If a certain paranoid movie director were to swing through Coconut Grove, he would discover enough conspiracy theories to make the assassination of JFK seem like an open-and-shut case. Compared to the charges of corruption and cronyism that swirl through the Grove, the dubious conclusions of the Warren Commission make pefect, logical sense.
Jack King, editor and publisher of the Coconut Grover newspaper, is disseminating a few theories right now. For one, King has a hunch that Billy Rolle -- a legendary leader in the Black Grove -- is mismanaging the Goombay Festival, an annual celebration of the Black Grove's Bahamian heritage. For another, King suspects that Coconut Grove Realty, one of the most established businesses in the village, is suffering from "broker defections" and "bad management." And when King has a conspiracy theory, you can count on him running it in his newspaper.
Working out of a tiny office across from the congested CocoWalk shopping mall, King types into his IBM clone the rough edges of yet another scandal. He's heard that the Coconut Grove Civic Club, tireless opponents of development and the most zealous activists in a community of active zealots, has put its stamp of approval on a building permit in exchange for a cash payoff. The facts are thin at the moment, but the story is too sexy to be ignored. First the lead paragraph, then the bulk of the tale. King's stubby fingers dance across the computer keyboard as fast as his once-youthful feet flew around his high school track: "The Coconut Grove Civic Club has agreed to not pursue an appeal of a Class 2 permit on the Spec's building in return for an $11,000 payment to be made to the Civic Club."
The story is a killer, the kind of shocker King needs to make readers pick up his free monthly paper, to keep his advertisers happy, and to allow him to eat for another month. It'll go on the front page, above the fold, with a screaming headline: "Extortion or Public Service? $11,000 'Donation' to Civic Club Questioned."
The Oliver Stone of Coconut Grove has struck again. "I don't like the term 'conspiracy theory.' I prefer to think of it as just 'conspiracy,'" says King, laughing a great deep laugh and leaning forward in his seat to make sure his joke is appreciated. He'll make a few calls to obtain the standard denials, but King, a self-aware man with 30 years in and around the newspaper business, knows he's got a story that will ensure the attention he craves.
As King celebrates his eighth year of publishing the Grover, a pugnacious chronicle of the vibrant, stridently eclectic community that is Coconut Grove, he's beginning to reap the benefits of longevity. His paper claims more readers than ever, and, perhaps even better, certain politicians now speak of the Grover with respect. It may still be small and thin, but the paper is starting to have an impact.
Success has a price, though, which in Coconut Grove means more conspiracy theories. King's opponents, meeting quietly beneath the ficus trees that cover the Grove like a canopy, have concocted their own theories. One: King doesn't separate his advertising from his editorial. Two: King is jealous of the power of certain community groups. Three: He's dishonest, deceitful, and undignified. And, what the heck, four: The guy's a drunk, too.
Worst of all, in a neighborhood striving to remain in the era of the Twenties, King has purportedly become a tool of developers. Some people think King has used his newspaper as a bully pulpit, pursuing an agenda to replace Coconut Grove's quirky charms with giant malls and towering office buildings. The recent sale of a half-interest in the Grover to a woman with strong development ties percolates this particular conspiracy brew -- a woman who, some furtively whisper, is out to silence her opposition. She bought into the Grover to further commandeer Coconut Grove for herself, they contend. And for her developer buddies.
All this gets King to laughing again -- a huge laugh, one that sets his head to bouncing on his neck, as his small brown eyes remain vigilantly open in search of a responding laugh. "A tool of the developers, huh?" he chortles. "That's a great one. That cracks me up." At age 50, he's too seasoned to be hurt by the charges. Actually he kind of likes them. Any talk about Jack King, even a conspiracy theory, should move some more papers, he figures A which, of course, is the whole idea. "Just say that what's good for Coconut Grove business is good for my paper," he suggests, knowing how it will be read by his enemies. Then he laughs again.
"My editorial philosophy is pretty simple," shrugs King. "I try to inform the public. I attend meetings and report information that is relevant to the residents of Coconut Grove. That's the high-moral-ground answer." A smile cracks across his gray-bearded face. "Unfortunately, it gets bent, almost monthly."
