Your View: Fix our Park

Ralph Rosado is president of Rosado and Associates, an urban planning and economic development strategy firm based in Miami, a senior fellow at the FIU Metropolitan Center, and an instructor in graduate and professional programs at the University of Miami and Florida International University.

Ralph RosadoLike many native Miamians, I grew up playing in the city’s parks.  Dodgeball, monkey bars, baseball, frisbee – you name it, I played it.  One of my favorite parks was Douglas Park on 37th Avenue, about halfway between Coral Way and Bird Road.  At 10 acres, for many years it was one of the city’s largest parks and among the best parks for outdoor exercise and fun for people of all ages. I still live nearby, and as a parent now myself, I enjoyed taking my daughter and sons there after school or on weekends.

But in November 2013, the park was shuttered indefinitely after inspections found that Douglas and six other city parks contained unsafe levels of toxins in their soil, often a remnant of their former lives as dump sites.  The county explained that the city could not reopen the parks without a contamination clean-up plan approved by the county’s environmental regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).

Editor’s note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect the year of the closure. 

My kids asked almost every week about the park.  “Dad, when can we play there again?” became my boys’ mantra any time we drove on Douglas Road.  Frustrated by my inability to give them a reasonable answer, I did some digging of my own for an explanation of what was going on.  One by one, the other parks that had been closed down were cleaned up and reopened, but not so with Douglas Park.

The park’s small, windowless, bunker-like community building had been graffiti tagged with the ominous plea, “Fix My Park.”  The graffiti remained on the building, in plain sight of the thousands of cars that drive by the park each day, for several months.  The straw that broke the camel’s back?  The city ceased mowing the lawn at the park. It grew several feet high, with weeds protruding through the chain link fencing, taunting local families, including my own.

Disappointed at the inexplicable multi-year delay, in mid-December I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I contacted a handful of area residents who I knew were just as upset as I was.  We realized that the next city commission meeting – the last one for a month – was just days away.  That night we prepared a flier and went door-to-door on the blocks surrounding the park, urging neighbors to join us for a protest at City Hall.  No one had any idea what was going on with Douglas Park, and it wasn’t hard to find people as frustrated as I was.

One woman explained that she was struggling to sell her home – which she needed to do because she was trying to move out of state to care for her elderly mother – but couldn’t find potential buyers because of the contaminated park nearby.  Others feared the drug activity that they suspected was becoming common at the now-dark park, as park lights were broken or kept off due to the park closure. Several people fretted about how three area restaurants – including a pizza store and an ice cream shop, longstanding neighborhood institutions – closed down due to the loss of foot traffic from the park.

A few nights later, 60 of us gathered in front of the City of Miami City Hall, wearing matching t-shirts reading “All we want for Christmas is our park back.”  TV crews interviewed us. Newly minted Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the park, secured an opportunity for me to speak at the podium as my neighbors packed the commission chambers.  Our presence appeared to catch everyone by surprise, and city officials apologized for the two-year neglect of the park, explaining that they were at an impasse with DERM over a suitable remediation strategy.

The effect was immediate. By the next evening, the overgrown grass was mowed, graffiti was painted over, and broken park light bulbs were replaced.  Within days the city and county came to an agreement about how to address the contamination issues; it would be through a combination of hauling out contaminated soil, covering contaminated areas with special liners, and adding one to two feet of clean fill in order to prevent exposure.  And within weeks an architecture firm was retained to redesign the park, including a new, true community center in place of the rundown bunker in place.

According to the city, reconstruction of the park is expected to begin in April, with an estimated completion date of December 2016.  I expect to be at the grand re-opening, with my rambunctious kids and a host of patient, hardworking neighbors that decided enough is enough. Fix our park!

Local government has a responsibility to provide its residents with quality services in exchange for their valuable tax dollars.  Residents should never hesitate to speak up when their government is not serving them well; they must never hesitate to ask uncomfortable questions of their local leaders.

I was happy to serve as spokesperson on this issue. Find that person in your neighborhood that can champion your cause or – better yet – be that person, that voice for the voiceless.  Rally your own neighborhood troops and get them to city hall to address the issues that affect your daily life – traffic, crime, poor social services, whatever they may be.  Urge them to speak up whenever and wherever necessary.  Your neighborhood will be all the better for it.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it here.