In Depth

West Grove: the Miami neighborhood that time forgot

Along Grand Avenue in the West Grove, between Dixie Highway and McDonald Street, some of the most contentiously coveted land in Miami is up for grabs.

For-sale signs dot derelict buildings and lots. Some signs are old and weatherworn; others, bright and unblemished.

It is here that some of the state’s first black settlers, Bahamian natives, put down roots in the 1880s, many to take service jobs at the old Peacock Inn, the first mainland hotel in Florida south of Palm Beach.

They persevered, staking a claim to a neighborhood that, while strategically placed, has been plagued in recent years by crime, drugs and decay. Straddling two of South Florida’s most affluent communities — Coral Gables and Coconut Grove — the West Grove has been the subject of innumerable development schemes: high-rise condos, outdoor markets, shops, restaurants, even a Bahamian business district.

One by one, over 30 years, they flickered and died. But in South Florida, the development dream is never really dead.

“How can it still be that a corner of one of the busiest streets in the city, where the number of Mercedes that go by every day is in the hundreds, if not thousands, is still abandoned after 52 years? How is that possible?” asked Andy Parrish, founder and president of Wind & Rain Homebuilders, who is selling his lot on Grand and Douglas Road.

He has taken to calling the West Grove “the land that time forgot, because nothing ever seems to change.”

And yet...

One thing did change, and it infuriated residents. This past Christmas, workers tore down some houses and Bernice’s Soul Food restaurant to start building a garage for trolleys. The trolleys serve Coral Gables, not the West Grove.

The garage fueled old resentments that the community, where remnants of an old segregation wall between Main Highway and LeJeune Road still stand, was again being used as a dumping ground. Anger was directed at Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who supported the project. (He said city zoning allowed it.) Sarnoff did persuade Astor Development, the builder, to donate $200,000 to improve West Grove’s Armbrister Park.

The garage incursion rallied the troops. Neighbors, with the help of the University of Miami, filed a lawsuit against Miami to stop the trolley proposal. They staged protests. One group, determined to pull in a member from every faction, has been meeting regularly.

“Sometimes we are portrayed or characterized as being opposed to development,” said Jihad Rashid, president and CEO of the Coconut Grove Collaborative, which has been trying to redevelop Grand Avenue for two decades. “We’re not opposed. We’ve been here 20 years looking for development and we want it, but we don’t want to be washed out by it.”

A possible catalyst

Some have pinned their hopes on a proposed six-square block plan of businesses and homes at the east end of Grand. It is known as the Pointe Group project. But the property owners say Pointe Group has not yet purchased the land and they are seeking new buyers.

Pointe Group President Peter Gardner said Friday the city’s moratorium on sewer hookups last August temporarily derailed the project because he couldn’t get financing.

“It’s like having handcuffs. We can’t do anything moving forward, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still working hard to figure out a solution,” Gardner said.

The county has vowed to fix the sewer problem by Nov. 1, Sarnoff said.

In February, the city approved plans for the Coconut Grove Collaborative’s Thelma Gibson Community and Educational Center, 54 affordable apartments as well as community space. After he completes the drawings, he will embark on the five- to six-month permitting process, Rashid said.

The Grove has always marched to its own beat. Development anywhere in Miami’s founding seaside village often hinges on preserving the old vibe that loyalists fiercely defend. The West Grove is particularly tricky.

Since it straddles two cities, Coral Gables and Miami, the West Grove is at the mercy of two governments that don’t always agree. And the land is mostly owned by absentee landlords, who have done little to improve properties.

“If you look at Overtown and Liberty City along with the Grove, you see the same thing,’’ said Patrick Range, an attorney who worked on the Pointe Group proposal and helps run his family’s funeral home, Bain Range Funeral Services on Grand Avenue. “You see those areas not progressing as well, or as much as the rest of the city. It’s obviously got something to do with investors and their willingness to reinvest in these communities.”

Dr. George Simpson blames government neglect. Simpson, 87, is married to Dr. Dazelle Simpson, 88, the granddaughter of pioneer E.W.F. Stirrup, a Bahamian immigrant who became one of the largest landowners in Coconut Grove and built more than 100 homes.

The couple are pioneers in their own right: George was the state’s first board-certified black surgeon and Dazelle its first black pediatrician.

He notes that in other parts of the county where blacks are not in the majority, getting sewers and other infrastructure was never a problem.

“That support was never given to the black community,’’ he said.

‘Our enclave’

Like Overtown, the West Grove once had a thriving main street.

“Once this was our enclave,” said Thelma Gibson, 86, who grew up in a house without running water or electricity on Charles Avenue and went on to become a pioneering nurse. She still works at her office on Grand. Earlier settlers “planted the crotons, the almond trees, the sapodillas and sugar apples. You could walk the street and pick the fruit.”

In the early 1900s, a shopping mall with 11 stores, including a men’s clothing store and ice cream shop, flourished across from the E.W.F. Stirrup House at 3242 Charles Ave. The house, a two-story, wood-frame structure built in 1897, still stands.

