Black Kids in Grove Need Roller Hockey!

Johnny Winton and some white boys say so

From the sound of it, a roller hockey revolution is about to roll over Coconut Grove's bayside Peacock Park, a block east of CocoWalk. The City of Miami Parks Department is forging ahead with a plan to replace a makeshift rink on two netless tennis courts with a 240-foot-by-130-foot roller hockey rink, surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall that would bifurcate a stand of oak and tamarind trees, and fence in about five gumbo-limbos. Leading the charge: Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton and his chief of staff Frank Balzebre. They are backed up by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, City Manager Joe Arriola, police Chief John Timoney, and assistant chief John Gallagher. The Department of Capital Improvements is ready to fund the rink with $143,700 in Safe Neighborhood Park Bond money, with an equal amount coming from park impact fees the city has been collecting since the early Nineties. Even the National Hockey League has vowed to help with money from its diversity fund, according to Balzebre. The program targets kids in the mostly black West Grove. "We're trying to get these kids off the streets!" Balzebre declares.

But in revolution, as in hockey, there is always fighting. Six months ago, a group of Coconut Grove residents formed Friends of Peacock Park to come up with ways to preserve and improve this bayside slice of the central Grove. It currently features a baseball field adjacent to glimmering Biscayne Bay; a small building housing a Neighborhood Enhancement Team office and the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce; and some rundown tennis, basketball, and shuffleboard courts. When Friends of PP first detected the rink plan about a month ago, it stung them like a puck in the face. They believe Winton and the other boosters are acting more like a dictatorship of the roller hockeyiate than civic leaders.

"What I want is the city to develop parks in a democratic way, with public participation," sighs Glenn Terry, a long-time Grove resident who teaches art at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in north Miami-Dade, and is co-chairman of Friends of PP. He thinks the idea that large numbers of kids from the black Grove can't waitto play hockey at Peacock Park is a myth perpetrated by white adult hockey fans. Winton and Balzebre, for instance.

Terry's radical hypothesis has some basis in fact. "We knew nothing about it," says Elston Lane, director of the West Grove unit of the Boys & Girls Club of Miami. Lane, a twenty-year veteran of the club, thinks he could round up some players but not for any Peacock Park skirmishes. "I think it's something they'd probably be interested in doing, because our kids love to skate," he offers. But few black West Grove parents will let their children make the mile-long skate down Main Highway or Grand Avenue, given the crazed drivers in this town. "The transportation situation is going to be difficult because a lot of these parents are not going to let their kids go that far away," he adds. "If it was a good walking distance ... no problem." Lane wonders why the facility can't go on two dilapidated tennis courts in Armbrister Park, where the West Grove Boys & Girls Club is, or in a nearby park known as the Barnyard, which also has unused courts. Then there is the new jewel of West Grove, Virrick Park, which after a long, racially charged political struggle finally received a multimillion-dollar renovation that was completed last year.

Indeed, the geo-racial politics are getting nettlesome. "If it's for the kids of West Grove, let's do it in West Grove. Plain and simple," admonishes Shawn Welch, executive director of the Greater St. Paul AME Church Community Development Corporation. Welch grew up in the black Grove, and her late fiancé Neal Colzie ran the local Boys & Girls Club unit until his death in 2001. "It's very important to me that the kids in West Grove get taken care of," she continues. "And whatever I have to do to help fight for them I will." Welch was planning to organize a door-to-door survey of West Grove residents to determine interest. "We need to get more people involved to find out if that's what we need, [or] if that's in our best interest right now. I mean we have three parks here." (Despite these reactions, leaders of the West Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association and the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation have indicated they support the Peacock Park location.)

Beyond the conundrum of putting a roller hockey rink for West Grove kids outside of West Grove, the plan has set off a cultural clash that has been simmering for several years over the fate of poor little Peacock Park. Frustrated that the parks department was not using impact fees collected from special events promoters to improve and beautify the park, Terry and David Villano (the latter is a soccer coach at Ransom Everglades High School) formed Friends of PP in September of 2002. Terry recently drew up a rendering of some of the group's ideas. In the large area city planners have slated for the roller hockey rink, the rendering envisions roaming peacocks, a butterfly garden, a small amphitheater with portable stage (working name: The Above Us Only Sky Theater), trees, and open space. A sandy volleyball area would go next to the existing basketball court. Half of the Glass House, which currently houses offices of the North/East Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team, would be returned to the people for recreation, arts, and cultural programs, as well as public meetings. The other half of the building would become a bayview bar and café with an outdoor patio adjacent to chess and domino tables. Terry emphasizes that these are only ideas. He simply wants everyone "to work together to make Peacock Park a great place again."

Architect Thorn Grafton, a Friends of PP founding member, thought that maybe the bar/café, which he suggested should be a nonprofit venture, could be named the Nut House. "Everybody's talking about putting the nut back into Coconut Grove," he submits. "It could be a place where residents come and reaffirm the quirkiness of the Grove, or for visitors to kind of understand that the Grove is a very unique place, and absorb [its] heritage and culture and history ..."

Or it could be roller hockey central, with a steady stream of hockey moms and dads in SUVs and other vehicles lumbering along the park's dirt track road and up to the rink. "I think the real issue here is [the need for] a true design process, a true charrette, a true master plan," Grafton says. "Whatever process we can all come up with for the maximum participation of Coconut Grove residents in the future of their park, instead of the park continuing to be a repository for special interests who slide things in under the radar."

The only "process" that will take place, Commissioner Winton assures, will be kids with helmets, pads, sticks, and skates flocking to Peacock Park. "We are going to get that roller hockey thing cranked back up again because it is very important for kids from the West Grove," Winton told New Timesfrom a hospital bed in Crested Butte, Colorado, two days after a skiing accident splintered one of his legs in four places. He seemed to have an uncanny clairvoyance about the situation, perhaps from the painkillers: "This is likely to be one of those deals where a group of my constituents will be ticked, because I'm not changing," he predicted.

Terry, the founder of the satirical Orange Bowl Parade permutation known as the King Mango Strut, remembers Winton as the guy who almost revolutionized local politics by endorsing a community-wide meeting on alternatives to a pro baseball stadium in downtown Miami's bayside Bicentennial Park. But now King Mango is scratching his head. "It's real macho," he huffs. "Almost everybody supporting it are guys who love hockey. Just because you got clout and like hockey, that's no reason to put roller hockey in there." Noting that he'd been a hockey dad when his son used to play in Kendall a few years ago, Terry continues his litany against the Peacock Park rink plan. "They usually put it in a big area where there's free parking," he observes. "It's way too hot to play in the summer. The equipment is expensive. I just don't get it. Roller hockey is kind of dying out."

But Bob Brennan, a Friends of PP member, thinks his buddy, roller hockey coach Bruce Reep, will rally the roller hockeyiatein time. "The program is a wonderful thing and why Glenn is huffy about it I don't know," offers Brennan, a long-time white Grove-ite whose teenage boys played roller hockey in recent years. "Maybe just because he wasn't told about it and he was maybe a little offended. And I'm sorry about that, but this is something that should go forward because it's a great program. And so we give up a little bit of the park. Well goddamn it, that's what parks are for! They're for creating things like that. And I guarantee you that that [rink] will be busy for as long as Bruce Reep is alive." Brennan notes that Reep, a white Grove native who runs a boat construction business and lives next to Mayor Diaz, could easily take off his gloves: "Bruce gets a little testy when you start messing with his hockey program," Brennan warns.

Terry confirms Brennan's assessment. "Bruce Reep came to one of our first meetings. And he told me, 'I don't care what you do, but don't mess with my hockey,'" Terry recalls. Reep could not be reached for comment.

That's pretty much Winton's message, too. Kids played roller hockey on Peacock Park tennis courts in the mid-Nineties, he says, and by God, they will again. "Glenn's a good guy and I like him but that doesn't mean I have to agree with him," Winton declares. "I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. Said 'Glenn, I'm puttin' roller hockey back in Peacock Park where it came from. If you can find me a better location then I'll consider it. But don't talk to me about how you could create some grand park.'"

Paradoxically, a grand park system is exactly what Winton and his fellow commissioners decided to create last year, when they voted to solicit bids for a new citywide master plan for Miami's public parks. Which is why Terry and others believe it is silly to build a roller hockey rink in Peacock Park before the master plan is ready. Commissioners are scheduled to vote March 27 on a proposal to send $535,000 in Safe Neighborhood Park Bond money to the landscape architecture firm of Falcón and Bueno to develop the master plan. Also pending is a city-commissioned marketing study the Chesapeake Group is to conduct on ways to bring more people into the central Grove business district. Presumably, Peacock Park would be one facet of the inquiry.

"I think roller hockey is a very valid park activity. It just has to be in the right park," suggests Rick Walsh, chairman of the city's Parks Advisory Board. Walsh, who is one of the board's five popularly elected delegates and represents Winton's district, learned of the rink plan just last week when a Friends of PP member called him: "I, particularly as a board member, would not be happy having something like that pushed through, especially with the awareness that there is a master plan process in progress," he says. "Why bypass that?" The master plan should be done in less than a year, "If it's done right," he adds. "And [then] they can have their roller hockey rink in the exact place that the community wants it."

But postponement is not an option, Winton insists. He will not wait for the parks master plan, or a marketing study, he explains, because roller hockey plans have been spinning for seven years. "I can tell you from just a pure practical standpoint I don't give a damn what those consultants say about Peacock Park," Winton declares. "There isn't another place for these kids." It is true that in July 1996 the Miami-Dade County Commission designated $500,000 in Safe Neighborhood Park Bond money for shoreline stabilization, building renovation, and "enhancement" of new tennis and roller hockey facilities at Peacock Park. In December 1997 the Miami City Commission passed an ordinance earmarking the bond money for construction of a lighted boardwalk at the park, lights at the nearby Meyers Park boat ramp, and "to design and install lights for the roller hockey rink." But the proposal for an entirely new $287,514 rink instead of the current makeshift one has remained in the dark. It was submitted by parks director Al Ruder last July and calls for "relocation of basketball courts ... to make room for the new rink." The proposal also states: "This project will be incorporated into the Master Plan." Construction would begin January 2004. Miami city commissioners must still vote on the proposal. Ruder says a vote on it could take place, as part of an appropriations ordinance, as early as the March 27 commission meeting.

Shawn Welch thinks Winton is offside, and has this message for whites and blacks who think the West Grove roller hockeyiateshould trek to Peacock Park to play. "If this has been on the table since 1996, then when y'all planned the redoing of Virrick Park, y'all should have put the roller hockey there," she scolds. "It has two courts already." She concedes that Virrick might be too jammed up now. "It's beautiful but it's not real functional because you can't run ten feet without [running into something]. A park needs to have open spaces where you can actually run around and play, you know? And they're going to go build this [rink] there and destroy Peacock Park? I take my granddaughter to Peacock Park because she loves the water and all that. I don't want to destroy that. I've been going to Peacock Park since I was a kid."

Back in Crested Butte, Winton's clairvoyance was turning into a reality check, when New Timesmentioned the proposed dimensions of the rink and the ten-foot-high wall. The commissioner serenely admitted he hadn't seen the site plan. "Maybe they are concerned, rightfully so, about the size," he concedes. "Maybe that's where the compromise comes in."

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