Grand illusions

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.

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."

Other black-owned businesses bloomed, too, like Lee Brown's barber shop, the Ace Theater, and Willie Leonard's menswear store. "Man, he used to make beautiful things that would fit you to a T!" remembers Louis Mellison, a 66-year-old retired public school maintenance supervisor. "We sang the gospel and he used to tailor all our clothes. People would come in from Carol City and Liberty City; they'd come from everywhere." Also popular were the four bars at each corner of Grand and Douglas: the Tip-Top, Jack's, Seven to Eleven, and 77.

Former Miami city commissioner and retired nurse Thelma Gibson recalls sitting on a coral rock wall in front of her grandparents' house on Grand Avenue, selling ice cream and sandwiches during the Thirties and early Forties. There was no sidewalk back then.

White merchants set up shop on Grand beginning in the Twenties, says George. "There were Jewish retailers who owned businesses on the street," he recalls. Ironically the business community was somewhat integrated until the Sixties, when the walls of segregation started to fall in other areas. "I had friends who would go over there and buy clothes. There was sort of like a preppy men's store," George adds. He remembers schlepping to Jack's bar in the early Sixties because it was one of the only places where an underage kid could score a bottle of liquor.

Some residents disliked Grand Avenue, though. Grady Dinkins, who moved from the middle-class black community of Richmond Heights to the Grove in 1960, avoided driving down the strip for a reason familiar to many who speed through today. "So many people walked across the street all the time and I thought it was dangerous," she recalls. "You'd be driving your car and you'd have to look out for these people. You didn't have traffic lights. You didn't even have walk lights." So she took a less-traveled route to her job as a counselor at Tucker Elementary School on Douglas Road. Dinkins also disdained the bars. "The clubs that were there were bad," she says.

In the Seventies whites became scarce on Grand Avenue. Fear set in after racial disturbances such as a 1971 incident in which black Grove youths threw firebombs at white drivers on nearby South Dixie Highway. The mob was enraged over the police shooting of Joseph Veargis, a black teenager who was arrested while riding in a stolen vehicle. Officers alleged that Veargis pointed a gun at them, but many Grovites questioned that claim.

The McDuffie riots chased out others. Angry blacks rampaged across Dade County on May 17, 1980, after a Tampa jury acquitted four Miami policemen charged with murdering insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie. Most of the violence occurred in Overtown and Liberty City, but some Grand Avenue stores were damaged. Herbert Butler, a 67-year-old Grove resident and retired public school custodian, stayed home that night. "A lot of shooting was going on. People were stealing. Stores being burned," he remembers. Various business owners on Grand Avenue closed shop for good, including Willie Leonard, the menswear store owner; he became a minister.

In the riot's aftermath, the Miami commission organized the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation (CGLDC) -- one of eleven such entities -- to revive depressed economies in poor areas. In 1984 a group of twenty blacks, including Walter Green and Gibson (the widow of civil rights activist Rev. Theodore Gibson), formed GUTS. Each member invested $5000 and the organization purchased two buildings and two vacant lots at two corners of the Grand and Douglas intersection. They enlisted the CGLDC to raise money and manage the ill-fated Goombay Plaza project.

Walter Green's life embodies the history of both GUTS and much of Grand Avenue. As a young man he earned money operating shoeshine stands at various places along that street. In the Sixties and Seventies he managed pool halls between Douglas Road and McDonald Street, including one owned by George Cash.

Green bought two small apartment buildings on Grand Avenue in 1976. After Cash's death he purchased his pool hall in 1979. In 1984 Green helped found GUTS and two years later he added a club called Crystal Lounge to his Grand Avenue holdings. He also owns three houses: two in Richmond Heights (he lives in one of them) and one in Port St. Lucie. To justify his significant real estate holdings he offers a story. When he was about fifteen years old his family, including his mother and three brothers, was evicted from a Coconut Grove house. "I tried to have it so my children would never have to go through that." he says. "It's a very hurtful thing."

