After drive-by shootings and drug deals, a Miami park makes a rebound

When Debbie Williams’ two sons begged her to take them to the beach on Saturday, their mom knew the perfect compromise: Riverside Park in East Little Havana.

Williams moved her family to the neighborhood from Miami Lakes just one month ago, but she said she had already taken her kids to the one-block park a handful of times, as 4-year-old Jace and 5-year-old Skye raced down and then back up an inflatable water slide for a community event held there Saturday.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s a blessed park,” she said. “They take good care of the field — some parks you go to, you don’t feel like spreading a blanket and having a picnic. It’s something huge for the children.”

But two years ago, the slides, the kids playing in the park and the nearby tents advertising library services and other local resources would have been difficult to imagine. As recently as a year ago, Riverside Park, 799 SW Fourth St., was known as the purview of drive-by shootings and drug dealers. Parents rarely took their kids to the park to play, let alone enjoy water slides or play basketball on the courts nearby.

“When I first came to the park, there were two guys with mattresses sleeping there,” said Gus Barreiro, a public policy and community engagement liaison for The Children’s Trust, pointing to a cluster of trees on the other side of the park. He waved his hand at the new stadium lights overlooking the baseball field. “The lights here weren’t turned on at night. The bathrooms weren’t open.”

But now, he brags, the lights stay on till 10 p.m., long enough for a twice-weekly youth sports league to practice. The playground was refurbished. The park has a full-time attendant. The grass, once weedy, is kept green and lush.

Police have also installed surveillance cameras around the park and done more rounds in the neighborhood, which was one of the busiest in terms of police service calls, Miami police officer Andres Ramos said. Since then, he said, he’s seen fewer crimes on the city block where the park sits.

The turnaround has been in part due to a working group of about half a dozen organizations, including the City of Miami Parks and Recreation and Miami police, united by the Children’s Trust and a Miami Foundation grant to help revive the space. Since October 2015, they have lobbied for community programs and infrastructure improvements to make the park safer and make the area a gathering space.

“Without having a place where things are born in the community, it doesn’t get born,” said Betty Alonso of ConnectFamilias, which helped bring the working group together. “You can’t have a garden if you don’t have a place to plant.”

Riverside Park, originally named for local educator Ada Merritt, was one of the city’s earliest parks. But for decades, residents in the surrounding community dealt with violence, from the drug wars of the 1980s to the Latin Kings gang in the 1990s that made the neighborhood its territory. In 1995, 3-year-old Bernabe Ramirez was struck by bullets in a drive-by shooting gone awry, prompting the community to put a memorial in the park in his honor.

The violence around the park continued to earn it an unsafe reputation in the years since. On Christmas Day in 2014, a 19-year-old was shot on the sidewalk outside the park. Just four days later, a man was shot and killed on the same block. By the time 20 bullets were sprayed just feet away from playing kids in the park in October 2015, the gunfire and violent crime was unsurprising though horrifying.

The working group, which called itself the Vecinos — neighbors — of Riverside Park, was formed soon after, said Christine Selby of The Children’s Trust. Working with organizations like ConnectFamilias and city agencies, the group started brainstorming ways to make the park a more safe place.

“If you have positive stuff happening, the bad guys don’t feel like they belong there anymore,” Barreiro said.

They began updating the lights and the play equipment and adding a parks employee to keep an eye on the space. They also brought in programming. The city of Miami started teaching dance classes at the park. The group started hosting quarterly community events, including bringing in 10 tons of snow for a “snow day”, in which Miami kids could enjoy some winter fun.

SAB Sports Academy, a fledgling youth sports league at the park, also ramped up its practice days thanks to new stadium lights made more bright by a trimmed-back tree canopy, said Elizabeth Delin, who runs the league with her husband, Nolan.

“We used to get there and there would be drug dealers and waves of marijuana smell hitting you as people were smoking,” she recalled. But “little by little it’s been cleaning up.”

The changes have been been noticeable beyond the updated infrastructure and decreased drug use.

“People [in the neighborhood] are a little more trusting,” said Ramos, the police officer. “It’s gotten to the point where a lot of people would come up to me while I was in full uniform to ask questions: how does the police department do this, and what do they do about that?”

“They’re giving it a chance,” he added. “We’re doing something good here, it’s actually working.”

But there is still more work to be done, organizers said. The group is considering a few more infrastructure improvements as well as art murals that might go up around the park. And though crime has gone down, changing neighbors’ opinions of the area can take a little longer, said Yasmin Cubas, 16, who grew up just blocks away.

Instead of Riverside Park, “we’d go to Douglas Park or hang out at each other’s houses” as kids, she said. Though the Coral Gables High School student has seen the park change as a volunteer, her friends still don’t think of Riverside Park as a place to spend time, she added.

But on Saturday afternoon, at least one family seemed convinced that the park would become a regular visiting spot.

Williams, watching her two sons play in the water, said she was excited for school to start so she could bring her kids back to Riverside. She’d heard about the sports league that took place here, she said, and planned to sign her sons up.

“It just motivates you to want to come back,” she said.