Before there was a Brickell Avenue or a Flagler Street or a Tuttle Causeway, before there was an Interstate 95 or a Dolphin Expressway, before every spectacular boom and bust of Miami real estate, there was the Miami River.
This is where the Tequestas settled, where early pioneers lived and traded, where the Royal Palm Hotel, Miami’s first major tourist attraction, welcomed well-heeled snowbirds.
Modern Miami owes its very existence to this navigable waterway. In fact, “Miami” is a Tequestan term for sweet water. Yet for decades the Miami River was the forgotten route of a community marching ever westward, a murky mess that was the site of some of the city’s most embarrassing moments.
No more. The River is making a comeback. Its 5 1/2 miles have become the focus of both a land grab and a restaurant renaissance.
“That’s where it all started,” says Miami Dade College historian Paul George, who grew up by the banks of the river and now hosts tours of it. “With the flight to the suburbs it lost its luster for a while, but there’s been a resurgence of interest.”
A return to glory
Think of the Miami River and its environs as an area on the verge, a place becoming — or, more accurately, returning to its old glory. South Beach before SoBe. Brickell before the millennials. But with a difference. None of those neighborhoods have the historical pedigree nor the grit and (forgotten) glamour of the river, with its freighters and yachts and tugboats and marinas and boatyards and fishermen and condos and parks and Native American relics.
“This is a working river,” says Luis Garcia, whose family owns the venerable Garcia’s Seafood Grille & Fish Market. “There are freighters, there are fishermen, there’s noise. You’re not going to have gondolas for hire here.”
And that’s exactly how he likes it. Not only does he work on the river, Garcia lives on it, describing it as an iconic place: “Our heart and soul.”
The Miami River pushes in from Biscayne Bay north of Southeast Fifth Street and dips as far south as Seventh Street before resuming its northwesterly chug through the city. The river officially ends around 25th Avenue, where it becomes the Miami Canal, though many residents still refer to it as the river. It touches some of Miami’s oldest and most important neighborhoods: Downtown, Brickell, Overtown, East Little Havana, the Civic Center/Health District, Allapattah and Grapeland Heights.
One cannot talk Miami history without mentioning the river again and again. The Miami Circle, at the south banks of the river’s mouth, is a 2,000-year-old stone circle that was a Tequestan Indian village. Practically every important Miami settler made a home there. Even one of the largest police corruption scandals can trace its lineage to its waters. In the 1980s, drug smugglers drowned in the polluted waters after fleeing from rogue cops, who intended to steal cocaine from them.
Distinct and historic
Some unusual parks sit on the river banks as well. Lummus Park on the north bank is home to Fort Dallas, which was originally built in 1844 as slave quarters for the William English plantation. The building was disassembled and moved from the mouth of the river to this park. Lummus is also home to the Wagner Homestead, the county’s oldest standing house. On the south banks, E.G. Sewell Park, named after an early city mayor and chamber of commerce president, is an often overlooked gem, an urban oasis shaded by towering palms.
One of the city’s most distinctive neighborhoods hugs the river’s northern banks. The historic Spring Garden, with its eclectic mix of old stately houses and low-rise buildings, was once home to Miami Herald editor Frank Stone and his daughter and Everglades champion, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
But when Ernie Martin moved there in the 1970s, his friends thought he was crazy. Everyone else was moving out to the ’burbs.
“They thought I was forced here for economic reasons, but for me the river was fascinating,” Martin says. “It provided a great panorama of Miami.”
As a working waterway, the Miami River turns industrial in places, residential in others, seedy here and there but also luxurious, where impressive hotels provide a view of fishing boats bringing in their hauls of lobster, stone crab, grouper and other seafood delicacies. That, says Horacio Stuart Aguirre, river resident and chairman of the Miami River Commission, is part of its unique flavor, a charm he would like to improve on.
“This is a place like no other,” Aguirre brags. “It’s a brand, a great product that is a work in progress.”
The Miami River Commission was created in 1998 by the Florida Legislature to improve the river and its surroundings after two grand-jury reports were scathingly critical of the community’s neglect for the historical treasure. As the river’s official advocate, the commission is the clearinghouse for all projects and policy related to the river — and Aguirre is a suitable champion.
A romantic appeal
His first memories of Miami, in 1953, are of looking out at the river from a hotel room. Now Aguirre envisions the river returning to its old glory but with all the modern amenities of the 21st century. He wants it to be a centerpiece of Miami just as other rivers are inextricably identified with some cities — the Potomac, the Charles, the Savannah and the San Antonio.
