Mrs. Brickell's Neighborhood
Donald Bermudez first heard about the sacred freshwater spring from the widow Mary King, who lived across the street. He was just a boy back then, but he'd befriended many of the old folks in Southside, and they spun tales for him of the mysteries of the land.
In those days, some 30 years ago, the elderly ladies whiled away their afternoons playing bridge at the widow's house. Between rounds of cards, they told the boy all kinds of stories: how their forebears had arrived by sailboat in the 1800s. How they'd bought up parcels of land from William and Mary Brickell, who owned acreage stretching as far south as Coconut Grove, and west to present-day Little Havana. The settlers carved out tracts from the thick hammock of live oak and strangler figs and built houses near a tributary stream that flowed into the Miami River.
And the women told how, long before the first Spanish explorers came, before there were Seminoles and Miccosukees in South Florida, Tequesta Indians traveled and camped the region, living off the fish and game that teemed along the river's final journey to the bay. But the Europeans brought disease and war, and the Indians vanished from the land. In time, the stream disappeared, filled in for development. But stories of the sacred spring survived through generations, though it lay under years of accumulated earth.
"Come on, Mrs. King, you're bluffing," Bermudez used to say when he heard the tale. Oh, no, she'd promise. The spring is there, right across the street, on Gladys Suitter's property.
Southside, a solid middle-class community, rose up during the 30 years after the turn of the century, in one of the city's first development booms. Bordered by the Miami River to the north, the Roads neighborhood to the south, and the bay and SW Third Avenue to the east and west, the community sat just across the river from downtown. Most of the houses sported gables and eaves, and ample, unfenced lawns. Sabal and coconut palms lined the streets.
Back then, just as today, wealth was concentrated near the bay, where the Brickells owned most of the land. Miami's moneyed class built spacious mansions along the waterfront. Although geographically part of Southside and separated from South Miami Avenue by only a quarter-mile, the bayfront was another world. An early photograph of William Brickell, whom historians describe as a recluse, shows a pale, bearded man dressed in a dark suit buttoned tightly to the neck. The power player in the marriage, historians say, was his wife Mary, who handled the business and earned a reputation as a cantankerous and stubborn woman.
"She had a very definite idea of how the area she called the Brickell Hammock should be developed," says local historian Paul George. In December 1921, the year before she died, Mary Brickell wrote an open letter to the people of Miami, half justification, half advertisement, describing what she wanted to do with her still ample property: "Many times in the past I have been urged to sell this tract to subdividers but I have not cared to part with it for a number of reasons. The average real estate operator has but one object in view, viz: to develop the land to be subdivided as quickly and cheaply as possible, and to get it off his hands at an inflated value, and reap an exorbitant profit. But I have always had a vision of a subdivision 'de luxe' for Brickell Hammock." She wasn't against development per se, so long as it was done her way.
The Brickells bought the land in 1871 and then waited for more than 40 years, says George. "They knew that someday it would break, and they wanted to be here when the whole thing developed and they would be sitting in the catbird seat." They were self-centered, very insular, he says. "I don't think you got anything from them for free." But when it finally seemed that Mary Brickell's development dreams would come true, she died. As for the freshwater spring, no one knows exactly when it vanished and became the stuff of lore. Certainly before the Twenties, when Southside matured into a vibrant community, replete with small-town charm. A generation later, Brickell Avenue fell into decline, and office towers supplanted the old bayfront mansions. But farther west Southside continued on, relatively unscathed.
On the face of it, Donald Bermudez, a boy from the mountains of central Colombia, would seem an unlikely candidate for adoption by genteel old white Southern ladies. Yet soon after the Bermudez family -- one of the few Latin households in the neighborhood -- arrived in Southside, they became regulars for tea and cookies on their neighbors' verandas -- stout covered porches attached to houses built of hardy Dade County pine.
"We would sleep with the doors and windows open in the summertime," remembers his father Ishmael Bermudez, who arrived first, in 1957, to scout out Miami before sending for his family. In his heart the elder Bermudez hoped his move to Miami would be temporary. Back home, the dictatorship of Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was already crumbling and the strikes and violence that had wracked Colombia might soon come to an end. Yet with a nod toward pragmatism, Bermudez carried among his possessions a handful of avocado, papaya, and mango seeds. A skilled technician, he found work as an airplane mechanic. Three years later a former army buddy became the Colombian consul in Miami and hired Bermudez as a commercial attache. That year he sent for his wife and four children.
Though the Bermudezes didn't know it at the time, they were in the first wave of Latin immigrants. By 1965, 210,000 Cubans would join them in Miami.
"Believe me, there were no Latins back then," says Donald Bermudez, remembering the taunts of his classmates on account of his poor English when he first arrived. Nor did he understand the paranoia gripping his new homeland. It was the Cold War era, two years before the Cuban missile crisis, and schoolchildren in Southside were trained in bomb drills that consisted of lying absolutely still beneath white sheets. "There they were, sitting under blankets and crying, and I'd go home and ask my father, 'What is going on?'"
