The wrinkled Puerto Rican men sucking on their Budweiser longnecks stare over from the crumbling stoop, wondering what planet this group dropped in from: a red sports car with two guys who look more West Kendall than Wynwood, two mutts scrambling out of the back seat. The dogs slow, stop, gaze back at the car as if they've suddenly realized they're the butt of a bad joke.
Where's the park?
Surely it's not this one-tenth-acre grassy lot crammed between two apartment buildings, bounded on three sides by a chain-link fence. This looks like a vacant lot begging to be built on, probably the former site of a nondescript stucco structure like those around it. But in case anyone's confused, next to the driveway blocked by a rusty cable, there's a wooden sign: "Wynwood Mini Park. City of Miami Parks & Recreation Dept."
The dogs sniff at the edges of the fence, saunter back to the sidewalk and plop down. The old men grunt, laughing at the dogs and slurring insults at their chauffeurs. "Maricones. Pendejos. What do you want here?"
Because no one comes here. At least no one in search of a park. Not even a dog.
In the City of Miami, which prides itself on its wide-open spaces, its expanses of green on the bayfront, on Watson Island, on Virginia Key, the word "park" can take on a new meaning. In fact 38 of the city's 123 parks are smaller in area than a single acre, together comprising only 11 of the 1169 acres of park land in the entire city. In Miami, there is no mandated minimum size for a park; every square inch counts toward the 1.3 acres per 1000 city residents required by state law and outlined in the city's comprehensive plan, a blueprint for everything from housing to coastal management that will take Miami through the year 2000. Some of these so-called parks are merely median strips, others grassy triangles in the middle of intersections, still others concrete patios with benches here and there.
"Technically those properties are included in our inventory, but they really are just open-space areas," admits Kevin Smith, assistant director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. "For lack of a better term, they are called miniparks or open space, but for all practical purposes, we realize there is no recreational use. There never was any intention of designating them for anything other than open space." Which might explain why so many are located in the city's most densely populated, impoverished neighborhoods.
"A lot of these are traffic circles at intersections, and road dividers, things like that," says Smith. "So what are you going to do? You can't really put anything else in there, so why not have some open space?"
Sure, Kevin, but parks? Some of these aren't big enough for a regulation-size tennis court. (Table tennis, maybe.)
Some of the city's more petite parks, of course, are well utilized. Crowds of stogie-puffing men challenge each other to heated games at Maceo Park, better known as Domino Park, a quarter-acre plot on SW Eighth Street. Grove residents gather from dawn to dusk at the half-acre Coconut Grove Mini Park on Grand Avenue. (After dark it's a notorious hangout for drug dealers.) Yuppies gather for lunch at Bijan's at Fort Dallas Park, three-quarters of an acre on the north bank of the Miami River downtown. At a few others, such as the half-acre Pullman Mini Park on NW 49th Street, kids take advantage of the swing sets.
But most of Miami's little parks are barren places, abandoned by the city and the citizens to stray dogs, the occasional homeless person searching for a quiet place to sleep. Despite the regulations. "Park hours are from sunrise to sunset. Dangerous or hazardous activities prohibited. Authorized vehicles only allowed in park. No defacing of park property. Open fires in park grills only. Park to be used for intended purposes only. No hunting or molesting natural wildlife. Domestic animals not permitted in park."
Oops. For such small stretches of territory, that sounds like one too many rules. At least. And as long as the city insists on officially maintaining that these puny parcels are parks, why not evaluate them with the aid of the expertise of a couple of canines?
The following critical analysis, impartial but highly opinionated, is based on the findings of Simba, a half-Doberman, half-boxer mix, and The Mojo, a street mutt so far removed from purity of breed that there's no fathoming her original bloodline. (The Mojo is plenty acquainted with the subject at hand, though, having been rescued from David T. Kennedy Park -- 29 acres if you're keeping score -- in Coconut Grove, where she had been abandoned.) During this urban adventure, the scientific method, which consisted of driving to the various "parks," cajoling the two dogs to get out of the car, and carefully scribbling down their reactions, was steadfastly -- one might even venture to say doggedly -- adhered to.
Allen Morris Brickell Park
SE First Avenue and Tenth Street
Brickell Park, donated by the Allen Morris Company realtors, is tucked away in a shady, triangular neighborhood bordered by SE First Avenue, South Miami Avenue, and SE Eighth Street. Although popular lunch eateries are clustered in the area, the park is usually empty, save for an office worker cutting through on the way to or from lunch, or a resident taking the dog for an illicit stroll. Simba and The Mojo make an initial dash up the concrete walkway, across a gravel-covered garden, under a wooden kiosk, but express much more interest in an elderly woman with hazel-dyed hair walking three dogs and one cat along the sidewalk on First Avenue. At the sight of these two strange dogs, she emits a terrified howl. "Put them on a leash! A leash! Put them on a leash!"
This good citizen, of course, is obeying the no-domestic-animals-in-the-park clause. Simba and The Mojo, who don't consider themselves domesticated, soon lose interest, wander into the yards that border the park, cross the street, and sniff around the more-promising parking lot of Greenwich Village, a restaurant popular with the lunch crowd. When it's time to get back in the car, they come somewhat reluctantly.
Miami River Walk
NE Second Avenue to the Brickell Bridge
Considering that the comparative vastness of Bayfront Park stretches away just to the north, it's difficult to imagine what parks officials might have been thinking when they created Miami River Walk as a separate entity. This is literally nothing more than a sea wall, a sidewalk, and a row of hybrid maypan palms at the point where Biscayne Boulevard is swallowed by the mouth of the Miami River.
