The Miami Circle – Land&People

For its first 100 years, Miami was Florida's poster child for sprawl. A bare trading post on Biscayne Bay in 1896, when the railroad arrived, Miami passed through the twentieth century fanning landward in all directions, filling coastal edge, farmlands, and glades with subdivisions.

As urbanization spread, Miami's downtown languished. The explosive growth that followed World War II added more than 1.7 million new people to the suburbs but a scant 130,000 to the city. Only in the last few years has a drive been mounted to attract people back to the city to live. And, ironically, that drive almost stalled when archaeological traces of Miami's first inhabitants, the Tequestas, were discovered at a downtown construction site at the mouth of the Miami River.

Almost three centuries after the Tequestas disappeared, evidence of these early peoples was unearthed at the Miami Circle, an artifact believed to be 2,000 years old. Carved into the limestone bedrock, the mysterious stone circle, 38 feet in diameter, bears witness to a prehistoric culture that once thrived here. The stone circle has some striking features. First, the cardinal directions appear to be intentionally marked. A set of holes defines a line that runs east-west, with a carving of a human eye at the eastern terminus. Other directions are marked with unusual cuts in the stone or rocks placed in holes.

Until the unexpected discovery last year of the Miami Circle, Miami's pre-Columbian ancestors were believed to be primarily hunters and fishers. Spanish records from the middle of the sixteenth century reveal that the Tequestas controlled a territory centered around the Miami River where it empties into Biscayne Bay. They lived chiefly from the sea, judging by the shell mounds that once rose along the coast but were ravaged by early twentieth-century development. Based on findings at the circle, however, archaeologists now believe the Tequestas were traders, too. The site has turned up axes of basalt, a material not naturally found within 600 miles of the Tequesta village.

The circle's exact purpose isn't known and may never be. The Tequestas themselves remain mysterious. "The material heritage of the Tequesta and other native people of southeast Florida has been almost totally erased from the landscape," says Jerald T. Milanich, an authority on Florida Indians. But scholars speculate from axial points and animal remains–including a five-foot shark–that the circle might have been a ceremonial platform or an astronomical calendar. Enthusiastic observers suggest comparisons with Stonehenge and other grand artifacts of lost civilizations.

A more conservative guess, based on post holes and related evidence, is that the circle may simply outline a thatched structure–archaeologists suggest a council house or chief's residence. "We knew this was something significant," says Bob Carr, the lead county archaeologist at the time of the discovery and now head of the Miami-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy. "There was a culturally created circle here. But what was it?"

In the Path of Redevelopment
The land at the mouth of the Miami River had once belonged to the pioneering Brickell family, who established a trading post there in the 1870s. Until recently, the Brickell Apartments, built in the 1950s, occupied the site but were demolished to make way for twin residential towers. Because the building site lay in a zone of archaeological significance, a city ordinance triggered the dig. Soon the searchers began uncovering odd holes in the rock filled with the black dirt called midden. Larger basins began showing up, distinctly different from the holes. The position of the basins suggested an arc. A backhoe used to remove rubble from the surface proved the scientists' hunch correct, and soon the circle lay exposed. Carbon dating showed that the artifact was about 2,000 years old.

Archaeologists had been given only four to six weeks to excavate the site. Now they pressed for an extension. "It wasn't until we cleaned out the circle that we began to realize that perhaps this was of greater importance than we thought–not just locally, but perhaps to the whole country," says Carr.

For archaeologist John Ricisak, Carr's successor with the county, elation was tempered by knowledge the discovery was probably doomed. "It's a gateway to Miami, to the region. Yet there was no doubt in anybody's mind that this site and everything on it was going to be destroyed." Eight months of legal motions between the county and the developer followed. Public sentiment weighed in on the side of saving the site. At the Brickell Bridge, which spans the river in the heart of downtown, a statue of a Tequesta archer–his arrow aimed at the sun–became a de facto shrine. In an emotional protest against a century of developer rule in Miami, people decorated the statue and the gate enclosing the site with lace and incense, pictures of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, fans, shawls, Cuban and Rastafarian flags, Indian turbans, a hibachi for burnt offerings, and an 1886 photograph of Geronimo with a group of renegade Apaches.

