West Grove Residents Worry New Bed and Breakfast Will Gentrify Historic Neighborhood

The reconstructed Stirrup House.
The reconstructed Stirrup House. Photo by Molly Minta
At the end of Charles Avenue in the West Grove sits a freshly painted two-story house with white wooden siding and lemon-yellow trim. On a chain-link fence out front, a graffiti-covered cloth banner proclaims, “Historic ‘Stirrup House’ Bed and Breakfast: Coming soon.”

When it opens, the bed and breakfast will be the first economic revitalization project in years on Charles Avenue, which Miami designated as a historic roadway in 2012. But some residents worry the newly constructed house will only further gentrify a neighborhood that has already changed substantially in recent years, at the expense of the West Grove's history and the descendants of the people who made it.

“People are attracted to this community because of the people that were here and its historical roots,” says Courtney Berrin, who lives with her boyfriend in one of the street’s remaining shotgun houses. “If we’re honest, that means we’re really benefiting from the black community.”

Asked about those concerns, a representative from Aries Development Group, the company building the bed and breakfast, responded, “It’s only five bedrooms.” The developer hopes the B&B will be a place for residents' families to stay while visiting. “I’m not sure how much they’re going to charge, but I think it will be affordable,” said the representative, who declined to give their name.

Built in 1897 by African-Bahamian immigrant Ebenezer Stirrup, the house is the second-oldest on Charles Avenue, the main residential road in the historically Bahamian neighborhood of West Grove. Stirrup built hundreds of shotgun houses for the neighborhood's first residents, Bahamian immigrants like him. Many of these homes still stand today. Before he died in 1957, Stirrup put in his will that his house would never be sold to anyone outside his family.

But the house proved costly to maintain. By the early 2000s, it was at risk of being condemned. To preserve the house, the family leased it to Aries, the developer of an adjacent condominium and several restaurants along Coconut Grove’s Main Highway. Aries demolished the house and last year finished reconstructing it. A representative said it should be ready in two months.

West Grove was established in the 1880s by Bahamian settlers like Stirrup. They immigrated to the area to work at some of the area's first hotels, such as the Peacock Inn, which is now the site of the Barnacle, the oldest home in Miami. Built by a white, wealthy yacht designer in 1881, the house is now part of a state park that’s supported by a nonprofit. By the early 1990s, Charles Avenue had a shopping mall and an ice-cream parlor. But after the neighborhood was annexed by the City of Miami in 1925, its boom went bust: The plot where the shopping mall once stood is now a patch of grass across from Stirrup House, notable only for the Charles Avenue historical marker.

Meanwhile, the east side of Coconut Grove flourished. Today, shops, restaurants, and rising rent are slowly creeping into the West Grove. Berrin says that when her boyfriend moved into the house 12 years ago, he was one of the only white people on the block. Now, she says, nearly 50 percent of the folks who live on Charles Avenue are white.

In 2000, the city began to market historical designation as West Grove’s path to economic revitalization; Stirrup House was designated historic in 2004. But George Simpson, a relative of the family that works for Stirrup Properties, says the historical designation “forced” the family to consider how to make the home profitable, hence the deal with Aries.

“The house was designated a historical site, but there is no money from the people who designate this thing to ensure its upkeep,” Simpson says. “Rather than have it torn down, we tried to institute some method for revenues to maintain the house.”

Simpson says that although the family has considered other options, turning the house into a bed and breakfast was the best idea. "It was the one that was most in concert with the functions and appearance of the neighborhood, not a gross commercial entity which people might have objected to," he says.

Yet many residents on Charles Avenue objected when Aries proposed rezoning the house in 2011. Tracie Bryant, who has spent all of her 55 years in a two-story brick house at the midway point of Charles Avenue, says she had hoped to see the home become a museum "so the kids of the community could see the historical value that it had, just to see how things happened back in the day, as far as the Bahamians coming here and putting their blood, sweat, and tears into these houses.”

Residents also worry about Mariah Brown House, the oldest home on Charles Avenue, a drab wooden shack with a metal roof that sits four houses and a church down from the bed and breakfast.

Next door to Mariah Brown House is Leonardo Bangerter, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years. He says buses stop there weekly for historic tours of the neighborhood, but as far as he can tell, the only thing that’s happening to the house is the passage of time. “If someone doesn’t do something about it, it’s just gonna disappear,” he says.

Bangerter says the development of Stirrup House is bittersweet. “It would’ve been so much better if it wasn’t a business venture,” he says. “Just like what they did with the Barnacle back in the day, so people can go and visit and learn about the history of Coconut Grove.”

Bangerter also recently received a notice from the city that a developer bought two shotgun houses that stand across the street from his place. Completely boarded up, the houses smell of fermented mangoes — no one is there to pick the fruit from the trees. Bangerter worries the houses will be torn down and replaced with “sugar cubes,” what residents have taken to calling the new white concrete homes appearing all over the Grove.

“What used to be a black neighborhood just ain’t anymore,” Bangerter says. “In the few years that I’ve lived here, this place has changed quite a bit. The black community is being forced out because of real estate, to be quite honest. I’m not gonna lie to you — the house that I live in, the old tenant had to leave. She was a black woman who lived here many, many years and could no longer afford the rent.”

At Stirrup House, Aires' representative said the new project will be decorated in Bahamian style, with wood floors, wallpaper, and antique-style bathtubs. A bar and restaurant scheduled to be built next to the house in a second phase of construction will also be Bahamian style. The representative declined to say if any of the profits from the restaurant would go to the Stirrup family.

Debra Hall Ramsey, age 59, has lived in the West Grove her entire life. Her father was a carpenter, and he built their first home, a shotgun house made of Florida pine, on a plot he purchased from the Stirrups in the 1940s. Ramsey says the house was so sturdy it survived Hurricane Andrew with nothing but a “hairline crack” in one of the side bedroom windows.

But in the early 2010s, the home had to be demolished after it was condemned by the city. Ramsey and her sister tried to preserve the house, but it was too expensive without help. “Our family decided it’d be best to keep the land until one of the kids wants to build on it,” she says. “Once you have land, you don’t want to let it go.”

Ramsey says the neighborhood, particularly Charles Avenue, has changed significantly since she was a child: Many of the fruit trees are gone, and new residents are moving in. Without outside funds, the historic homes, such as Mariah Brown House, are being left to rot. “Nothing is being done,” she says. “It’s just sitting there. It would be nice if it was a museum, because the Grove is losing its face.”

Berrin says she believes the bed and breakfast represents the “double standard” between the two sides of Coconut Grove, adding she thinks the B&B guests will probably spend their money on the east side of town, not in the West Grove.

“People of wealth can do whatever they want,” she says. “They’re profiting off the history.”
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Molly Minta is an intern at the New Times.
Contact: Molly Minta