These days he owns a laundry business on the site of the pool hall that he bought twenty years ago from Cash's widow. "I've been hustling all my life," the 75-year-old sighs, relaxing in a chair in a musty room with a plywood floor, a door down from the laundromat. He's wearing an orange-and-green cap bearing the words "Miami Service Corps." On one of his fingers gleams a large ring mounted with the golden headdress and face of an Indian. Seated next to Green is Henry Givens, whose mother was a GUTS founder. An old wooden desk faces the street. A television is on top of a refrigerator on one side of the room; empty dusty bookcases line the opposite wall. The sounds of cars rushing by can be heard through the open front door.

Green and Givens are trying to explain why Goombay Plaza is still a pipe dream. They say they've rejected overtures from inexperienced developers they suspected of being "fly-by-nighters," as Green calls them. And GUTS has not approached major developers like the Rouse Corporation, which built Bayside Marketplace. "I guess the fear is that somebody would come along and snatch it," Givens offers. "[We have wanted] to be sure that some of this land remained under the ownership of African Americans with roots in this community."

Green laments that nothing will be done soon. "My point is that I may not be here to see it. I may be gone on." Givens, who is age 59, adds: "That's the thing that bothers me."

Indeed eight of the founding GUTS members have died. "When I look at the number of original investors and look at the number who are still alive it really makes me wish it had been done yesterday," Givens says.

"I wish somebody with some money would think about it and let us have some," Green remarks. "Being [descendants of] pioneers I don't know anybody who could make a better impression. This is a diamond in the rough."

In the hands of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation Goombay Plaza went nowhere. As executive director, David Alexander, a Jamaican, spent years working on plans for the project, but failed to locate a willing developer. He did succeed in orchestrating construction of Grovepoint, an Arquitectonica-designed, low-income housing project near South Dixie Highway and Grand Avenue; but that complex drew fire because it was technically located outside the Grove, in Coral Gables. Alexander's CGLDC also bought and refurbished a building at 3672 Grand Ave., now called the Coconut Grove Business Center, which houses the development corporation, a copy shop, offices, and an AT&T wireless store.

But after repeated delays of the Goombay Plaza project, Alexander resigned this past summer. GUTS members were concerned about his financial dealings. When he stepped down he was drawing an annual salary of $78,000, according to city records. He also wrote himself a $19,000 check for three months leave and sued CGLDC for $100,000 in back pay. They settled out of court. Alexander also sued Givens, Coconut Grove lawyer Cornelius Shiver, and the now defunct Coconut Grover newspaper for slander. He dropped two of the complaints; a defamation suit against Givens remains open.

This past fall Miami's Department of Community Development reviewed CGLDC spending and found $52,000 in unaccounted expenditures. Alexander's successor, Jihad Rashid, repaid the money to the city. Lawyers for the city are still examining another $41,000 in questionable costs related to the development corporation's purchase of a Grand Avenue building. As a result the city rescinded its guarantee of a two-million-dollar federal loan for Goombay Plaza. The development department is now keeping closer tabs on the $100,000 per year it pays CGLDC.

GUTS entered another controversial fray when it evicted the Zanjabil boutique and CocOasis newsstand at Grand and Douglas this past October. Their departure was especially problematic because the owners, Jihad and Aisha Rashid, took the shop's expensive parquet floor and other amenities when they left.

GUTS member Henry Givens had just finished filing a complaint with a Miami police officer when New Times arrived at the former Zanjabil space this past October 12, the day after the Rashids' departure. "It's painful," Givens moaned angrily, surveying the torn-up floor. "It's painful psychologically." Word of the incident had spread throughout the neighborhood. An old man on a bicycle had stopped by to inspect the damage. "Someone should put some gasoline under his ass and light it," he snarled, referring to Jihad Rashid. Givens replied: "Now we don't want to do that."

That day New Times observed a heated exchange on Grand Avenue between Rashid and Carlton Green, Walter's son. "I advise you to stay out of my face!" Green insisted. Rashid responded, "I advise you to stay out of my face!" The tension did not bode well for GUTS and its already unraveled Goombay Plaza plans, since Rashid had become the development corporation's interim director, the man theoretically in charge of developing the project.

