Long ago, rivers were dredged and swampland was filled. But still we can't seem to control it all. From the beginning, Miami's been split and shaped in every way by water. Overflowing and dying out and otherwise warping themeselves, skinny streams and fat, man-made channels snake through the city's endless expanses of concrete, underneath I-95, and into our backyards.
This was the core theme of the third (and final) installment of the Bas Fisher Invitational's Weird Miami bus tour. Led by Miami transplant Christy Gast, the trip was titled "Ripe Riparian." It slashed a path from Coral Morphologic to a bait-store-slash-sandwich-shop to an old transit bus powered by vegetable oil.
See the cut for a photo recap of Weird Miami III.
The first stop was Coral Morphologic's home studio and laboratory near the crux of NW 7th Street and NW 7th Street Road. Out back, there are tubs full of zoanthids and other sea creatures thriving in the sun and open air.
Inside, the tubs sit under rows of grow lights, some creeping back and forth on motorized tracks. Project heads Colin Foord and Jared McKay have slapped black tar paper over the windows, too. Why? There's a good chance that all the lighting and other specialized equipment could lead cops, thugs, and weedheads to believe that something other than coral is being grown here. No one wants to get mistakenly busted or robbed.
On a biology tip, Coral Morphologic is a licensed aquaculture setup producing corallimorphs, ricordea, and zoanthids for aquariums, universities, museums like the Smithsonian, and hobbyists. On an art tip, it specializes in studio photography and HD video art focused entirely on capturing a filtered and heightened version of the coral's natural fluorescence. For a primer, go see the duo's Flower Animal show at the Biscayne Nature Center Gallery before it closes this Sunday.
Lunch was next. And we went downriver to this place called Gandara Marine. On the east bank of the Miami River at 450 NW N. River Drive, it's basically a bait and tackle store that also sells sandwiches, burritos, and ice-cold beer.
In giant freezers, there are several varieties of squid and herring and shrimp. But this stuff isn't for eating. It's for fishing. Or, like the signage says, "Not for Human Consumer." Ditto the homemade chum.
Even though Gandara mostly serves a clientele of experienced fishermen, the place welcomes amateurs, too. And one piece of essential equipment for your beginner's tackle kit is the Jolly Lure. At only $1.99, it's almost impossible to find more bang for your buck. And if you don't believe us, just ask the booby blonde spokeswoman.
Not surprisingly, Gandara is a family business that's run by Marlon Pacheco and his parents. Shockingly, though, Marlon's a two-time Emmy winner. His first came for art directing the show opener of Mega TV's Expendiente, which he describes as a Spanish version of CSI. The second came at Christmas time for a cheery, holiday bumper he did.
From the bait store, we walked a couple of blocks to Lummus Park. The plan: Eat our Cuban sandwiches and suck back our paper-bagged beer in the shade of the Fort Dallas and William F. English plantation slave quarters. It's like the perfect place for a picnic.
Fun fact: Besides housing slaves, Fort Dallas has also served at different times as a soldiers' barracks, trading post, county courthouse, post office, and a restaurant called the Fort Dallas Tea Room.
While we hung around Lummus Park, there was a five-year-old child (not affiliated with the tour) who called the Wagner Homestead a "crappy shack." If only this poor young fool had taken the time to read the posted literature, he would have discovered that German immigrant William Wagner's sturdy pine house is the oldest in Miami, dating back to the 1850s. Man, illiterate kids these days.
Have you ever been to El Portal? It's basically a leafy little paradise and the Weird Miami peeps took us to NE 85th Street and Fourth Avenue Road to see a hill. Well, it wasn't just a hill. It was a Native American ceremonial sand mound.
Although this particular mound is only sand, others are actually built on dead people. Back in the day, the Chief or Big Man would die and the village would burn his house. A hill of dirt and earthenware would be made on that site. And generation after generation, the process would repeat itself and the hill would grow, bringing the tribe ever closer to God.
As part of the burial ceremony, the conch would be blown like a horn and palm fronds burned to keep the mosquitoes away.
In some neighborhoods, the driving hazards include armed carjackers and drunk dudes who suddenly stumble into the street. In El Portal, though, you really need to watch out: There are big beautiful birds everywhere.
After leaving the shaded, residential part of El Portal, we wandered past Town Hall and the police station before taking off down the train tracks like a gang of well-fed, over-educated hobos.
Totally dedicated to urban adventure, we weirdos streaked past this "No Trespassing" order from the fine folks at the Florida East Coast Railway Company. Minutes later, a work crew of train monkeys threatened to have every member of the tour arrested.
But before coming under fire from the authorities, a discovery was made: There's an upside to the collapse of the South Florida construction industry. A number of native, resurgent plant species have taken root in empty lots once marked for condo development. One such example is the pond apple tree. Unfortunately, its fruit tastes like turpentine.
Last stop: A communal living setup near the edge of Little Haiti. On two and a half acres, a woman named Muriel cultivates a garden, producing fruit, vegetables, and flowers for local farmers markets and restaurants.
Muriel sells some of her produce to individual consumers, too. It's a socio-economic model commonly called "community supported agriculture." In short, you get a box of fresh, pesticide- and fertilizer-free peppers, tomatoes, okra, and other stuff every week. And all you gotta do is pledge undying allegiance to the fight against evil industrial farming schemes.
Mere feet from Muriel's garden, we found an old diesel bus that runs on vegetable oil. Owned by a blond, bearded guy named Tom (AKA Thomas Hollingworth, founder of Artlurker), this former Arkansas transit vehicle serves three distinct purposes. First, it's where Tom, his wife, and two children live. Second, it's the current headquarters of the "mobile living experiment, creative workshop, and educational resource" otherwise known as Transit Antenna. And third, it's awesome.
Life on the veggie bus seems daunting. But Tom is happy with it. We petted the blue-eyed dog that guards the thing and climbed aboard. All the original seats have been ripped out and replaced with a plywood floor, a small sofa, some rugs, a kitchenette, bunk beds, and a shower. Future additions: solar panels, a mushroom closet, and a ham radio.
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And finally, the tour ended with dollar beers -- or mint ice tea -- from a communal cooler. It was done, over, finito. We poured 40 ounces for Weird Miami and watched the sunset.