Once, so much of Fort Lauderdale looked like this. Jungly and dense, filled with interesting, almost mysterious foliage. But in today’s downtown, now home to about 25,000 people and plenty of modern, urban living, something like the small park next to the Fort Lauderdale Woman’s Club headquarters seems nothing short of a small miracle.
In this park’s case, the miracle is also a comeback story. One recent day, city leaders gathered to celebrate that comeback and give the park on Broward Boulevard next to the Broward Main Library a new name that recognizes how the comeback happened. The park is now the JoAnn Smith Botanical Garden, named for the Woman’s Club president who led the charge to bring back the park.
“It was so unexpected,” Smith says of the choice to name the park after her.
For years, the park has been underused as it and the surrounding area became mostly known as a spot where the city occasionally tried to evict the unhoused people who camped around it. With the improvements to the park, it’s hoped that there can be a balance struck between humane care for all and a park that can be regularly used by everybody.
The plan for a botanical garden started when Smith was reading about Ivy Stranahan, the “mother of Fort Lauderdale,” and the original ladies of the Woman’s Club. They wanted a park where everybody could meet.
“But that was a swamp,” Smith says. “All that land that the house and the park was on was a swamp. So they decided to take it upon themselves to give it to the city and then build it back to a lush Florida landscape.”
To that end, the women sold cookies – a fundraiser that never fails to this day, Smith says. They hosted other sales. Once they’d brought in the money, they had the coral rock removed and the ground flattened out. For years it was a lush, tropical, regularly used park. Over the decades though, that changed.
“When I came, it was just an empty park with nothing,” Smith says. “We were all talking about it, and we knew we needed to bring it back to how it was back then.” They got grants from organizations including the former BB&T bank and Bank of America, as well as the city. And the volunteers came together. “So many volunteers, it was unbelievable,” Smith says. They planted thousands of plants. “It just came into this most beautiful, enjoyable place.”
Plant and tree aficionados might want to look out for the Card Sound buttonwood, a rare specimen only found, as you might guess, on the way to the Keys. There’s the rainbow eucalyptus, the big banyan and the cypress, the lily of the valley and what she calls the “fried egg tree.” (“It looks just like a fried egg,” Smith says, accurately.)
With all that come the butterflies. “It’s lovely to walk through and see 20, 30, 40 of these butterflies,” she says.
Now, Smith says, comes the work of “activating” the park. It hosts several regular series of events including the neighboring main library’s Moonlight Tales, as well as a Noon Tunes free music series and events such as a recent orchid show. It’s a beautiful spot for weddings as well, she notes. As it progresses, she’d also like to see a time in the future when it’s unlocked regularly and simply used as a traditional park.
“I think people would just love to go over there and get a book and read, but we’re not up to that yet,” she says. “We’re trying to activate the park. The more you activate the park, the more people come to it.” Other ideas for future events include plant and gardening classes or demonstrations. They’ve got the right classroom for that.
And really, Smith wants to create a space where people can simply walk through and be surrounded by a little bit of natural oasis in a bustling downtown. It’s not a place to hurry through. “There are so many neat, neat, neat things in there,” she says. “It takes a while to look at them all.”