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This is the latest installment of an occasional series called Where We Live, highlighting South Florida neighborhoods. Previous articles have visited North Beach, Redland, Pembroke Pines and the Miami River area.
Mention Key Biscayne and visions of beaches, mansions and, if you’re a certain age, Richard Nixon’s winter White House come to mind. But the Key Biscayne of 2016 is so much more.
Cruise down its famous Crandon Boulevard and there are high-rises (lots of them) and businesses, notably ones catering to the key’s increasingly cosmopolitan population. For such a small area — 5 miles long by 1 1/2 miles wide — the quality and diversity of eateries is astounding.
Veer onto one of the residential streets and on a typical workday, when the mainlanders haven’t invaded, you’ll pass couples tooling around in golf carts and uniformed nannies pushing strollers. The ubiquitous roundabouts are a nod to the increase in traffic.
Yet longtime Key rats, as they call themselves, say the relaxed island lifestyle is still very much part of the experience, only updated with more cars, more services and more families.
“It’s still very much like a large neighborhood,” says Melissa White, executive director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation. “There’s still a small-town feeling to it. You know your neighbors, and you run into the same group of people all the time.
White, 40, was born and raised on the Key, and although she recognizes some of the old-timers’ complaints about growth, she firmly believes the island has improved with age.
“Where else can you live on a barrier island that is just 10 minutes from a major international city?” she asks.
Along with development and population have come better services for residents and a “really great” community center and village green that didn’t exist when White was growing up. This, she adds, was a result of the village incorporating back in 1991, the first new city in Miami-Dade to do so in 50 years.
As it celebrates 25 years of incorporation, Key Biscayne is home to an estimated 14,000 people. Like the rest of the county, it is mostly Hispanic. There are churches and real-estate offices, boutiques and travel offices, churches and a Chabad Jewish learning center. While there are longtime private schools and a K-8 public school center, residents were thrilled when a partnership between the Village and the Miami-Dade public school district gave local kids access to the Maritime and Science Technology Academy magnet school campus. It is the Key’s first public high school.
For easy reference, the island can be divided into thirds: Crandon Park — a Miami-Dade park — on the north and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the south, with the incorporated residential area sandwiched in the middle. As the southernmost barrier island off the continental United States, the Atlantic Ocean borders it on the east and Biscayne Bay on the west.
Although many of the physical and population changes have happened more recently, the Key has an illustrious history that dates back centuries. Many longtime Miamians know it as the home of the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County — the historic lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, originally built in 1825 and then rebuilt more than 20 years later. But the Key was popular long before the white man discovered it.
For the Tequestas, “it was a site from which they could escape the inland heat, enjoy the cool prevailing trade winds, and find food and fresh water; it was a fishing and whaling village,” Joan Gill Blank, the Key’s historian, wrote in her 1996 book “Key Biscayne: A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse.”
Yes, whaling. While writing her book, Blank found records mentioning whales as a source of food for the earliest residents.
Centuries later, in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon claimed Key Biscayne for the king of Spain and named the island Santa Marta. The island would change hands a few more times until its modern history, including the years when John Dubose, the first keeper of the Cape Florida lighthouse, his wife Margaret and their children became the first American family to take up permanent residency on the Key. However beautiful the scenery, it was far from an easy life. The 1835 hurricane damaged the lighthouse, and in 1836, native Americans, forced south by the Seminole Wars, burned it down. (Dubose had sailed to Key West days earlier, to attend a birthday celebration his family had planned for him, but one of the two men at the lighthouse was killed in the attack.) About 10 years later, the lighthouse would be rebuilt to its current height, 95 feet.
In 1908, after failed dreams of developing the island as a health resort and aborted attempts by the Davis family to establish a town in 1839, William John Matheson developed a coconut plantation and fruit groves on the southern tip of the key. He would eventually build a community on the plantation, a nine-hole golf course and the Jamaica Inn as the island became populated.
His children would later donate the northern half of the Key to the public (what is now known as Crandon Park) in exchange for a causeway to link the Key to the mainland. That causeway, named after World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, opened in 1947, and the island changed irretrievably.
In the southern end, James Deering, he of Viscaya and Deering Estate fame, bought the Cape Florida tract with the intent to make it an international resort. Although he rebuilt the lighthouse plantation, the resort dream never came to fruition before his death in 1925. In 1948, Jose Manuel Aleman, a Cuban exile, bought Cape Florida for $1.5 million as an investment, but his widow eventually sold the property for a hefty gain nine years later. In 1964, Miami News editor Bill Baggs led the fight to purchase the land for a park. The property was opened to the public in 1967.
Blank, who moved to the Key with her first husband in 1951, remembers the island when it was a new community forging an identity. She kept a dinghy at the beach and attended bonfires where neighbors gathered to cook a meal.
