Saviors of Virginia Key

Although the two activists weren't thrilled with the committee's tepid response, they pressed on, and in short order attracted support from an impressive array of black leaders, environmental groups, and others: State Sen. Kendrick Meek; State Reps. Willie Logan and Frederica Wilson; the African American Caribbean Cultural Arts Commission; the black-oriented weekly Miami Times; the Tropical Audubon Society; the Sierra Club Miami Group, Friends of Virginia Key; Dade Heritage Trust president Enid Pinkney; even the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.

With the help of Bush and Lee, all these endorsements eventually found their way to Virginia Newell, chairwoman of the ad hoc committee. A retired commander in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she has for the past three years served as assistant dean for administration at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which is located on Virginia Key. While Newell believes a civil rights park is "a wonderful thing to do," she also notes that the idea "came kind of late in the game." The committee, after all, had been meeting regularly and often since this past August. Still, she says, she welcomes all possibilities. "I don't see the two [a civil rights park and an eco-campground] as mutually exclusive," she notes. "Greg was looking at the FDR memorial in Washington as a model -- three or four acres. My idea of an eco-campground is that it would be totally open to the public. And I don't see why there couldn't be a civil rights park there."

Newell, whose committee came under fire at the March 10 meeting of the Waterfront Advisory Board, implicitly acknowledges some of the criticism. A summary of her committee's recommendations addresses two specific points: "Adjust membership [of the ad hoc committee] to increase diversity," her memo states; it also proposes more public hearings, cohosted by some of those groups most adamantly opposed to the idea of an eco-campground. "We've got a lot more work to do," Newell concedes. "We must resolve the issue about the old county park, either as an open space with no development or to go ahead with a request for proposals [for development] on the site. There has to be more input from the public. I'd say the input we got wasn't fairly representative of the city."

Those conciliatory sentiments will be tested in the coming weeks, as the gap that separates advocates of commercial development from island preservationists and proponents of a civil rights park remains as wide as ever.

Environmental groups will continue to resist commercial development in areas where none exists today; and they'll fight to constrain it in places where it already has a foothold, such as the marine stadium area. But they have their sights set on much more than just the old county park and a possible civil rights memorial. In effect they're seeking a sweeping review of the entire island, beginning with a thorough environmental and biological assessment, especially of an abandoned 112-acre landfill, about which little is known.

Speaking for the Urban Environment League, Greg Bush outlines his opposition to the eco-campground envisioned by Virginia Newell. "We seek all the land in the old county park, all 77 acres, to be enhanced as a public park," he declares. "Why can't the community at large come up with wonderfully creative ideas for using that space? The land shouldn't be taken away just because the city is in the hole. Funding shouldn't be difficult for a major exhibition area for the struggle for civil rights."

As sincere as Bush may be, until some black citizens take charge of the movement to create a civil rights park on Virginia Key, the perception will persist that a bunch of white people have found a Trojan horse to carry them surreptitiously into enemy territory, where they'll vanquish those who would pave paradise in exchange for a couple of bucks.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields senses that perception and offers a few words of caution. "I understand what they're trying to do," she says, referring to the white activists championing a civil rights park. "But again, it's them trying to do for us, trying on behalf of the black community. That's something that has concerned me.

"A lot of the tension could have been averted had we been involved in the beginning," she continues. "There are lots of folk with deep feelings about Virginia Key. There are lots of voices out there."

This Saturday, April 3, the old county park will be open to the public from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. See "Night & Day" (page 32) for details. Miami's Waterfront Advisory Board will discuss plans for Virginia Key at its next meeting, Wednesday, April 14, 5:00 p.m. at Miami City Hall.

jim_mullin@miaminewtimes.com

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