Keep Off The Grass!
Chris, a 33-year-old transvestite hooker with drowsy hazel eyes and a coiffed copper hairdo, looks up from his game of solitaire. "Why am I here?" he asks. "This is where I like it best." Chris's possessions - clothing, shoes, a silk robe, a purse, plates, cooking pans, several teddy bears - are strewn around a mattress on a dusty, windswept terrace. Another transvestite, his spiked orange hair braving the ocean breeze swirling across the plaza, dunks laundry in a water-filled paint bucket, and strings wet shirts and socks through the forest of metal that once was tables and chairs.
Amid the clutter of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and rusted shopping carts, a handful of half-clad men are sprawled on sweat-soaked sleeping rolls under the roof overhang of a shuttered building on the southeast corner of Bicentennial Park. One man sits on a cracked plastic paint bucket, another reclines in a banged-up wheelchair, picking at a pecan-walnut Danish, swatting away fat black flies.
Chris lines the creased and worn playing cards along the concrete next to the mattress. "For us it's more quiet and private. You're not in front of the whole world like you would be out on the street. We're far off the beaten path," he says, gesturing toward the gently sloping mounds of the park, the 35-acre expanse of green stretching west toward Biscayne Boulevard. "It sure ain't like the `Projects' under the overpass. Things can get crazy over there."
Chris is the acknowledged informal spokesman for the 50 to 60 people who have taken up residence on this expansive tract between Bayside and Interstate 395. Nearly every homeless person who lives here says, "Talk to Chris. Chris knows what it's about." After he graduated from Carol City Senior High in 1975, Chris says, he worked in the banquet department at a Holiday Inn, and cooked at a Howard Johnson and a bar in Liberty City. "Then I got hooked on drugs - reefer and cocaine, you know - and I went to the street. Then I became a hooker." Two years ago Chris ended up in Bicentennial; he leaves only when city officials clear out the park for special events such as the Miami Grand Prix, which roars through each April. "There's a lot of friends out here, a lot of people who've been through the same thing, so they show you the ropes, show you where to get food, things like that. This is the place to be."
For Chris and the "girls," this afternoon is like any other: card games and pastries, trading gossip about other "park people," joking about how their makeshift squatters' camp alongside Biscayne Bay is Bicentennial's high-rent district. As darkness falls, they flutter into the abandoned restaurant's bathroom, cackle like hens as they primp, preen, and help one another adjust undergarmets and dab on rouge and eyeliner. Then, with their leather purses slung over their shoulders, they head out of the park to work the streets of downtown. At dawn they straggle back in ones and twos, to sleep and begin the cycle again. "Some of them is doing it for food, you know," says Chris. "Others, well, they're smoking the rocks."
Each day thousands of motorists drive along Biscayne Boulevard past the fortresslike front of Bicentennial Park. Seldom does anybody venture in. The vast cement entrance plaza, screened off from the rest of the park by a cast-concrete wall, is vacant. Fixtures in most of the three dozen light posts have been ripped away. The basin of a brick-lined fountain, dedicated to Miami's sister city of Santiago de Cali, Colombia, is a pool of stagnant water. Dead leaves are scattered across the concrete steps that lead up and away from the boulevard. "It hides the view and keeps the road out," says Chris, "so not many people come through there. Mainly only the people who know the park come through here."
Were a visitor to venture to the top of the steps, he would be confronted by bold yellow "No Trespassing" signs painted on the floor of the concrete entrance way to the park administration building, which now serves as headquarters for the Miami Police Department K-9 and Marine Patrol units. Only fifteen years after Bicentennial Park was dedicated, it seems, it is against the law to attempt to use the clogged water fountain or the battered public telephone near the entrance.
At the top of the rise, the park rambles toward the bay, nestled around the three-quarter-mile asphalt S of the Grand Prix racetrack. Landscaped mounds, scarred by the sun, torn open by wind, rain, and auto traffic, rise and fall like swells suspended in a barren sea of grass. The built-in benches of an area created for visitors to play chess and checkers provide another convenient campground, which Chris has dubbed the Catacombs. "You see lot of guys here in the day, just hanging out. Mainly people drift in and sleep here at night and you see 'em move on again in the morning. It isn't really a permanent setup like by the water or over on the hills," Chris says.