King's beat is roughly three square miles of royal palms, high property values, eccentric personalities, and impassioned civic discourse. Although Coconut Grove's ancient streets predate those of Miami, the village was swallowed up by the big city during the hot summer of 1925. Grovites have had an attitude problem ever since.
People who live in the Grove aren't weirder than the rest of the population; they're just trying to be. The village has a reputation for attracting freaks and oddballs, and no one currently living there wants to be blamed for letting the reputation die. This iconoclast Zeitgeist is so strong that less-loony people have been known to move into the Grove, only to flee almost immediately to the haven of strict zoning and order that is Coral Gables. "We love that nobody tells us what color to paint our houses, how high our weeds can grow, and that my son can keep his car on the front lawn," says Susan Billig, a veteran Grovite. "I love that I have no sidewalk or even a sewer, for that matter."
Status is conferred on those residents who survive the Grove the longest. A few days before recent elections for the Village Council, a quasi-official governing body, candidates proved their worth by declaring how many years they have lived in the Grove. "I've been here for twelve years," said one candidate proudly. "I've been here twenty," announced a second. "I've been in the Grove my whole life," boasted a third candidate, stopping the game of one-upmanship in its tracks (and ensuring the candidate's eventual election).
While not a Grovite by birth, Jack King has spent enough years in the place to be treated at least better than a tourist. He arrived twelve years ago, jobless and desperate. And he hasn't left since. He even found a way to eke out a living in the journalism business that he was almost -- but not quite -- born into.
King's father, educated in Chicago in the early Forties, had a dream opportunity: He was to start a newspaper in the emerging city of Fort Lauderdale. First, though, the elder King had to fight in World War II, from which he did not return alive. Jack King was born a month after the war ended, never having a chance to meet his dad. "If things had worked out differently, who knows?" King says with a grin. "I might be the publisher of the Sun-Sentinel."
Instead, King's journalism career followed a winding path. He got off to a rough start, lasting only a week and a half at the Alligator, the University of Florida's independent, student-run newspaper. He lasted less than two years at the university itself. Drifting down from his hometown of Stuart to the big city of West Palm Beach in the mid-Sixties, he enrolled in a junior college and found a job on the copy desk of the Palm Beach Post -- right alongside current Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence ("the best newspaper man I have ever worked with," notes King today).
After seven years King split the Post, taking a job selling computers. King, his wife, and their young daughter relocated to North Miami. "We were the first yuppie couple," he notes. "I drove a [Porsche] 911. She drove an Audi, and we both owned the sailboat. The problem was we were paying off the Am Ex with a MasterCard. It was like the Eighties before the Eighties ever happened." When the bills came due, the marriage broke up, and King found himself unemployed. (A few years later he remarried his ex, only to see the union again dissolve. King is currently single.)
He bounced from job to job for a while -- selling more computers, producing a sailing magazine, laboring at the Sun Post, dabbling in the printing business. The Grove became home in 1983 when, out of work, he approached Monty Trainer with hopes of doing some public relations. The two clicked so well that a few years later, when Trainer, a politically connected restaurateur, told King that the Grove desperately needed a newspaper of its own, King agreed to be the man to run it. "The only person who ever said he'd put money into it was Monty Trainer," King says now. "He's the one who told me that Coconut Grove needed a real newspaper, not a bullshit thing. He was going to put together enough investors to get me a working quarter-million dollars. He had his own problems, though, and pulled out. [Trainer was convicted in 1989 of federal tax evasion.] I tried to put it together for $10,000, but when push came to shove, not one person was there for me."
It was financially illogical, but King published the paper anyway, with the first Coconut Grover -- all of four pages thick -- hitting the streets in December 1987. Originally it was scheduled to come out weekly. Three issues after the Grover's debut, however, King scaled it back to a monthly, as the paper remains to this day. It has survived longer than many previous attempts at a Grove newspaper.
