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Miami Circle

By Patsy West

"The material heritage of the Tequesta and other native people of southeastern Florida has been almost totally erased from the landscape." - Jerald T. Milanich, Ph.D.

"They were the ancestral occupants of Miami and I think current occupants have an obligation to them." - William C. Sturtevant, Ph.D.

MIAMI -- Downtown Miami rests on the top of the largest town of the extinct Tequesta Indians. Most of the Tequesta's extensive complex has been demolished, paved over by a hundred years of Miami construction.

The saga of the "Miami Circle," a rare archaeological site recently excavated in the heart of Miami is now known worldwide. The future of the foundation of a Tequesta building - 38-feet in diameter on a 1,800-year old, 2.2-acre site - is now undergoing serious debate.

The site has stirred an unprecedented outcry of enthusiasm from this community and beyond. The imprint of the Tequestas' endeavor has inspired public sentiment rarely witnessed regarding archaeological sites in Miami: "People are mesmerized and attracted to this," commented archaeologist Robert S. Carr, head of Miami-Dade Historic Preservation, in a Los Angeles Times article.

The contrast of the Miami Circle - an understated, low-lying, sea level site in the very midst of the City of Miami - and the downtown surround of skyscrapers, is arguably as inspiring as any other vista in the city. The Tequestas selected a prime piece of real estate right at the mouth of the Miami River and built their most significant structures. What a culture statement!

The fact the Miami Circle is still there, intact and able to impress and move us today, is just short of a miracle. The major feature of the site is a circular formation formed by 24 basins cut irregularly in the Eolithic limestone bedrock. Surrounding this circle is another with 300 postholes cut into the rock. There were two axes carved of volcanic basalt found on the site, and the remains of a five-foot long shark, purposefully interred in the circle. It is further unique as the Circle appears to have been celestially aligned. A celestial calendar, perhaps?

Others surmise it may have been the dwelling of a chief or priest, a tribal council house or temple. However, it will be at least a year before a full examination of the site is completed. In The Way Of Progress

It was an awesome discovery, but perhaps even more important, it imparts an awesome responsibility. As Sturtevant suggests, it serves notice that we share a responsibility as stewards of this rare site: the opinion of the stewards should be, unequivocally: "The Miami Circle must be left on the site as it is. It should not be covered over, it should not be removed."

The Miami Circle, however, lies in the way of progress. It was slated to be buried under the parking garage of a huge luxury apartment complex called Brickell Pointe: a $100 million project expected to bring $1.1 million annually in taxes to the financially beleaguered City of Miami. In just two months of being bared to the sun, the Circle has become the center of a classic controversy. Corporate economics and political clout in the City of Miami has entered the ring against the emotional, spiritual, and scientific needs of the people.

When the City gave Brickell developer Michael Baumann the permits to start building Brickell Pointe, preservationists went into action in a way rarely seen in these parts. Headlines proclaiming "Miami OKs Building Over Circle" set off alarms that are still ringing throughout the community. An emergency $25,000 donation from the Elizabeth Ordway Dunn Foundation set archaeologists to work. Radio-carbon tests on Miami Circle charcoal confirm the site's 2,000-plus year existence.

A SOS went out from the Urban Environmental League of Miami-Dade; a resolution was passed urging city and county commissioners, state legislators, Governor Jeb Bush, anyone: "To do all in your collective powers" to preserve the Miami Circle. As archaeologists frantically put together surveys, Miami's premier preservation organization, Dade Heritage Trust, filed an emergency legal injunction against construction on the site.

Eventually, before the din of public outcry and the threat of lawsuit, developer Baumann - valuable permits in hand - decided to address public sentiment concerning the site.

Cut And Paste The Circle

He first proposed the archaeological "Miami Circle" feature be cut from the site and moved to a location where it would be "preserved." This proposal was unacceptable to preservationists, who felt such a daunting move would cause the site to lose its integrity and fatally threaten its preservation.

Because the entire riverside site is considered the archaeological resource, to remove any part of it, or change from its prescribed location would destroy its historical and cultural character. Nonetheless, developer Baumann and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, hoping to garner public approval, formed a partnership to preserve the Circle by removing it from the site.

Stonecutter Joshua Billig - hired by the City to cut and remove the Circle from the bedrock - soon quit the project, however. Hoping his action would buy the preservationists more time, Billig deferred to community opinion to save the site, Demonstrators at the site began holding signs proclaiming, "Joshua Billig is Our Hero!"

