Take Me Out to the ... Parking Lot?

Open spaces: check. Sewer runoff: check. Locked gate: check. Yep, this is indeed a Miami park!

1100 NW 22nd Ave.
There is something about the Miami sun on a winter's day -- the way the light plays off the landscape around midafternoon. The phenomenon is a wonder to behold at Fern Isle park, which features a tennis court and a baseball field. (Hence it is labeled an "active neighborhood" park.) As the sun falls and the shadows grow, a section of the 8.41-acre park becomes almost magical.

It doesn't matter much that the at least two-acre section also happens to be a waste dump operated by the public works department. And the sign that states "City of Miami No Trespassing" is no hindrance either. Simply sit outside the chainlink fence and enjoy the colors. Inside the fence a mound of richly hued red clay towers in the middle. Off to the north a hill of sand and rock glow alabaster white. So the enormous clump of trees intermingled with trash and debris is not much of a visual treat, nor are the piles of dark dirt. And though an old junked television set and plastic tubing strewn about might not add to the aesthetic, there is plenty of open space between. Taken as a whole, Fern Isle can offer a nice interplay of light and shadow.

Miguel Germain believes Miami's political leaders don't have a vision for the city
Steve Satterwhite
Miguel Germain believes Miami's political leaders don't have a vision for the city
Sunday in the park but we can't swim
Steve Satterwhite
Sunday in the park but we can't swim

Two Miami residents active in community issues failed to see the subtle beauty. High school science teacher Miguel Germain has lived in Miami since 1963. When he was a boy of eight, Fidel Castro ejected him and his family from Cuba. Germain has visited the park for years, but sadly he is still thinking rigidly inside the box. "It should not be classified as a park," he says of the Fern Isle dump. "If it is a park it should be for people."

Wallis Tinnie is an educator and writer. She currently teaches a literature class at Florida International University on writing and the environment called Utopian Landscapes. Tinnie suspects the dump's presence might have something to do with its location in the poor community of Allapatah. "The only places where dumps are right next to parks are in certain neighborhoods," she contends.

Biscayne Bay
These parks are only for the adventurous or the well heeled. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Intracoastal Waterway, they took the dredged sand and deposited it in piles that later became spoil islands. There are twelve such islands in the municipality of Miami. They are located in northeast Miami and Coconut Grove. All of them are owned by the state and deeded to the city.

According to the City of Miami, the spoil islands total 75.05 acres. Throughout their history the islands have attracted those resourceful enough to lay claim to them. In 1983 the Bulgarian-born artist Christo dubbed them Surrounded Islands after he wrapped the sites in pink-plastic sheeting. Before and since dozens of squatters have lived on these islands for long periods. Seven years after Christo's project, one family settled an island, importing an electrical generator and a grill. They even planted corn.

A quick quiz: Is homesteading "passive" or "active" according to the City of Miami? Settling land and kicking back enjoying nature earns these idyllic locations a passive label.

Unfortunately our intrepid picnickers couldn't find a boat to get to the spoil islands, but local activist Weinreb did. "My boat draws eighteen inches, and we couldn't reach [one of them] at high tide," he relates. Even if he had made landfall, Weinreb didn't bring a machete to hack through foliage, or boots to step over piled garbage.

In fairness many of the Picnic Islands, as Miami optimistically calls them, have received a substantial facelift in recent years. Who fixed them? Not the city. When silt erosion from the islands helped kill northern Biscayne Bay, the feds, the state, and the county stepped in. The county Department of Environmental Resource Management stabilized the shoreline and removed exotic species, including homesteaders. In the process they added barbecue pits and chickees on a few islands.

Still there is that accessibility problem.

Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove
In 1972 the U.S. Department of the Interior deeded 4.46 acres of waterfront property to the City of Miami for public parks and recreation. The feds gave the land, which housed a hangar and seaplane dock, to the city for free. They reserved the right to reclaim the property if it was not used as intended. Today much of the "park" serves as a parking lot for the popular eatery Monty's (whose original owner, convicted felon Monty Trainer, was a frequent visitor to city hall). The boat ramp is effectively closed since several vehicles slipped into the bay while unloading watercraft; and the hangar is undergoing a multiyear restoration after its roof nearly collapsed. Coconut Grove activists have complained to the feds for years. City officials have all but thrown up their hands about the parking problem. "Since this area is deemed public parking, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent patrons from the adjoining restaurant from parking in this area," wrote City Manager Donald Warshaw in a letter to the feds.

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