In the distance is an elevated island of palms and a circle of rectangular cement platforms, a sculpture garden with no sculpture save for a single shopping cart that marks one man's camp. Nearby, a group of homeless people sit on the swings in a children's playground. Beyond the racetrack, at the bay's edge, is the abandoned restaurant that serves as Chris's living room, its entrance a bunker built into the side of a sodded mound. "This is the best place," says Chris. "It's out of the way, it's right next to the water so you get that breeze, and we have a roof for when it rains. The bathroom's right here, too."
Even before its Independence Day dedication in 1976, the park, officially named New World Center Bicentennial Park, was hexed. In 1972 city voters passed a $40 million "Parks for People" bond issue to purchase waterfront land on Biscayne Boulevard as part of a plan to create a continuous greenbelt from I-395 to the mouth of the Miami River. Some of the money was earmarked for the reclamation of the old Port of Miami, which had been vacated after Dodge Island was developed in the late Sixties. Almost immediately, opponents of the plan criticized a proposal to commercialize the park site with a restaurant. But then-Mayor Maurice Ferre pushed the plans through, arguing that if Bicentennial were merely a passive space, devoid of activities to draw visitors, "the only people who will use it are the drunks, the derelicts, and the pigeons." In December 1974 the Miami City Commission approved a plan by Edward D. Stone, Jr., and Associates, a Fort Lauderdale architecture firm, to design an arrival plaza and fountain, open fields, a picnic area, grassy mounds and overlooks, two fishing lagoons, a 300-seat open-air restaurant, a chess and checkers area, and a sensory garden for the blind.
Bicentennial Park was originally slated to open January 1, 1976, coinciding with the start of the nation's 200th birthday year. But when that date came and went with work far from done, opening ceremonies were rescheduled for July. In the spring, landscape contractor Julio Pestonit disappeared, having completed only one-third of a $485,000 contract. M.R. Harrison Construction Co., the project's chief contractor, took over, but work was slowed by summer rains that filled newly dug ditches and washed away dirt mounds before they could be sodded. Despite the fact that the park remained unfinished, the July 4 dedication day was celebrated with an ice-cream social and a tree planting. Revised completion dates passed in July, October, and December, with the site still in need of further work.
By early 1977, when nearly five million dollars had been spent and the park was finally finished, certain shortcomings immediately became evident. For one thing, because city officials had wanted as much park land as possible, no parking spaces had been built. The nearest parking sites were either under I-395 or at the now-defunct Bayfront Park Auditorium. Fearing that no customer would trek all the way to the southeast corner of the park, no concessionaire was willing to assume management of the restaurant. Further, the sod-topped concrete walls along Biscayne Boulevard blocked the view from the street; and because pedestrian traffic along that stretch of the boulevard was limited, potential visitors were hard pressed to locate and recognize the park's entrance.
Some changes were made. Tram service was initiated to and from downtown, and a 115-car parking lot was added at the southern edge of the park. By late 1977, weekend attendance had increased to about 800 people per day, soaring to 100,000 for a three-day music festival on Veteran's Day weekend. However, those who visited were not always met with peace and quiet. On New Year's Day 1977, an eighteen-year-old woman told police she had been raped in a park bathroom. After investigating, detectives decided the woman had made up the story, and city officials breathed a sigh of relief. But other rapes were reported, and in September, a 56-year-old drifter was clubbed to death as he sat on a bench near the water, his body dumped in the bay.
Despite the violence, the city found a concessionaire who was willing to run the restaurant. But on opening night, July 4, 1978, four men tried to rob the new Portside Cafe, and as 50 people looked on, three of the robbers brutally beat co-operator Harvey Green. The four were arrested, and security was beefed up, but less than three weeks later, a drifter was mugged, nearly killed when his throat was slit from ear to ear. Within two years, the restaurant failed for lack of customers. Park crowds dwindled, especially after federal funds to run a park ranger program ran out in 1982. Daily attendance today is difficult to determine - the city no longer keeps attendance figures.
Just north of the restaurant, a grassy hill towers over the rest of the park, its crest crowned by David von Schlegell's El Nuevo Mundo, a $90,000 stainless-steel sculpture reminiscent of a giant staple or a croquet wicket. "Dick Hill," as park dwellers call it, is the focal point of the area's nighttime activity. Paved trails circle the hill through the shade of sea grapes. The view of the blue-green water of the bay is spectacular; so is the scent of stale urine. By day, homeless people slumber on benches beneath the trees.
