Fables of the Reconstruction

The condominium boom may make parts of Miami even more fabulous one day, but it is already butchering the black Grove. Just ask a butcher.

"This destroy my life," says Angel Arias, a 66-year-old who is just tall enough to peer over the aluminum top of the long glass meat case at the Coconut Grove Meat Market. "The devastation for me here is tremendous." And he's not even black. He's a white Cuban who migrated from Oriente Province in 1970, seven years after communist revolutionaries confiscated his family's cattle, coffee, and cocoa farm. He has operated the dingy little market, located on the most blighted stretch of Grand Avenue, since 1983. Now, sporting a weathered white and orange Chicago Bears cap, the sponsor of youth football says he's about to fall victim to another expropriation blitz. "The only reason I'm still here is I've been in court," explains Arias. He says he paid his landlords $60,000 twenty years ago for the right of first refusal were they ever to sell the 3200-square-foot building constructed in 1939. But instead the owners, Alciades Velez and Angel Aponte, sold it to an investment group led by Coral Gables lawyer Julio Marrero in December 2003 for $452,000. The Marrero group raised Arias's rent from $1650 to $2200 a month.

"I put my life here! I want to die here!" Arias exclaims, tapping the tips of all ten fingers on the meat case's aluminum panel, just above the Georgia sausage. "How long have you been here? Half an hour?" he asks loudly. "How many customers you see?" The answer: Two people had come in to purchase soft drinks, another a cigar. "This is a long story here!"

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And a tragic one. Last week the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that Arias is not entitled to buy the property or regain his $60,000.

An even longer tale of doom looms outside the meat market's doors. "That's the Gaza Strip out there," offers Michael Billings, a middle-age black man clad in shorts, a red T-shirt, and a navy blue do-rag, from behind the counter. "We live in the West Bank now," he adds. Billings, whom Arias has employed for two decades, is referring to the construction zone that Grand Avenue became several months ago when bulldozers and backhoes tore off the asphalt from Douglas Road to McDonald Street. Municipal officials promoted the $3.9 million project to reinvent the avenue -- with wider sidewalks, parking meters, and a tree-lined median -- as a first step toward revitalizing one of Miami-Dade County's most neglected and crime-ridden neighborhoods. But many denizens of the black Grove believe the project is part of a nefarious conspiracy by developers and politicians to eradicate the community. Indeed, the Marrero group has bought most of the buildings and vacant lots along Grand Avenue in a $10 million spree that began in 2003.

For decades several of those properties, including three low-rent apartment buildings, belonged to the family of David Blumenthal. His great-grandfather Max and grandfather Elliott began acquiring land and buildings in the black Grove in the early Thirties, after moving from Savannah, Georgia, to Miami in 1924. "They had speculated in farmland and other land in the 1920s and lost everything in the [stock market] crash," Blumenthal reminisces. "And at that point they said, 'We're going to buy land that produces income; we're never going to have a mortgage,' and they looked for an area where they would see a population that they thought would always be able to pay rent. They saw this wonderful land situated between Coral Gables and Brickell and Coconut Grove, saw the good Bahamian families that were dwelling there, and saw the kinds of jobs that they had -- maids, garbage collectors, red caps at the airport -- you know, steady workers who would always have jobs and want to be close to where they're working. My great-grandfather was responsible for the first water line that was put down Grand Avenue. We were as much social workers as landlords."

But in 2001 a tenant in one of Blumenthal's Grand Avenue apartment buildings alleged her child was suffering from lead paint poisoning. There was no lead paint in that apartment, he says, but he settled the case to avoid a court battle. With the specter of future complaints and rising property taxes threatening his Grove portfolio's income-producing capacity, he opted to unload it. He sold his apartment buildings for about $100,000 each to the Greater St. Paul AME Church, a black Grove institution, hoping the church would protect his long-time tenants from eviction. But two years later the church cashed in and the apartment buildings went to the Marrero group for about a million dollars apiece.

"Money is what always drives things. And the real estate is worth more than what is currently on the property," Blumenthal explains, noting he was charging below-market rents. "Eventually the older buildings will get torn down, newer buildings will get built for a different class of people than are now living there, and the Grove will completely change. The original Bahamian inhabitants who still own their houses will find themselves a minority all of a sudden. For people who are renting, I don't know where they're going to go."

In theory they will be replaced by owners of fabulous new multistory condos. Miami commissioners and developers have yet to settle on the number of floors. "They want to build buildings and watch the water," Billings says mockingly. "They want to see the water. The water! They should take their asses to the beach!" The situation is "humiliating" for many long-time residents, he fumes. "No black folks can afford this!" He points across the counter at an elderly woman wearing large sunglasses, flashing a nice smile, and holding a cane in one hand and a small plastic bag of groceries in the other. "Prime example!" Billings submits. The customer is 90-year-old Alice Johnson, who, as far as she can remember, relocated from Montgomery, Alabama, to Key West in 1945. Some time after that (she's a little hazy on exact years) she moved into a two-story apartment building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Elizabeth Street, where she still lives. In February 2004 one of Marrero's companies, Bayshore Towers Development Corporation, bought the 1953 building for $1.7 million and raised her rent, which is due to increase again this month. "This is ridiculous," she says calmly. "I'm paying $425 already." She confides that her monthly social security allotment is a little more than $500. (The average rent in Miami is about $1000 per month.)

