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Enchanted Voodoo Forest PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
February 2019

Spiritual offerings, invasive plants, trash mar a local oasis

NPark_1orth Miami’s popular Enchanted Forest Elaine Gordon Park (1725 NE 135th St.) is a place where families, joggers, seniors, and school and scout groups seek refuge from a bustling city.

Every October the park gets a little spooky, with a Halloween Fun Zone, nighttime hay rides, and family-friendly fall festivities.

When Johnson & Wales student Béatrice Noël started her work-study job at the park this past October, she regularly came upon spooky things not at all family friendly: voodoo offerings, including bodies of headless chickens, split coconuts lined up in careful rows, and closed jars with leaves contained in brown liquid. She was less than enchanted.

“I get the whole thing about religion, but this has nothing to do with freedom of expression,” says Noël. “If you’re going to slaughter your animals and make your sacrifices, that’s your responsibility. My grand-uncle was a voodoo warlock in Haiti. So I get it. But you don’t leave your stuff in the park.”

Beyond that, Noël’s work-study experience with the City of North Miami Parks and Recreation Department left her with the overwhelming sense that the city, its residents, and visitors are often not paying proper respect to this community treasure. In addition to the voodoo souvenirs left to appease spirits, the list includes strewn trash, invasive species that are strangling native plants, and failure to introduce more programs, provide better security, and staff the park properly.

When given a class assignment to write a letter to the editor, she wrote one on this very subject to Biscayne Times on January 14, which inspired further exploration.

The park offers many wonders: multiple paths through oak hammocks, the now- rare slash pine (that very “Dade County pine” harvested to near extinction for home building), popular pony rides and horse-riding lessons, picnic tables, pavilions, a walking bridge over Arch Creek, a manmade lake with a fountain, and views that would befit a French impressionist painting.

The park showcases Alan Gutierrez’s new $30,000 sculpture of five-foot metal columns in 18 colors commissioned to celebrate the county’s LGBT history and accomplishments. It is a pet project of 20-year Councilman Scott Galvin, one of the state’s first openly gay politicians, who lives one block north.

Despite this, the park has its share of troubles: smash-and-grabs with burgled cars, lack of law enforcement, as well as the occasional animal carcasses, empty Corona bottles from the convenience store across the street, and lack of staff or constant security.

When the BT tried to visit the park around 11:00 a.m. January 17, police had blocked off access while trying to nab a car thief who had escaped into the park after totaling a stolen Nissan SUV at 143rd Street and NE 20th Avenue. Police had captured one suspect at the site of the accident, but the man who fled to the park was still at large.

Noël, age 43, has led a varied life, shuttling between her native Haiti and the United States before settling here permanently in 2002. She lives with her mother and brother on NE 135th Street east of Biscayne Boulevard, and has sung professionally, using her killer lyric soprano. She’s scheduled to graduate in 2021 and wants to pursue a law degree when she finishes.

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Herewith, her letter in substantial form:

“We, the staff, have been collecting peculiar items that seemed to be related to the practice of Voodoo/Santería, such as dead chickens in brown paper bags with the victims’ names written on them; multiple jars with strange brown liquid and leaves; and lately, we have been every morning cleaning dried blood on the floor of the front shelter of the park.

“I noticed that the consumers coming from the convenience store across, Kwik Stop Food Store, or the pedestrians waiting on bus 16 or bus 135, have been throwing bottles and cans of beer over the fence of the park.…

“The carelessness of North Miami residents is worrisome because we even collected from cleaning the park two used shopping carts from the perimeter. It’s unsanitary and we need to rectify those bad habits by:

“First, creating short training videos that can be broadcast on television or through popular social media platforms, such as YouTube.

“Second, the city of North Miami should enforce laws and fines discouraging people walking by the park’s perimeter to loiter in the park.

“And third, to assure more caring future generation of North Miami, the city should organize youth educational programs on litter prevention.

“It is truly not until you start working in a public park that you realize what community you live with. By publishing this letter, my objective is for residents of North Miami who own homes and businesses to realize that if they have any ambition to live long and prosper in the community, they must, in their own effort, also keep all parts of the city clean and healthy.”

