Take Me Out to the ... Parking Lot?

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

1800 NE Second Ave.
The pride of Miami's "parks," as far as maintenance goes, is probably the Miami City Cemetery. Yes, that's right, a cemetery. When City Commissioner Arthur Teele learned this he had to disagree. "It's not a park," Teele quipped. "It's a [voting] precinct."

Multiuse as it may be, the 9.7 acres are listed as a neighborhood park. Rather prudently city planners bypassed a thorny philosophical debate, and instead of labeling the park "passive" or "active," simply left the designation blank.

Sunday in the park with the deceased
Steve Satterwhite
Sunday in the park with the deceased
City officials' attitudes toward parks show contempt for residents, says Wallis Tinnie
Steve Satterwhite
City officials' attitudes toward parks show contempt for residents, says Wallis Tinnie

The city cemetery is a historical treasure. There are some 8000 gravesites that include pioneer Julia Tuttle, the Burdine family, Confederate soldiers, the city's first doctor, and the first black judge in the South. The cemetery also was one of the first in the South to inter whites, blacks, and Jews at the same site -- Miami style: everyone in their own neighborhood.

It also is truly peaceful. Native hardwoods and coconut trees provide shade. Stone basins attract songbirds. For those who have watched too many late-night movies, there is always the morbid fantasy a hand will pop from the grave.

Yet the cemetery has few visitors and little in the way of accommodations for those who come. "It is not a park," Miguel Germain says flatly. He also believes it's a wasted resource. "There should be tours explaining what is here," he say. "Ninety-nine percent of [Miami] students don't know the history of their city."

Tinnie can't get over it. "They call this a park?" she exclaims. "No! Who is going to come and sit in a cemetery?"

When parks activist Bob Weinreb began to look into the city's park inventory, he was astounded by what he found. "The more I went around, the stranger and screwier it got," he recalls. "I knew there would be some problems but I didn't anticipate their blatant twisting beyond any rational semblance of what a park should be."

He tried to get explanations from both city and state officials, but everyone passed the buck. New Times encountered similar finger pointing and lack of responsibility.

Weinreb began to estimate the actual acreage of parks and open spaces. He tried to be conservative and give the benefit of the doubt to the city whenever possible. His journey took him to more places than the ones mentioned here. His tour also included Robert E. Lee park (three acres), now largely a parking lot for the school board; Watson Island (51.96 acres), which includes private development; and Glen Royal (.2 acres), another highway median. The activist calculated a total of 432 acres of actual parks and open spaces in the City of Miami. The number is 45 acres below even the low standard the city set for itself. "I'd like to get a surveyor and see the real numbers," he says, suspecting the reality could be worse.

Curiously enough when the planning department, headed in 1995 by Jack Luft, put together the evaluation and appraisal report, they left out two parks that would have significantly boosted the acreage count. Omitted from the list were Virginia Key and Bicentennial Park.

Clark Turner, a planner who helped put the report together, says the parks were not included because they were closed at the time. In the case of Virginia Key, Weinreb, who uses the area for windsurfing, says in 1995 the park was in fact open. Regardless of whether they were open or closed, parks department director Alberto Ruder cannot understand why the planning department did not include them in the inventory. "If a facility is closed, it is still a facility," he says. "Those are two of our biggest parks."

When newly elected City Commissioner Johnny Winton learned of the omission he burst out laughing. "You don't want that counted," he said a few moments later, still chuckling. "Someone might notice when they paved it over."

Winton and many others assume Bicentennial Park and Virginia Key were left off the list because city officials had planned to sell them for private development. Other commissioners saw the move as evidence of a rogue city bureaucracy. "[The city administration is] hiding their plans for future development from the state in the same way they hide it from the city commission," says Commissioner Tomas Regalado.

Truth is, you can monkey with the acreage and rubberize the definitions to make the case that city planners are meeting the letter of the state law, if not the spirit. Ruder and others say the inventory list is reflective of the areas the parks department had under its care in 1990. It was never updated. Yet those who care about the quality of life in the city say this misses the point.

"It is not the park that they value so little; it is the people," argues Tinnie. "They have decided how much they think those people deserve or need." Tinnie says the city seems to leave its public properties abandoned because once people stop visiting them, it is much easier to sell them off.

Some commissioners and city officials dismiss this portrait of a conspiracy. Their version of the truth might be considered even scarier. They place the blame on gross incompetence and epic disorganization. "It shows factually we have a lot of things confused," says Art Teele. "We go from crisis to crisis. There is no long-term thinking and planning."

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