The Rashids' Last Stand
The intersection of Grand Avenue and Douglas Road in Coconut Grove is a well-traveled crossing for Miami commuters, but even in the sunlit roar of the morning rush hour it can appear ominous. One or two police cars are parked around the clock on a barren lot at one corner, to deter the crack and marijuana dealers, the smash-and-grab robbers, the carjackers who have haunted the intersection over the past twenty years. Old one-story stucco buildings, with entrances long padlocked, loom over two other corners. Rising from this bleak setting, the peach and green store on the southeast corner is impossible to miss. It is a vision, a chimera, with glittering windows that display swaths of bright Indonesian cloth, woven baskets, and African masks.
Jihad Rashid and Aisha Sharif-Rashid opened Zanjabil three and a half years ago in what had been a dank and cluttered TV repair shop. The couple hoped the boutique -- which offers handmade African arts and crafts -- along with their adjoining newsstand called CocOasis, would lure upscale shoppers to an area usually overlooked or outright avoided. The Rashids' profit motive was entwined with a spiritual one, stemming from their devotion to Islam, which they embraced as idealistic teenagers and have practiced during eighteen years of marriage. "I am not a social worker per se, but putting a business in the ghetto is social work, that's for sure," Aisha says. "What we're trying to do is show the people here that you can make money morally and legitimately, and that people will come and do business with you and you can live off this money and take care of yourself and your family. That you don't need to be immoral and do illegal things to get your dollars."
And Zanjabil has seen a steady trickle of dollars from its mostly white customers. "If you only get ten people in the store and ten buy, that's a good day," Aisha notes. She and her husband would be turning a small profit, she says, were it not for the crime that has plagued their store. Vandals have shattered Zanjabil's display windows four times. Last year thieves made off with $72,000 worth of merchandise in two separate burglaries.
But these losses are not what will ultimately drive them out of business, the Rashids say. Rather it is something that has not happened -- something called Goombay Plaza, a ballyhooed outdoor market that was supposed to have risen from the blighted corners near Zanjabil more than a decade ago. The project, first proposed in 1984 and ostensibly funded by the City of Miami, has been little more than a mirage. If construction doesn't begin some time in the next six months, Jihad says, Zanjabil will close. Were that to happen, the closest thing to commercial revitalization that the black Grove has seen in 30 years would become a memory. "Surely with difficulty comes ease," says Jihad, quoting, as he often does, the Koran.
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On this recent weekday morning, he is out on the sidewalk in front of CocOasis, holding the day's Miami Herald in front of his chest, hoping to lure a little early business from the drivers whizzing past. A tall man, he wears a blue New York Times cap and a faded maroon Wall Street Journal apron over his crisp shirt and tie. He smiles dutifully at the drivers rushing past on Douglas. A woman pulls alongside the curb in a black Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer. "Are you leaving us?" she shouts out the passenger-side window.
"We're taking it month to month," Jihad responds, shrugging.
Around 9:30 a.m. the rush-hour traffic has subsided. Jihad refers to the newsstand as his "marketing arm," an integral part of his strategy to get affluent passersby to stop. In addition to the Herald, CocOasis offers the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and the Miami Times, which is popular among middle-class blacks. Seated at the cash register, bathed in the fluorescent green-white glow of CocOasis, Jihad skims the Herald. "This is probably the only chance in the day I get to read the paper," he says with a hint of frustration. But the calm soon ends. "Good morning!" shouts a man from his new forest-green Cadillac at the curb. Rashid pops out, apologizes for the delay, and sells him a New York Times.
A few minutes later a stocky young man appears. Lorne Green is a 23-year-old college student and Grove native who occasionally drops by. He and Jihad razz each other about their rival black fraternities, a jovial dispute prompted by the fraternity sashes that hang from the Zanjabil ceiling. Although Zanjabil "gives positivity" to the neighborhood, Green says, most of the local residents don't appreciate it because they think the merchandise is not practical. "The [Rashids] are trying to bring in African roots, but most people don't identify with that."
"We all want [the Rashids] to succeed," says Thelma Gibson, a long-time community leader in the Grove who served briefly as an interim city commissioner this past summer and fall. But Gibson adds that she has repeatedly suggested to the Rashids that they could endear themselves to the local community by offering more merchandise that low-income residents can afford.