Letters poured in from schoolchildren to Governor Jeb Bush and to local mayors. Pedestrians crossing the Brickell Bridge at the site volunteered at the dig. Native Americans prayerfully danced at the site to invoke protection from "redundant development." When a stonemason refused to dismantle the artifact and walked off the job, the story made the front page of The Miami Herald and rallied the public anew. The Herald, which once had endorsed the idea of dismantling and relocating the circle, now came down on the side of preserving the ruin in situ.

When the county began talking about taking the property by eminent domain, the developer floated a buyout price of $50 million. Nobody was ready to spend that kind of money.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, however, wanted to save the site. "Deep down everyone understood why the circle was important," Penelas says. "The link to Miami's past, our trading history, our ancestral heritage–all argued for the site's preservation." With Penelas spearheading negotiations, the developer finally agreed to sell the property for $26.7 million. The county came up with $3 million from the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act bond, and, quicker than usual, the state put up $15 million more. As days, then hours, ticked toward the deadline for settling up with the developer, a breakthrough occurred. TPL bridged the gap with an $8.7 million loan.

Focusing on the River
Almost a year after the site was discovered, archaeological excavation has resumed and discussion has turned to how the Miami Circle might best be both preserved and showcased. Many ideas are in play. Florida Senator Bob Graham has proposed that the site be linked to Biscayne National Park, 25 miles south of the city, via a water taxi. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas wants to establish a mu-seum that teaches about the city's history in long- distance trade. There is also talk of housing a privately owned pre-Columbian art collection there.

These proposals all draw attention to the river itself, which, after decades of neglect, is newly valued as a resource for attracting people back to downtown. A chief priority is getting the Miami River–whose name is said to mean "sweet water"–cleaned up. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has committed some 80 percent of the funds needed to dredge the river, and local sources are coming up with the balance.

Yet even before dredging and clean-up begin, people-friendly businesses are coming back to the river. Residents and tourists have popularized new restaurants. In nearby East Little Havana they've discovered a compound of historic houses that preservation leader Sallye Jude snatched from condemnation and restored as the Miami River Inn, popular for meetings and overnight stays. "The river is the heart of this 1910 neighborhood," says Jude, who serves on TPL's National Advisory Council. "By preserving Miami's past, we felt we could help shape its future. The Miami River is key to that vision." Meanwhile, investors who successfully backed the renaissance along Brickell Avenue and in Coconut Grove and South Beach have assembled parcels for more than a thousand apartments, restaurants, shops, and nightclubs along the river.

"Developers have been extremely enthusiastic about connecting their projects to the circle and to the envisioned Miami River Greenway," says Brenda Marshall, senior project manager in TPL's Miami office. The Trust for Public Land is spearheading a master plan for the greenway, which Marshall foresees will provide neighborhoods with access to parks along a renewed Miami River, while encouraging existing small businesses and new investment. Downtown, the greenway will connect with an existing section of the city's riverwalk, begun years ago on the river's north bank. There are several places from which residents and visitors can watch tugs and freighters navigate the channel from Biscayne Bay.

With funds from the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act, a $200 million referendum championed by TPL and approved by Miami-Dade County voters in 1996, parks along the proposed greenway are getting a needed boost. Lummus Park, built in 1909 and one of the city's oldest, has reopened to the public after being closed for want of maintenance and security. TPL has assisted the city in acquiring Spring Garden Point Park in the historic Spring Garden district, the first new park on the river in nearly 20 years.

At the start of the greenway and at the center of Miami's renewal will be the Miami Circle, now preserved, where Miami began and will begin again.


New Park on the Miami River
Only about an acre in size, the recently dedicated Spring Garden Point Park is a welcome addition to Miami's urban core. Located on the Miami River midway between two of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Overtown and East Little Havana, the new park lies within walking distance for 50,000 people. The park is nestled in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood, which was developed in 1917. TPL was able to acquire this small parcel, once slated for sale and development of 64 apartment units. The land will be revegetated with native plants and incorporated into an environmental education program for inner-city schoolchildren; eventually it will become an important hub on the five-mile Miami River Greenway, which will connect neighborhoods, businesses, and parks along the river corridor from downtown to the airport. The greenway will make an attractive destination for Miami's diverse residents and visitors, while improving water quality and helping sustain the river's maritime industry. For more information about TPL's work in Miami, visit the Southeast section of


Land & People, Fall, 2000

Writer Herb Hiller is a critical observer of Florida affairs. His book–Florida Inside Out: A Guide to the Cloudy Sunshine State–will be published this fall.