Thursday, January 19, 2006

Talking Local History

The Oleta River State Park is a large urban park that preserves a bit of wilderness in the heart of the metropolitan Miami area. I've been living nearby for what will be fifty years come November, and remember when it was truely wilderness, mangrove swamp much the same as you find in the Eveglades where it meets Florida Bay. Here it borders the northern reaches of Biscayne Bay and the Oleta River. When I was a kid it was called the Graves Tract, and I have no idea what great plans that Graves, whoever he was, had for this piece of swamp land back before World War II. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a government "make work" program during the Great Depression in the 1930's, had created a grid of mostly overgrown "mosquito control ditches" to get some tidal flow closer to the inhabited area along U.S. 1. Still, the mosquitos at the Boulevard Drive-In Theater no doubt kept many a teenage couple from much in the way of disrobing in the back seat.

By the early 1970's word got out that somebody planned on covering the tract with hi-rise condominiums and local conservationists and civic activists got the City of North Miami to float a bond issue to save the tract from development. In order to pay off the bond the city cut a deal to set up a company, Munisport, to develop the area that was already far from pristine, into a sports complex and golf course. They'd put in a landfill for city refuse saving us a fortune in fees to the county. The rest of the tact would remain untouched and the sports complex would be on the filled in land. Eventually the state of Florida kicked in some money and developed the state park on the northern half of the property, and opened a branch of Florida International University just south of that. The city built a new sports stadium used by the local high schools. Since no plan is perfect, eventually it was decided to do a long term lease on the remaining filled in land and yup, a hi-rise development by the name of Biscayne Landing is going in after all, but it's only a small fraction of the original plan of 35 years ago.

Back during the Munisport days I was flying over the tract nearly every week in a helicopter taking progress photos. At the time I was working for the North Dade Journal as well as doing public relations photography for the city and for Munisport. There was a small heliport right there on U.S. 1 back then, and as much as I have a fear of heights I couldn't resist the money. The first time you sit in a chopper with the door removed (so it's not in your way) is a real experience! I never did drop anything, though, and always started out with three cameras loaded so a film change aloft was rarely required. The pilot would circle, banking the craft so I was shooting down at an angle without having to lean out.

The South Florida Fishing Club, of which I'm a member, holds its annual barbeque at the park, as do many local clubs and civic organizations. As usual I'm recording my adventures with the 15mm lens on my Bessa L, or sometimes a Leica body, getting all my friends on film for posterity, and usually eating too much.


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