Charlie's Woods - a forgotten public space hidden in Coconut Grove
Storied Miami theatrical press agent and Coconut Grove Art Festival founder Charlie Cinnamon, who died last year at 94, was a modest man. He lived for 50 years in a tiny 1919 cottage nestled in a big, wooded property in the South Grove.
The board-and-batten cottage, alas, is doomed. A developer who bought Cinnamon’s property from his heirs in July plans to tear it down and build a large house in its place, neighbors say.
But some neighbors and friends are hoping to honor the genial Cinnamon, and his cherished homestead, by creating what they’re calling Charlie’s Woods on a magical slice of thickly wooded land along one side of the property.
The parcel is a miniature forest. And, as it turns out, it is already owned by the citizens of Miami.
In a quirk of Grove and Miami history, the forested plot is one piece of an extended swath of land running along Plaza Street that was deeded to the public for a park more than 100 years ago by noted architect and developer Walter De Garmo.
The park, for reasons apparently lost to history, was never built, said David Villano, a longtime Groveite and co-founder of the Grove 2030 advocacy group, who has researched the site. The corner occupied by Charlie’s Woods, on Plaza and Palmetto Avenue, was supposed to form part of a broad plaza — hence the street’s name.
There would be no better-fitting memorial to Cinnamon than to formally dedicate the plot next to his former home as a public mini-park, said longtime friend and neighbor Glenn Terry, an artist, activist and co-founder of the satirical King Mango Strut parade.
The idea, Terry said, is to do something simple, in the spirit of Cinnamon and the rustic Grove of days that now seem increasingly bygone: a sign, a footpath and a bench.
“This could be something exceptional,” Terry said as he led a reporter on a bushwhacking tour of the abbreviated but dense and intensely green pocket forest. “I’d love to see this cleaned up and opened up. People assume it’s private property and don’t use it. They should.”
The miniature forest is such a dense enclosure that on entering it you feel as though you’re in a secret garden. On a recent rainy morning, the drizzle did not penetrate the woods. There are almond trees, a mango and a massive Australian pine.
The ground is terraced. Terry uncovered steps of limestone overgrown by the underbrush. His guess is they’re the remnants of a garden installed by a previous owner, probably long before Cinnamon moved in.
Davey Frankel, who lives with his wife and children just off Plaza Street, said turning the woods and the rest of the public parcels into a low-key passive park would foster sociability and neighborliness.
“I’m all about not only preserving the jungle nature of the Grove, but I’m also interested in getting more people in the community together,” Frankel said. “That seems to be the original intent of that area. It could bring back that community energy to that spot.”
It’s not clear exactly when Cinnamon bought the two-deep lots that made up his property, but the Bronx native and World War II vet came to Miami in 1953. Over the years, he became an esteemed figure in the world of South Florida theater as a publicist — though he preferred the term “press agent” — and a confidant of stars, playwrights and Broadway producers and directors.
It was as a promotional stunt for a 1963 Coconut Grove Playhouse production of the French musical comedy “Irma la Douce” that Cinnamon invited Grove artists — the village had a substantial artistic colony then — to set up a Parisian Left Bank art show outside the theater. It was such an unexpected success that the show turned into an annual affair under the Grove Art Festival banner. It’s since become one of the country’s premier juried street art shows, drawing millions of people to the Grove over its lifespan.
Intensely private, Cinnamon lived alone in the cottage. It sits on pilings on a high point on the property, which features two magnificent oaks and a natural declivity that turns into a lake after a heavy rain.
Neighbors say they will be sorry to see the cottage go. Developer Andrew Rasken, who paid $1 million for Cinnamon’s two lots, declined comment. But Terry said Rasken told him he won’t seek to split the Cinnamon property or build more than one house, an increasingly controversial practice in the Grove that the city and activists are trying to curb. Rasken’s house blueprint saves the two oaks, Terry said.
Terry and Villano have tried before to get the city to designate De Garmo’s bequest as an official park, but say they’ve been rebuffed. The De Garmo land extends for six long blocks along Plaza Street and is under the jurisdiction of the city public works department, which mows and maintains it as a public right-of-way.
City parks director Kevin Kirwin, who Terry and Villano approached, said he doesn’t have authority over the right-of-way. Public works can designate it as a “play street,” which would allow benches and other improvements, he said, but that’s up to that department.
Some neighbors have objected to formal park designation, Terry and Villano said, and some have gradually encroached on the land. One resident planted palms on the piece next to his home to keep neighborhood kids from playing soccer on it.
They say they hope Cinnamon’s passing will prompt reconsideration by all, especially for the piece next to his home. Terry has already put up a couple of homemade signs identifying it as Charlie’s Woods.
“We always thought that if the city designated those parcels, that would be a cool section. There would be a forest, and other sections would be lawn with benches or picnic tables,” Villano said.
“We’d love to see it happen.”