The developer, initially supportive of the archaeological process, then restricted scientists to a 50 square foot survey area. The Smithsonian's Sturtevant was clearly alarmed: "The whole area has to be cleared. How do you know there isn't a whole outer Circle there?" he said in a Feb. 9 Miami Herald article.

Carr noted: "I suspect that if we find more, (Baumann)'ll consider it detrimental to his plans. The site is larger than the Circle, but our investigation is limited."

The City gave archaeologists until February 26 to get the immediate work completed. Meanwhile, up on the nearby Brickell Bridge overlooking the site, signs from demonstrators read: "HONK FOR HISTORY!" "Where Is Your Courage?" "We Are All Responsible." "HONK TO SAVE OUR CIRCLE!" "SAVE OUR STONEHENGE."

Dancing and Smokings

Down on the chain-link, partitioned swale near the fenced off site, curious observers, locals and foreign visitors, and the media gather to watch peaceful demonstrations, Tuesday night candlelight vigils, Native American dance demonstrations and smokings.

A Mayan Huichol; a member of the Taino Tribe of Jatibonicu; a Chirichuaua Apache; and i:laponi: activist Bobby C. Billie have gathered to lend their support. New Agers, UFO buffs, and other unconventional research interests are also interested in the site. Some held live radio broadcasts and updated their own private e-mail sites with the latest information on the preservation efforts.

Richard Hoagland and Robert Ghost Wolf discussed the Miami Circle on New Age radio shows such as Coast to Coast with Art Bell out of Nevada. Both Bell and Hoagland feature the site on their web sites. Hoagland has featured a 24-hour camcorder on his Miami Circle Web Cam - located at www.enterprisemission.com.

Some memorable quotes have come out of this heightened public interest. University of Miami history professor Greg Bush observed: "People who come from other places obviously don't have the same sense of history about Florida. They look at the state as a hotel: They're moving in; they're moving out."

The Miami Herald editorialized "For goodness sakes, people, the Miami Circle is about to give its life for a condo parking garage! This is a horror on the level of church desecration - made worse because the community may sit idly by while it occurs."

UFOs, Children

Miami Herald columnist and best selling author Carl Hiassen commented on the UFO folks' interest in the site: "Others see the 38-foot-wide limestone terrace as a former landing site of UFOs, which would certainly help to explain Miami politics, past and present." While the Associated Press commented: "Protesters turned to terrestrial and extraterrestrial powers . . . in an effort to preserve ancient ruins."

"It's as if a piece of our past has come back to haunt the conscience of our society, finding blame for the many wrongs done the cause of preservation," observed Kevin Hemstock, managing editor for the Jupiter Courier.

Children have played a unique role in the lobbying efforts for the Circle's preservation. On February 9, 300 children crammed into the County Commission meeting to plead for the site, to sing "The Miami Circle Song," and present the results of their letter-writing campaigns.

The Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel, which hosted the students, affords a great vantage point from the top level of their parking garage. The kids were seen drawing and coloring circular images of the site from the rooftop railing.

Tourists from South America were there when I last visited with Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki's Peggy Osceola and Susan Gillis, Curator of Collections for the Ft. Lauderdale Historical Society. The tourists were full of questions and an impromptu lecture resulted. We then snapped their photos with the site in the background and they took our photos as well. Surely there are tourist opportunities to be realized here!

So what was being done as the due date approached? Connie Crowther of the Coral Gables Gazette demanded, "Jam the Miami and County Commissioners' phone lines and let them know you want them to find the money to buy the site and preserve it."

From the Smithsonian in Washington, Dr. Sturtevant speculated: "My guess is there's nothing we can do except to say how important it is, and that the city or the county or the state just has to step in and stop the development."

Florida does not offer a safeguard for the protection of important archaeological sites on private property where human remains are not a factor (if remains are found, then the project will be halted). The local governments must take the lead.

Penelas Saves The Day

It was Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas who bravely stepped forward for the preservation of: "one of the most important archaeological discoveries in South Florida." Penelas commented, "I find it untenable that anyone would suggest that we excise a newly discovered piece of our community's history without fully exploring all options to save it."

