A hundred years ago, Miamians looking to mark their nation’s birthday didn’t have many places to celebrate: Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, the sleepy town’s social center, closed for summer, leaving the small namesake park in front, now long gone, as the populace’s best flag-waving option.
There was no Biltmore Hotel, no Bayfront Park. The downtown park, which Friday will draw tens of thousands to its long-running fireworks spectacular, would not be created from bay bottom until 1925.
Then, as now, Miamians looking for a good, old-fashioned Independence Day could find it in the quaint village of Coconut Grove, where Commodore Ralph Middleton Munroe hung a flag from the balcony of his bayfront house, the Barnacle, and gathered his neighbors around — probably the oldest July 4 celebration in what is now Miami, says historian Arva Moore Parks.
Today, it’s quite a different matter — a veritable embarrassment of riches, in fact. From Oleta River State Park to downtown Miami, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and Homestead, there is no shortage of public July 4 celebrations, of places to picnic and promenade and places from which to view the rockets’ red glare.
And the list is only growing.
The recent opening of Museum Park just north of Bayfront Park will give downtown visitors and residents an expansive, 19-acre alternative green perch from which to enjoy the popular patriotic pyrotechnics over Biscayne Bay.
The city hopes Miamians will take the opportunity to acquaint themselves with their newest waterfront park, whose future was briefly clouded by retired soccer star David Beckham’s short-lived plan to put a stadium in the middle of it.
“It’ll be a great place to lay out a blanket and watch the fireworks,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose office will host a daytime picnic at the park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The new park will remain open past nightfall. The Perez Art Museum will host an event for its members, at 7 p.m., also giving the art crowd a view of the rocketry, which launches at 9 p.m.
For everyone else, the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which also runs Museum Park, will have food vendors and food and security workers in place, though administrators don’t know what kind of crowd to expect given that the site, formerly Bicentennial Park, was closed for years.
“We don’t know what the response will be, but we’re planning on people to show up and we’re doing what we can to make them comfortable,” said Bayfront Park trust director Tim Schmand. “For generations people have used the entire waterfront to watch fireworks on the holiday. Museum Park will just add to that experience.”
And that’s not all.
The young municipality of Palmetto Bay will hold its first July Fourth shindig in Franjo Triangle, just east of its Village Hall, an area town leaders hope to mold into its downtown.
At Oleta River, visitors can rent a kayak or paddleboard from the park’s concession, Blue Moon Outdoor Center, enjoy a beach bonfire and watch several simultaneous fireworks displays from the water.
By next year, the Grove may have another waterfront relief valve for the crowds who pack Peacock Park for the village’s traditionally fiery sky show, at 9 p.m. also. Regatta Park is soon to be sodded at the site of the recently demolished expo center just to the north of Peacock Park.
“At Peacock, we’ll probably have about seven to ten thousand people, and we usually end up closing Bayshore Drive because of the crowd,” said Sarnoff, whose district includes Coconut Grove as well as downtown Miami.
Miamians can also come full circle at Munroe’s Barnacle, which he built in 1891 and today is a historic state park. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., its Old-Fashioned Fourth of July Picnic will feature live music, games, kids’ crafts, and a scavenger hunt. Munro would hang an American flag be brought from Concord, Mass., and read the Declaration of Independence, Parks said — a tradition park rangers carry on today.
Parks activists say they hope the new parks and the variety of July celebrations will instill civic pride and an appreciation of the city’s public spaces in its residents, who after all come from all around the world. Miami still ranks low on the list of park space per resident for major U.S. cities.
But that’s slowly improving, said Greg Bush, co-founder of the Urban Environment League, which has now twice successfully fought stadium proposals for the Museum Park site.
Bush said he hopes people drawn by the July 4 spectacles will be inspired to return to their parks when the crowds are gone, for a quiet picnic with their families or a paddle in the bay. It will be up to public officials to make sure that Museum Park and other civic spaces have amenities to bring people back time and again, he said.
“Waterfront spaces, even beyond the Fourth of July, can be so powerful in bringing people together from different cultures,’’ said Bush, a University of Miami historian who studies public spectacles. “In Miami, it’s buildings that are usually considered iconic. What a novel concept it would be that park can also be iconic. I have some hope for Miami if we can have these really well-designed public spaces that have amenities to bringing people there.’’
As for the Fourth, Schmand said, he would not be surprised to see dueling displays of firepower downtown in the future.
“I think that eventually we’ll be doing fireworks from more than one location downtown,” Schmand said.