Local Obituaries

David Alexander paved way to affordable housing in West Grove, Overtown

David Alexander, former director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation, led a roundtable discussion on black issues in this 1996 file photo.
David Alexander, former director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation, led a roundtable discussion on black issues in this 1996 file photo. Miami Herald file

A childhood stroll in David Alexander’s native Jamaica would later inspire the revitalization of some West Grove and Overtown neighborhoods — and his wandering ways would give his widow one more laugh.

Alexander, the former director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corp., first wandered as a little boy growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. A chance encounter with a coal man struggling with his cart was the first hint that, as an adult, he would empathize with others. He had gotten got lost while living with his aunt.

When he didn’t come home, the worried family called Kingston police. Decades later, Alexander told his wife Joanna what happened. “Yes, we have a small child here,” the constable said on the telephone. “He was with the coal man delivering coal to the houses.”

“David told me he had seen the man struggling with his coal cart and he was trying to help him by pushing the cart and kept walking with him,” his wife said. “He was trying to help somebody in need and he did that all his life. And he was 6,” she said, through tears.

Alexander, who lived in South Miami, died Aug. 31 at 66 after a long battle with cancer.

“David was always disappearing, you could never hold him down in the last few months,” his wife said, this time with a chuckle. “He was having chemotherapy for the first time and was waiting for the chemo to come up and he had his IV. His cousin happened to be at the same VA hospital having a surgical procedure. David said, ‘This is taking too long,’ so he unplugged his IV and walked up to the fifth floor where his cousin was.”

The nurses were flummoxed. Where had he gone? “He was the first chemotherapy patient trying to escape,” the staffers said, eventually laughing with the family.

“That is the man I fell in love with,” Joanna Alexander said. “He would make me laugh to no end.”

Born May 18, 1950, in Kingston, he was a swimmer at Jamaica College and moved to Miami in 1982. Alexander was struck by what he saw in the West Grove community.

Joanna Alexander read from a journal her husband had kept. “I happened to leave a nice restaurant in Coconut Grove and walked. Within a space of one block the community went from rich to poor, white to black, brick sidewalks to dirt to weeds. I decided to do something about this. It became my passion and my calling to elevate the lives of people who never had the understanding that there are other possibilities that existed.”

Read about Thelma Gibson and her Health Initiative

By 1983, Alexander met with longtime Grove activist Thelma Gibson who would come to look at Alexander, whose parents divorced when he was little, as “one of my adopted children.” For the next 15 years, Alexander served as director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corp., a group that aimed to revitalize the West Grove, a predominantly black neighborhood largely settled by Bahamian immigrants.

David was a visionary and he saw that this community could be better. He brought us all together even when we could not see what could happen to Grand Avenue. He made us all believe.

Merline Barton, president/co-founder Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, on David Alexander.

Alexander wanted to build affordable homes in the community, an inspiring idea that sometimes met with resistance. Some longtime residents saw the Jamaica-born Alexander as an outsider.

Still, joining with the non-profit Grovites United to Survive (GUTS), a group of local investors, Alexander redeveloped the dilapidated Tikki Lounge at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Douglas Road. The lounge had closed in the late 1970s and had become a magnet for crime. The idea was to rebuild it as Goombay Plaza, a Bahamian-themed answer to nearby Cocowalk in the affluent Grove.

“He was the one who told me of Tikki being available and if I could get some people together, we could get that building in 1983 for $90,000,” Gibson said Thursday.

“Grand and Douglas was a terrible eyesore and dangerous place to be for a long, long time,” Alexander said in a 1995 Miami Herald story. “Until you do bricks and mortar, those perceptions won’t change.”

The ambitious project, however, stalled when the city withdrew its sponsorship of a $2 million federal loan in 1998.

But other projects under Alexander’s leadership were built, including homes in Coral Gables’ MacFarlane Homestead Historic District on Grand Avenue and U.S. 1.

“David worked his butt off to save this community,” Gibson said. “He built all those houses in Coral Gables — 35 homes. He raised three good young men, a wonderful family. I could never say enough about him.”

Adds Merline Barton, president and co-founder of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative whom David hired more than 27 years ago to help build afforable housing: “Because of David's commitment to the revitalization of the West Coconut Grove community and his encouragement and support, the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative was established over 16 years ago, with a mission to empower the underserved populations in the Grove, South Miami and the adjoining Coral Gables.’’

After he resigned from the Coconut Grove Local Development Corp. in 1998, Alexander spent another 10 years with the St. John Community Development Corp. in Overtown.

“He was always passionate and wanted to help the underdog in any way he could,” his wife said. “One thing I remember David writing is, ‘I’m not trying to change the world. Just a small part of it.’”

Alexander is also survived by his sons Christian-Mark, Nicholas and Jonathan Alexander, and siblings Caroline and Freddy Wilson. Services will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 10 at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, 536 Coral Way. Donations in his name can be made to The Thelma Gibson Health Initiative.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen