One Sick Trickle

"!Barca!" An adolescent voice pierces the heavy midafternoon air. "!Barca! !Barca! !Barca!" Four others have joined the first; now five, six. Their voices fall into near-unison, like a song. Barefoot, the children stream out of their low-rent apartment building and across the scrabbly back lot off NW Eighth Street Road, skipping and spinning at the strange, wondrous sight of a canoe on Wagner Creek, the polluted stream that oozes sullenly by their home.

They cling to the chainlink fence that separates them from the water, a tributary of the Miami River. Upstairs, parents stare apathetically from their apartment windows. To them the vision confuses: a canoe on Wagner Creek, that fetid ditch cluttered with litter and rusted car parts and soggy furniture? But to the children it makes perfect sense: Of course there's a canoe on Wagner Creek. And more.

"I saw Flipper in there the other day! Really!" proclaims the biggest kid, a boy no older than six whose belly distends a Miramar Elementary School T-shirt. "Yesterday!" The other children spring up and down in assent. The sight of the canoe validates their most hopeful Huck Finn fantasies. "There are alligators in there. Crocodiles," reports another. No matter that it's been more than a decade since Dade's environmental officials last saw a mega-reptile of any sort wallowing in the shallows of the Miami River system. As for a dolphin that far upstream? Never. But to the kids, those are ignorant claims. For them Wagner Creek -- the most contaminated body of water in South Florida and perhaps even in the entire state -- has always been alive.

Indeed, were it not for the children and the homeless who have for years found refuge in the wild undergrowth of its banks, Wagner Creek would not exist. Sure, water would still flow along its two-mile course from Allapattah's Comstock Park to the Miami River, but who would care? The waterway is mostly blocked from public access and view, either by walls, fences, private property, and parking lots, or by a dense thicket. Its upper stretch -- half a mile long -- is actually underground, culverted in cement and inaccessible, unless you're a rat.

All in all, the creek calls to mind an age-old philosophical paradox: If a creek flows and no one notices, is the water really moving?

Wagner Creek roughly -- very roughly -- follows the route of a natural stream. Historically its headwaters were in the soggy Allapattah prairie, fed by the Biscayne Aquifer; it then meandered to the river. Over the years engineers have channeled and diverted it from its ancient path to allow for residential and commercial construction, turning it into a shallow drainage ditch for stormwater -- and trash and raw sewage and toxic pollutants running out of buildings and off the streets of central Miami. Its water sparkles in silver -- not from fish scales, but from a mosaic of soda and beer cans arrayed on the streambed. The surface glistens in rainbow hues: gasoline and oil. Where the gnarled roots of mangrove trees once plunged into the soft muck there are now shopping carts, stovetops, and bed frames half-submerged. The pollution is strangely and dangerously alluring: Drink this water, and you may die.

Recently observers other than the neighborhood children and the homeless have begun to embrace the creek as something more than a sewer. A small group of biologists, engineers, planners, and administrators from the City of Miami, Dade County, the federal government, the University of Miami, and the not-for-profit sector have begun to address the problems -- and potential -- of the stream. "We're focusing on Wagner Creek because the entire river is too big to try to tackle," explains Betty Fleming, executive director of the Miami River Coordinating Committee, which is leading the multiprong effort. "Also because the creek has the worst water quality in the state of Florida."

That, at least, is the popular assertion. Water- and sediment-quality tests rank Wagner Creek at the top of the list of contaminated waterways in Dade County. As for the ignominious statewide distinction, no formal studies have officially crowned Wagner Creek the filthiest. But the argument can be made this way: A report in the mid-1980s identified the Miami River as the most contaminated waterbody in the state based on the number and concentration of contaminants in the sediment; thus Wagner Creek, the river's most contaminated tributary, could rightfully claim the honors. As the creek goes, so goes the river.

The two streams meet at roughly the intersection of NW Fifth Street, North River Drive, and Seventh Avenue. It was near there, on the east side of the canal, that pioneer William Wagner built a mill in the 1850s to produce starch from the tubers of the native coontie plant. An army veteran, Wagner had moved to the infant settlement of Miami to open a sutler's store to serve military troops. He also built a homestead house near the creek. (Preservationists relocated the structure, the oldest-known home still standing in Dade, to Lummus Park in the 1980s.) At the time, the area was a wilderness of pine woods, the creek's waterline thick with mangrove. In fact, Wagner's settlement was so far out in the boonies that by the time the City of Miami was founded in 1896, his property still lay outside the city limits.

