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How this Miami Beach island has survived the wind, the vandals, even a porn shoot

Monument Island near Miami Beach.
Monument Island near Miami Beach. Miami Herald File/2007

What is that island with the tall monument between the MacArthur and Venetian causeway off Miami Beach?

It’s Monument Island, an honor from from one city father to another.

And 100 years ago, the dredging started to create it.

Through the years, it’s been a stop for boaters, vandals, even porn filmmakers. It’s also taken a beating from the weather.

But time and gain, Monument Island bounces back.

Here’s a look at the history of the island and the problems on it.

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The monument on Monument Island. Miami Herald File


PORN SHOOT

Published Feb. 11, 2011

When Miami-Dade voters agreed to spend $1 million to restore the Flagler Memorial on Monument Island, many hoped beautifying the county’s most revered historic structures would attract new visitors.

They probably didn’t count on porn stars to be among them.

The lushly landscaped island between the Venetian and MacArthur causeways, which boasts a 110-foot obelisk honoring Florida pioneer Henry Flagler, is now the backdrop for an online porn video produced by RealityKings.com.

The film shows a redhead credited only as “Brooklyn” showing off what could loosely be described as her acting chops with fellow thespian “JMac.”

Miami Beach officials — and at least one local historian — are not amused.

“This is not an uninhabited island miles off the coast,” Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez said. “It’s in the middle of a very busy bay. You can’t go filming pornos in public parks.”

On Feb. 5, RealityKings.com posted the adult movie, called Island Adventure, and credited the posting to “Captain Stabbin.” The film runs about 50 minutes, including travel time to the island.

The Freudian implications of filming a sex scene in the shadow of a soaring obelisk is ripe for debate. Also up for debate: whether the filming broke any laws.

Lawrence Walters, an attorney who represents Reality Kings, said his clients didn’t break any rules.

Though state laws prohibit exposing oneself in public, Walters said the rules apply only if someone witnesses the act — and that no one did.

“The last thing they want to do is create problems,” he said, noting that the Reality Kings crew are “good corporate citizens” who donate to charity. “It was apparently produced on a deserted island with no people around to witness the filming.”

Graham Winick, Miami Beach’s film and event production manager, said any commercial venture needs a permit to film in the city, but a permit for a movie involving a pornographic scene at a public park would not have been granted.

“I can say without even looking in my files that we did not permit that,” Winick said.

Winick said Island Adventure was hardly the first pornography filmed within the city limits without a permit.

“We occasionally get calls, but it’s rare they actually fulfill permits,” he said.

He said that usually isn’t an issue because adult films are generally shot indoors, and unless a neighbor complains, no one is the wiser.

But Island Adventure was shot at a city park, during daylight hours and while it was open to the public. And it was posted on a for-profit website just two days after city commissioners discussed ways to curb illegal drinking and disruptive parties on the island — which has a growing reputation as a party spot.

Even the waters around the island are attracting debauchery, according to a Venetian Islands resident who last summer complained to the city that a charter boat for swingers was docked next door — Fernandez said the city is looking into the allegations. Officials are also looking into the filming of Island Adventure, though it isn’t clear if they will take any action.

Detective Juan Sanchez, a Miami Beach police spokesman, referred questions to Fernandez, who said the city’s legal staff is reviewing the film.

Adult films have a long and storied history in South Florida — the 1972 porn classic Deep Throat was filmed in a Coconut Grove mansion — and Reality Kings is a major player in what is now a booming industry here.

The Flagler monument was commissioned more than 70 years ago by Carl Fisher, another local legend, but had fallen in disrepair over the years. Voters approved a bond that included funding for the million-dollar restoration project, completed in 2009.

Local historian Seth Bramson said JMac, Brooklyn and the rest of the Reality Kings crew need to seek out a different locale if there is an Island Adventure II.

“They should not be desecrating that island,” he said. “It’s hallowed ground.”

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This tombstone, left on Monument Island for weeks after an art bash, is just one of the random pieces of evidence of the parties that are often held on the deserted Miami Beach island. City of Miami Beach / Miami Herald File

PARTY ISLAND

Published Feb. 3, 2011

The tombstone left for weeks on Monument Island after a Bohemian art bash may be the perfect metaphor for the days when boaters could just beach their vessel and enjoy a tropical drink on the secluded urban oasis.