The strife has since subsided. In February the CGLDC board elected Yvonne McDonald, a 48-year-old native of the black Grove, executive director. Coconut Grove developer Bruno Carnesella, who sits on the board, thinks Goombay Plaza never materialized because GUTS wasn't prepared to take a risk. "When the people of GUTS decide to cross the threshold and say, 'We want a developer,' then the trick is done," he insists. "It's a mental threshold." Carnesella advises GUTS to find a trustworthy developer who can identify willing tenants.

Givens indicates that for some GUTS members, simply possessing the property may be as important as developing it. "Deep down there's a respect for what we own," he declares. "At least two corners are owned by African Americans."

On a recent Friday night about nine o'clock Isaiah Brock arrives to open Club New Year's Eve on Grand Avenue for cocktails and dancing. Brock's tie hangs unknotted from the collar of a light blue dress shirt. Like many other black business people here, he is weary of Goombay Plaza. The stocky and talkative 54-year-old informs a New Times reporter that he bought the club in 1993, just a few years after ending a 25-year career with the U.S. Air Force. At the time he was married to one of Green's nieces, but they've since split.

A sign just inside the main entrance bears a long list of rules: "No guns, knives, chains, or spiked wrist bands; no illegal drugs; no gambling; no argumentative persons." A wall next to the bar features two large photographs: one shows City Commissioner Arthur Teele and his wife standing next to Brock; another is of Mayor Joe Carollo and his wife with the proprietor.

About ten o'clock a row of twenty middle-age patrons sits at the bar cheerfully sipping drinks in the dim yellow light. Nearby a long table is filled with male and female members of a motorcycle club that has rolled down from Broward and West Palm on big Honda road cruisers. Others churn on a small dance floor as a DJ spins "'Cause You Love Me, Baby" by Deniece Williams, and other R&B tunes.

"This place right here is keeping this community from being a ghost town," Brock declares, seated behind a desk in a room with shelves of bottled booze. "Because we get people here from West Palm Beach, Key West, everywhere. And there ain't that many black clubs around. I like to keep it clean and decent."

One night this past December the bar gave Brock cause for alarm. It was about 3:00 a.m. when a group of men between 25 and 30 years old tried to kick in the door. They were angry because Brock refused to play rap music. "They wanted that pop-a-kootchie stuff," he recounts. "I ain't got time for that. When they play that they get wild and crazy and they want to start drinking and tear the place up. They don't understand the meaning of good housekeeping and good order."

Brock called 911, but before any officers arrived the rap aficionados broke through the door to his liquor store foyer and shattered the sales window. "The police were right down there at the 7-11," he says, pointing toward the store, which is about four blocks away, toward CocoWalk. "It took them 25 minutes to respond from the 7-11." Brock believes the assault on his club was organized by black Grovites who want to hurt his business; he won't name them. "They want me out of this place," he declares. "They're trying their best to get me out of here."

Brock says police began patrolling more frequently after he met with Miami Police Lt. Dan Watkins, who is in charge of several officers stationed in Coconut Grove. "I see [Grand Avenue] turning around as far as policemen cleaning it up," says Brock. Yet he sees no economic upturn in the offing.

Brock is one of six new development-corporation board members who were elected to three-year terms in May. He thinks the agency and GUTS have delayed progress for too long. And he is frustrated that the CGLDC gatherings are dominated by talk about the GUTS project. "At [a recent meeting] I said, 'Every time we come in here we talk about GUTS. GUTS is not the only entity in this community. Why is it always GUTS? Everything is GUTS!'"

Brock describes GUTS as a "clique" and says some of its members are more interested in controlling opinion in the black Grove than helping the Grand Avenue economy. "GUTS is all for GUTS," he chides. "They aren't for the community. They pretend they are, but they're not. I think GUTS is going at things the wrong way and that's why they haven't gotten off the ground. They won't listen to young, fresh ideas."

Robert Harris, a 31-year-old black lawyer who graduated from Coral Gables High School and the University of Miami, is also vexed with GUTS domination. He has rented an office in CGLDC's business center on Grand Avenue for the past year and a half. Harris says he chose the Grand Avenue location because he wanted to contribute to an up-and-coming African American community.