"Us girls stay away from that hill. There's bad shit going on there," says Sable, a 29-year-old transvestite prostitute who lives in the sculpture garden and borrows her name from a character on CBS television's Dynasty. "That's where you're going to see people get beat up and robbed."
After nightfall, young men stroll through the shadows, sit patiently on the park benches. Sooner or later headlights appear, and a car, often a Cadillac or a Continental, drives past along the curve of the racetrack, slows, stops. The men flock down the hill toward the visitor, or wait as a figure emerges from the car and approaches. Then two men walk into the darkness, away from the racetrack, toward the water. A short time later, the headlights reappear, the car drives away. The same scene is repeated again and again, until the sun comes up.
"Dick Hill - that's the happeningest place in this park," says a homeless man who calls himself Errol. "There's all kinds of things like that here. You see all kinds of things here you never dreamed of, if you look hard enough. What is it they say about, `In the dark you see the things you can't see in the day'? That's what this place is all about."
Aside from its homeless population, Bicentennial Park is not entirely unused. In 1983, Miami Motorsports Inc. staged the first Grand Prix of Miami, with cars racing around a two-mile circuit that included Bayfront Park and a tract of land owned by the Florida East Coast Railway, separated from Bicentennial Park by a wide deep-water slip. Five years ago, in order to make way for Bayside, the racetrack was redesigned to snake through Bicentennial instead of Bayfront, and Miami Motorsports has a contract to continue staging the event, which attracts more than 200,000 spectators, through 1998. The park hosts other annual events, including a motorcycle race, the Jamaican Awareness Festival, and the Caribbean American Carnival. Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus baseball squad and area amateur softball teams use the park's two impeccably kept diamonds, which were added in the late Seventies. On weekends picnicking fans and players number in the hundreds. And in the evenings, especially during the winter, crowds of shrimpers gather on the sea wall at the northeast end of the park near the MacArthur Causeway bridge, to sling their lanterns over the side and cast their nylon nets. On a good night they stand shoulder to shoulder, attracted by the plentiful crustaceans, easy access to the water, and good lighting to keep would-be criminals away.
Homeless people who camp at Bicentennial blame most of the park's current crime on outsiders, troublemakers wandering through. And for the most part, other park-going regulars agree. "I've never seen any problems with the people who hang out here," says George Ankelein, a 62-year-old machinist from North Fort Lauderdale who's been shrimping off the sea wall for about four years. "Once in a while they might come up and ask for some change, a pack of cigarettes, that's all." And the park's homeless say they are often the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. "Most of the people here, they're good people who stick together," says Chris. "It's the wild ones you get coming through here that cause you trouble. People here stick together, so they can't take on one of us or they'd have to take on all of us, you know."
"It's almost blasphemy to say it, and as soon as you do, you have environmentalists at your throat saying, `You don't like trees.' But in my opinion, the public demand and need for pure passive space is greatly overrated," says Jack Luft, development coordinator in the city's Department of Development. "All you have to do is look at the repeated failures to attract people with passive, lush, well-designed parks. If you look at the city and the options people have for satisfying recreational needs and the instincts to get away from the city, there is not that much need for some of the pastoral green spaces that have always been viewed as essential."
Critics offer varied theories about why the park hasn't fulfilled its promise: deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood; high crime; the lack of visibility from the roadway; a negative feeling about the downtown area in general. But a missing facet of the site's failure, Miami city planners argue, is rooted in the philosophical argument about what an urban park should be. "When you look at Bicentennial Park, what you are seeing is an example of the concept, dating back to the Nineteenth Century, of public parks as an antidote to the evils and excesses of urban life," says Luft. "But there are different ideas now of what a modern park can and should be to make them successful."
The traditional concept for park planning was proposed by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the 840-acre Central Park in Manhattan. Olmsted's theory, which arose in response to the realities of life in a densely packed urban area, holds that people entering a park should feel as if they are leaving the city behind. The urban environment is inherently dirty and dangerous; nature is wholesome and pure. "The idea is that the park should be rooted in nature," says Luft. "It should be the breathing point, the lungs of the city. It should be a threshold where people can transform from urban creatures to mystical interlopers in the Garden of Eden."
Such an argument, Luft argues further, is based on the outdated and inappropriate premise that a park is in direct diametrical opposition to a city. "The design of Bicentennial Park was nothing more than the lineal pattern of thinking from the Nineteenth Century playing itself out once again," he says.