Nowadays each issue is roughly 30 pages in length, produced entirely on King's computer. Distribution remains somewhat primitive. Most of the 9000 copies printed each month are thrown onto driveways in the Grove, where they can often be found weeks later disintegrating in mud puddles. "I know the paper has a lot of impact on the driveways around town," snipes one Miami city official who is unimpressed with King's work.
The Grover is filled with the same ingredients found in countless community freebies: lists of upcoming events, wedding pictures, ads for local banks and realtors. King prints gossip, as well as a few rambling, airy columns penned by local characters. "I think Jack serves a purpose in Coconut Grove," says David Gell, president of the Coconut Grove Crime Prevention Council. "His newspaper is really the only large-scale media that can speak as part of the community. He's great on gossip. He's wonderful when it comes to getting the word out about events and festivals, and he has an important role to play in Coconut Grove."
King writes most of the Coconut Grover himself. Whether it's an unbylined front-page story or one of his two columns, King's crisp writing voice is conspicuous. "He's an excellent writer," stresses Dave Whitney, an old friend and the former publisher of the Islamorada Free Press. "He's not a writer who needs a whole lot of polish. He's one of those naturals. Jack will find that spark; he'll find something entertaining about that meeting and he'll put it in his paper in an interesting way."
Mostly King writes about politics. But instead of merely reporting the votes of the most recent nuisance-abatement board meeting, King actively steps into the fray. In front-page articles and in his columns ("GroveWatch" and "Eye on the Grove"), King editorializes about the subjects he covers. Take this recent headline: "Commodore Plaza: Going Down and There's No End in Sight."
One of his regular targets is Billy Rolle, the director of the annual Goombay Festival. Held each June in the West Grove, Goombay is one of the largest black festivals in the nation, according to Rolle. For three days, artisans carve statues from wood, while storytellers, musicians, and emigres from the homeland celebrate the area's Bahamian heritage.
Basically, King thinks Goombay is a crock. In a series of articles, he has attacked Rolle for "gross mismanagement" of the festival. "This could be a great festival, but the way Billy runs it, it has become merely a bad music and bad food festival. It really stinks," King snarls. In response to one Grover article, Rolle's wife Frankie (herself a powerful Black Grove activist) told King to his face that if he ever printed her name in his paper again, she would launch a federal investigation. Undeterred, King published her statement verbatim, then fired another salvo against Billy Rolle, this time alleging that the Goombay guru had failed to repay $57,000 in city grants. King's final sentence: "Bring on the federal investigation!"
Frankie Rolle has no comment about the freewheeling editor. "I will not dignify that man by talking about him," she snaps. Her husband will talk, although he has nothing nice to say about King's swashbuckling journalism. "He says I am no good and that I am stealing the money," groans Billy Rolle. "But my books are open. He looks at them and he passes them around. He says maybe this guy might be stealing money, although there's no truth behind his statements at all. But he writes it and then everybody looks at it and says that it might be true."
The Goombay Festival has hardly been King's only target. On a cork bulletin board behind the desk in his office, King has tacked a letter to the editor signed by ten members of Coconut Grove Realty, a village institution since 1925. The ten realtors took "umbrage" at King's in-print description of Coconut Grove Realty as mismanaged and ailing. In the realtors' collective mind, the comments were "malicious and wholly outside the bounds of honest objective reporting."
King displays the letter with pride. Mixing it up, getting people mad, is one of the surest ways to attract attention. "We all know the formula from a publisher's standpoint, particularly when you are running a free publication," explains former publisher Whitney. "You as editor and publisher must create a product that people will read. It's nice to have people ticked off at you. That brings the reader in."
Given the fractious nature of Coconut Grove, the best way to tick off people is to champion decisions made by the City of Miami government or to show sympathy toward developers -- both of which King does on a fairly regular basis. While he adamantly insists that he isn't a toady for developers, he also admits he has no problem with the proposed development of such sacrosanct ground as Dinner Key, long the home of a working boatyard and once the international launching pad for Pan American World Airways (and the point of departure for Amelia Earhart's last flight). "I don't see any reason to save old buildings just because they are old," he spouts, although he allows he could see saving an old airplane hangar because the building has some character.