Such criticism, Jihad notes tersely, misses the point. He is well aware that the vast majority of black Grovites can't afford a $125 beaded Shanti tribal mask from Ghana or a $200 hand-woven Ethiopian basket. He knows too that most locals are not interested in buying Zanjabil's low-end items -- the West African kuffi hats or Moroccan shoes that cost less than twenty dollars. "I'm trying to attract money and investment that's [from outside] this community," he explains. "The money is not here. It's not here to be gotten. And it would be foolish for me to market down instead of market up.... There's about five or six or seven stores in a less than one-mile radius that all sell cigarette papers, single cigarettes out of a pack, 40-ounce beer for 50 cents. I mean, if I wanted more of the business in the area, I would sell that."
Zanjabil, he says, is not just a livelihood but a "demonstration project" intended to prove that blacks can establish a business in a black community, subscribe to conventional business practices, and attract people who usually don't stop there. Like wealthy white people, for instance. "Bloomingdale's wants my customers," Jihad boasts. "Nordstrom wants my customers. Saks Fifth Avenue wants my customers. They don't come any higher."
Just before 10:00 a.m. Jihad slips through the doorway into the subdued yellow light of Zanjabil to hoist the rolls of metal caging that hang down against the display windows at night. Jihad must operate the registers in both stores; he and his wife can't afford to hire additional staff.
But Aisha soon arrives from their home several blocks away in the heart of the black Grove. She is dropped off by one of her two sons, Ali, who fills in at CocOasis on weekends. Aisha steps into the newsstand with a graceful sway, a maroon hijab (scarf) draped around her wide smiling face. She stops briefly beside her husband at the register, then takes her post at the glass-and-wood counter inside Zanjabil. Aisha will have to cover both registers when Jihad leaves for his second job as a business consultant for a shop at Bayside Marketplace -- a job taken to help pay off debts the couple incurred after last year's burglaries.
Jihad Rashid says he inherited his work ethic from his father, a successful commercial artist. In the Nation of Islam, which he discovered while at prep school in his native Chicago, Jihad found the same habit of self-reliance: "They had tangible representations of their self-reliance. They had bakeries and food products. They manufactured their own bread and their own canned goods. They were the largest importer of fish in the United States. They had the largest weekly newspaper in the United States. They had the largest private school system in the United States. They had restaurants and clothing factories and farms."
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1972, Jihad changed his name and fully embraced Islam. Aisha, meanwhile, had been a practicing Muslim since arriving in Chicago as a teenager. After a brief courtship, the two married in 1979. By 1984 they were tired of their professional jobs. Aisha had been working as a paralegal while Jihad toiled in the advertising department of a Chicago radio station. "My wife had a longing to travel and see the world," he recalls. "We had taken some vacations in Jamaica and we loved it and thought it would be a nice place to do business."
They sold their apartment, flew to Jamaica, and bought a small building in Negril and filled it with used clothing -- specifically, Aisha's handmade clothing. "I actually took all of my own clothes except for two pieces, and put them in the shop," Aisha recalls. "They sold so well I didn't know what I was going to do because I didn't have a seamstress there right away." Soon they added artwork and crafts from local artisans.
Attracted to Miami's growing popularity as a tourist destination, the Rashids established the first version of Zanjabil in Coconut Grove in 1985: a table, set up in front of a now-defunct Grand Avenue gas station. "On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we were vendors selling our silver, and every Monday morning we went to the bank with a bunch of money, a bunch of cash," Aisha recounts with obvious relish. "And this was how we saved money. We were doing so well that the merchants in Coconut Grove got together and said, 'We don't want any vendors here!'"
Indeed, in 1988, at the behest of irate shopkeepers and the Coconut Grove Civic Club, the city commission banned street vendors in Coconut Grove. The Rashids were forced off their spot. But they persisted, along with a few other vendors who had "class presentation," as Jihad puts it. They met with merchants and city officials and eventually negotiated a new vending ordinance that allowed a limited number of vendors to sell goods from expensive wooden pushcarts.