In 1913 a German immigrant named John Seybold, who had amassed a tidy fortune as a baker, snatched up a large swath of property around the mouth of the creek. On the land to the west he platted an exclusive subdivision named Spring Garden. He also straightened the lower reach of the creek -- from the river to Eleventh Street -- and (not a humble man) renamed it the Seybold Canal.

Gardnar Mulloy, who is now 83 years old, has lived in Spring Garden nearly his entire life. The home he grew up in was built by his father and was one of only three in the neighborhood during his childhood (Seybold's was one of the others). North of Spring Garden was the Miami Country Club's eighteen-hole golf course. Otherwise the area was completely undeveloped, the edge of the Everglades only two miles to the west (near present-day 27th Avenue). "Seminole Indians used to come through here. We would look at them in awe as they would go downtown to buy stuff," says Mulloy, an attorney and former professional tennis player who won the men's doubles championship at Wimbledon in 1957. "They'd come down from the Everglades on foot sometimes, or sometimes they'd come down in canoes. We just looked at them. They'd grunt and we'd say hello and they'd grunt."

Mulloy and his buddies would fish and swim in the creek. Sometimes they'd follow the waterway across the golf course and north into a huge pine forest. "It was wilderness up there," he recalls. "We used to go up and camp there. We thought that was quite a hike, up around 36th Street. There were only a few houses up there -- farmers, more or less."

Filmmaker Richard Stanton also recognized the wild beauty of the creek. In 1919 he chose Spring Garden and the Seybold Canal to film a movie called The Lucky Charm (later renamed Jungle Trail) starring silent-movie star William Farnum. For the project craftsmen built a movie set in the form of a Hindu temple. (The set inspired Seybold to build a house for himself boasting dome towers. The house still sits on the canal at Eleventh Street -- in a state of neglect and decay, however, despite its historic designation.)

The six-block-long Seybold Canal today is distinct from the rest of Wagner Creek for one main reason: It's a working waterway. Small-boat storage and repair warehouses line the east side; modest single-family homes of Spring Garden sit opposite. Speed boats, luxury yachts, lobster skiffs, and a houseboat claim the seawalls. The activity, though, barely conceals the environmental problems: A constant procession of trash leisurely drifts out to sea; aluminum cans and car and boat parts clutter the canal bottom.

North of Eleventh Street, Wagner Creek slides between low-income apartment buildings and a City of Miami's vehicle-storage area, through a culvert beneath State Road 836, next to parking lots in front of the State Attorney's Office, then zigs and zags through the Cedars Medical Center complex. Along the creek's course, the contents of a household or two have found a soggy, resting place: bedsprings, globs of clothing, cosmetics, a refrigerator, baby strollers, an infant car seat, a child's bicycle with training wheels, car tires, and, of course, shopping carts -- enough to stock a Publix. Plastic bags and fast-food wrappers, bound by puslike slime, have snagged in the low-hanging branches of exotic trees that have driven out nearly all the native species. The creek's banks are coated in Styrofoam: Coffee cups are dumped on the asphalt parking lots by well-caffeinated commuters on their way from car to office; wind and rainwater do the rest of the work.

The creek, which is an average of six feet deep and a dozen feet wide, continues due northwest from Cedars, slicing behind the VA Medical Center and, beyond the Seventeenth Street bridge, through a stretch so choked with sludge and weeds and litter as to make passage impossible by anything other than a strongly paddled canoe or kayak (recommended outerwear for the latter: a full-length drysuit). Past housing for the elderly and high-rise tenements, the next stretch is covered in a mat of hydrilla woven so thick that a tossed beer can -- or Voit playground ball or used condom or Hardee's cola cup with a straw -- would not touch water.

At Twentieth Street the creek disappears into an underground culvert that leads to the southeast corner of Comstock Park at Seventeenth Avenue and 26th Street, the historic headwaters of the creek. In the late 1950s the stretch that runs beneath the industrial and residential neighborhoods of Allapattah was buried under cement to help keep the creek litter-free.

When Harry Ledford moved into his quaint two-bedroom house on NW Thirteenth Court, his back yard sloped down to Wagner Creek and looked out over the golf course. That was 46 years ago. Twenty years ago he planted a bush that has grown into a thick, eight-foot-high wall of green. From his back yard it's nearly impossible to see the creek any more or, for that matter, the towers of the medical complex that has replaced the links.