Bicentennial Park's designers agree, but they say the city knew what it was getting when it signed the development contract. David Armbruster, a partner in the firm of Stone and Associates, says most major development plans at the time were reserved for Bayfront Park and what eventually was to become Bayside near the business district; a comparatively small amount of money was invested in Bicentennial. "It was a situation of getting the most for the money, which really was not a considerable amount for a park this size," he says, adding that most of the funds went toward reclaiming the old port site, which was full of piers, sea walls, concrete slabs, and polluted water.
The trees, concrete and sod barriers, and mounds were installed to block out noise and the visual appearance of Biscayne Boulevard and I-395. "It was decided pretty early on that the traffic and congestion were not things that lent themselves to the enjoyment of the park," Armbruster recalls. The view of the bay from Biscayne Boulevard was a consideration, he adds. "There was quite a bit of discussion as to whether or not you could really catch a glimpse of the water from the edge of the park. You might see Watson Island, but in the line of sight you couldn't see the bay." Because one couldn't possibly catch more than a glimpse of the water from the western edge of the site, Armbruster says, construction of a wall wouldn't detract from the view from Biscayne Boulevard.
While he acknowledges the ongoing problems with the park, Armbruster thinks Bicentennial's overall design is not at fault. "The original idea was that this pastoral setting would help generate new growth and urban development in the area, and as that took place then the park would have a place in serving that new growth," he says. "Well, what happened is that other parts of the city didn't build to correspond. So it ended up being a step to accomplish certain things that never happened." Lack of access was always a problem, he adds, but city commissioners brought that difficulty on themselves. "The city decided to eliminate as many paved areas as possible," Armbruster says, "but without that access, it will always be very hard to get people to go there."
In 1987 the city commission approved a Downtown Waterfront Master Plan drafted by the planning department, where Luft was chief of urban design. That plan proposes not only a radical new design for the site, but a different way of thinking about what the park should be. Based on designs for the Parc de la Villette in Paris and Chicago's Grant Park, the master plan is a vision of Bicentennial Park as an oasis of urban senses and experiences, an intersection of Miami's diverse cultures and social groups with educational, interpretive, and interactive attractions. The idea, say the plan's creators, is to draw people into the site in order to embrace the city rather than eschew it.
Frederick Law Olmsted's view of what a park should be, say planners, is not entirely relevant to Bicentennial. Besides, the development department's Jack Luft argues, plenty of open green space would be preserved on the site, as well as in Isamu Noguchi's recently redesigned Bayfront Park, and on Watson Island. Some development of Bicentennial is clearly justified. Besides, he says, Miami is a city not of crowded tenements but of single-family lots, with ample yards and neighborhood parks, near extensive beachfront and undeveloped Everglades.
The plan would incorporate into Bicentennial Park the 23-acre Florida East Coast Railway tract across the deep-water slip to the south, land purchased in 1981 for $23 million, after a lengthy condemnation battle. In the first stages of the plan, the park's dirt and concrete walls would be demolished. Planners also proposed grading the entire site to have an upward slope toward the waterfront. "By gently tilting the plane of the park two degrees toward the boulevard observer," planners wrote, "the views of open space and a sense of the distant bay's edge [would be] significantly enhanced." The deep-water slip would be the center of a new site; a pedestrian bridge over the inlet would unite the park and serve as a symbolic gateway.
In order to "create a north-south activity link" between the Omni Mall area and Bayfront Park, four large pavilions would be built along the bay, two on each side of the deep-water slip. These would house attractions such as an aquarium, a maritime museum, a science museum, and audiovisual centers including video, slide, laser, holographic projections, and 360-degree or multiscreen theaters. Pedestrian promenades and plazas would trace the waterfront, connecting the attractions. Vending and concession stands would dot the site. Whereas the current site has virtually no parking or access, the plan calls for below-ground parking lots that would provide 1500 spaces. Metromover extensions to Omni, Bayside, and the Port of Miami would include stations along the edges of the park, and pedestrian walkways would be constructed over and under the new Dodge Island bridge.
The plan, says Jack Luft, would transform Bicentennial Park into a "story-telling center where we define who we are, what we are, where we are, and where we are going. The idea is to create a place that celebrates the urban experience rather than denying it. The idea with La Villette in Paris was that open space was not so much the issue. What should be more important is a place that brings people together into a shared cultural experience." The increasingly fragmented community of Greater Miami has plenty of open areas, Luft argues, so pastoral green space isn't enough to turn a downtown park into a destination point for area residents.
