician, he found work as an airplane mechanic. Three years later a former army buddy became the Colombian consul in Miami and hired Bermudez as a commercial attache. That year he sent for his wife and four children.