Simba, always skittish near any body of water bigger than a puddle, avoids the southern edge of the "park," where the murky wake of passing speedboats and freighters flings up against the concrete. Both dogs sniff at the base of each palm, then leave their inimitable signatures. A smallish New York tourist of Korean descent, the park's only other visitor, casts a fishing line baited with squid. "This is a nice place to fish, with all the buildings and everything," remarks the woman, introducing herself as Incha Kim. "But I don't think there's any fish here." The dogs have had enough.
Miramar parks A, B, C, and D
NE Fourth Avenue between 17th Terrace and 19th Street
0.13, 0.25, 0.25, 0.25 acres respectively
These four plots are the crown jewels of Miami's small-parks collection, so insignificant they merit only monograms. Parks A and D are tiny triangles of grass in the middle of intersections, occupied by concrete Florida Power & Light bunkers, a few scraggly palms and umbrella trees, and sidewalk. In between, parks B and C are discernibly larger, emptier (except for litter), and equally unused.
Other than the discovery of a chicken bone in Park C, which leads to a brief skirmish, Simba and The Mojo are entirely unamused, preferring to chase after cars.
Highland Circle Park
NW Eighth Avenue and 13th Street
It's a circle, all right, ringed by cement curb and eleven -- count 'em -- trees. A Honduran girl skips through on her way to a friend's house, as four roosters and a hen peck around a shattered record by the Conjunto de Arpas del Paraguay "Santa Carmen." The dogs scratch at discarded beer cans and an empty bottle of carburetor-cleaning fluid, and express more interest in the girl, who pats them on the head, than in the park. Or the fowl, for that matter.
Broward Circle Park
NW Eighth Avenue and 15th Street
Pine Heights Park
NW 16th Street between Eighth Avenue and Eighth Court
This pair of parks is only a bone's throw from the Jackson Memorial Hospital-UM Medical School complex. The Broward circle is dominated by four big banyan trees that shade its two benches. Across the street, the grand-piano-shape area of sod designated as Pine Heights Park doesn't get nearly as much use; it offers no benches and little shade.
Although The Mojo enjoys rolling in the clumps of grass cuttings left by maintenance workers, Simba, after patrolling the Pine Heights perimeter, heads back to the car and waits patiently to be let back in.
South Bay Vista Park
NW Sixth Avenue between 46th and 47th streets
By this time it's getting easier and easier to get the dogs into the car, and more and more difficult to coax them out. South Bay Vista, in a predominantly black neighborhood east of Interstate 95, brings to mind the Miramar quartet. A triangular median strip of sod and cement, its most distinct features are a sidewalk that runs along one side and a utility pole that stands squarely in the center. Female dogs have no use for utility poles.
Little River Commerce Park
8024 NE Second Avenue
Just north of the 79th Street shopping strip, amid an area where parking lots are protected by concertina wire and armed security guards, this park shows signs of life -- two men sleeping on a bench. Near the sign with the park's name is another that reads, "No Loitering."
The dogs stare balefully at cement ramps and stairways, a boulder on a pedestal, a central patio shaded by a kiosk and outlined by rows of dilapidated wooden benches cluttered with stained sofa cushions, soiled clothing, and assorted garbage. A light breeze wafts a hint of stale urine; Simba and The Mojo refuse to get out of the car.
Oakland Grove Mini Park
NW Third Avenue and 84th Street
For a fleeting moment before sunset, in this diminutive wedge of sod along the Little River Canal, there is hope. Simba and The Mojo bound out of the car, sprint into the park -- and attempt to jump a fence into the neighboring yard to get at the two dogs that live there.
When the commotion ends, the intrepid evaluators settle down to the task at hand, sniffing around this pretty park's grassy mound, picnic table, and water fountain, and exploring the sandy play area. At the far end (relatively speaking) of the park is a dock and sun deck, complete with benches, surrounded by muck, weeds, and land-crab holes.
"They need to clean this place up," observes thirteen-year-old Evans Raymonvil, pointing out the plastic bags, grass cuttings, and clumps of algae that foul the water. "It's hard to fish 'cause of the weeds, and all the junk that floats up fouls your line. But there's some good fish here -- mullet, bass, all kinds of things."
This must be a good park. It's after 8:00, and Raymonvil and his friends are here, risking a fine, maybe even imprisonment. "No trespassing after 6:00 p.m. Violators will be prosecuted," reads a sign affixed to a light post.
"No one's ever hassled us about that," says Raymonvil.
Miami River Rapids Park
2900 NW South River Drive
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The dogs are hot and thirsty, but this wide, overgrown patch along the south bank of the Miami River seems to make them forget about all that. At last, a park a dog can love. As the sun sets, they romp through the thigh-high grass, paying no heed to the bugs -- and snakes? -- concealed in the thick underbrush.
Plans are under way, however, to "improve" this park as part of a construction project next door, a new juvenile shelter for Miami Bridge, a private, nonprofit social service agency. Such usurpation is not unprecedented. At the one-third of an acre that used to be Allapattah Mini Park on NE 16th Avenue, for instance, a privately owned day-care center is being constructed, and if some city commissioners get their way, more of Miami's little parks may suffer the same fate.
"That has been discussed in the past, but selling them would depend on each of those properties," says Parks and Recreation's Kevin Smith. All the sites have deeds, Smith explains, just like any other property, but some are restricted to public use. "We would have to look at each one individually," he says, "before that decision could be made."
Like the decision to call one-tenth of an acre of land a "park