Over 300 volunteers enlisted by the Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida gathered early Saturday morning to the Coconut Grove Playhouse parking lot.
To repaint and landscape the houses of nine Coconut Grove Village West homeowners for the 10th installment of the organization’s annual Community Paint and Beautification Day.
Dispatched with their marching orders, the volunteers were lead by a neon-clad Junkanoo band — a veritable institution in the historically Bahamian West Grove — down William Avenue and into the village with ladders and paintbrushes in tow.
“We work in the housing continuum — we stabilize neighborhoods through housing in a variety of ways, by getting people into houses and keeping people in houses that are facing foreclosure,” said Chief Development Officer Mia Battle. “Community paint and beautification day is just another way for us to stabilize the housing market.”
Battle says the Neighborhood Housing Services believes “an educated consumer is the best bet for a sustainable homeowner,” and in that vein, the nonprofit focuses much of its energy on homebuyer preparation through education and counseling, along with specialized lending and affordable development.
Last year, the organization celebrated 278 new homeowners across South Florida, graduated nearly 1,500 from their homebuyer education program, helped over 1,100 homeowners avoid foreclosure, and originated 55 loans. It also built, rehabilitated, or renovated 49 homes.
It has typically held its Beautification Day in Brownsville, but decided to move the event to the West Grove this year in recognition of its new partnership with the Collaborative Development Corporation (CDC), a West Grove-based sustainable development nonprofit poised to make a real dent in a Village West revitalization that’s been due for decades now.
CDC President Jihad Rashid, who has lived in the community for 28 years and who refers to himself as “a naturalized Groveite and honorary Bahamian,” is well aware of the countless false starts in redevelopment and revitalization that have plagued the West Grove.
“A lack of vision, and a lack of trust on the backdrop of a community that’s been overlooked, with broken promises [means] you have to bring it. Because they’ve heard it before,” he said. But he says he’s more than heartened by the progress he’s made — and the collaborations borne from it.
The CDC recently opened the KROMA gallery on Grand Avenue, got the city to designate Charles Avenue a historic corridor, established a Black Heritage Tour through the Grove, and is set to break ground in April on a 56-unit apartment complex with Miami-Dade College leasing its downstairs commercial space.
According to Rashid, that last project, a $12 million joint Theodore R. Gibson Fund, county and CDC initiative, represents the West Grove’s “most significant investment in over 50 years.”
Rashid wants to bring more affordable housing to the West Grove to combat the encroaching high-end development threatening to send local real estate prices up further, gentrifying out a tight-knit and predominantly African-American community. But he also sees good, affordable housing as key in reinvigorating a dismal local economy.
“The local economy needs affordable housing. The Coconut Grove destination industries — retail, restaurants, hotels — their workers need local affordable housing. And the housing costs are too high,” he said. “If we have stable homes, we can attract businesses, if we have businesses, we have jobs.”
Through a federal HOME grant administered through the city of Miami, and together with Neighborhood Housing Services, the Collaborative Development Corporation is also working to build six single-family homes for low- to moderate-income households on lots either vacant or saddled with deteriorating, abandoned homes.
“We look for the problem lots, we look for those, and when they’re turned around, it has a rippling effect in the community,” says NHSSF president Arden Shank.
And, Shank says, because the organization too is concerned about preserving the community that already exists in the West Grove, current residents and their relatives will be favored when it’ll be time to pick buyers for those six homes.
But nine longtime West Grove households won’t have to wait until those houses are built or the CDC’s complex is raised to see the dividends of these nonprofits’ commitment to their community. World War II veteran Wesley Truesdell — the only surviving one in all of Coconut Grove — is a case in point.
Aside from the eight years after he was born in Georgia and the five years he was stationed in the Pacific during the war, Truesdell has lived on roughly two blocks in the West Grove his entire life.
“I didn’t want to leave the Grove. I love the Grove,” he said.
The front door to the faded pink house Truesdell has inhabited since 1971 on William Avenue has been blotted with gray for a couple years now, smudged by the collective handprints of the 97-year-old veteran’s 13 children, 56 grandchildren, and 48 great-grandchildren — several of whom live only blocks away.
His daughter Michelle and granddaughters Alexis, 16, who hopes to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps in the army, and Marcia, 18, who is taking dual enrollment courses at FIU in hopes of pursuing medicine, live with him now and take care of him.
But that doesn’t quite account for all the traffic through Truesdell’s front stoop. There’s also Timothy Eberton, the nephew Truesdell took in when Eberton’s mother was killed when he was only 6.
“He had 13 kids and he still sacrificed and took me and my brother in,” a teary-eyed Eberton told the Miami Herald as he watched the ongoing renovations from across the street. “And we never wanted for nothing: never missed a meal, dressed good everyday, kept clean. He provided for all of us. The only thing we had to do was go to school and do our chores around the house. That’s all he asked. And that’s what we did. I believe all of us are blessed.”
To replace the pink — chosen roughly 10 years ago in homage to his late wife Loretha — Truesdell has picked gray with black accents, colors better suited to bear the wear and tear of so much care.