Watson Island and the unending fight for public space

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WATSON ISLAND:</span> Aerial view shows the unfinished tunnel and area to be developed along the water.
WATSON ISLAND: Aerial view shows the unfinished tunnel and area to be developed along the water.


The 1960s-era images of the Goodyear blimp hovering over Watson Island speak to a time not just in Miami, but in the United States, when the struggle over public spaces seemed not to be on the brink of being lost.

The blimp used to moor on the little manmade island not far from downtown Miami, in Biscayne Bay, until the launch base was shut down, as Miami decided to try to attract developers instead. Since then, the tiny strip of land deeded to the city of Miami in 1919 for public use has been the object of struggle between the forces of development and the remaining advocates for green space.

It has been dreamed of as the site of a theme park or a marine exposition center, and even the base for a heliport. Now, the latest plans call for the island to be a playground for the rich and fabulous. Well, hey, if that’s good enough for South Beach .

New York has seen similar struggles. The creation of Central Park in the heart of the city eight years before the Civil War displaced rural pig farmers who toiled in the swampy, unwanted land down the center strip of Manhattan, along with a convent, a school and the residents of Seneca Village, home to about 270 black freedmen.

The seizure of the land by eminent domain scattered the congregation of AME Zion Church, which served Seneca Village, and the displacement was viewed as an act of fiat, pulled off by wealthy elites in New York high society who wanted a convenient place to prance in their private, horse-drawn carriages. And it was viewed by social reformers as a way to draw the working stiffs out of the saloons and into the open air.

The park caused an upheaval in a city still struggling to bring cohesion to the volatile mixture of Irish, Scottish, German, Dutch and African-American residents. But once it existed, the concept spearheaded by Frederick Law Olmsted ultimately became the “great lawn” of all New Yorkers; as beloved by working-class baseball clubs as by the rich carriage class.

Today, you can still ice skate in Central Park for $12. And you can still stroll or sprawl out on the grass and enjoy the best part of the city in the spring and summertime for free. It doesn’t put a dollar into a developer’s pocket, but it’s wonderful. And it’s permanent.

Americans have had a long, unending conversation about how much of our open spaces to preserve for and by the public. We are always at war over the question of profit versus public good. A partial list of examples culled from current headlines would include: the frightening occupation of public lands by armed militias who’ve streamed into Nevada to defend a scofflaw rancher, and who have added to the insult by ramming their ATVs through pristine, Native American lands just to show they can; the unending tug of war between timber cutters and strip miners and the statuesque forests of the great northwest; the extractive industries who covet the Black Hills; the developers seeking to mop up the Everglades with melaleuca trees to make way for one more strip mall and one more housing development.

So it’s not surprising that Watson Island has long been coveted, too.

Already, it’s dotted with tourist attractions: the Miami Children’s Museum and Jungle Island, which at least you can say are there for public use — even if at an exorbitant price. The new plan, to lard Watson Island with luxury retail and housing, festooned by a mega-yacht marina, seems a sad end to what could have been a rare gasp of open, waterfront space for a city that’s already cluttered with development.

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