New River, Old Story

There's nary a bump in the road as you pass over the bridge that spans the New River at Broward Boulevard, nothing to call attention to the fact that you've just crossed a dividing line between two worlds.

On the south side of Broward, the New River is lined with huge yachts, sailboats and other trappings of wealth and privilege. Stately homes back up to the river yard-to-yard, interspersed with boat yards, the Riverwalk and other commercial developments. It's an impressive tableau at first but quickly grows monotonous -- another mansion, another yacht, another manicured lawn.

To the north of Broward Boulevard, the North Fork is something else entirely. A few hundred yards beyond the bridge the river widens, islands appear, and alternate routes beckon off the main channel. There are pond apple and cypress trees and native leather ferns, along with wading birds, turtles, and manatees if you're lucky. If you could see through the turbid water, you'd be able to count about 30 species of fish including tarpon, mullet, and bass.

"Come up here at night in a canoe or kayak and listen to the frogs," advises Steve Boone as he's piloting his motorized skiff between pilings below Broward Boulevard. "They've got these big frogs that bark almost like dogs. If you didn't hear the traffic noise, it would be hard to know you are in Fort Lauderdale."

It's a beautiful stretch, made all the more so by the realization that you're only a mile or so from downtown, as the crow flies. Other places exist along the New River where Mother Nature hasn't been wrestled into submission -- Pond Apple Slough comes to mind -- but the North Fork is the only place where you can paddle without the fear of being swamped by some Biff in a motorboat. (One thing you do have to watch out for, say people who've paddled the area, is kids throwing stones.)

Thank the four-foot clearance under Broward Boulevard for the area's solitude -- there just isn't enough headroom for Biffs to get big boats under the bridge. No route to the sea, no motorboats, no development, the theory goes. Some think that's a good thing, arguing that the last wild stretch of the New River should be preserved just the way it is. Others look upon this meandering waterway and see dollar signs in the form of increased property values and waterfront development. The North Fork bisects some of Fort Lauderdale's roughest, most blighted neighborhoods, after all. Anything that could help improve the area economically would be a welcome change.

Look for the issue to heat up before long. The city is now working on redevelopment initiatives for what's known as the Sweeting Estate area, the 30-acre plot bounded by Sistrunk Boulevard, the North Fork, and I-95. Plans include new housing, a hotel nearby just off Broward Boulevard, office space, and ecotourism. The idea is to "re-link" the area with downtown via the North Fork, and a lot of it is predicated on a fixed bridge about five feet higher than present, high enough to get a water taxi through. "We would like to see something good happen economically with that part of the city," says Phil Bacon, Fort Lauderdale's economic development manager. Bacon says a higher bridge could become a reality in as little as three years. No one has yet put a price tag on such a project.

In the meantime get out and enjoy the last pristine stretch of river in Broward County.

Boone's day job is playing bass with the Lovin' Spoonful, the '60s folk band that brought you such hits as "Do You Believe in Magic," and "Summer in the City," which Boone penned himself. He's on the road with the band 70 days per year. When not touring he likes to troll around on the New River. A ride with him is like a history lesson, except it's fun. He used to give guided tours of the river, so he knows its secrets; the section that's more than 100 feet deep, the sinkholes that supposedly sucked in feral pigs and shot them out into the Atlantic, the coves where rumrunners used to hide. That and a cooler full of beer make him an ideal guide.

He's partial to the North Fork. "It's fun to see nice houses and fancy yachts," he says, "but this is a different kind of environment. It's fresh. You get a better sense of what it's like being on the river system that you don't get from being elsewhere."

Boone's skiff is small and has a shallow draft. Even so, the North Fork is too shallow and rocky for him to follow to its terminus near the Swap Shop, where it turns into a canal.

Other people are just as passionate as Boone about the North Fork. So much so that they believe the bridge should remain just as it is, choking off boat traffic so the North Fork doesn't become another watery highway for the rich.

"It's unspoiled, and it has the opportunity to be protected," says Rod Tirrell of the Broward Sierra Club. "It's historic Broward, and I think the only way to protect it is to keep the yachts out of the area."

Raising the bridge would not only roll out the carpet for developers, it would ruin a good recreational opportunity, says Tirrell, as Broward County is already short of places to paddle. "If you don't have a place that's safe, [paddling] isn't a good choice."

Besides, he adds, the attraction of the place is its pristine nature. Take that away and you have just another stretch of overdeveloped, overused waterway in a county already crisscrossed by such. "I think the area is probably more valuable now because you don't have the pollutants and noise of powerboats."

Tirrell is of the all-or-nothing school. Others think development and preservation can coexist.

"I'm torn," says Bernie Gartner, who serves as the access and recreation chair for Broward Urban River Trails (BURT), a nonprofit working to restore the New River. "It's a safe area, except for the stone-throwing. At the same time, I can't see saying to people who live up there, 'You are not allowed to use your property.' That's not fair."

Broward Urban River Trails' official position, by the way, is that the bridge should be raised. "We want to see it raised for economic development reasons," says BURT executive director Rob Harrison. "We don't think it is going to destroy the area so much by allowing the people over there to share in the economic profits."

There is a lot of untapped potential on the North Fork. Where else in Fort Lauderdale can you find undeveloped waterfront property? Sure it's in a rough neighborhood, but it wasn't too long ago that downtown was a rough neighborhood too. Now visitors to downtown have to do battle with the yuppies for a parking space.

"It deprives the homeowner of the true and just value of their property," State Rep. Joe Eggelletion says of the lack of river access. Property appraisal records bear him out. Waterfront property values on the south side of Broward Boulevard are three or four times that of waterfront property less than a mile away to the north.

Eggelletion, whose district encompasses the predominantly minority area, says people there have long thought of their houses as lifetime homes. He gently tries to disavow them of the notion, believing that the homes are not only a place to live but also an investment. "From an investment perspective, I would think one would want a higher value to their property," he says. "Unfortunately, minorities have always looked at it as something they buy and stay in all their lives."

Ultimately the market will decide the North Fork's fate. If the city's plans come to fruition, land along the North Fork will become too valuable to ignore any longer; after all, this is Broward County, where the unofficial motto might as well be "Pave every inch."

Boone is for raising the bridge. But more than most he understands what's at stake. "It's one of the most beautiful parts of Fort Lauderdale," he says. "If it weren't for possibly doing damage to my prop, I would be up here all the time. I just love it."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Bob Whitby