With their earnings from four years of street sales and from the store in Negril, the Rashids opened the second incarnation of Zanjabil in 1988, at the 163rd Street Mall in North Miami Beach, where they added brass and rugs to their inventory. But the couple was forced to leave a year later when the mall added a new commercial anchor, Burdines, which also sold brass and rugs.
After a brief stint in Coral Gables's Miracle Center, Zanjabil appeared on Main Highway in Coconut Grove. For the next three years the store, now featuring arts and crafts, rugs, incense, jewelry, and T-shirts, gleaned steady though slight profits. Zanjabil's walk-in traffic soared in 1990 when CocoWalk went up a few blocks away. During that time, the Rashids were still plying their pushcart on weekends, shuttling to the Jamaica store and back, and holding down professional jobs. This schedule proved too much. Says Jihad: "We just got wore out."
In 1992 the Rashids sold all their businesses and used the profits to take an extended vacation. For the better part of a year they visited friends and family in Chicago, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Jamaica, looking for places to move. "Nothing really grabbed us," Jihad remembers. Back in Miami they learned that a government-funded commercial development project that had been in the works for twelve years was finally going to become a reality at Grand and Douglas in the black Grove. They had a good source: their friend and former customer David Alexander, executive director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation (LDC), which was charged with raising funds for Goombay Plaza.
Alexander assured the Rashids that construction of the long-delayed project would begin in a matter of months. The Rashids leased the building at Grand and Douglas and opened shop. "We were told it was imminent, that it was coming, that it was going to be a destination center. And we said, 'Oh, okay, let's take this place at the corner. And we'll sit here, and when it comes we'll be ready.' Because it will be too hard to get in after, you know, it starts." If it starts.
On paper Goombay Plaza looks great: The buildings are to be small-scale and "compatible in the West Grove/Bahamian vernacular." Phase One would create a two-story wooden marketplace on the northeast corner of Grand and Douglas, and next to it a restored 20,000-square-foot Tikki Club, a restaurant and dance club that closed in the Seventies. Phase Two would place a 29-stall open-plaza market on the barren lot across from Zanjabil.
The project dates from 1984, when twenty Grove families contributed $5000 each to purchase the building Zanjabil occupies, another building at the corner of Grand and Douglas, and a 65-year lease on the Tikki Club property. Lacking funds to build the project themselves, the group, Grovites United to Survive (GUTS), enlisted the LDC to seek public funding. (The nonprofit LDC was founded in 1980, after the McDuffie riots, with the mission of helping to rebuild the economy of the black Grove.)
But not all residents backed Goombay Plaza. A number vehemently opposed the plan, fearing it would become another CocoWalk and would squeeze out lower-income residents. Nonetheless in 1993 the Miami City Commission voted to sponsor the project and seek federal funding. Two more years passed before the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized a two-million-dollar loan and a $300,000 grant. Then the ball bounced back to the City of Miami for final approval, which was granted.
But the project has been on hold since the city admitted its fiscal crisis last year, according to Ed Blanco, the city official in charge of administering funds for the project. Blanco, a project supervisor in the community development department, says that for the plan to go forward the state financial oversight board must approve it. He says he has no clue when this decision might be made, or whether the outlays will be approved. He is sure, though, that the public funding would have come more quickly if the LDC had lined up private investors for Goombay Plaza. "That has been probably the key failure of this project so far: the lack of private investment dollars," Blanco asserts. "Because once you have a developer who is going to put his money on the line, he's going to have an interest in getting it off the ground."
A few doors down Grand Avenue from Zanjabil, in the LDC's offices, executive director David Alexander offers a different perspective. In accounting for the thirteen years that have passed since Goombay Plaza was conceived, Alexander maintains that the public funds had to be allocated before he could present a credible plan to private developers, especially considering the difficulty of persuading investors to build in an impoverished urban area. "You have to bring ass to the table in order to kick ass at the table," Alexander explains. "The first rule of development is that nobody wants to do anything with anybody who don't have anything."
Now that he has the public funds, in principle at least, he is shifting his efforts to securing private investors. "I had to be 100 percent sure that I could deliver everything I said I could," he says, "which for the first time in ten years I'm in a position to do."
In fact, Alexander continues, at least one South Florida businessman has recently expressed an interest in investing in Goombay Plaza. He refuses to name names but says this potential investor is an "opinion leader" who could make a "permanent difference" in the development of the black Grove.
