At a City of Miami Commission meeting last Thursday, more than 50 men, women, and children crowded into the small gallery inside city hall. It was an unusual, impossible-to-miss crowd for a run-of-the-mill meeting. They all wore neon green shirts, for maximum impact, emblazoned with the message, "All we want for Christmas is our park."
The park they want is Douglas Park, a ten-acre green space on the corner of Douglas Road and SW 28th Street, just north of Coral Gables. The park was among several closed two years ago for toxic waste cleanup. But while most others have been reopened, Douglas hasn't. Even worse, as grass has grown wild, kids are still using parts of the park — and there's little information about whether toxic waste is still a problem.
"The fact is we need to know what's going on," says Ralph Rosado, a former city administrator. "It's bad for the quality of life and for the area businesses that have [closed]."
Rosado grew up visiting Douglas Park. He remembers playing on its quirky wooden playground and running around with other neighborhood kids. His own memories were a factor in his decision to move his young family back to the area about four years ago.
But then in November 2013, the city dropped a bombshell: High levels of contaminants had been found in the soil, the result of emissions from an old nearby incinerator. Douglas Park would be closed indefinitely until a comprehensive cleanup could be completed. So would numerous other area parks.
Except now, more than two years later, most of those parks have been reopened. Last year, a grassroots campaign helped reopen Merrie Christmas Park — a campaign that ultimately led to the election of organizer Ken Russell as a city commissioner.
The neighbors who loved Douglas Park — a crowd less affluent and influential than some of their Coconut Grove peers, Rosado notes — have been left in the dark. Yet even as the city allowed the park to slip into disrepair, with unmowed grass and forgotten facilities, some parts of the park, such as the basketball courts, were actually accessible, and many residents and kids, perhaps unaware of the park's past, simply played there anyway.
"The city is allowing people to play in a contaminated area," Rosado says.
That is, if the park is actually contaminated. Despite numerous efforts, Rosado and other neighbors haven't had any questions answered by city or county officials. Because parts of the park remain open, they wonder if there really is a danger or if anyone in local government has any idea what's going on with Douglas Park.
"Either a property is poisoned and toxic," Rosado says, "or it is not poisoned and toxic. And if it is... something needs to be done."
After last week's storming of the commission meeting, the city took notice at least. The next morning, Rosado says, a crew of a dozen maintenance workers was onsite, mowing grass that had been left uncut for months and cleaning up graffiti. But for Rosado and other neighbors, the actions were a band-aid.
After more than two years, the group wants answers. They want Douglas Park.
The City of Miami did not respond to New Times' request for comment on the status of the park cleanup.
Update: After this article was published, the office of Ken Russell contacted New Times to emphasize Russell's commitment to cleaning up Douglas Park and clarify that Russell had invited the Douglas Park advocates into last Thursday's meeting.
Here's the commissioner's full statement:
"As someone who initially got into public service to fix the contaminated park in front of my home, I have a special place in my heart for the concerns of residents living around Douglas Park. I understand the frustration of seeing the park closed for over two years and am pushing other elected officials to take the issue as seriously as I am taking it.
"Besides inviting the residents into the city commission chambers last week, I have met with the city parks and capital improvement directors to stress the importance of getting this solved. In addition, my office will be in attendance during a meeting tomorrow with the county environmental regulators, where we will push for a resolution to this issue now. We applaud the residents for taking charge of their own futures and pushing their government to do the right thing, and will continue to be with them every step of the way."