"The Grover does a pretty good job of offering the viewpoints of downtown developers and that's about it," says Michael Carlebach, a Coconut Grove resident and a professor at the University of Miami's School of Communication. "Jack's view is very narrow. It is clear that he is in harmony with the few people who want to develop the Grove. I pick it up to see what the other side says. It's a very good reverse barometer."
Carlebach is a member of the Coconut Grove Civic Club, King's absolute favorite target. While the club considers itself the watchdog of the community, King pejoratively refers to it as the village's shadow government. No development commences on Civic Club turf without an intense look-see by its members, who know enough about zoning, density, and variances to halt development altogether if they want to. And that's usually what they want. "I think the majority of people here could do with less development," Carlebach points out. "They would like the same kind of environment that's grown up here: bigger lots, more trees, shopping, a slow pace. That's what they paid the big bucks for." Accordingly, in the past year the Civic Club has fought to save Dinner Key and to keep developers away from from another coveted site, the nearby Naval Reserve Center.
King considers the club too powerful a force in the Grove to escape his examination. "I feel they should not work in secrecy," he asserts. "I defend what I do in public; it's laid out right in my paper. They should do the same: How many members do they have? Who are their members? Are they movers and shakers or are they just ordinary people? Do they have a vested interest? Do they have alterior motives? I need to try to find out."
Month after month King runs articles that poke and prod Civic Club leaders, especially Tucker Gibbs, a lawyer who King sarcastically refers to as "Civic Club vice president for life." In his story about possible extortion by the Civic Club on the Spec's deal, King wrote that he called Gibbs for comment, only to be rebuffed. "'My comments are always being misconstrued,'" King reported Gibbs as saying.
Gibbs sent a letter to King warning him not to publish the article about alleged extortion. Gibbs explicitly stated that the letter was intended only to inform King of possible legal action and was "not to be published in any form." King gleefully ran the letter verbatim, knowing that if Gibbs ever sues him, King would gain complete access to all Civic Club files and to all of Gibbs's personal financial records. "I don't respect his style of journalism," sighs Gibbs. "Even Joe Pulitzer in his yellowest days of yellow journalism -- I mean when he started the Spanish-American War -- had more facts in his paper than Jack King does." [For the record, William Randolph Hearst has the dubious distinction of "starting" the war, not Pulitzer.]
Although Gibbs (who insisted that New Times investigate King's two alcohol-related arrests A one for disorderly intoxication, another for obstructing a police officer) claims never to read the Grover, he admits familiarity with almost all the stories published in the past few issues. One that he particularly liked A in that he considers it served to undermine King's credibility A was a front-page profile of Betty De Yurre, the wife of recently deposed Miami city commissioner Victor De Yurre. King wrote glowingly about Betty De Yurre's good works as a nurse, a county administrator, a mother, and a political wife. That King would publish such a fluff piece on Betty De Yurre so close to an election in which Victor De Yurre was trying to retain his job, Gibbs believes, has a lot do with what appeared on page four of the same issue -- a full-page advertisement for De Yurre's re-election campaign. "Jack is so predictable," smirks Gibbs. "If there is a big story on somebody, you can be sure that somebody has an ad in the paper."
"I don't trade editorial for advertising. No way. No how," King sputters. "The [Betty De Yurre] story was set up three months before, but it had always fallen through." He does admit that the article was a "quid pro quo" for the then-commissioner. "I helped him out now so that he might help me out sometime down the road. I mean, the article ran in an area that Victor De Yurre would probably win anyway. If he wasn't going to win easily in the Grove, then I might have held off, but I didn't see any reason to."
De Yurre did win the Grove but lost the election. And the man who beat him, Joe Carollo, questions King's rationale for supporting De Yurre. "I don't find too much integrity with that newspaper," Carollo sniffs. "One thing any newspaper shouldn't do if it is going to be an opposition newspaper A it shouldn't take the politicians' money. Yet they were calling the candidates, seeing if we would pay $795 for a full-page ad. De Yurre buys a full page and, lo and behold, they put a Betty De Yurre article on the front page. It lost a lot of credibility."