At an emergency hearing on February 18, Dade County Circuit Judge Richard Y. Feder signed a temporary injunction that "prohibits construction on the site and protects the Circle itself from harm." In a 10-1 vote, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted to preserve the Circle, even in the face of a probable lawsuit.

When the City of Miami refused to lend its support, the County exercised eminent domain and filed suit to take the Circle site.

Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust, noted the positive aspects of the preservation of the Miami Circle, "From an economic viewpoint, I think it will be a godsend. It will put Miami on the historical map."

And The Sun-Sentinel noted: "Tourists and residents alike need a powerful vision to return to downtown Miami. Bayside is not enough. If built from collective efforts rather than from insider deals, Miami's vision that emanates from the circle can be better than a theme park."

But City of Miami Mayor Carollo now foretells a possible "chilling effect" on downtown development slated on nearby historically significant tracts. While popular opinion sees the site as a saving grace to the City, Carollo has taken the role of doomsayer, predicting the Miami Circle preservation ". . . could be the end of the City of Miami as an entity."

However, as County Archaeologist Carr has pointed out, archaeological investigations have been made for years in the City of Miami, on some of the most grandiose project sites. Even when sites were located and excavated, no holdups on construction deadlines have been necessary, until the significant Circle find.

A $50 Million Pricetag?

Miami-Dade County and developer Michael Baumann must now meet with attorneys to determine a purchase price for the 2.2-acre site (which originally cost $8 million a year ago.). $20 million was discussed as a suggested sales price back in January 1999, but now - since it has been legally permitted for a $126 million building - developer Baumann has set a buy-out price over $50 million. A jury may decide what it is ultimately worth.

On Feb.16, Miami City Hall chambers were packed with hundreds of protesters, none of whom were allowed to speak. Activist Bobby C. Billie filed his own lawsuit Feb. 17 to stop development on the site. By that date, Governor Bush's office had received 317 phone calls and 367 e-mails, most in favor of the site's preservation.

Mayor Penelas' task force has been charged with finding funding sources to save the site. They are looking at government grants and private donations; archaeological, environmental, preservation, and transportation accounts, as possible funding sources.

On Feb. 24, Miami-Dade officially asked the State of Florida for a $2 million dollar grant - available through the 1988 Emergency Archaeological Property Act. This is a C.A.R. L. (Conservation and Recreational Lands) program, the same source utilized to purchase the Seminole Pine Island settlement in Broward County in 1990.

County staff feels they could locate around $50 million dollars over several months. A recent editorial in the Miami Herald headlined "Save the Circle" proclaimed: "Florida has very few archaeological treasures. The site of the Miami Circle is one. Save it."

The State Cabinet set aside the $2 million for the project on March 9. Secretary of State Kathleen Harris said that the Cabinet's vote meant that the state is committed to preserving the site intact, in place. However the local leaders must meet the state halfway. The Governor and Cabinet agreed that "Miami-Dade County and Native American groups must work together to raise money for the project," the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Boosted by the strong state commitment, various groups have already met with Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim to discuss fund-raising ideas. The Sun Sentinel reports that, in addition to walkathons, concerts and art exhibitions, "major private donations have discussed donating $9 million to $13 million for the county to buy the (Miami) Circle." (Interested contributors can call Dade Heritage Trust at 305-358-9572.)

The Cabinet will return to the issue May 25 after state appraisers have decided on a value for the property. Then, Preservation 2000 funds may be available as a supplement to the purchase price - $15 million with additional monies accessible in the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

The Broward Daily Business Review concluded a discussion promoting preservation of the site with this thought: "No matter where it ends up, 50 years from now Baumann's apartment house will have crumbled and the garage that he's so eager to put up will be dust. But we will have left a lasting legacy if we find a way to let the sacred circle endure."

Circle The Internet

Those interested can follow the issue on-line or can participate in events: Photos and information are available on the World Wide Web at: www.co.miami-dade.fl.us/parks. The Historical Museum produced a video presentation of an interview with archaeologist Robert S. Carr and Museum President Randy F. Nimnicht which includes some Tequesta artifacts from the Museum's collections, located at : http://www.historical-museum.org/history.htm.

Other sites include: http://www,miamicircle.org/ http://www.enterprisemission.com/miamicam.html. http://www.artbell.com/miami.html. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/5862/miami.html. www.herald.com.

Supporters gather for candlelight events each Tuesday evening at Brickell Park near the site.

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