At home, the Miami River and the bay offered swimming and sailing within walking distance. All one had to do was cross wide Brickell Avenue, which Mary Brickell had envisioned as the perfect complement to her development at the turn of the century. An enterprising youngster could discover multiple paths to ocean adventure by sneaking past the decaying mansions.
To the west Flagler's railroad, now the route of the elevated Metrorail, ran between avenues E and F (today's SW First Avenue) and afforded hours of entertainment: slipping pennies on the railroad tracks or spying on the hoboes who lived in the tall grass. A boy could also earn spare change by smuggling beer to residents at the rest home behind the Widow King's or working for Tony, who owned the Southside Market and sidelined as a bookie.
The old ladies sat on their porches and greeted by name those who walked past. And when the boy would come to walk their dogs or have a glass of lemonade, he never tired of their stories of the nomadic Tequestas and the spring.
When Donald Bermudez was in high school, his father bought the Suitter property and finally planted the seeds he'd carried from Colombia. If the spring existed, Donald knew, the Bermudez family now owned it. Fascinated, half wanting to believe it was a source of power under the earth, he vowed to find it. "This was one of the things that really intrigued me," he says today. "They said it was holy -- what was that?" The old women told him it lay at one end of the property, but they knew no more than that.
A plan unfolded the summer his father left for an extended business trip to Colombia. Donald read books on archaeology and began to dig a trench around the yard. Using pieces of mesh, he fashioned sifters so that nothing would escape his notice. In true Tom Sawyer fashion, he enlisted his brother and a friend. As they searched, they began to find carved seashells, bones, and arrowheads wedged in the dirt and limestone. "I was all excited." he recalls. "I was hoping to find some dead Tequesta chief!"
Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Bermudez still shakes his head as he recalls the piles of dirt and gaping pits that greeted his return. "How the hell are we going to walk here?" he said. Still, he was proud of his son's resolve, and he let the search continue. The boys proceeded with their digging, advancing along the west side of the property. At times they excavated holes, some three feet deep, that filled with water, but not from a spring. The old ladies passed the open yard, calling out their encouragement and inevitably asking if they'd found it yet.
And then one day they did.
Today Donald Bermudez stands beside the spot in his yard. Ferns and mosses of a deep green hue cover the rocks around the shimmering pool. "We verified what the old ladies had said," he notes, recalling his satisfaction and the glee he felt when friends who'd called him crazy came to see.
After the spring was uncovered, it became a watering hole for wildlife. Foxes and raccoons that lived under the old houses came to drink. When the rains fell, Bermudez remembers, the croaking of frogs filled the air. Crabs would crawl from a lip of rock above the water until the sea walls went up along the bay and they disappeared.
"When the water is low, it makes strange gurgling noises," says Bermudez. He used to sit on the rocks by the spring and imagine Tequestas who must have stopped at the spot. Perhaps they gathered around the spring and talked about the day's hunt or of the strange forces of the natural world they could only attempt to placate. Bermudez and his brothers watched the 1991 solar eclipse reflected in the center of the water and felt a connection between Earth and sky they imagined the Indians would understand.
"The old ladies used to say, 'When the water dries up, everything will die,'" he says.
Of course, the old ladies died anyway, and Donald and Ishmael Bermudez found themselves attending numerous funerals for the friends who had welcomed the family to Southside. Mrs. King passed away on Christmas Eve 1977, at the age of 91. But her death and those of the other old ladies were but a small part of the changes affecting the area. The Cubans came, and their neighbors' children began to move away. Then many Cuban families, achieving a degree of prosperity, followed the Anglos to the suburbs. Now Latin Americans live in most of the homes of old Southside -- known to most Miamians as West Brickell -- and the houses sag under faded, peeling paint. Most have been sold and cut up into apartments, rented to other immigrants.
Some of the new arrivals from Latin America thought they too recognized a certain power in the spring. They would ask for water with which to wash their hair. Some mornings the Bermudezes found sacrificial roosters and jewelry tossed into the spring by Santeria practitioners who lived in nearby apartments. "One day my sister found a dead chicken with ribbons and coins floating in the spring, and she screamed and got hysterical," Donald Bermudez says. After that, the family fenced in their land and bought pit bulls to stand guard.
Though their neighbors changed, some things remained constant. Development, for example, continued to bypass the community. In the early Eighties another office tower boom on Brickell Avenue threatened to sweep west and clear out what remained of the old neighborhood. But the market crashed when a rush of construction caused a glut that coincided with a downturn in Latin American economies. The neighborhood survived.