``Wish You Were Here,´´ read the granite marker, brought to the Biscayne Bay island as part of a December Art Basel event that according to one report attracted 2,000 people.

The thing is, despite the recent completion of a $1 million effort to restore the Henry Flagler Memorial obelisk and make the Miami Beach island more of a destination, that welcoming sentiment may now be dead and buried.

Today, the neighbors on nearby waterfront enclaves off the MacArthur and Venetian causeways wish most everyone would go away, and the city is working to make that happen. On Thursday, Miami Beach commissioners are expected to talk about how they can discourage the island visitors behind the notorious summer barbecues, bashes and bonfires that bring people by boat and yacht for weekend bacchanals — and occasional disaster.

“No matter what you do there, it is anarchy. Drunken anarchy,” said Matt Leibowitz, who lives on Rivo Alto Island about a third of a mile away from the monument. Keg stands and beer bongs, of course, were likely not on Carl Fisher´s mind when he commissioned an obelisk on the man-made island to honor South Florida pioneer Henry Flagler.

Fisher donated the island and monument to the city in 1939. Decades later, word spread that a secluded but deserted island offered perfect sanctuary for the exotic soiree now that it had been saved from erosion. Sometimes the gatherings are civil, or even permitted, like the Art Basel event.

But neighbors, activists and even historians say day-trippers have for years now used the island as a no-rules getaway, sometimes dragging coolers, barbecues and much, much more out there for nights and entire weekends.

“I don´t think there´s really anybody who seriously has gone there just for the monument,” said Paul George, a local historian who sometimes leads boat tours past the island. Luiz Rodrigues, head of ECOMB, an environmental organization that has adopted the island and conducts cleanups, said that last June he discovered a party complete with speakers on tripods and gas-powered generators hooked up to blenders used to make fresh piña coladas. Beer bottles littered the landscape and shoreline.

He says a change in marine patrol schedule to the weekends has seemingly curbed littering and illegal drinking, but neighbors — many of whom live in million-dollar homes — say the move is a Band-Aid. “It is absolutely ridiculous and offensive,” said Mark Gold, who founded the Ticket Clinic and lives on Rivo Alto Island. ``They have major parties there. People set up DJ booths with disco speakers. There´s sometimes 50 boats out there, and jet skis. They have barbecues out there. It´s crazy. They have no respect for the residents.”

The island is a city park, but has no bathroom or city authority figure. Neighbors and activists say police and code enforcement resources are limited, and administrators have concerns that placing a park ranger on the island could be dangerous for the ranger.

Without supervision, things have occasionally gotten out of hand, like in 1998, when a fire, ignited by burning charcoals, scorched almost the entire island and destroyed $250,000 in plantings by the Department of Environmental Resources Management.

The city has talked about charging a fee to come on to the island, while some have suggested creating a “swim only zone” to prevent people from bringing coolers and speakers onto the island. Either way, Leibowitz says something has to change.

“It´s a good destination and a beautiful place,´´ he said. “Or, it could be.”

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09/20/08--Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald--Miami: Clean-up at Monument Island. Alexia Fodere Miami Herald File/2008

RESTORED

Published April 5, 2009

It has stood for nearly a century, a testament to one pioneer from another. And after three months and nearly $1 million worth of work — to fix decades of wear and tear — the Flagler Memorial obelisk on Biscayne Bay’s Monument Island has been restored.

“Some call it our own Statue of Liberty,” Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower said during a dedication ceremony Monday, marking the completion of the restoration.

“It is truly a sight to behold,” added City Manager Jorge Gonzalez.

Standing almost 100 feet tall, surrounded at its base by statues, the monument was commissioned in 1921 by Carl Fisher, one of Miami Beach’s founding fathers, in honor of Florida railroad pioneer Henry Flagler. But decades of erosion and vandalism left the landmark, on the man-made island between the Venetian and MacArthur causeways, in dire straits.

The elements had eroded the features of the two male and two female statues — representing Industry, Prosperity, Education and the Pioneer. Graffiti was spray-painted across and carved into the base of the structure.

“That hand was dangling by wires,” said Luiz Rodrigues, executive director of ECOMB, or the Environmental Coalition of Miami Beach, pointing to the Pioneer statue — a symbolic representation of Flagler.

The youthful figure grasps a spade with his left hand, and covers his eyes with his right.

“And this hand, chunks were hanging out. You could see pieces of rebar,” Rodrigues said.

