There Goes The Neighborhood

At the northeast corner of Grand Avenue and Douglas Road stands the hulking, vacant Tikki Club bar, in its heyday the scene of shootings, stabbings, and frequent drug busts. After a half-dozen years of disputes and delays, plans are under way to turn the site into "Goombay Plaza," an open-air, Caribbean-style marketplace. Up the street, fifteen new single-family houses designed by Arquitectonica outline the triangle formed by Grand Avenue, U.S. 1, and Brooker Street. Blueprints for the project, called Grove Point, call for seventeen more houses. Just east of Douglas Road off Franklin Avenue, weeds and underbrush clog a vacant lot that soon will be home to St. Hugh Oaks, a community of 23 single-family houses for middle-income families.

On its surface, the planned revitalization of Coconut Grove's black community bodes well for an area left out of the economic boom in the largely white-owned village center to the east. But for Esther Mae Armbrister and other long-time residents, it is cause for concern as well. "It seems to me this community has been fighting to survive ever since they started. There's always been people wanting to change it," says Armbrister. "It's just been one thing or another. We've got to make sure this doesn't turn into that whole thing again."

The development debate in Coconut Grove's black community, made up of tightly knit enclaves steeped in culture and tradition, is not only about what will be built, but also about who will build -- and own -- it. On one side is the Community Action Agency (CAA), a county social-service agency with sixteen elected advisory boards made up of residents from impoverished Dade neighborhoods, including Coconut Grove. On the other side is the Local Development Corp. (LDC), a nonprofit group supported with federal and state funds and private donations. Founded in 1980 to help revitalize area businesses, the LDC has branched out into housing as the developer of Grove Point. The development agency has been the target of old-timers such as CAA advisory-board member Armbrister, who support renewal of their neighborhoods but see the LDC as Johnny-come-latelies who are doing their best to hand over the rest of the Grove to the whites.

"In my mind the LDC has turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes we made," says Armbrister. "That group was set up to help businesses, which means only two streets -- Grand Avenue, and Douglas Road from U.S. 1 to Grand Avenue. We didn't support them so they could stick their noses into housing, because we had housing under control. If they would stick to what they're supposed to do, it would be fine, but they don't do it." Grove Point, Armbrister says, was planned years ago by the CAA, which bought the property, but the LDC ended up as the developer. The LDC's supporters, she argues, are members of the black community who have reason to welcome white investment.

"Like this one woman -- I hate to call her name," says Armbrister, "but there is one woman who didn't do anything communitywise until her husband died. And after he died, she is everything. She is the spokesman, she is this, that, and the other. But she's nothing to us. See, the whites, they have always gone around getting people who they think should do this and do that and do the other for them. What happens is that some of those so-called community people out there have been buying for the white man and giving the black neighborhood the opinion that they, the black people, own the property. Or they buy for speculation to sell out to white developers. This is one of those things."

Armbrister moved from Plant City to Coconut Grove in 1936 and rented a room at the corner of Hibiscus Street and Franklin Avenue for $1.50 per week. Originally planning to save money to attend Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, she met her husband, Edmund B. Armbrister, the year she moved here, and never left. "I developed too many attachments to this place. I wouldn't live nowhere else but here," she says. "They couldn't even pay me to move off Charles Avenue. It was a nice close bond when I came here. You didn't lock your doors at night, go and come as you please. Lord, it ain't the same today."

In 1947 Armbrister and her husband moved to an old house built out of driftwood and some old lumber on the former site of St. Paul A.M.E. Church, constructed in 1896. It had no running water, and the toilet was on the porch. The couple lived in the two downstairs rooms and rented out the four rooms upstairs. In 1975 she moved into a newly built three-bedroom house on the same lot.

Since arriving in Coconut Grove, Armbrister has been a watchdog for black residents, aiming a sharp tongue and blunt word at anyone and anything she perceives as harmful to her community. "I tell it like it is with no lies," says the woman who at age 75 rattles her walking cane at meetings about sewers and streets, crime and traffic, scolding city officials and looking as if she's going to whack anyone who crosses her. A favorite target is LDC executive director David Alexander, whom Armbrister dismisses with characteristic gusto: "He doesn't know what he's doing. He thinks he knows everything. He just sits there and tells everybody what they want to hear. I can't stand a man who is just breath and britches. That's what I call a man who does not talk out, speak out, you know, just sits there and anything another man tells him, he says, `Yes, yes, yes yes.' He's just breath and britches, because anybody can wear pants and breathe."

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