Although local architects familiar with the waterfront master plan agree that Bicentennial requires a radical redesign, they aren't nearly as enthusiastic about Luft's vision for the site. "Yes, the park needs a new look," says Jean Francois LeJeune, an architecture professor at the University of Miami. "But I'd think it would need a much bolder design than what this plan is proposing. This could be a spectacular site with just a fantastic potential for a beautiful park, but it needs the vision of a great architect. This is not an easy site to work with by any means."
One problem with the waterfront plan, LeJeune points out, is that it suggests commercialization of Bicentennial Park as a way to lure visitors, creating just another version of Bayside that would ultimately attract tourists rather than the local community. "If it is water-oriented attractions Luft is suggesting, like an aquarium or a maritime museum, things like that I would agree with," says LeJeune. "But I'm not sure there is a need to use this site for a science museum that could be placed somewhere else. And the theaters - that is definitely out. That is just too much a commercialization."
LeJeune says he's in favor of the idea of opening the view of the park from the entrance. But tilting the land two degrees upward toward the bay, he argues, is a simplistic and boring solution. He suggests tilting the site the other way, and building a dramatic flight of steps at the entrance that would end at a boardwalk with the entire open park stretching before it toward the water. "You wouldn't have the view from the street, but for the person entering the park, there would be this immediate panorama when they reach the top of the steps," says LeJeune. "It could have that magnificent feeling of an expanse, a lawn in front of the viewer much like many of the old properties here in Miami, like the Deering Estate. At the same time it would all be open, so the person entering could feel safe. They could see the entire park in front of them."
LeJeune says he's also intrigued by the park's potential as a site for a downtown performing-arts center, an idea that has been debated for more than a decade. In 1988 a site-recommendation committee chose Bicentennial Park as the location for an opera, ballet, and theater complex. Civic and cultural groups and the downtown business establishment immediately objected to the choice, and the seven-member committee - which included banker David Paul, attorney Parker Thomson, then-Miami City Commissioner Rosario Kennedy, and Alvah Chapman, who at the time was chairman of Knight-Ridder Inc. - disbanded when it was revealed its members had met in secret to select the site. The location for the proposed arts center still has not been chosen by the Metro-Dade Commission, although a committee that replaced the original panel has recommended using land owned by Knight-Ridder, north of I-395 near the Miami Herald building.
Under the direction of Professor LeJeune, several UM architecture students have drafted preliminary designs for a performing-arts center on the 23-acre FEC tract, a site that offers the advantages of proximity to the waterfront and high visibility. In LeJeune's vision for the complex, the existing Bicentennial Park to the north would be untouched, and three-fourths of the FEC plot could be turned into park land. LeJeune expects that the FEC tract will be discussed when the American Institute of Architects presents its vision for the performing-arts project to the Metro Commission on May 30. "The design for this would be quite difficult and would have to be quite original," the UM professor says. "It would take some type of a competition to get a really good architect to best utilize this site. But it could have fantastic possibilities. An arts center like this could be a fantastic centerpiece to this park."
If it has not been embraced by most of the residents of Greater Miami, Bicentennial Park as a manifestation of Frederick Law Olmsted's concept of privacy and escape from the distractions of urban life, of a return to the landscape of unspoiled nature, has been appreciated by the several dozen homeless "residents" who now make use of the site.
At the abandoned restaurant, a diverse community had fashioned households under the roof's overhang. Distinct groups of homeless people - Latin, homosexual, "the straights" - coexisted peacefully, banding together against intruders. Then, in late March, preparations for the annual Grand Prix necessitated their eviction. Now that the auto race is over, about a dozen transvestites and other men have returned to the building's overhang. "Shit, those was good times," recalls a heavyset 27-year-old man who speaks with a faint Caribbean accent and calls himself Pharoah.
A native of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Pharoah says he first came to Bicentennial Park in 1987 after leaving the U.S. Army and working at various jobs, including farm work between here and Georgia. Last month he was released from the Dade County Jail, having served more than three months on a burglary charge. "We had barbecues, we went fishing, swimming," he says, pouring a bucket of water over his head to wash off the salt from a dip in the bay. Not long ago he was camped out under I-95, Pharoah says, the night a homeless man was murdered there. Pharoah came back to Bicentennial. "Of all the places I've been, there ain't no place like here. It's the only place I see where the people from the street cooling out, with no harassment or hassles, you know, and they hang together. This is a great place. They should have more people using this place.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.