That miniboom had its inauspicious beginnings in 1967, when Allen Morris, a fundamentalist Christian and advertising man turned real estate magnate, built an office tower on Brickell Avenue. At the time, people said he was crazy to purchase land in the area, recalls his son, William Allen Morris, who, in 1980, took over the company his father had founded. "No one would consider putting an office on Brickell because it was on the south side of the river," he says. But the elder Morris saw an opportunity few recognized: It was precisely West Brickell's location, near downtown, that would transform the area into prime real estate one day; as properties became available, he quietly bought them. "It looks pretty scrappy right now," says his son today. "The Brickell area is a long-term investment."
In the early days, Morris acquired some of the lots for as little as $40,000, according to Ishmael Bermudez, who watched as his neighbors gradually sold their homes and left. Eventually Morris became the major landowner in Southside. But like Mary Brickell before him, he didn't live to see his investments turn into a development reality. He died of pancreatic cancer this past January.
"Morris always wanted to own our house, but my father outlived him," says Donald Bermudez. (William Allen Morris claims not to know the house.) And today the immigrant renters wait fearfully as their developer landlords eagerly anticipate a real estate boom that has been half a century in the making.
"All of this will be gone," concedes Alfredo, a neighborhood fixture who spends most days sitting on his stoop on SW Tenth Street, smoking a cigar and enjoying a beer. He is unaware of the existence of the freshwater spring several hundred yards from where he sits. What he is aware of is the fellowship of the community in which he lives. Those who frequently travel the street between SW First Avenue and South Miami Avenue call Alfredo by name.
Originally from Cuba, Alfredo, who didn't want his surname included, worked as a clerk in the education ministry under then-Pres. Fulgencio Batista, though his true passion was wrestling. He competed all over the island and even in Mexico. Indeed, one look at his mittlike hands is enough to show that he would be a formidable foe. Not quite six feet, 63-year-old Alfredo is a man of ample girth, with a wide, round face reminiscent of the Spanish-language television personality Don Francisco. After a daughter came to the United States, Alfredo and his wife decided to follow in the mid-Eighties. "I had worked for the 'other' government," he says matter-of-factly of his treatment under the Castro regime. "Every time there was a problem, they came looking for me."
The marriage didn't fare well in Miami, and Alfredo found himself kicked out of his house. He rented an apartment in Southside and worked as a welder. A fall from a rooftop seven years ago shattered his knees, and walking has become an exercise in pain. Doctors refused to operate unless he slimmed down and eliminated some bad habits. Alfredo gave it a try but found no success in the effort. He moved into a room in a nearby house and adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. His knees are horribly swollen; one is the size of a cantaloupe, the other a grapefruit. The grapefruit he ruefully calls his "good one."
"Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed in the morning," says Alfredo, "but if I don't, I know I'll die." As grim as that may sound, Alfredo takes umbrage at pity. Not only is he a proud man, but -- he is happy to point out -- he is a wealthy man. "I might not have money," he explains, "but I have all my friends." As if on cue, an ice-cream truck slows down in front of the stoop and the driver shouts, "AHola, Alfredo!" Alfredo grins. A neighbor's puppy at his feet lifts its head for a second. The sun shines warmly on them both.
Throughout the morning dozens of people pass by, some from the neighborhood, some trekking from the office buildings on Brickell to the Metrorail. Nearly all slow to say hello in what seems to be a treasured part of their daily ritual. Alfredo smiles and bandies jokes, or compliments. He shows a formal courtesy to the women, and they in turn address him as one would a favorite uncle. The well-being of those who live around him is paramount, Alfredo says. He is a self-appointed neighborhood protector and not above helping convince suspicious characters that it's in their best interests to move along. Occasionally he helps out as a handyman, information clearing-house, and neighborhood message center. A man approaches, looking for an Ecuadorian who lives nearby, to discuss work at a restaurant. Alfredo promises to pass along the message. At Christmas his neighbors bring him food and liquor.
Alfredo doesn't have plans for the day when boom time comes to Brickell and he is forced to move. "I don't know," he says and changes the subject.
From his perch on the stoop, Alfredo is in perfect position to view his neighborhood. What he sees would make the old folks of Bermudez's youth feel right at home. Residents still sit together on their porches and watch the afternoon sun slide from the sky. At dawn's first light, kitchen doors open and dogs scamper down steps for a careful inspection of shrubbery. Children trudge along quiet streets on their way to school. On Sundays several brothers pour out of their house kicking a soccer ball along the way to Southside Park. Wild roosters roam the sidewalks. Off South Miami Avenue cats gather at kitchen doors of local eateries. In vacant lots cattle egrets forage for food.
