Grand illusions

When a gutsy group of homegrown entrepreneurs tried to turn around the black Grove, they failed miserably

HOWARD JOHNSON'S bundled dreadlocks protrude from the back of his cowboy hat as he pulls a Ben Hogan five-iron from his golf bag. "This is a nice one," the 57-year-old says quietly, admiring the club. He is about to play a most unconventional round in a vacant lot at the corner of Douglas Road and Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove. He putts toward a pole bearing an authentic white golf flag emblazoned with the numeral 2. The ball rolls across the rough grass toward the cup, which turns out to be an empty Vienna sausage can. The next link ends about ten paces away, where a pin with the number 9 hangs over a plastic Sexy Touch hairstyling-gel container. The banners were gifts, Johnson says. He has yet to acquire markers for the three other holes, which are difficult to find because there are no greens, only rough. Indeed, the entire course is on a parcel of land about the size of a tennis court. A long chip shot would be tantamount to vandalism of nearby storefronts. "There's not enough room to drive here or nothing," Johnson observes.

Tiger Woods inspired Johnson to set up his course, which he grooms with a push mower. At one time the Tallahassee native had considered staging rodeos on the lot. He envisioned wooden fences to keep in the animals. "That's what I was thinking about before I got into this golf thing," he says.

Johnson has fashioned an open-air clubhouse complete with a charcoal grill beneath a shady stand of palmetto trees in the lot's corner. He hangs his golf bag on their thick latticelike bark. The space is hidden from public view on one side by shrubbery and a large wooden sign that welcomes travelers to "Historic Coconut Grove: Home of the First Bahamian Settlers." He says he's unemployed and sleeps in a room a few blocks away.

Norman Moodie has expanded from low-rent apartments to low-cost cuisine
Michelle Sas
Norman Moodie has expanded from low-rent apartments to low-cost cuisine

Johnson's creation amuses passersby, but it is a poignant reminder of government inaction and community inertia in one the poorest corners of Miami. This lot marks the beginning of a five-block stretch of Grand Avenue that is one of the most unique and contradictory places in urban America. To outsiders it is a fearsome gauntlet, especially during times of racial unrest. It is also a well-known pocket of poverty, unemployment, street crime, and drug dealing. To developers and realtors the area is the commercial equivalent of an untapped oil field because it borders one of the county's most lucrative business districts and toniest residential areas. Some say it has the potential to be a black equivalent of Lincoln Road.

The mini-golf course-in-the rough is the only innovation on property that long ago was slated to become part of Goombay Plaza, a marketplace with open-air shops, restaurants serving authentic island recipes, and a nightclub featuring Caribbean music. Johnson's course is on one of four properties at Grand and Douglas that a group of twenty black residents calling themselves GUTS -- Grovites United to Survive -- purchased in 1984. That year they enlisted David Alexander, then-executive director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation, to secure more funding and oversee the project's design. They began to dream of a tourist destination encompassing four corners of the intersection that would provide a Bahamian and perhaps bohemian alternative to Mayfair and later, CocoWalk, located just seven blocks away. But after fifteen years Goombay Plaza is no more real than Johnson's rodeo.

A stroll down Grand Avenue in the black Grove reveals property owners who are defensive about their own failures, wary of outsiders, and quick to blame government for their community's woes. Others who are tired of the city's reluctance to see anything but Goombay Plaza on the horizon are planting their fortunes on a bleak urban landscape dotted with more than its share of unemployed souls, petty crime, and drug dealers. And yet nearly all involved cling to the vision that grandeur will one day come to this stretch of Grand Avenue, if not next year then certainly sometime during the next fifteen.

Early this century Grand Avenue was a sandy country road along the edge of the black section of Coconut Grove, which was developed largely by black Bahamian businessman E.W.F. Stirrup between 1900 and 1920. At the time Charles Avenue, three streets south of Grand, served as the community's tiny commercial district. Carmetta Cash Russell, a retired elementary school teacher who was born in the Grove in 1915, remembers Grand Avenue as little more than a pathway "with palmetto bushes everywhere."

But municipal workers improved Grand Avenue in the Twenties. "The city created a large, wide street that was designated as not only a retail strip but also a road that would lead you right into the heart of white Coconut Grove," says historian Paul George. Cash Russell's parents, Maggie and George Cash, built a two-story structure on Grand Avenue between Plaza and Hibiscus streets. It housed a grocery store, a dressmaking shop, and a pool hall. The six-member Cash family lived on the second floor. Carmetta worked in the market both before and after college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. Late-night shoppers so often roused her from bed that she still remembers the experience clearly at age 83. "They'd ring the bell and they'd want something out of the store," she sighs. "I've had that dream many times. I'm in there looking for something on the shelves."

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