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

In theory they will be replaced by owners of fabulous new multistory condos. Miami commissioners and developers have yet to settle on the number of floors. "They want to build buildings and watch the water," Billings says mockingly. "They want to see the water. The water! They should take their asses to the beach!" The situation is "humiliating" for many long-time residents, he fumes. "No black folks can afford this!" He points across the counter at an elderly woman wearing large sunglasses, flashing a nice smile, and holding a cane in one hand and a small plastic bag of groceries in the other. "Prime example!" Billings submits. The customer is 90-year-old Alice Johnson, who, as far as she can remember, relocated from Montgomery, Alabama, to Key West in 1945. Some time after that (she's a little hazy on exact years) she moved into a two-story apartment building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Elizabeth Street, where she still lives. In February 2004 one of Marrero's companies, Bayshore Towers Development Corporation, bought the 1953 building for $1.7 million and raised her rent, which is due to increase again this month. "This is ridiculous," she says calmly. "I'm paying $425 already." She confides that her monthly social security allotment is a little more than $500. (The average rent in Miami is about $1000 per month.)

Johnson is certain she has to find a new home, but unsure where it will be. "My niece is looking for places for me," Johnson says. "I want to be around here."

But it is not likely she will be. Nearby apartments not slated for butchering already rent for $700 a month. Even that amount is dirt-cheap compared to the cost of the condos likely to replace the building she lives in. One-bedroom units at Grove Lofts, a six-story condo project under construction a block and a half away from Johnson's apartment, are available for $330,000, which would require a monthly mortgage payment of at least $2000.

After two decades on Grand Avenue, beloved 
neighborhood merchant 
Angel Arias (pictured with his sister-in-law Marta) finds 
his Coconut 
Grove Meat Market on a chopping block
Jonathan Postal
After two decades on Grand Avenue, beloved neighborhood merchant Angel Arias (pictured with his sister-in-law Marta) finds his Coconut Grove Meat Market on a chopping block

Across the avenue and down the block from the meat market, at the fenced-in minipark on the corner of Grand Avenue and Hibiscus Street, foursomes of men are smacking down dominoes at two tables, while several others look on from adjacent stone tables. "They're pulling down homes. They're putting in parking meters. I hate it," complains one of the observers, an older gentleman named Pop. "You really want to know the truth? The biggest thing I hate is that the Cubans and the white folks want to take everything the black man got. Everything we had they done took it."

A stocky domino player in a white T-shirt complains, between smacks, that the construction is re-routing traffic through side streets. He scoffs at interlopers who have offered some of his neighbors $100,000 or even twice that amount for their houses in the black Grove.

"A hundred thousand dollars won't buy you nothin'," he says.

"Won't buy you nothin'," echoes another guy.

"You've got to buy a house if you want to live like you was," adds the stocky guy. "Take your $250,000 and [then] you still got no money."

Someone mentions the big hole in the ground two blocks away that will be filled with Grove Lofts, a condo project whose advertising slogan is "The cool place to live."

"Right next to the doggone service station. Before you move in there, you gotta pay doggone $300,000!" he exclaims.

"Where I'm going to live at?" asks another.

Out on the Grand Avenue gravel this past May, Pat, an apartment dweller who likes to keep a cigarette behind one of her ears, offers more words of consternation. "See that place right there?" she asks, pointing to a two-story Fifties era apartment building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Plaza Street. "You have to pay, for one room, four hundred dollars a month! Come on, baby!" she reprimands, suggesting that price is exorbitant. "They're just buying up everything on Grand Avenue, taking over."

A woman named Marie, who is inclined to hiss to attract attention, has another concern. To make room for the landscaped median and widened sidewalks, the avenue has been narrowed from four lanes to two -- one northbound and one southbound. During rush hour, ambulances and police cars would get stuck in traffic, she fears. "What they gonna do if there's an emergency?" she wonders. "They'll have to go down the side streets."

In addition, some residents see another sign of an antiblack conspiracy in the disappearance of the annual Bahamian-themed street fair from the heart of their neighborhood. "They done took the Goombay Festival away," Marie protests. "That's our culture!"

Actually the construction project forced the Goombay Festival, held this past June, to move only a few blocks away toward CocoWalk, in the Grove's central business area known as The Village. Still, the distance was worth several hundred dollars to Bernice Cooper. Cooper is the 69-year-old owner and chef of the Pine Inn restaurant, located in a one-story Thirties-era structure one block west of Angel Arias's Coconut Grove Meat Market. In previous years, when festival-goers packed the avenue in front of her eatery, her weekend revenues sometimes hit $1400. This year: about $500. But the problem transcends Goombay. The bulk of her everyday customers has been nearby apartment dwellers, many of whom have left the area because of rent hikes. "The whole South Wind moved out!" she groans, referring to an apartment building across the avenue from her restaurant. "I don't even make enough now to pay my rent. If I can hold on [through July], in August I'm out. This is it for me."

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