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The park now has one lone full-time employee, naturalist Lola Heasley, a 22-year city veteran and passionate advocate of the park and its preservation. She guides anyone who wants to know through the park, and points out the natives and spreading invasive species, such as the air potato and schefflera, that are strangling the park’s natural habitat.

“I love this park and this job,” says Heasley. “My emphasis is people, parks, and programs.” Heasley is often called away to do other things, such as teaching art at Griffing Center near downtown North Miami, leaving the work to Johnson & Wales work-study students and Jehovanie Montoya, who is working for the City of North Miami for $9.47 an hour until June (he is here temporarily for family business), and then will return to Japan, where he’s lived with his wife and son for 16 years.

Heasley says she has noticed changes in the park and drop-offs in city-run programs over the decades. The acceleration of invasive plants has been noticeable since Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017. Once-common anhinga, she says, have all but disappeared, replaced by ibis and omnipresent Muscovy ducks. They’re often fed by park visitors, a practice the city prohibits.

Montoya is blunter, saying that the city should throw more resources into maintaining the park, root out invasives, provide security, and give Heasley more backup.

“There’s no culture of community service here,” says Montoya, who was born in New York, raised in Colombia, and now lives in the Japanese countryside. “How can you expect people to pick up trash when the city isn’t picking it up? We had a Martin Luther King service day and the city issued some awards, and then people left without cleaning up. Why not a little more service to your fellow man, a little more pride in the community?”

The park used to offer pamphlets in English, Spanish, and Creole, but the grant money ran out. Heasley also once held classes for soap making, basket weaving, and leaf painting.

Why not more permanent signage, educating people on the plants; plaques with some history of the park; and descriptions of natural wonders and the dangers of invasive species?

Over winter break, Montoya offered a two-week survival skills class for young people, teaching how to tie proper knots, build fires with sticks, and cook food. But only two people showed up, he says, partly because it wasn’t properly promoted.

Noël sent her letter to Councilman Galvin, who promptly forwarded it to city management, including Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Director Derrick Corker, who, Noël says, verbally reprimanded Heasley, who saw the letter the same time as Corker.

After getting no response, Galvin says, he inquired again. Corker on January 29 promised to add a trash can, said staff is constantly on the lookout, and added: “Unfortunately, it is difficult to prevent individuals from committing crimes and littering in and near the park.”

As for voodoo, or vodou, Afro-Caribbean customs traced back to West Africa 6000 years ago are a largely unreported, but pervasive, part of life in Miami. Botanicas, spiritual shops, and “pet stores” abound.

Park_4The worship of the spirits, or Orishas, spread into the New World with the slave ships, and then reconfigured into worship of Catholic saints to accommodate the masters. In one form or another, the tradition thrived from Brazil through Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica to the plantations of Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi. It lives today in cities like Miami and New Orleans, and has spread throughout North America. In 2003, voodoo was officially declared a religion in Haiti, which has been described as “70 percent Christian, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo.”

Practitioners break coconuts to cast off the evil eye, sacrifice animals left to appease spirits for a desired outcome, and stuff jars with leaves to cast spells. When Noël first noticed older Haitian women gathering leaves in the park, she thought it was to make tea, before figuring it was to gather magic.

Santería and voodoo experts say offerings are left in particular areas because they are seen as crossroads of the spirits. One common place for such offerings: the Miami-Dade courthouse, where this writer described in the winter 1997 New England Review the courthouse “voodoo squad” that, early on Mondays, picks up offerings left as talismans to produce desirable outcomes from judges and juries.

So if voodoo is here anyway, why not just put it to good use? One could summon spirits for the well-being of the park and for those who approach it with a sense of service rather than entitlement, and place a curse on nepotism at the expense of professionalism, and make this a community more worthy of pride.

Just don’t leave your offering in the park. If you absolutely must, take your offering to where the park’s fate is determined, at city hall, where it will get cleaned up more quickly.

No dead animals, please.

 

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