Most of these scenes will soon disappear. On glossy drawings of planned shopping malls, Southside carries the designation "Brickell Village." The development strategy has convinced investors either to purchase available land or strike deals to build on the sites belonging to current owners like Morris. Designs are pored over by venture capitalists in sky-high conference rooms with breathtaking views of a shimmering Biscayne Bay. Raw land in Brickell Village that is zoned for multistory development now fetches between $65 and $75 per square foot, and retail sites sell for between $35 and $40, according to realtor Edie Laquer of Laquer Corporate Realty Group. The quasi-governmental Downtown Development Authority lists a half-dozen multimillion-dollar projects recently completed, under way, or set for groundbreaking within the next year just between South Miami Avenue and Third Avenue alone. The spurt of retail, commercial, and residential buildings promises to create a whole new neighborhood.
"This is all about the best use of land," says Patricia Allen, executive director of the DDA, a semiautonomous agency of the City of Miami. The people who live in the condominiums around Brickell and who work in the office buildings on Biscayne Bay have to drive long distances for amenities such as bookstores, movie theaters, or hair salons. "What you have is the highest expendable income in Miami without a retail product," says the DDA's Allen. "I think the demand is there." What she envisions is a hybrid of CocoWalk and Bayside.
Allen is standing on the corner of SW Eleventh Street and South Miami Avenue, in front of a vacant lot. Here, where most would observe only open grass, she sees rows of single family townhouses. Her speech is laced with phrases like "marketing product," "vectors," and "elastic demand." She is a booster for the Miami of the future. "We are a young city," she says. "Miami's destiny is bigger." But Allen is not entirely confident that the middle-class homes she sees for this spot will be built. "There is a lot of interest in residential mixed use, but fewer units are hard to do in an urban area," she sighs. "The difficult part is the cost of land."
The value of the land dictates tall buildings and fancy boutiques. Yet the allure of the neighborhood -- an oasis near downtown -- precludes skyscrapers and chain stores. This is a dilemma Allen understands. She hopes to marry the existing aesthetic with the market demand through pedestrian malls, family-oriented shopping centers, and state financing for mixed-income housing.
Market forces and decay will likely determine the fate of one large, ramshackle house -- the original Miami High School. Built to the north of the river in 1911, it was put on a barge and ferried to Southside. It served the community's children for three years before a stone structure replaced it. Abandoned as a schoolhouse, it became a residence.
In the late Seventies the old schoolhouse was home to a commune, and the street became Hippie Central as other old houses were rented by like-minded people. Down the street, where the parking lot of the El Banco Ganadero stands today, was an old boardinghouse that became known as Hotel Universe. Out front a 1960 Mustang rusted into a lawn ornament. By the Eighties, however, the scene had dissipated, and the hippies moved on.
"I wish somebody would do something with [the old schoolhouse]," says Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian and preservationist who lives further south on South Miami Avenue. "It's kind of a unique little school. It would be a great opportunity for a restaurant." She fears that Morris could easily be spooked into tearing down the property if he thought it would interfere with his development plans. Alma Shisseler, who has lived in the house for fourteen years, believes that it might be too late to halt the decay. When asked whether anything in West Brickell will be saved, Morris pauses thoughtfully. "There is just not much of architectural value over there," he replies.
Today, across the street from the former schoolhouse, not much is left except 63-year-old Roberto Chaviano. "I feel this place is holy," he says as he feeds his animals and talks about religion, one of his favorite subjects. Chaviano cares for scores of pigeons and abandoned cats and dogs in and around an old house, which he has turned into an animal shelter. He is always on the lookout for more strays as he drives the streets in his rusty white van. Chaviano doesn't reside in the ramshackle house he once lived in and rented for more than 25 years. In fact he doesn't even pay rent on it any more, freely admitting it has been about a year since he gave money to the owner, Allen Morris. Still, he can't imagine a change in his status quo: "Where will I put my animals?"
Donald Bermudez stands next to an ancient banyan tree, its long thick limbs shading a good part of the corner of SW Eleventh Street on the west side of the Metrorail on SW First Avenue. Legend has it that at the turn of the century, highway robbers and blacks were hanged from its branches. Nearby a new fourteen-story condominium rises from a construction site.
"It's just progress," explains Bermudez, gazing with resignation at the building. "Everything is going to be towers. Miami is an important place in the world."
Later, sitting on the rocks by his spring, he dips a beaker of clear water from the spring. A few yards away are holes his daughters, the next generation of Bermudez archaeologists, dug in the yard under their father's tutelage. There is a proper time to unearth the past, he believes. The old folks told him that he should keep the spring's location secret, but circumstances, he says, have changed.
The Bermudez family will eventually sell their home, says his father. "The house is worth pennies, but the land ..." Ishmael Bermudez's voice trails off. The family is already talking with adjacent property owners about the possibility of selling all their parcels as a piece.
The old patriarch stands by the spring. "I love this property," he declares. "It's my second home." He talks about surrounding the spring with high steel fences or including some sort of deed restriction to keep it safe, but there's little conviction in his voice. He is no stranger to the ways of the world. "It's a pity not
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