By Michael E. Miller
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“It's a beautiful and unique situation to have this monument, which has been likened to the Statue of Liberty, on an island in the middle of the bay,” says Charles Buckles, a designer for the Miami Beach planning department.
The illusion, however, disappears when one approaches the manmade isle. From 150 feet away, the scars become visible. Parts of the obelisk and statues are crumbling. A top corner of the obelisk has completely chipped away. Pieces of concrete have fallen from some of the statues, exposing the reinforcement bars; wind and sea spray have eaten away facial features, fingers have broken off, and cracks connect like varicose veins. A history of neglect and decades of vandalism have exacerbated the decay. “This is a classic piece of sculpture that is just deteriorating,” Buckles observes. “Sealers should have been applied every five years to protect it. How can we expect to get more outdoor art when we can't even care for what we have?”
Located just north of Star Island and west of Miami Beach, Flagler Memorial Island has long been a ramp for Jet Skiers and a dump site for boaters, who picnic or party and then jettison their waste, as evidenced by a rusty three-leg barbecue half buried in the sand. Budweiser cans and Corona bottles litter the landscape. Doritos bags and empty tubes of suntan lotion are tangled in the brush. Trash cans brim with garbage. Anti-litter signs have been knocked down and covered in weeds. “The rats are having a field day,” Buckles complains.
The abuse of historical sites is a hallmark of South Florida, evidence that 100 years after its founding, the area has yet to catch its breath, ponder its past, and move gently forward. Buckles and other City of Miami Beach officials and activists want to change this by applying for grants and enlisting volunteer help to fix up this and other community treasures. “We are in the process of putting pen to paper,” says Lisa Liotta, chairperson for the Miami Beach Beautification Committee.
Indeed the island has a raison d'être. Carl Fisher, the automobile baron from Indianapolis who developed the Beach, had the island dredged from the bottom of the bay in 1929 to honor South Florida railroad magnate Henry Flagler. Fisher, a real estate pioneer, admired Flagler, cofounder of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil empire. Although he arrived in South Florida a few years later, Fisher often compared himself to Flagler, says local historian Arva Parks. “There was a mania of creating islands during that time,” recounts Paul George, also a South Florida historian. Even before Flagler Memorial Island popped up, spoil islands such as Star, Hibiscus, and Palm were playgrounds for the rich. “But in terms of preservation,” George adds, “Flagler Island has been one of the last things Miami Beach has embraced.”
In 1939 the property and the memorial were donated to the City of Miami Beach. In the years since, the city, county, and private sector have made haphazard attempts at preserving it, but with little success. Since the mid-Eighties Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management has contracted Best's Maintenance and Janitorial Service, Inc., to do biweekly cleanups. In addition Miami Beach has organized volunteers to pick up trash about five times per year. The city's sanitation workers, the Miami Beach Kiwanis Club, and Environmental Cleanup of Miami Beach also have sponsored some work. Their task, however, is Sisyphean. After each new wave of enthusiasm to turn the vermin-infested trash bin into a respected landmark, the place returns to a state of abandonment. “Too many hands have been involved,” says William Cary, division director for design preservation and neighborhood planning for the City of Miami Beach. “But not a single one has made a continuous effort.”
Perhaps the greatest damage to the island was done in 1998, when a careless picnicker set the island ablaze, destroying $250,000 worth of trees and landscaping planted in 1994. Although several public groups have set aside $100,000 to repair the damage, so far nothing has been done.
These days City of Miami Beach crews maintain the island's spotlights under metal cages that make the monument visible from the causeways at night. They last made rounds two months ago, when boaters cut the underwater cables with their propellers. Currently the bulbs are out because vandals smashed them. Brad Judd, property management director for the City of Miami Beach, says this year alone the illumination has gone out on five occasions. “We've had to pull out the cable and splice it numerous times,” Judd says.
It seems the only visitors who have been able to make a permanent mark to date are Rich, Yol, Joel, and Rey, who have carved their names deep in the monument's base.
But Liotta, Buckles, and Bruce Henderson, a Miami Beach environmental regulator, believe the place can be saved. They are trying to link efforts to save the island and attract public and private money to restore the monument. In July they will seek money from the Beach commission and a group called Save Outdoor Structures, which is supported by Target stores. According to William Cary, director for design preservation and neighborhood planning, Buckles will also submit a plan for the restoration and regular maintenance of all historic structures on Miami Beach. “It's not just this monument, it's other monuments,” Cary says.
Buckles and Liotta have big plans for the island. They want to have plaques printed with the island's history, add new garbage receptacles, construct a picnic area with a tiki hut, and build trails made out of crushed shells. And they'd like to replace a drooping chainlink fence that surrounds the monument with an elegant wrought-iron model. The pair aims to raise at least $200,000 for the project, beginning with a fundraiser in September. If they are successful, the lights will truly shine again on Flagler Monument.