Privacy and security were the main reasons he walled himself in. "Lost about ten bicycles, all kinds of gardening equipment," reports the retired Wometco vending-machine salesman, whose single-family home is one of only a few still located on the creek north of Eleventh Street and the Seybold Canal. Ledford also says the dense foliage cuts down on the noise from the parking lots and hospital buildings, as well as from the encampment of homeless men who sleep under the bushes on the other side of the creek. "I regard the creek as a minus now," says Ledford, a large man with a handlebar mustache and a glancing resemblance to Pres. William Howard Taft. "It's nothin' but a drainage ditch. I've been trying to get the city to do something since Hurricane Andrew -- all this shit blown into the canal. I think they got federal money or something, but the last city manager put it in his pocket. I talked to the city for two years. They'd say, 'Well, now. That's the county.' The county would say, 'Well, that's the city.' I finally gave up on it. I'm gonna get the heck outta here."

Ledford's next-door neighbor, attorney Alan Soven, has felt similar frustration but isn't leaving anytime soon. He recently constructed new offices on the creek. The city required him to get an $850 variance to build a parking lot next to the waterway. "Eight hundred and fifty dollars only because they called it 'waterfront property'!" he bellows. "What a joke! Tell me that's not a joke! Have you seen it?" Soven goes on without a breath. "Besides smelling horrendous, there's crap and garbage and most of the time you can't see the bottom. Once the police were chasing a guy who broke out of jail and the guy ran across the water. Ran right across my property and ran across the water! Do you believe that? This was the next reincarnation of Moses. Did Moses do that? Walk on water? Who walked across the water? Moses? Anyway," he says, resuming his harangue, "what is the city doing about it? I've been complaining for ten years. They don't care. They all point the finger: bureaucracy, ya know. They've done nothing about it."

Well, not exactly, but close. For years environmental regulators have been aware of the extent of contamination in the creek, including extremely high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus along with an overabundance of trace metals such as lead, copper, and cadmium. In addition, the concentration of fecal coliform bacteria, a reliable indicator of human and animal waste, has been measured at nearly 38 times the state water quality standard.

Government officials have also known the general causes of the creek's chronic contamination but have done little to rectify them. The sources are numerous: direct dumping of litter, as well as solid and industrial waste; rainwater washing trash and pollutants from parking lots and streets into the stormwater system, which drains into the creek; illegal connections between the wastewater and stormwater drainage systems; even some pipes carrying raw sewage directly from toilets and industrial drains into the waterway. The creek has on occasion turned pitch black from contamination and stunk like death -- "going septic" is what Robert Menge, Dade's river-enforcement coordinator, calls the phenomenon.

A year ago the City of Miami, which has primary jurisdiction over the creek, decided to do something about the scandal. Engineers wheeled in some heavy dredging equipment and scooped out about 1800 cubic yards of sludge and trash between Fourteenth Avenue and Comstock Park. (For the culverted section they used superpowerful water hoses to blast out the trash, which had clogged the pipes so that water could barely flow: an industrial-size enema.) Workers also retrofitted sewer piping, corrected illegal connections, and installed new drains that are supposed to filter out debris. They erected nearly 3000 linear feet of fencing along the creek's edge, removed pest plants such as Brazilian pepper, and planted 100 red-tip cocoplums and 160 sea oxeye daisies. The project cost $590,000 and took six months. Afterward the creek nearly sparkled.

Looking at the waterway today, you wouldn't know any work had ever been done. As one approaches the Twentieth Street bridge the canal is practically invisible under the trash and the hydrilla. The exotic plants have fought back and seem to be winning. City of Miami engineer Hector Badia admits that it's "frustrating" to watch all the city's hard work disappear for lack of maintenance funds and manpower, but he denies the project was a waste of time. "There's much more flow through the culvert now," he points out. Money is budgeted to continue the same work, in two phases, all the way down to the Seybold Canal. Badia says the next phases may commence as soon as the end of the year, but there's no guarantee.

More immediately, the Miami River Coordinating Committee is trying to rescue the creek. Its emphasis has been on the upper reaches and a very specific, one-square-mile area nearby. A multiagency task force has divided into groups to undertake specific tasks, including checking for illegal pipe connections to the creek, replacing antiquated pipes with new ones, boosting enforcement of city codes that govern waste disposal, and improving public education in the neighborhoods and schools to help cut back on littering and illegal waste disposal.

You need only a brief tour of Allapattah to clearly understand some of the reasons for Wagner Creek's degradation. And there may be no better guide than Sergio Guadix, the city's code enforcement inspector for the neighborhood, who estimates he's handed out more than 600 citations during the past two years. He heads straight for the wholesale produce market, twenty square blocks of warehouses between NW Twelfth and Seventeenth avenues that come alive every morning at about three o'clock and die off by eleven. Sidewalks and gutters are strewn with wilted vegetables and bruised fruit, as well as with crates and planks from freight pallets. Dumpsters overflow with the same. Some of this debris, Guadix says, will get pushed by hand or rainwater into the stormwater drainage system.