“Everybody was known as a new settler,” recalls Blank, now 88. “You’d walk to the beach and catch a fish for dinner. It was a very relaxed, casual way of life, of being one with nature.”
And although many of those settlers resisted development, the high-rises and single-family homes became unavoidable starting in the 1950s and ’60s. Some of those Mackle homes, she adds, are now being torn down to build more modern — and ostentatious — structures.
Even as development hopscotched around its middle, Key Biscayne has remained an attractive destination for both movie stars and politicians. Longtime residents are proud of calling it the Island Paradise.
“What hasn’t changed,” explains White of the community foundation, “is the ability to enjoy the natural resources. They’re all still here.”
Where To Go
Food and Drink
100 Percent Natural Restaurant, 180 Crandon Blvd., #101, 305-365-0455, 100naturalrestaurant.blogspot.com
Archie’s Gourmet Pizza, 600 Crandon Blvd, 305-365-5911
Artisan Kitchen & Bar, 658 Crandon Blvd., 305-365-6003, artisankitchenandbar.com
Atlantica Fish House, 3501 Rickenbacker Causeway, 305-361-0177, atlanticafishrestaurant.com
Ayesha Saffron Indian Restaurant, 328 Crandon Blvd., 786-953-4761
Boater’s Grill, 1200 Crandon Blvd (Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park), 305-361-0080, lighthouserestaurants.com
Cantina Beach, 455 Grand Bay Dr., (beachside at the Ritz Carlton) 305-365-4500
Cioppino, 455 Grand Bay Dr. (Fine dining at the Ritz Carlton), 305-365-4156
Costa Med Bistro + Wine, 260 Crandon Blvd., #46, 305-361-7575, costamedrestaurant.com
Donut Gallery Diner, 83 Harbor Dr., 305-361-9985, donutgallerydiner.com
El Gran Inka, 606 Crandon Blvd., 305- 365-7883, graninka.com
Fairways on the Key Bar & Grill, 6700 Crandon Blvd. (at the Crandon Golf Course), 305-361-6010
Kasumi Modern Japanese, 260 Crandon Blvd., 305-361-2675, kazumirestaurant.com
La Boulangerie Boul’Mich, 328 Crandon Blvd, #125, (305) 365-5260, laboulangerieusa.com
Le Macaron French Café, 260 Crandon Blvd., #40, 305-400-8744,
Lighthouse Café, 1200 Crandon Blvd. (at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park), 305-361-8487
Lisboa Grill, 328 Crandon Blvd., Ste. #112, 305-967-8826
Milanezza, 700 Crandon Blvd., 305-646-1001, milanezza.com
Nahuen Patagonia Flavors 260 Crandon Blvd., 305-361-0662, nahuen.com
Novecento, 620 Crandon Blvd., 305-362-0900, novecento.com
Oasis Café, 19 Harbor Dr., 305-361-9009
Origin Asian Bistro Sushi, 200 Crandon Blvd., #112, 305, 365-1260
Pita Pockets, 180 Crandon Blvd., 786-762-2561, pitapocketsfl.com
Puntino Pizza, 260 Crandon Blvd., 305- 361-6252, puntinopizza.com
RUMBAR, 455 Grand Bay Dr., (at the Ritz Carlton) 305-365-4500
Rusty Pelican, 3201 Rickenbacker Causeway, 305-361-3818, therustypelican.com
Sir Pizza, 712 Crandon Blvd., 305-361-5701
Stefano’s Wine & Liquor, 328 Crandon Blvd #122, 305-361-7007, stefanoswineliquors.com
The Golden Hog, 91 Harbor Dr., 305-361-1300, thegoldenhogmarket.com
Tutto Pizza Pasta, 328 Crandon Blvd., #111, 305-361-2224, tuttopizzapasta.com
EVENTS AND PLACES
Crandon Park, 6747 Crandon Blvd., beach, boat ramps and dock, golf, nature trails and other activities, 305-361-5421
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., among the top ten beaches in the country and has the oldest standing structure in Miami (the lighthouse), 305-361-5811
Miami Seaquarium, 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway, 305-361-5705
The Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce publishes an annual guide to events. It’s also the go-to place for listings of annual events, tours, water sports, boat rentals and outdoor activities. Keybiscaynechamber.org, 305-361-5207
Key Biscayne Home Tour in February, sponsored by the Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce, 305-361-5207, keybiscaynechamber.org
Heritage Days in March, sponsored by Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 305-361-8779, floridastateparks.org/capeflorida,
Taste Paradise, sponsored by Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce, 305-361-5207
Winterfest Boat Parade, sponsored by the Key Biscayne Yacht Club, kbyc.org, 305-361-9171