The Wall

How can you tell where white Coconut Grove ends and black Coconut Grove begins? Just look for the barbed wire.

When David White was a boy back in the 1930s, he and his family used to walk the three blocks from their one-story house in the Bahamian section of Coconut Grove to Plymouth Congregational Church in the white neighborhood, just through the trees to the south. The Whites' house was on the middle of the block on Marler Avenue, which shared a tree line with that wealthier white area. From their front yard the Whites would meander a half-block to the end of Marler Avenue, then turn right onto a footpath that led to Hibiscus Street, which was then a dirt road. Two blocks more would bring them to Plymouth. For decades the majestic coral stone church was the only racially integrated house of worship in Dade County; it still towers over Main Highway.

In those days residents of the Bahamian Grove, now known as the black Grove, routinely walked to and from the white neighborhood -- the adults to work, the children to play. White's parents, who moved to Coconut Grove from the Bahamian island of Eleuthera in 1901, were no exception. His father worked as a gardener and his mother as a maid. As a young man David also worked as a gardener and made the same brief commute, on foot, as his father.

White and his wife Tessie still live on Marler Avenue, in a house next to the one he was born in. But nowadays he would have to climb a ten-foot chainlink fenced topped with strands of barbed wire to take that first right onto Hibiscus Street into the predominantly white section. Not too easy for a 66-year-old retired public school administrator who is moving kind of slow these days.

Barricades around black neighborhoods are, of course, nothing new in Miami. Construction workers put up a long concrete-block wall just a few streets west of Marler Avenue in the late Forties, along the southern edge of a housing project for low-income blacks. Although historians and city officials seem oblivious to this relic of segregation, most of the original 1300-foot barrier is still standing. Indeed, the old wall is now simply an accepted feature of the landscape for those residents who live near it.

Not so with the hodgepodge of newer barriers on and around Marler Avenue. White says these fences are an example of modern racism. Erected ostensibly as a deterrent to crime, their net effect is to make it difficult for residents of the black Grove to leave their neighborhood. In some cases these fences (and the barbed wire placed atop them) appear to be in violation of city code. But the city, White says, has done nothing about them -- despite his protests.

One look at Marler Avenue clarifies White's frustration: Not only are he and his neighbors fenced in at both ends of the block, but along the southern edge of the tiny street is a ten-foot fence. "This all used to be open," White explains, standing in his driveway and pivoting 180 degrees as he points from one end of the street to the other. "We used to walk through there." He gestures toward one section of fence with a coil of concertina barbed wire -- the kind used in military operations: "Totally unnecessary," White exclaims, shaking his head, his hands now tucked inside his back pockets.

Will Johnson, who returned home to the black Grove four years ago after eighteen years in the U.S. Army, is offended by the notion that white Grovites would put up barricades to protect themselves from their black neighbors. "The idea that a man would put that damn concertina wire on top of the fence there," says Johnson, age 46, surveying the barrier with White. "The truth is it won't make any difference at all. The guys know how to get over there and rob their ass anyway. It's not a deterrent."

White regards the barriers as vestiges of "segregation and white dominance. And I say, look, I pay taxes the same as anyone else. I don't necessarily want to go into their community, but I do want to make sure that if I need to go over there for anything I have the accessibility. Now, if I'm going to go over to Plymouth Congregational, I gotta go all the way around" -- he twirls slowly in a half-circle to indicate the circuitous route he would have to take -- "instead of the way the streets were supposed to be."

David White, president of the West Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association for the past three years, would be a happy man if he could get to Plymouth Congregational Church as easily as he once did.

One day in the Fifties, when city workers came by to pave the streets for the first time, White went down to the corner of his block to see if they would be paving Hibiscus Street all the way into the white area. That way he could walk out his front door, go left to the end of the block, and walk right down. Like in a normal grid system.

"I asked the question 'Are you going to cut this street through here?' And they said, 'No no no no. We got to stop.' And I said, 'Why? Why aren't you going to cut it through here?' They said, 'No. Nuh-uhh.' The city wouldn't permit it."

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