Pave It To Save It: Part 2

After Hurricane Andrew paid its battering visit, a few vendors managed to straggle back to the Coconut Grove Farmers Market. The Thai family returned to sell their tofu and shrimp fritters. The masseur came, too. Likewise the incense seller, the Zen baker, and the tie-dyer. Hunkered beneath makeshift tents and tattered beach umbrellas, they baked like five-grain sugarless muffins in the Saturday sun. Even worse, there wasn't a freshly picked vegetable in sight. And instead of lingering and socializing the way they had in the old days, the customers that did trickle in remained only as long as it took to complete their purchases, then dashed off toward the relative coolness of their air-conditioned cars and homes.

The informal gathering, which for the past fifteen years has sprouted nearly every Saturday morning from a patchy lot at Grand Avenue and Margaret Street, is a pathetic skeleton of its former vibrant self. During the good times, up to three-dozen merchants peddled their homemade, homegrown, and healthful goods under the shade-giving boughs of several towering oaks at the rear of the lot. The market was hailed by its devotees as a hassle-free meeting place away from racial and class tension, a microcosm of what was great about the Grove itself. (In keeping with the communal spirit, the lot's owners allowed the market to operate for no charge until four years ago. Since then the vendors have pitched in to pay insurance and the nominal rent of $500 per month.)

But earlier this year, City of Miami administrators suddenly discovered that the market was operating without proper permits, on a portion of the lot zoned exclusively for residential use. This past month, the vendors were ordered to move out from under the trees to the other side of the lot, a barren, sun-parched area bordering Grand Avenue that was properly zoned for commercial use. City administrators also notified the lot's owners that if the market were to remain, they would have to build a parking lot to comply with municipal off-street parking regulations.

The move from under the trees effectively crippled a local treasure. "It hasn't been good since the move," mutters Bob Williamson, a drug-recovery counselor who has hawked tie-dyed T-shirts and homemade jewelry at the market for the past year. "It was so much nicer under the trees, where you have a little bit of shade. What fun is it to do shopping and pick out produce under the summer sun?"

If only there were any produce to pick out. As if the market hadn't wilted enough, Hurricane Andrew wiped out the fruit-and-vegetable merchants who attracted most of the customers.

Organic farmer Stanley Glaser, the de facto manager of the market, has served as the reluctant point man for the effort to save the institution. During the past year he has shuttled from the city's zoning department to the commission chambers to the Cocoanut Grove Village Council, seeking support for the market to remain in the shade. He also helped collect 1500 signatures on a petition begging that the market remain undisturbed, all the while searching unsuccessfully for an alternative site in Central Dade.

But Glaser has troubles of his own. Besides destroying his farm in the Redlands area of Southwest Dade, Hurricane Andrew left Glaser with no means of refrigerating the organic crops he imported from other states to augment his stock. Still trying to cope with enduring post-Andrew hardships, a frustrated Glaser has nearly given up the idea of trying to battle the zoning board and sustain the grassroots enterprise in Coconut Grove. "Here we were trying to run a beautiful market and we were being treated like criminals," rails the normally docile Glaser, an advocate more akin to Winnie-the-Pooh than Ralph Nader. "None of it was necessary, they could have let us go on."

Glaser says he's torn between temporarily closing the market until someone can find a new location, or, as he says defeatedly, "keeping it piddling along." For now, he points out, even the $500 monthly rent is too steep for the few vendors who still show up every Saturday. "The market has basically stopped because of the crisis -- and because it's not such a nice place any more," Glaser says sadly. "It's just a dribble of people."

Glaser doesn't have a lot of time to decide the short-term fate of the market. A temporary certificate of use that had allowed the market to operate on the Grand Avenue side of the lot expired on September 22. City of Miami Zoning Administrator Joseph Genuardi says he has no problem with issuing another temporary certificate to the market, but he warns that if the market operates without his department's permission, the property owners will be subject to steep fines.

The property owners, a partnership headed by Arturo Comas of Key Biscayne, say they still support the idea of the farmers market. In compliance with zoning codes, they are finalizing plans to build a parking lot on the Grand Avenue side of the empty lot and say they'll erect formal "concession kiosks" along the edge of the paved lot. But vendors say that even if the farmers bounce back, a market operating out of sterile kiosks on asphalt would never recapture the mood of the old phenomenon under the trees.

Sitting in his battered house amid the wreckage of his once-flourishing farm, Glaser pauses to consider the deeper philosophical implications of the damage the hurricane -- and the city's bureaucrats -- wrought. "I guess nothing's guaranteed to stay the same in this life," he remarks resignedly. "You get so focused on things staying the same. Then you get blown away.


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