“There has always been a romantic appeal to a river,” he says. “No one has made a movie about I-95, but they have made movies about rivers. Rivers have a poetic mystique to them.”
This poetic mystique may be an attraction for developers snapping up riverside parcels, but most likely it’s something more practical. The river provides Miami’s last chance at affordable waterfront. As a result, there’s been a flurry of development.
A sampling: $125 million for a vacant property at 300 Biscayne Blvd.; Related Group’s $104 million purchase of 444 Brickell; the Chetrit Group’s $100 million purchase of a southbank lot. Much-hoped retail is coming: River Landing, on the site of the old Mahi Shrine Auditorium near the civic center, includes a mall.
Some of the city’s best seafood restaurants — Casablanca and the historic Garcia’s — as well as some of its poshest — Zuma at the Epic Hotel, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse and The Capital Grille — have been joined by such newcomers as Seaspice and Crust. In the works are restaurants in new developments, including the Miami River Yacht Club and a SushiSamba with reports of its sister brand from London, Duck & Waffle.
This interest has been a long time coming. When developer Lissette Calderon opened Neo Lofts on the river in 2004, the waterway was still an afterthought for many, though the project was completed and sold in 18 months. It would take almost a decade for others to notice.
And notice they have. Luis Blanco, general manager of Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill, has been working there since 2000, when “you parked your car a block away and you came back and it wasn’t there.”
This is no longer true and he sees “the river I fell in love with” as a destination where both Miami-Dade residents and tourists can come visit.
“The neighborhood has changed not 100 percent but 200 percent,” Blanco says. “It’s not quite there, but we’re working on it, we’re getting there.”
Where to go
FOOD & DRINK
Garcia’s Seafood Grille and Fish Market, 398 NW North River Dr., 305-375-0765, garciasmiami.com.
Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill, 400 NW North River Dr., 305-371-4107, casablancaseafood.com.
Seaspice, 412 NW North River Dr., 305-440-4200, seaspicemiami.com.
Crust, 668 NW Fifth St., 305-371-7065, crust-usa.com.
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, 315 S. Biscayne Blvd., 305-487-7130, wolfgangssteakhouse.net.
Il Gabbiano, 335 S. Biscayne Blvd., 305-373-0063, ilgabbianomiami.com.
Lite Lounge, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, 305-424-5226, epichotel.com.
Area 31, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, 305-424-5234, area31restaurant.com.
Zuma, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, 305-577-0277, epichotel.com.
Riverwalk Café, 400 SE Second Ave., 305-358-1234.
Riverwalk Deli, 400 SE Second Ave., 305-358-1234.
Pure Verde Lounge, 400 SE Second Ave., 305-358-1234.
The Capital Grille, 444 Brickell Ave., 305-374-4500, thecapitalgrille.com.
Miami River Market/New York Bagel Deli, 41 SE Fifth St., 786-364-9422.
American Social, 690 SW First St., 305-223-7004, americansocialbar.com.
Graziano’s, 177 SW Seventh St., 305-860-1426, parilla.com.
Jamón Jamón Jamón, 10 SW South River Dr., 305-324-1111, jamonjamonjamon.com.
Miami Circle. A 2,000-year-old stone circle at the mouth of the Miami River marks a Tequestan Indian Village.
Brickell Key. A triangular piece of land on the bay once known as Claughton Island, the key has residential, retail and office space as well as the ritzy Mandarin Oriental.
Miami River Inn. Now a bed and breakfast with Wi-Fi, air conditioning and swimming pool, this historic inn was constructed in 1906 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Spring Garden. One of Miami’s historic neighborhoods, this 1919 subdivision is home to an eclectic mix of Miamians. Its residents once included Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Scottish Rite Temple. This 1922 building is noteworthy for its combination of classical detail with Art Deco.
Lummus Park Historic District. Added to the National Register of Historic Places, Lummus Park has some of the oldest structures in Miami, including Fort Dallas, the William Wagner House and the Flagler Workers House. These structures were moved to their present site when threatened with demolition.
miamirivercommission.org. The official clearinghouse for all projects and public policy related to Miami River, the commission advocates for the waterway. It also hosts a Riverday festival in the spring.
HistoryMiami, which preserves and celebrates Miami’s history through exhibitions, research and publications, hosts several kinds of tours. For more information, visit historymiami.org. Or contact the City Tours manager at 305-375-5792 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Island Queen Cruises. Leaves from Bayside Marketplace, 401 Biscayne Blvd., 305-379-5119, islandqueencruises.com.