|Amid the Urban Jungle, a Real Jungle|
|Written by Jim W. Harper - BT Contributor|
Simpson Park is unlike any other - it is a preserved piece of original Miami
Miami, I thought I knew you. I went from place to place and thought, “This is the real Miami, given to us by nature.” I went to the beaches and thought I had arrived at a natural wonder, but then I learned that the sand on those beaches had been coughed up by machines, and I learned that most of Miami Beach, before its development, had been a fertile mangrove swamp.
I left the beach and saw Star Island, Palm Island, Hibiscus Island, and the many smaller and undeveloped islands scattered throughout northern Biscayne Bay, and then I learned that these were not natural either, because they were created by the deposits of dredging projects. The same goes for the shoreline of Bayfront Park -- this land used to be underwater.
I looked to the Miami River, surely a natural waterway, and then I learned that this river once had rapids. There was a waterfall in Miami, and it was dynamited for the sake of development. Everywhere I looked, Miami’s natural beauty had been exploited and altered to allow us, its modern inhabitants, to live here.
Then I went to Brickell Avenue, made a right turn on SW 15th Road, and wound up in one of the wildest places in South Florida. I had arrived in a real slice of natural Miami called Simpson Park.
Miami historian Paul George recommended this City of Miami park years ago when I took one of his classes, but I’d never taken the time to find it until now. When I got there, I was shocked -- in the good way. One minute I was on Calle Ocho in the thick of urban Miami, and the next minute I was in the jungle.
What other cities have a concrete jungle and a real jungle right next to each other? Walking into the park from the sidewalk is a day-to-night experience, because the thick, towering tree canopy blocks the sunlight. It feels like you walked through a portal into the past. Here is what Miami looked like to the pioneers, and here is Miami’s clearest reminder of how much our natural environment has been deconstructed.
Simpson Park is not a typical urban park -- at all. It has no grass, no playground, and inside you are limited to walking on a gravel path because the undergrowth is so thick. Suddenly you’re faced with what Miami’s early settlers faced: How long can I survive in this nearly impenetrable, semi-tropical forest?
If you’re afraid of spiders, the answer would be “not very long.” Simpson Park features two things prominently at eye level: tree trunks and Golden Silk spiders, commonly known as banana spiders. The large spiders (the largest in North America with the exception of tarantulas) and their very impressive webs are everywhere. Even before entering the park, I saw a mature banana spider, measuring about four inches from leg to leg, sitting in the middle of a web at least the size of a bicycle wheel. It was having lunch, chomping away on a bee it had captured.
Inside the park, most of the banana spiders hang more than six feet above the pathway, although walking along I did feel several sticky strands grace my forehead. If left to nature, the park would probably become one giant, sticky web. It must be someone’s job each morning to walk the pathway and clear away the webs. Obviously this place is not for the arachnophobic.
The park’s eight-legged residents cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the mature canopy of native trees. The many fallen tree trunks add horizontal elements to the otherwise towering vertical growth. Look for the huge Pigeon Plum tree taken over by a Strangler Fig and marked by a mostly illegible sign that has also been strangled by nature’s erasers of fungi and other decomposers.
Simpson Park has a long history of defying the odds to remain undeveloped. Naturally it belongs to Brickell Hammock, a hardwood forest standing atop the high ground of the Atlantic Ridge (other sections of the hammock remain in Alice Wainwright Park and the Barnacle Historic State Park). A group of concerned citizens established the preserve in 1913, and the following year it was named Jungle Park.
This lush park was uprooted by hurricanes and by gardeners who wanted to plant exotic species, which can displace native plants if not removed. The exotics were first expelled in 1927 by horticulturalist Carl Dahlburg and most recently beginning in 1995 by the City of Miami’s official naturalist, Juan Fernandez.
The park was renamed in 1932 in honor of another local horticulturalist, Charles Torrey Simpson, and a garden center bearing his name was constructed in 1940. The park survived threats posed by the construction of I-95 in the 1960s and of Metrorail in the 1970s, but the rail’s proximity to the park’s western border essentially seals that side from public access.
Simpson Park was further enclosed in 1991 at the request of the Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association, which represents a beautiful residential area of mansions located immediately east and south of the park. A fence was added on top of the park’s oolitic limestone walls to keep out criminal activity.
The park’s walls are understandable, but they are also sad. They call to mind the lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song that says, “They took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum.” To protect them and the people who want to enjoy them, these trees have been put behind bars.
There are other weird elements to Simpson Park: The entrance on 17th Street goes through an old house with chandeliers; the newer entrance on 15th Road is often closed owing to its slippery wood; and a manmade pond in the park’s center features a singing fish. The park’s interpretive signs are clearly outdated.
But Simpson Park should be required viewing by every schoolchild in Miami-Dade County, because it is living and natural history. It’s a reservation for trees. It’s a jungle in there. It’s the real Miami.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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