The statues were hand-carved of cast-stone by sculptors H.P. Peterson and Ettore Pellegatta.

Pellegatta also helped create the famous lions guarding the main entrance to the New York Public Library in Manhattan, as well as the carved stone figures on the bow of the “Stone Boat” at Vizcaya.

Rising behind the statues is an obelisk, which is lit up at night.

“I know of no other monument of this magnitude in the state of Florida,” said William Cary, the city’s preservation director.

The restoration of the historic site was funded by Miami-Dade County’s General Obligation Bond. The money was used to repair the monument and clear the island of weeds and underbrush.

The park, which is Miami Beach property, is now maintained by ECOMB, which “adopted” the site and holds monthly cleanups.

Since ECOMB started maintaining the site, the heaps of litter have dwindled to smaller piles of trash.

Coalition members are hoping the driving efforts to restore the monument will rub off on visitors to the island — who arrive by boat or kayak.

The group also has grander goals: to turn the park into a destination for environmentalists and tourists, with walking paths and signs denoting the unique ecology of the plants and marine mammals found in Biscayne Bay.

“We’ve been fighting for years for the restoration of the monument. But our main goal is the restoration of the park,” Rodrigues, ECOMB’s director, said.

“Having the monument restored has made a really big difference for us,” added Brian Guertin, another ECOMB member.

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A fire on Flagler memorial island destroyed 250,00 worth of plantings done in 1994. C.W. GRIFFIN Miami Herald File


SAVING THE MONUMENT

Published May 27, 2001

For the city of Miami Beach, history is marked by the Henry Flagler Memorial Monument, a 110-foot obelisk built in 1920 that is falling into disrepair — a situation that has prompted a group of residents to try to save the city’s oldest piece of public art.

“Miami Beach is a very young city, so for us, anything from the 1920s is very old and very valuable,” said Pola Reydburd, chairwoman of the city’s Art in Public Places Committee.

Reydburd and about 50 other guests gathered Wednesday evening at the Star Island home of Jeannette Varela to kick off a fundraising campaign for the memorial. Guests at the party included Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and two mayoral candidates, Beach commissioner David Dermer and former State Rep. Elaine Bloom.

Built by Carl Fisher, one of the city’s founding fathers, the obelisk and its four larger-than-life statues commemorate Henry Flagler, the railroad tycoon credited with developing much of South Florida. The white spire is located on Monument Island, a slip of land in Biscayne Bay just south of the Venetian Causeway. The island is only accessible by boat.

Over the past eight decades, sea salt, wind and vandalism have taken their toll on the monument. Its four male and female statues - Industry, Pioneer, Education, and Prosperity —- have eroded to the point where some pose a safety hazard. They encircle the obelisk and face north, south, east and west. Industry, represented by a male statue dressed in a classical Roman toga, has suffered serious erosion, most noticeably on his face, scroll and left foot, half of which is missing.

Depicted as woman in a long dress and tiara, Prosperity has an outstretched right arm in danger of collapse. The other two statues, Education and Pioneer, are crisscrossed with deep cracks and have exposed rusted piping.

“Every day I think about art,” said Merle Weiss, vice chairwoman of the Art in Public Places Committee. “I look out my window and I see art crumbling.”

Weiss and other supporters of the monument hope to raise at least $250,000 to remove old wires and loose stone, and clean all rust stains, dirt and mold. Then, broken pieces will be replaced to restore the monument to its original condition.

The process ends with the application of protective coatings to reduce erosion and slow biological growth. Many of the attendees took the opportunity to get an up-close look at the Flagler Monument from aboard the Ocean Drive, a boat owned by Jerry Powers, the owner of Ocean Drive Magazine and a supporter of the monument’s restoration.

Despite dark, overcast afternoon skies, the erosion and discoloration of the monument was clearly visible from the boat.

Jane Goodman, a long-time Beach resident, remembered the monument and its island during better days. She recalled sailing with her family to the island, docking on its west beach, and spending a leisurely day picnicking and swimming.

“It’s a piece of old Miami Beach,” Goodman said. “Then, everyone who went there was a boating person. There was a different element from the people who went to the regular beach. It was strictly a family kind of place.”

Her husband, Jerry Goodman, agreed and said he was glad residents of Miami Beach were rallying around the monument.

“I think it’s a good project,” he said. “It’s a little treasure that’s part of Miami Beach history. There’s so few things we have here.”

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