Private investment or not, he is optimistic that construction will begin soon. His latest estimate is the same as the one he gave the Rashids four years ago: a matter of months.
But after four years of promises, the Rashids aren't so sanguine. When Aisha looks out across the street at the empty lot that was supposed to become a little Bahamian marketplace three years ago and provide her with some desperately needed walk-in customers, she rolls her eyes and shakes her head. "Talk about molasses. This is slower than molasses," she says, surveying a shop devoid of customers. "You didn't even get it out of the bottle yet. No retailer wants to be alone. You cannot pull alone."
It is midmorning on a recent Friday and Jihad is staring gravely at a young black man with almond-shape eyes who has suddenly appeared in CocOasis. "I'm going to call the police," Jihad snaps. The young man stares back in mock defiance. "You're going to jail," Jihad declares, a smile forming.
"I'm not going to jail," blurts the young man, swallowing most of his consonants -- and beaming. His name is Johnny, a mentally handicapped man who lives nearby and often stops in to joke around. "I love you!" he exclaims, then dashes out.
Jihad's jocular ways have helped make CocOasis a local landmark, but the friendly ambiance, like Zanjabil's display windows, has at times been shattered. In May of last year, Aisha was seated at the CocOasis register when a man with his hand in a paper bag walked into the store, announced that he was holding a gun inside the bag, and told her to empty the register. She gave him a twenty-dollar bill that a female customer had just handed her, then announced, "There ain't nothin' in there," pointing to the register. The man turned to flee, ripping a gold pendant and chain from the customer's neck before jumping into the passenger side of a white car waiting at the curb.
Jihad, who was inside Zanjabil, ran outside and with a friend proceeded to pursue the criminals in the friend's van. Though they did not confront the criminals, fearing violence, Jihad alerted the police, who caught the robbers a short time later in north Miami.
Jihad is not about to remain idle in the face of commercial adversity, either. Though he says this may be Zanjabil's last season, he is wielding an aggressive marketing strategy. He stocked Zanjabil with inexpensive gift items like calendars and coffee mugs for the holiday season. He added Jamaican patties and ginseng to the CocOasis offerings, which until now were limited to soft drinks, juice, coffee, snacks, and candy. "I was into ginseng in the Sixties, before it was up," he notes. "These Korean guys used to come by in their suits. I think it was [the Reverend Sun Myung] Moon's people."
It is approaching 7:30 p.m. -- closing time. With Jihad at his second job, and business slow, Aisha has been meeting with Fode Doumbouya, a Guinean dealer of African sculptures who wears a striking outfit that looks something like brilliant orange pajamas. Doumbouya specializes in buying and selling expensive wooden carvings, including the six-foot wooden giraffe that Aisha recently sold for $400 (marked down from $795).
Doumbouya says the closure of Zanjabil would be a blow for him and other dealers because it is the only shop in Miami that promotes authentic artwork from all over Africa. "They are trying very hard to maintain African culture here, [but] peoples' minds be sleeping. Peoples' minds no open," he adds, his tongue clicking in a thick Guinean version of English.
The Rashids also wonder whether their example is resonating beyond their peach-and-green facade. The small-scale economy that surrounds them remains based on antiquated minimarts, faded laundromats, and ancient hair salons, which serve only a very local clientele.
On this evening, Aisha is troubled by a new neighborhood business that apparently hasn't acquired the necessary commercial permits. She thinks these entrepreneurs in a signless little store across the intersection are selling beepers and may be running an illegal check-cashing operation -- exactly the kind of business the Rashids would like to see eradicated. "Wherever the crime is, wherever the drugs sales are, wherever the illegal activity is, that's where these particular [check-cashing] businesses are," she says. "We have been trying to get these stores out of the community or get these stores to follow the law. And now to see them expanding onto this corner -- it's a big concern, because that means more hanging out, more crime, and we're trying to clean the area up."
The Rashids, however, are not tireless. After four years of money struggles, dashed hopes, and danger, their patience is running out -- in part because Islam has a bottom line. "I cannot do social work to the point that it's going to make me starve or cause me not to pay my debts," Aisha warns. "Muslims must pay their debts. We must pay our debts.
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