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Ronald Hayes likes to refer to it as "my third war." There was World War II, Korea, and now there's Miami Beach's North Shore Open Space Park. Tall, thin, and slightly stooped, Hayes strides along a paved park trail that winds through sea grapes and pines toward the beachfront dunes and turquoise ocean. He quickly notes the closed-off gazebos, bathrooms, and piles of rubble. Workers are demolishing most of the park's wooden structures, which the city of Miami Beach this past July declared unsafe and off-limits. "I've been trying to get 'em to do something about this place since September," Hayes declares, pushing a baseball cap down over his coarse white hair and squinting into the sun. "It's been long enough. I'm tired of games."
Hayes, who is 63 years old but sometimes tells people he's 80 ("just to put 'em off the track"), lives in the somewhat rundown neighborhood of apartments and motels just west of the 60-acre park. North Shore Open Space, owned by the state and managed by the city under a 25-year lease, is the longest stretch of undeveloped oceanfront land in Miami Beach. Located on Collins Avenue between 79th and 87th streets, it has long been a cause celebre among residents. Many in the area are concerned the city is neglecting its maintenance, and generally that of North Beach, in favor of glamorous South Beach. Some think city commissioners are itching to turn North Beach over to private developers. Since the early Nineties, in one of the most complicated and contentious disputes in Beach history, numerous lawsuits have been filed over ownership and future development of land adjacent to the park and also owned by the state: six blocks of parking lots to the west of the park and the historic Altos del Mar subdivision, just to the south.
In November 1996 voters approved a county ordinance that earmarked $2.1 million to renovate North Shore. This proposed project is part of a $22-million package to improve parks throughout Miami Beach. A master plan for North Beach by noted architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk calls for a thorough overhaul of North Shore Open Space, including installation of nighttime lighting, new landscaping, and construction of new wooden walkways, gazebos, and other buildings.
Yet officials delayed taking any action after funds were approved, awaiting resolution of a legal challenge by developer Kent Robbins to the city's comprehensive plan for residential development of the western parking lots and development of 22 unoccupied lots in Altos del Mar. In November the lawsuit was resolved in favor of the city, opening the way for the administration to propose taking over the park and starting renovation. Ownership makes sense, explains Janet Gavarette, assistant city manager, because the city can't get the county funds unless it obtains a longer lease or owns the park. And there's another cause for delay: The city can't begin the paperwork necessary to receive the funding until the lease/ownership issue has been settled by a city commission vote, says Gavarette. The commission took no action on the proposal at its last meeting January 6, and requested a detailed report on the issue.
That's what irritates Ron Hayes. He is hardly one of the important players in the matter; he doesn't own property or run a business in the area. He's simply a self-appointed park watchdog who vows to pester the important players until they pay attention. In early September he drew up a petition supporting park improvements and asked the people at the nearby Miami Beach Hispanic Community Center to add a Spanish translation. Then he took it around to his neighbors and 50 people signed. "The state and the city shouldn't have let it deteriorate," agreed Charles Gregory, Jr., one of the signatories. "I used to go down there, but not anymore." Hayes also wrote to the governor's office and rode the bus down to city hall several times to meet with bureaucrats.
"If something isn't done I'll be the first Irishman to come back and haunt you," Hayes told Kevin Smith, Miami Beach parks and recreation director. Smith, like other city officials, praises Hayes's persistence. "I wish we had more citizens who get involved like Mr. Hayes," Smith says.
Hayes is a native New Yorker. He wasn't old enough to fight in World War II, but he remembers it well. He joined the Korean War effort in the Fifties. Upon his return Hayes says he worked for the U.S. government, procuring components of missile guidance systems. About twenty years ago he moved to Miami because he had family here. He worked several years as a night clerk and manager at the Park Central, Tiffany, and Casablanca hotels until serious health problems drove him out of a job and onto the streets during the early Nineties.
After some tribulation he spent more than a year in the crowded homeless encampment on Watson Island. He was known there as "Pops," the camp disciplinarian and counselor.
When the City of Miami cleared Watson Island in 1994, resettlement workers placed Hayes in a Little Havana rooming house. From there, relying on Social Security and disability payments, he rented a place on North Beach. He lives just a few blocks from North Shore park, where he takes therapeutic walks every day.
Hayes showed up at the January 6 commission meeting in a suit, "dressed like the President of the United States," as he recalls, with a prepared speech. He never read the speech but he did stand up before the lunch break to remind Mayor Neisen Kasdin of the importance of fixing the park. Later Hayes met with Kevin Smith and buttonholed commissioner David Dermer on the elevator. Dermer has been critical of the city's delay in renovating North Shore Open Space, contending improvements shouldn't have been tied to the lawsuit. "I agree with Mr. Hayes on that," Dermer says. "I saw him at the commission meeting. He had a petition. He's called me, and we've spoken one or two times."
"They're rascals down there [at city hall]," Hayes exclaims. "It's all promises. But at least the commissioners know who this old man is now."
On a recent afternoon tour of the park, Hayes spots two city trucks parked in a clearing and hustles up to greet their drivers. "Amigo!" he calls out. "Como esta?" The workers have been inspecting electrical wiring, but they can't tell Hayes when promised park lighting will go up. "Well," he says, "you'll see me around here all the time now." Crossing Collins on his way home, Hayes glances over his shoulder at the park entrance. "I love a good fight," he enthuses. "Us Irishmen love a good fight."