Now he's planning to relocate to another part of town. He's tired of the trash on the streets and vagrants hassling his clients. "It's like the wild West out here," he complains. One day early this year a court reporter was tardy for a deposition at Harris's office. "Court reporters are almost always on time," he relates. "So she called [on a cell phone], and I asked her why she was late. She said, 'There's a guy standing next to my car with his penis out.'"

Harris thinks GUTS has established a "fiefdom" that is a barrier to economic development of the black Grove's main drag. "It appears to me that the gentlemen in GUTS are more interested in themselves than the community per se," he observes. "They are sitting on the property. What have they done with the property? They've done nothing with it. Where are the jobs? Where are the opportunities for businesses, black or white, to come into this area? I see young black boys and girls walking around here aimlessly and they don't have summer jobs. They can't even get them in their own community," Harris says, exasperated. "I'm looking at GUTS and I don't see evidence of any progress that they've made in fifteen years."

Brock says CGLDC has offered to help him win a $2000 grant to improve the façade of his club. But that would be peanuts compared with the tens of thousands of dollars the development corporation spent seeking funds for GUTS's Goombay Plaza project and the two-million-dollar federal loan the city canceled. Brock is planning to form a small merchant's association with three other business owners. One of his soon-to-be partners is Norman Moodie, who opened a 24-hour diner one block away this month.

Moodie is not waiting for CGLDC, GUTS, the city, or even a bank to loan him money. "We're filling a void," he proclaims, standing inside his new Grand Plaza Diner, at 3600 Grand Ave. Moodie, a tall 43-year-old former Marine and U.S. Coast Guard officer of Jamaican descent, is wearing a dark blue U.S. Navy cap and square, thick-rimmed Gucci eyeglasses. Completing his ensemble are chinos, a cell phone, a beeper, a black leather fanny pack, and loafers. "There's a need," he continues. "There's no Popeye's, there's no Kentucky Fried Chicken here. This is going to be Popeye's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Miami Subs in here." And the diner will become the new nerve center of Grand Avenue. "Right now the news passes through the barber shops and on the street. But this diner is going to be the new meeting place."

The restaurant, which currently offers a hearty variety of soul food, is part of a thirteen-unit apartment building Moodie bought for $200,000 in 1997. "I'm employing twenty people here," he exclaims. "We're employing more people than any business along [Grand Avenue]." He also owns the Caribbean House, a colorful 28-unit, two-story structure located a block away on Grand and Hibiscus that he bought in 1996 for $300,000.

Last year Moodie applied for a loan from Republic Security Bank to finance renovation of the apartments and the diner. The bank approved a $210,000 loan, but then reneged. He lodged a grievance against Republic Security with the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. "This is what I'm up against," he moans.

The bank has reimbursed him $800 of his $2100 in fees and he is now waiting for the investigation to run its course. Meanwhile he says he is subsidizing his mortgage payments with profits from another venture, Caribbean House Key West. It's a "crazy" thing to do, he says. "My neck is out on a limb. If this shit don't fuckin' work I'm going to have to sell everything. I'm walking the plank out here."

Moodie takes New Times on a tour of a renovated second-floor apartment behind the diner, then hustles down the stairs and into an office the size of a large closet. In one corner a TV broadcasts CNN; on top of the set is a black-and-white video monitor showing the diner's interior. "I can't force them to give me a loan. I'd rather sue their butt," he notes. His uncle Derrick McKrieth, resting in a nearby chair, concurs. "Redlining," is all he says. McKrieth, two other uncles, and Moodie's mother and father are all present this afternoon. They are helping him work on the diner.

His inability to secure a loan has forced him to resort to a novel strategy to fill the adjacent apartments quickly. He hopes to convince the nearby Family and Youth Intervention Center, a nonprofit agency that rehabilitates drug addicts that is run by Yvonne McDonald, to lease them.

Louis Mellison, the retired maintenance man, warns of other possible problems for the Grand Plaza eatery. The black Grove resident recalls an incident a few weeks ago while he was walking down the sidewalk across the street from the diner. A man and woman pulled over to ask for directions. "I was showing them how to get to Mayfair when six or seven blacks run up to the vehicle. And I was telling them, 'Wind the glass up, wind the glass up,' but they didn't pay me no attention." One of the assailants pulled the woman from the car, grabbed her purse, and ran off with it. "You open a business and a lot of guys start hanging around and sit there," Mellison observes. "They just take possession like they own it. My advice is don't even let that start."

