The Miami River, known in times past as the Sweetwater River or Lemon River, is just 5-1/2 miles long, but it packs a lot into those few miles. Reputed to have been a lawless drug haven during the “Miami Vice” era of the 1980s, the river has since settled down while remaining very much an urban waterway that reflects a diverse population and a kaleidoscope of backdrops.
The river’s headwaters used to lie four miles inland at a small falls flowing out of the Everglades toward Biscayne Bay. Now the navigable part of the river stops a mile and a half beyond that near the international airport at a salinity dam on the Miami Canal. The river’s upper reaches are lined with terminals where freighters small enough to navigate the 15-foot-deep channel pick up containers packed with bicycles, clothes, appliances and medicine bound for shallow-draft ports in the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
From its industrial headwaters, Miami’s river flows through historic neighborhoods, past boatyards, marinas, hardscrabble fishboat docks and seafood eateries run by old fishing families with names such as Garcia and Sanchez.
The river empties into Biscayne Bay downtown at Brickell Point, where swank high-rise hotels, condominiums, and office and government buildings tower over the bay and an archaeological find, the Miami Circle, site of a Tequesta Indian settlement said to have thrived more than 2,000 years ago.
Neither sweet nor citric anymore, though less polluted since the government started curbing stormwater runoff and dredging hundreds of years of accumulated contaminants, the Miami River runs under 12 roadway bridges, 10 of them drawbridges.
Gentrification has set in along parts of the river, but the Miami River Commission is committed to keeping it both a “multicultural corridor” and a working river. It has authored plans for 8,000 mixed-income residential units along the lower reaches, as well as waterfront parks, greenways, bicycle and walking paths, derelict vessel cleanup and economic incentives so marine and other businesses can thrive on the river.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.