But the merchants aren't solely to blame for the mess. Guadix slowly drives his city-owned pick-up truck through the intersection of NW 22nd Street and Thirteenth Avenue. On the corner a man in tattered clothing and bare feet squats next to a couple of produce crates and peddles dubious-looking melons and avocados. Farther down the block two women are sleeping on the sidewalk under a blazing hot sun, one on an old mattress, the other stretched across three couch cushions. Similar tableaux of destitution are replicated on every block. Allapattah, Guadix explains, is an attractive place for the homeless to migrate. They get jobs helping unload boxes from produce trucks. In return they might get a couple of boxes to sell on their own. What they can't get rid of by morning's end they leave in the gutter, then for some it's off to score a rock of crack and a prostitute, both of which can be found in abundance in Allapattah.

"We were breaking our heads saying, 'Why do we have so much homelessness?'" Guadix remarks. "The reason is that everybody who gets arrested gets let off at the Dade County Jail ten blocks away and they come over here. They say, 'I've got food, drugs, sex here. I don't need to go anywhere.'"

The Miami River Coordinating Committee's task force and the attendant media coverage have helped correct the sloppy housekeeping by merchants and have corralled some of the homeless, says Guadix. "It's really clean now compared to how it usually is," he insists. But to the first-time visitor, the neighborhood looks a bit like Yasgur's farm post-Woodstock.

Not all of the neighborhood's deeper problems are readily apparent, though. "We have mostly absentee landlords -- the number's at about 60 percent, I think," Guadix continues. "That's why you have noncaring." And of course the pollution doesn't come only from the produce market: auto repair garages, fast-food joints, and private residences are among the creek's many sources of contamination. "In a way I'm glad that Wagner Creek is in that condition, because it's helped focus more attention on our problems," he says. "It's nasty to come to a place that's nasty."

Ironically, a row of warehouses burst into flames and burned to the ground the following day (fire inspectors are still investigating the cause). To architect Daniel Williams, who is participating in the Wagner Creek clean-up effort, the fire was a good thing. "I'm going to wait until they finish putting out the literal fire," he remarked the next morning, "and then I'm going to call Sergio [Guadix] and say, 'Lemonade!'" Williams, a research associate professor at the University of Miami's Center for Urban and Community Design, is the task force's visionary: He's leading an effort to draw up a master plan for Allapattah. To that end he organized an all-day charrette in July and invited representatives of various government agencies as well as neighborhood residents to attend and contribute their suggestions for a new and improved Allapattah.

The meeting wasn't exactly a populist success -- only a half-dozen residents and an equal number of business owners showed up, and most left well before lunch. Still, Williams and his team finished the day of brainstorming with bulging portfolios and their heads full of ideas. In Williams's view, careful long-range planning could transform Allapattah into an area of pleasant, tree-lined boulevards dotted with small parks and highlighted by a central park/shopping district like Seattle's Pike's Market. The centerpiece of the neighborhood would be a resuscitated and refurbished Wagner Creek, unculverted and accessible to the public, with a park running its entire length. "Like most of the water amenities we could have," Williams says, "we've turned our backs on it."

A guiding tenet of the plan is that Allapattah currently lacks a city center. Williams envisions one at NW Twentieth Street and Seventeenth Avenue. In addition, the neighborhood has several important economic engines -- including the produce market and the hospital complex -- that should be thought of as interconnected. This is what Williams, in planner-speak, calls "linkage." He goes on: "We need to tie together the hospital complex with the market. With Metrorail you could be at the market in four minutes to get something to eat, then in another five minutes be at the park." After lunch people could return to the hospital complex with a brisk walk along the creek. "The park, creek, rail, market all working independently but connected locally. It's incredible!"

The parks and other greenways throughout the community would serve as more than just recreational amenities. They would also store and cleanse water during heavy rainfalls, rather than letting the rain run directly into the drainage system and the creek. Such a plan obviously wouldn't happen overnight, Williams cautions. "The objective of master planning happens not in a vacuum but with the community," he says. "We need to set up incremental steps to get there. But," he adds, "the opportunities are phenomenal for this community!"

While idealistic, the plan isn't as incomprehensible as it first might appear. Indeed, the creek has not completely expired biologically. The water still supports aquatic life, however sparse: A few turtles and a variety of fish -- snook, needlefish, mullet, tilapia, brim -- somehow manage to survive in the creek's sordid depths. And in certain stretches, if you squint your eyes and hold your nose real tight, it's possible to see a beautiful urban waterway that the community could be proud of. The hallucination won't last forever, though. The human imagination is only so elastic.


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