Brock, however, thinks the success of Moodie's diner will depend mostly on one factor: the food. "People always need a place to eat. It depends on the cook. If it ain't got a good cook, ain't nobody going to come and eat."

While Moodie walks the plank, others continue to dream up projects to develop the blighted strip. David Alexander is plotting a return to Grand Avenue along with Andy Parrish, a 51-year-old Anglo who builds homes for low-income residents in the black Grove. The two have put a deposit on Gil's Spot, the defunct bar at the northwest corner of Grand and Douglas that was once slated to mesh with Goombay Plaza. Parrish envisions a Caribbean-style restaurant.

Nearby, black Grove veteran Ike Pope, the proprietor of Ike's Food Center on Douglas Road, has decided to sell. A black man named Richie Cooper recently signed a contract to purchase the property for "less than $300,000," according to Pope's lawyer Herbert Marvin, who would not be more specific.

And a trio of Jamaicans led by Grand Avenue copy shop owner Glen Diston has a contract to buy a vacant lot at Grand and Hibiscus. Diston, who previously ran a car-rental business in Kingston, Jamaica, won't disclose his idea, but the 36-year-old hints it would involve construction of offices and shops.

CGLDC is requesting five million dollars in public money to add a median, trees, and angle parking on Grand between Douglas and McDonald. Some think the beautification will be the silver bullet that will put Grand Avenue's cycle of poverty out of its misery. "When that happens, it's going to be, 'Katie, bar the door,'" says Parrish. "There's going to be tremendous economic development in that neighborhood."

"That's the dumbest, stupidest, thing I've ever seen or heard of in my entire life, that median," declares Walter Green, looking out the doorway of his sparse office. "We've got so many other things the money could be spent on. Like a traffic light for the lady who was just trying to cross the street. Wouldn't that make more sense than planting trees?" he asks. "I don't think anybody would appreciate that."

But some would. Grady Dinkins, one of Green's elderly neighbors, is delighted at the prospect of street improvement. She thinks a leafy median on Grand Avenue is as good an idea now as it was back in the Seventies, when she first proposed it to then-City Commissioner Theodore Gibson, the first black elected to that office. "That was one of the things that Father Gibson and I went to a community meeting about," she says. "We wanted to see Grand Avenue with a median strip with all these beautiful trees. It never developed. The city never seems to have money to do these things. But this is the black Grove so I guess you have to expect this to happen."

Dinkins is among a group of residents who for most of the Nineties held up development of a vacant block at Grand and McDonald. The city commission finally rezoned the parcel last year to allow construction of a 170-room hotel. The owners (who include Carnesella) are negotiating with an Atlanta company to build a Marriott inn on the property.

"Everybody on South Beach and every white area of the city has seen their real estate do nothing but go up in value," Andy Parrish says. "And that's why [Grand Avenue] is going to change. It's as simple as that."

Brock concurs. "I mean face it. If they're going to put a hotel, a Marriott, on the corner there, in a virtually black neighborhood, don't that tell you something? Don't that tell you some development is coming?" he reasons. "You always want to buy where you see a chain going up. You see a McDonald's or a Burger King or a hotel chain in an area, you buy. Because they're coming. They'll be there in five years."

Brock predicts other big players will one day follow: casinos.

Thelma Gibson's enthusiasm about Goombay Plaza has tempered. "I have no idea where it's going at this point. We're sort of in limbo," she admits. "I'm always hopeful. I'm always believing that dreams come true because I've had a lot of them come true." Then she adds: "But now, as far as where that dream will take me, God knows at this point."

Givens says this about Goombay Plaza's future: "We're still doing something. It may not seem like it. But we're still struggling."

Back at Howard Johnson's putt-putt, planning proceeds apace. His next project: to replace the old cups at each hole of his golf course.

"If it were up to me, I would stop building at the black Grove's border," says one 85-year-old male resident, pointing in the direction of CocoWalk. "There are people who want to come in and push the black people out," he growls with an ominous sweep of a long bony forearm.


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