For decades, Coconut Grove has been a community rooted in camaraderie. The waterfront neighborhood is the oldest inhabited settlement in Miami and has been home to countless artists, musicians, and free-spirited thinkers over the past 50 years; it gained a reputation as a hippie haven in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In a city where neighbors tend to mind their own business and don’t value building connections with the people around them, the village-like feel of the Grove was the biggest draw for new residents.
No one has observed the evolving dynamics of Coconut Grove more than Monty Trainer. The Key West native has been an unofficial mayor of the Grove for more than 50 years, beginning with his opening of Monty’s Raw Bar on South Bayshore Drive in 1969 (as well as other hot spots, such as the now-defunct Village Inn) and continuing with his involvement in the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.
“It was a time when you felt this embracing of the community, where you could bond with it immediately, where you felt a comfort in the people and the shopping and laid-back atmosphere and the lushness. It really takes you in and it captivates you,” Trainer says, waxing fondly on the Grove’s hippie heyday. “The only problem was I used to have guys come in with no shirt and no shoes, and they would be carrying a big guitar and have a ponytail.”
He reminisces about Sundays spent playing softball in Peacock Park with fellow Grovites and — despite being a Keys native — his first experiences with sailing. “Everybody knew everybody in the Grove,” he says wistfully. "It’s not as intertwined as it used to be through activities.”
No Grove staple serves as a testament to the changing growth of the area more than the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. In 1963, the Coconut Grove Playhouse was in the midst of its production of the French stage musical Irma la Douce, which was adapted into a film starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon the same year. Festival founder Charlie Cinnamon “wanted to create a scene that would promote the show,” Trainer remembers, “and so they came up with a sidewalk art show.” After the opening of Monty’s, Trainer “first got involved as an advertiser and sponsor” for the festival.
The juried arts festival continued to grow, first expanding to Commodore Plaza and Main Highway with 75 to 100 artists exhibiting their work in the center of the Grove.
“And then from there, we sort of outgrew it,” Trainer says. “I think the merchants got bogged down a little bit because nobody could get anywhere, but it was always well received.” The festival now occupies a nearly mile-long stretch of South Bayshore Drive. Trainer went on to join the board of directors of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, was later elected chairman twice, and finally assumed his current role as president a decade ago.
The Coconut Grove Arts Festival has grown in more ways than one, with live music, unique culinary experiences, and children’s activities like sports and face painting being added to the weekend’s programming schedule in recent years. This year, CGAF is introducing a new element to the mix: a Valentine's Day kickoff concert on Friday night in Peacock Park by Emily Estefan.
“She’s fantastic,” Trainer says of the young artist, daughter of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. “She performs like you wouldn’t believe. She’s got high energy, she’s a percussionist, she does a great job of singing, and, hopefully, her mother and father will be in the audience.”
Trainer’s relationship with the Estefan family extends back decades, to when he first hired Miami Sound Machine to play at his venues and events. “They were part of the Grove, so they're sort of coming back to their roots,” he says. “I'm so happy to have them involved with our first concert... They’re a great family.”
In the past decade, the festival has developed its culinary offerings, with more than 50 vendors and restaurants sampling their wares for festivalgoers. This year, CGAF’s culinary events — like the weekend’s live entertainment component — will receive yet another upgrade. James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Norman Van Aken will host “Norman Van Aken Chef’s Table,” during which attendees can watch and taste dishes from Van Aken as well as established local chefs Allen Susser and Jeff McInnis. Susser, also a James Beard winner, is the culinary director of Books & Books, while McInnis is the brains behind South Beach seafood spot Stiltsville as well as South Miami restaurants Mi’talia Kitchen and Root & Bone.
Paying it forward has been central to the Coconut Grove Arts Festival as much as the art itself; Van Aken, like the festival, has a long history of philanthropy. “All the money that we make goes to scholarships and magnet programs, usually art programs,” Trainer says. “Every dime.” The festival also recruits nearly 100 of its exhibitors for its Visiting Artists Week program, which sends the artists to schools all over South Florida to talk about their careers, teach students about their work, and conduct the schools’ art programs for the day.
“They do it at their own expense, on their own time, and it's really a wonderful program... It’s something I’m so proud of,” he adds. “Between that and the scholarships, we do a lot to promote cultural and art education in South Florida.”
As the Coconut Grove Arts Festival looks to the future, there are plenty of ways for it to continue growing as its 60th birthday nears. That doesn’t mean the size of the festival will balloon, Trainer emphasizes. “We’re not going to make it larger; we’re just going to make it better,” he says.
To Trainer, making it better would mean using the festival as a conduit for life in the Grove. Lamenting the death of live music in the area after the hippies began to leave, he believes the festival “could be the catalyst to bring more entertainment back into the Grove.”
Seeing more than 100,000 guests filtering through Coconut Grove every Presidents' Day Weekend, he's satisfied festival attendees “come in and share what we share at this particular point” but still believes improvements and additions such as water taxis would open the community up even more to the nearby waterfront.
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“I'd like to see more of our growth in the experience of Coconut Grove itself,” he says. “Coconut Grove primarily is a waterfront community, so we need to focus on the water. We’ve got the sailboats, we’ve got the regattas, we've got everything happening in the water, and that's what we are: We’re a waterfront community.” He cites the recent construction of Regatta Park in the footprint of the old Coconut Grove Convention Center as the latest step toward that goal.
The Coconut Grove Arts Festival has grown alongside the area through some of its most formative periods, and both the gathering and the community it's come up in have informed each other's character. For Trainer, continuing to improve this longtime Miami institution is driven by his affection for his home more than anything else. “I love the Grove, and I've always done everything I can to promote the Grove.”
An Evening Under the Stars With Emily Estefan. 6 p.m. Friday, February 14, in Peacock Park, 2820 McFarlane Rd., Coconut Grove. Joint admission to the concert and festival costs $30 via cgaf.com.
Coconut Grove Arts Festival. 10 a.m. Saturday, February 15, through 5 p.m. Monday, February 17, on South Bayshore Drive and McFarlane Road, Coconut Grove. Tickets cost $14 via cgaf.com.