The Rashids' Last Stand

Nearly four years ago a couple of intrepid entrepreneurs opened Zanjabil in hopes of inspiring their neighbors in the black Grove. They're still hoping.

The intersection of Grand Avenue and Douglas Road in Coconut Grove is a well-traveled crossing for Miami commuters, but even in the sunlit roar of the morning rush hour it can appear ominous. One or two police cars are parked around the clock on a barren lot at one corner, to deter the crack and marijuana dealers, the smash-and-grab robbers, the carjackers who have haunted the intersection over the past twenty years. Old one-story stucco buildings, with entrances long padlocked, loom over two other corners. Rising from this bleak setting, the peach and green store on the southeast corner is impossible to miss. It is a vision, a chimera, with glittering windows that display swaths of bright Indonesian cloth, woven baskets, and African masks.

Jihad Rashid and Aisha Sharif-Rashid opened Zanjabil three and a half years ago in what had been a dank and cluttered TV repair shop. The couple hoped the boutique -- which offers handmade African arts and crafts -- along with their adjoining newsstand called CocOasis, would lure upscale shoppers to an area usually overlooked or outright avoided. The Rashids' profit motive was entwined with a spiritual one, stemming from their devotion to Islam, which they embraced as idealistic teenagers and have practiced during eighteen years of marriage. "I am not a social worker per se, but putting a business in the ghetto is social work, that's for sure," Aisha says. "What we're trying to do is show the people here that you can make money morally and legitimately, and that people will come and do business with you and you can live off this money and take care of yourself and your family. That you don't need to be immoral and do illegal things to get your dollars."

And Zanjabil has seen a steady trickle of dollars from its mostly white customers. "If you only get ten people in the store and ten buy, that's a good day," Aisha notes. She and her husband would be turning a small profit, she says, were it not for the crime that has plagued their store. Vandals have shattered Zanjabil's display windows four times. Last year thieves made off with $72,000 worth of merchandise in two separate burglaries.

But these losses are not what will ultimately drive them out of business, the Rashids say. Rather it is something that has not happened -- something called Goombay Plaza, a ballyhooed outdoor market that was supposed to have risen from the blighted corners near Zanjabil more than a decade ago. The project, first proposed in 1984 and ostensibly funded by the City of Miami, has been little more than a mirage. If construction doesn't begin some time in the next six months, Jihad says, Zanjabil will close. Were that to happen, the closest thing to commercial revitalization that the black Grove has seen in 30 years would become a memory. "Surely with difficulty comes ease," says Jihad, quoting, as he often does, the Koran.

On this recent weekday morning, he is out on the sidewalk in front of CocOasis, holding the day's Miami Herald in front of his chest, hoping to lure a little early business from the drivers whizzing past. A tall man, he wears a blue New York Times cap and a faded maroon Wall Street Journal apron over his crisp shirt and tie. He smiles dutifully at the drivers rushing past on Douglas. A woman pulls alongside the curb in a black Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer. "Are you leaving us?" she shouts out the passenger-side window.

"We're taking it month to month," Jihad responds, shrugging.
Around 9:30 a.m. the rush-hour traffic has subsided. Jihad refers to the newsstand as his "marketing arm," an integral part of his strategy to get affluent passersby to stop. In addition to the Herald, CocOasis offers the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and the Miami Times, which is popular among middle-class blacks. Seated at the cash register, bathed in the fluorescent green-white glow of CocOasis, Jihad skims the Herald. "This is probably the only chance in the day I get to read the paper," he says with a hint of frustration. But the calm soon ends. "Good morning!" shouts a man from his new forest-green Cadillac at the curb. Rashid pops out, apologizes for the delay, and sells him a New York Times.

A few minutes later a stocky young man appears. Lorne Green is a 23-year-old college student and Grove native who occasionally drops by. He and Jihad razz each other about their rival black fraternities, a jovial dispute prompted by the fraternity sashes that hang from the Zanjabil ceiling. Although Zanjabil "gives positivity" to the neighborhood, Green says, most of the local residents don't appreciate it because they think the merchandise is not practical. "The [Rashids] are trying to bring in African roots, but most people don't identify with that."

"We all want [the Rashids] to succeed," says Thelma Gibson, a long-time community leader in the Grove who served briefly as an interim city commissioner this past summer and fall. But Gibson adds that she has repeatedly suggested to the Rashids that they could endear themselves to the local community by offering more merchandise that low-income residents can afford.

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