Circle Jerks

I wanted to be supportive. I tried to like it. But I'm sorry, I think all the hoopla surrounding the Miami Circle is just asinine. How in the world did a hunk of limestone with a giant septic tank in the middle of it become the most important issue in Miami-Dade County?

And now the public is supposed to spend millions, probably tens of millions of dollars preserving this, this ... well, what the hell is it? Shouldn't we know what we're buying?

The very first story about it was written on December 28 by Herald staffer Sabrina Walters, who authoritatively stated that the circle was carved 4000 years ago by Indians and quoted local historian Paul George as saying: "It shows tremendous intelligence on their part, carving something using rudimentary tools."

Tremendous intelligence?
It's a goddamn circle! My nephew is five years old and he can draw a circle.
A couple of weeks later the Herald weighed in again, and this time writer Martin Merzer told us the circle may only be 2000 years old. Later he knocked that down to 500 years. Pretty soon we're going to find out it was dug in 1963 and there's an old Chevy under it.

Merzer is the self-appointed propaganda minister for the circle and has led the Herald's crusade to save it. His first story appeared on January 3, a flowery offering about a "devoted band" of archaeologists he described as "sun-wrinkled Indiana Joneses." The site was repeatedly portrayed as "sacred," and Merzer warned that "the immutable clock of development is tick-tocking" and that "bulldozers loom on the horizon."

Two weeks later Merzer was back with another front-page Sunday story, this one carrying the dramatic headline, "The Past in Peril." The story begins: "Can a downtown developer be persuaded to preserve evidence of an ancient civilization? Can a scandal-plagued city preserve a bit of its soul? Can art and science -- a sculptor working with space-age materials -- preserve a scrap of history?"

Can a reporter get a grip on reality?
"Neither the developer nor the city seems willing or able to stop bulldozers from rolling by the end of February," Merzer sadly revealed. Next came a Merzer story about ordinary folks "spontaneously launching grassroots campaigns to preserve the Miami Circle."

Spontaneous? Apparently I've been misusing that word for years. I thought it meant "happening or arising without external cause" -- at least that's what it says in my dictionary. But I guess it really means "to be harangued mercilessly into action by a shameless press."

Then there were the Herald editorials. The first one was reasoned and measured and asked officials to do what they could to salvage the circle. The second, though, on February 2, was downright apoplectic: "For goodness's sake, people, the Miami Circle is about to give its life for a condo parking garage! This is a horror on the level of a church desecration -- made worse because the community may sit idly by while it occurs."

Take that, Miami, you soulless bastards!
The editorials soon gave way for the Herald's columnists to espouse their uniformly unoriginal, politically correct beliefs that the circle must be spared. TV news directors naturally followed the paper's lead, dispatching camera crews and reporters to the circle site, blaring the latest developments morning, noon, and night, and helping to whip up a frenzied sense of urgency.

And once TV gets involved, you know the politicians can't be far behind. County Mayor Alex "Klieg Lights" Penelas, never afraid to tackle an issue that has overwhelming public support, declared he would do everything possible to save the circle and turn the site into a beautiful new park. During one of his many press conferences, the mayor decried the fact that there isn't a signature park along Miami's river. He deadpanned that all "world-class cities" have beautiful parks along their waterways.

What gall. Where was all this concern for waterfront parks when he was ramming through a new, taxpayer-subsidized basketball arena on Biscayne Bay? Thanks to Penelas's "leadership" on that issue, we now have this immense eyesore on the bay. Let me be the first to say it: The new American Airlines Arena is ugly! It is completely out of proportion to everything around it. It is a blight on downtown Miami and I wish it had burned to the ground.

On February 18 Penelas urged the county commission to authorize county attorneys to begin condemnation procedures to seize the land containing the circle. That commission meeting will stand forever in my mind as a monument to the stupidity of this issue. One of the speakers was a Native American who spoke for five minutes in halting, broken English. He was surrounded by an additional half-dozen Native Americans, and together they were the saddest-looking group of Indians I've seen in my life. Remember the television commercial from the Seventies featuring the noble Indian standing by the side of a littered highway as a tear runs down his cheek? Well, the group of Indians who appeared before the county commission last month made that guy seem like a carefree, giddy fool.

I've watched the videotape of that meeting several times, and I'm still not sure what that particular gentleman told commissioners. In the beginning he said something about how the newcomers slaughtered the indigenous people, and then there was something about him wanting to see proof that the owner of the circle site had paid the slaughtered indigenous people for the land, and then there was some stuff about the sky, and then he told the commission to "do the right thing," and when he finished, the chambers burst into applause.

At another point in the meeting, a Native American woman walked up to one of the microphones and chanted for two minutes. I have no idea what that meant, either.

A pair of elementary school kids also testified. Sort of. They stood at the podium and giggled for several seconds. "How do you feel about the circle?" Commissioner Katy Sorenson asked.

"Good," one of them replied before both ran off.
Everyone in the chambers laughed and cooed over the adorable tongue-tied tykes. Who needs facts or reason when you've got sorrowful-looking Indians and freckle-faced youngsters on your side?

The vote was never in doubt. Commissioners voted ten to one to file suit and seize the land. The only surprise is that commissioners didn't join hands afterward and sing "Kum Ba Ya."

Pesky questions over how much this will cost were brushed aside. The developer, Michael Baumann, paid eight million dollars for the land. Plus he's entitled to recover all his costs in planning and designing the buildings. He may even be entitled to receive a portion of the profits he stood to make had the development been built. That could drive up the price to $20 million or $30 million.

Last week Baumann's attorney, Stanley Price, told me that because the county believes the circle is a priceless discovery, the amount the county might have to pay could climb even higher. Baumann is entitled to a fair price for the land, Price noted, adding, "What's a fair price for an archaeological treasure?"

Commissioners say it is important to preserve our past. I agree. I only wish they were as concerned about the people who are struggling to survive today. Among the nation's major metropolitan areas, Miami is the fourth-poorest city. Imagine what $30 million could do if it were spent wisely in Overtown and Little Havana, the difference it could make in the lives of the people who live in those blighted communities.

The county has no idea where it is going to get the money to pay for the circle. Perhaps Penelas can borrow a page from the new arena's book and sell naming rights for the circle to some corporation. Burger King might be willing to chip in, but only if they change the name from The Circle to The Whopper. "It kind of looks like a Whopper," one Burger King official noted as I was picking up lunch from her at the drive-thru window.

How about the BellSouth Miami Circle? They could use the circle in ad campaigns, make it look like an old rotary phone. Very hip. Very retro.

Speaking of corporate donations, since this is the Herald's crusade, how much is Knight Ridder willing to pony up to help buy the land? Will Marty Merzer and the other members of the propaganda mill at 1 Herald Plaza offer a tithe from their paychecks so those sun-wrinkled Indiana Joneses can continue their work?

And what the heck, how about a little of that Miccosukee and Seminole bingo money?

Folks like to point toward all the excitement surrounding the circle as proof that this is a caring community, one that can rally around an important issue. The only thing I think it proves is how easily distracted we can be. Right now Miami is like a child fascinated with a shiny new penny. Of course if it were a penny, we'd actually know what it was worth.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede