Fables of the Reconstruction

Residents of the black Grove are being displaced by the value of the land they've lived on for a century

The condominium boom may make parts of Miami even more fabulous one day, but it is already butchering the black Grove. Just ask a butcher.

"This destroy my life," says Angel Arias, a 66-year-old who is just tall enough to peer over the aluminum top of the long glass meat case at the Coconut Grove Meat Market. "The devastation for me here is tremendous." And he's not even black. He's a white Cuban who migrated from Oriente Province in 1970, seven years after communist revolutionaries confiscated his family's cattle, coffee, and cocoa farm. He has operated the dingy little market, located on the most blighted stretch of Grand Avenue, since 1983. Now, sporting a weathered white and orange Chicago Bears cap, the sponsor of youth football says he's about to fall victim to another expropriation blitz. "The only reason I'm still here is I've been in court," explains Arias. He says he paid his landlords $60,000 twenty years ago for the right of first refusal were they ever to sell the 3200-square-foot building constructed in 1939. But instead the owners, Alciades Velez and Angel Aponte, sold it to an investment group led by Coral Gables lawyer Julio Marrero in December 2003 for $452,000. The Marrero group raised Arias's rent from $1650 to $2200 a month.

"I put my life here! I want to die here!" Arias exclaims, tapping the tips of all ten fingers on the meat case's aluminum panel, just above the Georgia sausage. "How long have you been here? Half an hour?" he asks loudly. "How many customers you see?" The answer: Two people had come in to purchase soft drinks, another a cigar. "This is a long story here!"

Veer
As the black Grove undergoes a face-lift and rents 
soar to more than 
$400 a month, long-time residents like Alice Johnson 
must find another 
place to stay
Jonathan Postal
As the black Grove undergoes a face-lift and rents soar to more than $400 a month, long-time residents like Alice Johnson must find another place to stay

And a tragic one. Last week the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that Arias is not entitled to buy the property or regain his $60,000.

An even longer tale of doom looms outside the meat market's doors. "That's the Gaza Strip out there," offers Michael Billings, a middle-age black man clad in shorts, a red T-shirt, and a navy blue do-rag, from behind the counter. "We live in the West Bank now," he adds. Billings, whom Arias has employed for two decades, is referring to the construction zone that Grand Avenue became several months ago when bulldozers and backhoes tore off the asphalt from Douglas Road to McDonald Street. Municipal officials promoted the $3.9 million project to reinvent the avenue -- with wider sidewalks, parking meters, and a tree-lined median -- as a first step toward revitalizing one of Miami-Dade County's most neglected and crime-ridden neighborhoods. But many denizens of the black Grove believe the project is part of a nefarious conspiracy by developers and politicians to eradicate the community. Indeed, the Marrero group has bought most of the buildings and vacant lots along Grand Avenue in a $10 million spree that began in 2003.

For decades several of those properties, including three low-rent apartment buildings, belonged to the family of David Blumenthal. His great-grandfather Max and grandfather Elliott began acquiring land and buildings in the black Grove in the early Thirties, after moving from Savannah, Georgia, to Miami in 1924. "They had speculated in farmland and other land in the 1920s and lost everything in the [stock market] crash," Blumenthal reminisces. "And at that point they said, 'We're going to buy land that produces income; we're never going to have a mortgage,' and they looked for an area where they would see a population that they thought would always be able to pay rent. They saw this wonderful land situated between Coral Gables and Brickell and Coconut Grove, saw the good Bahamian families that were dwelling there, and saw the kinds of jobs that they had -- maids, garbage collectors, red caps at the airport -- you know, steady workers who would always have jobs and want to be close to where they're working. My great-grandfather was responsible for the first water line that was put down Grand Avenue. We were as much social workers as landlords."

But in 2001 a tenant in one of Blumenthal's Grand Avenue apartment buildings alleged her child was suffering from lead paint poisoning. There was no lead paint in that apartment, he says, but he settled the case to avoid a court battle. With the specter of future complaints and rising property taxes threatening his Grove portfolio's income-producing capacity, he opted to unload it. He sold his apartment buildings for about $100,000 each to the Greater St. Paul AME Church, a black Grove institution, hoping the church would protect his long-time tenants from eviction. But two years later the church cashed in and the apartment buildings went to the Marrero group for about a million dollars apiece.

"Money is what always drives things. And the real estate is worth more than what is currently on the property," Blumenthal explains, noting he was charging below-market rents. "Eventually the older buildings will get torn down, newer buildings will get built for a different class of people than are now living there, and the Grove will completely change. The original Bahamian inhabitants who still own their houses will find themselves a minority all of a sudden. For people who are renting, I don't know where they're going to go."

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