Street Knowledge

27th Avenue in Coconut Grove

  • Some suspect that Sunhawk inspired the Puggy character in the Dave Barry book Big Trouble. Puggy, like Sunhawk, lived in a tree. Barry says the two aren't related.
  • Steve Martin earned his stripes performing near the southern end of 27th Avenue, at Dinner Key on Biscayne Bay. Residents remember him doing his infamous "arrow through the head" bit.
  • Population: 52 percent non-Hispanic white, 34 percent Hispanic, 12 percent non-Hispanic black.
  • Average househould income: $111,882.

As Grove goes upscale, old memories savored

As development comes to the southern end of 27th Avenue, will the memory of great characters fade?

There once was a man who lived in a tree.

His eyes were bulbous and brown. He had a scar near his forehead and a beard that was long and shaggy.

He would descend for wood chips and beer. His passions included crafts and alcohol. The locals accepted his mystique, indulged his zaniness and called him by his mutant name: Sunhawk.

When he died in 1997, more than 150 people gathered to lament the loss. Coconut Grove's community paper ran a spread about his life, lived for years in an arboreal home at the end of Unity Boulevard.

"We all knew him," said a somber Barbara Lange, 55. "We don't really have people like them here anymore. Maybe some of the homeless? No -- not like Sunhawk."

Now, the Grove's traditionally leafy silhouette is being transformed into an emerging skyline of condos. And state and local groups are in the research phases to expand 27th Avenue's two lanes to create medians, traffic circles and sidewalks.

Developers say it will smoothe traffic and give a loftier entrance to a trendy neighborhood. And that, for the old-timers, is the problem.

"They are trying to make 27th Avenue bigger," Lange said. "But I don't think that will make it better."

On this street 17.5 miles north is Miami Gardens, a new city where medians and greenery are hailed as the greatest thing to happen on Unity Boulevard. Ten miles north is Brownsville, a community thirsty for development to combat on-the-ground blight.

In the Grove, Unity Boulevard's most affluent section, the street has a more poetic sensibility. Widening 27th, old-timers say, might make it look like any other place.

That would be too great a loss in a place they say has already lost too much of its character -- and too many of its characters.

Including one named Sunhawk who lived on this street. "The guy who used to live in a tree?" asked Dr. Stephen Parr, a bespectacled dentist who had his hands in a patient's mouth. "Of course I knew him. A lot of people knew him."

The patient apparently did, too. But he was unavailable for decipherable comment.

Parr spoke of Sunhawk as part of the tapestry of Miami's waning bohemia, a friendly street man who didn't bother anybody. He remembered his artwork -- wood carvings of fanged beasts, great and small.

"I think I cleaned his teeth once," he said. "And I traded him dental work for one of his carvings."

In Parr's younger days, there were such things as hippies living in trees, men walking around with parrots on their shoulders, and cross-dressers who ran antique shops but refused to sell antiques.

They had nicknames, like Mike the Pirate and Seúorita Herrero. Parr was called "the Rock and Roll Dentist."

Parr prides himself on having an office as groovy as the Grove. Classic rock oozes throughout it.

Until the 1980s, his two-story office stood out. Now it's sandwiched between two wide, five-story condo towers. The newer one, completed this summer, has 900-square-foot lofts going for the low $300,000s. Rent costs about $2,000 a month.

Parr paid $211 a month when he moved to the Grove in the mid-'70s, settling there after dental school in New York.

Bruce Proctor, one of Parr's longtime Grove friends, moved there in 1978 from New Jersey. He gained an affection for the place because he, too, was an artist. His hair was parted on the side, and he had a beard and big brown eyes.

After a girlfriend kicked him out of the place they shared, he picked up a fondness for psychedelic drugs.

No one knows why, but folklore has it that he tried to kill himself using a complicated method involving a pipe, a bullet and a candle. He claimed the bullet was lodged in his skull, evidenced by a scar on his forehead.

He began to worship the elements. A tattoo bore his new name: Sunhawk.

He also found a new home with a bayfront view, a 30-foot banyan tree.

If you saw a man living in a tree, what would you do? Bob Deresz helped him move a mattress in.

"I saw no reason not to," Deresz said. It wasn't hard. "He climbed the tree, I lifted the mattress and he pulled it up."

Sunhawk died of an aneurysm in 1997. At his funeral service at the Taurus Bar, one friend talked about how they had tricked Sunhawk into staying in an apartment during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Few there knew him personally, but they loved what he stood for -- to this day.

"Man, there were some great characters around on the street," said Terry Barnes, an agent at Kirsten Travel Agency, just south of US-1 on 27th Avenue. "Do you remember that man who used to sell his antiques? He was eccentric, huh? He used to dress up as a woman, and if he didn't like you, he wouldn't sell you anything.

"Then he lost the money and he committed suicide and burned down the store!"

It's not legend. Billy "Seúorita" Herrero burned down his "Antiques and Glamorous Accessories" store and shot himself in 1992.

Barbara Rodriguez, a young receptionist at the agency, was shocked to hear such stories.

"When I think of the Grove, I think of a trendy place," she said. "A lot of young people are coming in. Things like CocoWalk."

That's not the only change.

One of Bruce Proctor's former addresses is now a weedy empty lot, up for sale. The Tigertail Lounge, a bar he frequented, is now a weedy empty lot, up for sale. The weedy empty lot where Sunhawk lived was sold one month after he died, for $18 million. There, they built the Ritz-Carlton.

So now, 27th Avenue is at a metaphorical crossroads. There are towers and there are two-story apartment buildings. There's the Rock and Roll Dentist and there's a couture boutique that won't let a reporter in without an appointment.

The new Grove bohemian is a man like Armando Hernandez, a fledgling actor renting an apartment there. He loves the shops, the nightlife and the easy access to Metrorail. He knows of the plan to widen 27th Avenue, and he supports it.

But there's one thing he didn't know -- that there was once a man who lived in a tree who went by the name of Sunhawk.

Copyright 2008 The Miami Herald Media Company