Today, at Mr. Walt’s Alterations and Shoe Repair on Grand Avenue, Walter Williams Sr. tailors clothes while his son, Walter Daniels III, cuts hair. Linda Williams, no relation, whose grandmother emigrated from the Bahamas, is a secretary at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. It is the county’s oldest black church.

“This is still a place where trusting neighbors look after one another,” she said.

Leona Cooper, who moved to the Grove in 1948 and for 39 years was director of microbiology for the Miami VA Hospital, remembers buying groceries from the supermarket on Grand and having deliverymen bike over her bags.

But times were hard. While the streets behind Grand were filled with single-family houses, shanties housed workers building Coral Gables. And the first time the National Guard was mobilized in Miami was in 1921, when about 500 angry whites threatened to storm the West Grove, believing that a black resident had attacked a white woman, said historian and retired Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn.

A few months later, a black pastor, H.H. Higgs, was kidnapped by a carful of white men and beaten for preaching racial equality in his church, Dunn said.

Neighbors raised money to send him back to the Bahamas for his safety.

Segregation also fueled the will that built the community’s pillars. For many, the neighborhood’s centerpiece was Carver High, the segregated school just across the street from Cooper’s house. Carver produced a stellar cast of alumni: doctors, teachers, musicians. When it was desegregated, many talented students and teachers went elsewhere.

But the long-timers didn’t give up. Frustrated by bars operating on the four corners of Grand and Douglas, 20 residents pooled their money in the 1980s and bought land on the northeast corner, said Henry Givens, president of Grovites United To Survive.

The group tried to build a plaza with an outdoor market, but couldn’t secure financing.

“We certainly have not been encouraging strip joints,” Givens said. “We have not been encouraging check-cashing stores. But when it comes to affordable housing and any type of development that lends pride to … the entire Grove, we’re 100 percent behind it.”

Fits and starts

For many years, the east end of Grand Avenue was owned by the Blumenthal family. Patriarch Max Blumenthal began buying land and buildings in the 1930s, great-grandson David Blumenthal told the New Times in a 2005 story.

But in 2001, a tenant sued, saying her son suffered lead poisoning from old paint. Rather than fight, David Blumenthal settled the lawsuit and sold his apartment buildings to the Greater St. Paul AME Church. The church sold the buildings to developers, led by Phillip Muskat and Julio Marrero.

The group began assembling properties that now include nearly every lot fronting Grand Avenue between Plaza and Margaret Streets, property records show.

“It was a shock to us,” said Range, who had been in talks with his landlord to buy the funeral home’s land on Grand. “We had heard rumblings they were looking at property, but we were taken aback. We just received a letter in the mail one day saying hello, we are your new landlords and you should send payment to X address.”

Residents say the buildings are increasingly dilapidated; Miami Police Commander Richard Gentry said they are the center of the neighborhood’s drug trade.

Muskat, however, said the buildings are maintained. And no major improvements were done, he said, because for much of the time the land was under contract with the Pointe Group.

“If they were horrible, they wouldn’t be rented, and the fact is, you can’t put a $25,000 kitchen in an apartment that rents for $650 a month,” he said. “We don’t knowingly rent to a drug dealer. Nobody does.”

The group had planned to build 12-story condos, but the plan met opposition so fierce the city limited building heights to 60 feet. That move, Muskat argues, was the street’s undoing.

“If we were back to building 12 stories, people would be banging on our doors now and we could probably provide a whole ton of affordable housing,” he said.

But even assuming brisk demand, building affordable housing has not been easy, Parrish said.

His first buyer was Sheryl Ogletree, a postal carrier who’d grown up in different houses around the neighborhood. She bought the house in 1995, she said, because she never stopped loving the Grove.

Without Parrish, Ogletree said, she could never have returned.

“My grandmother paid $9,000 for her house and the lot was 50-by-100 and a single-family dwelling,” she said. “Now they want $300,000 or $400,000.”

Ogletree not only tended to her own home, but helped rebuild the neighborhood.

When trucks rumbled onto the street to illegally dump garbage, she called police. When drug buyers came driving by, she tapped on their windows and told them to leave. She planted flowers in her yard and her husband cut her neighbor’s grass.

Parrish eventually bought the crack house next door, fixed it up and sold it to Ogletree’s cousin. He built 14 affordable homes, but didn’t get the backing from the city to keep it going.

“It was the biggest disappointment of my life,” he said. “We did this all with no public money, no risk to the public at all and we never got one bit of support.”

He went on to work with UM architect Richard Shepard, who created the Grand Avenue Vision Plan in 2002. It lays out a cohesive development, but was eventually swallowed up by Miami 21, the city’s new zoning code to unify development citywide, Parrish said.

Even with zoning protection, it may be too late for the kind of main street the neighborhood imagines.

“To me, the redevelopment of the Grove is inevitable and I’m not talking about the way the people who live there would want it. It’s going to be the way that makes money. That means upscale and large and encroaching into the black Grove,” Dunn said.

“It’s unfortunate and sad. But I don’t see an alternative to that happening.”