Ironically, the Betty De Yurre story was published just as the Grover was cementing a reputation for having increased its credibility and reliability. In the paper's early years, it might have come out a few weeks late if King had trouble paying the bills, or if he wanted to sail down to the Keys. Now the paper appears on time each month. Its layout looks more attractive. The stories are generally better written.
Ad revenues, King claims, are up 40 percent over last year.
The reason for the noticeable improvement is the biggest conspiracy theory of them all. "Seven years is about my limit on anything," King says, explaining why he spent the summer shopping around for people to take the Grover off his hands. One potential buyer was Pan Courtelis, the leader of a movement that wants Coconut Grove to secede from the City of Miami. Another suitor -- this one successful -- was Elena Carpenter.
No woman elicits more fear from the Coconut Grove Civic Club than does Carpenter. She lives with Bruno Carnesella, a zoning consultant and developer who, according to past club president Joyce Nelson, told her that "the Civic Club is the source of everything that is wrong here. You guys, all you want to do is harass us."
This past July, soon after Carnesella made that comment, Carpenter asked the Miami City Commission to pass an ordinance requiring all groups speaking before the commission to surrender the names and addresses of the group's members. Carpenter said at the time that she wanted to prevent groups with a narrow agenda from claiming to represent the entire Grove community. The Civic Club took the ordinance personally.
"The only reason they really wanted the ordinance is because they wanted the names and addresses of people who speak against development," laments the Civic Club's Michael Carlebach. "It is clear that what they were objecting to is the homeowners. This was a very flimsily concealed plan to shut us up." The ordinance is in limbo now because of pesky constitutional questions about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but the acrimony over Carpenter's request has not diminished.
So in August, when Carpenter paid approximately $10,000 for a 50 percent stake in the Grover, people saw it as the next step in her quest for Grove domination. "All of a sudden she appears," says a bemused Joyce Nelson, referring to Carpenter, who followed up her purchase of half the Grover by running for and winning a seat on the Village Council. "I'm visible socially. All of a sudden this woman appears out of nowhere in the last three months."
For her part, Carpenter maintains that her interest in the paper is professional and not political: Buying half of the Grover was a chance for her to combine her background in public relations with her passion for the Grove, where she has lived for more than a decade. "I said to Jack, 'You have done what I have never been able to do A get people to advertise consistently,'" recalls Carpenter, who came onboard the paper in August as general manager. (The details of the agreement have not been settled yet, notes King, who adds that when the deal is done, Carpenter will control 50 percent of the newspaper.)
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Currently, Carpenter sticks to the advertising side, drumming up business; King determines which stories will run. He has no problems with the Civic Club's fear that Carpenter will turn the paper into a pro-development mouthpiece. "If anyone says that she controls me, well, that's absolute straight bullshit," King blusters. "I mean, I'm the happiest guy in the world that she is there. I'm not good at the business side of things, and she is. The paper was at a certain level and it wasn't going to get any better unless I brought in someone else. I make no apologies for it."
Carpenter plans for the paper to become weekly, fatter, and more profitable. "We hope to add more staff," she dreams aloud, "so we can spend more time on the golf course, so to speak." King says he's been reinvigorated by Carpenter's arrival, but he still talks about moving on in the near future, pointing out that he'd like to bring in another editor to assume the day-to-day operation. "It's time for the younger generation to have a whack at it," he states, adding that he'd settle for a column an issue.
King speculates he might write a book, something to make hard-boiled crime writer Elmore Leonard look like an amateur. And the editor brags that his publishing contacts up in New York City could make it happen. Or maybe he'll just stay on his boat, American Pie, and sail to the Keys while writing a screenplay and searching for his next opportunity.
More likely he'll stay in the Grove. He has a steady female friend now and a house to go with his boat. The paper is doing better than ever and, after all, it's the Grove, where the conspiracy theories are ever-flowing. Jack King probably isn't going anywhere. "I could leave someday, but God, I love this place," he says, laughing his great laugh. "It's the only place I've been that accepts a full-blown nut case like myself as a normal person.