Johnson is certain she has to find a new home, but unsure where it will be. "My niece is looking for places for me," Johnson says. "I want to be around here."

But it is not likely she will be. Nearby apartments not slated for butchering already rent for $700 a month. Even that amount is dirt-cheap compared to the cost of the condos likely to replace the building she lives in. One-bedroom units at Grove Lofts, a six-story condo project under construction a block and a half away from Johnson's apartment, are available for $330,000, which would require a monthly mortgage payment of at least $2000.

Across the avenue and down the block from the meat market, at the fenced-in minipark on the corner of Grand Avenue and Hibiscus Street, foursomes of men are smacking down dominoes at two tables, while several others look on from adjacent stone tables. "They're pulling down homes. They're putting in parking meters. I hate it," complains one of the observers, an older gentleman named Pop. "You really want to know the truth? The biggest thing I hate is that the Cubans and the white folks want to take everything the black man got. Everything we had they done took it."

A stocky domino player in a white T-shirt complains, between smacks, that the construction is re-routing traffic through side streets. He scoffs at interlopers who have offered some of his neighbors $100,000 or even twice that amount for their houses in the black Grove.

"A hundred thousand dollars won't buy you nothin'," he says.

"Won't buy you nothin'," echoes another guy.

"You've got to buy a house if you want to live like you was," adds the stocky guy. "Take your $250,000 and [then] you still got no money."

Someone mentions the big hole in the ground two blocks away that will be filled with Grove Lofts, a condo project whose advertising slogan is "The cool place to live."

"Right next to the doggone service station. Before you move in there, you gotta pay doggone $300,000!" he exclaims.

"Where I'm going to live at?" asks another.

Out on the Grand Avenue gravel this past May, Pat, an apartment dweller who likes to keep a cigarette behind one of her ears, offers more words of consternation. "See that place right there?" she asks, pointing to a two-story Fifties era apartment building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Plaza Street. "You have to pay, for one room, four hundred dollars a month! Come on, baby!" she reprimands, suggesting that price is exorbitant. "They're just buying up everything on Grand Avenue, taking over."

A woman named Marie, who is inclined to hiss to attract attention, has another concern. To make room for the landscaped median and widened sidewalks, the avenue has been narrowed from four lanes to two -- one northbound and one southbound. During rush hour, ambulances and police cars would get stuck in traffic, she fears. "What they gonna do if there's an emergency?" she wonders. "They'll have to go down the side streets."

In addition, some residents see another sign of an antiblack conspiracy in the disappearance of the annual Bahamian-themed street fair from the heart of their neighborhood. "They done took the Goombay Festival away," Marie protests. "That's our culture!"

Actually the construction project forced the Goombay Festival, held this past June, to move only a few blocks away toward CocoWalk, in the Grove's central business area known as The Village. Still, the distance was worth several hundred dollars to Bernice Cooper. Cooper is the 69-year-old owner and chef of the Pine Inn restaurant, located in a one-story Thirties-era structure one block west of Angel Arias's Coconut Grove Meat Market. In previous years, when festival-goers packed the avenue in front of her eatery, her weekend revenues sometimes hit $1400. This year: about $500. But the problem transcends Goombay. The bulk of her everyday customers has been nearby apartment dwellers, many of whom have left the area because of rent hikes. "The whole South Wind moved out!" she groans, referring to an apartment building across the avenue from her restaurant. "I don't even make enough now to pay my rent. If I can hold on [through July], in August I'm out. This is it for me."

Even promising young people of the black Grove who haven't given up on The System are cynical about the area's new dawn. Mendez, a nineteen-year-old hanging out in the domino park, is studying graphic design at the Lindsay Hopkins Technical Education Center. His family's roots in Miami date back to the Forties. He lives in the Grove, his mother in Overtown.

"No, we don't own no property. We don't like the [road] construction. We wish that the Grove would stay the same as it was before. That's it. Business was doing just fine. The community is a very strong community, very friendly, very open-minded, nice people. Some people are afraid of us because you know they say the ghetto is this and the ghetto is that, but it's not. If you come to the ghetto every day, you see nice people. We don't like killing people. That's not our thing," Mendez offers.

Andy Parrish knows the lay of the land along Grand as well as anyone. Over the past ten years, Parrish, founder and president of Wind & Rain Homebuilders, has executed a good number of plans, beginning with fifteen houses in the black Grove designed and priced so that even a couple who each earned minimum wage could afford to own one. While seated in the modest one-story office building he and his partners built on a lot he purchased six years ago for four dollars per square foot, he tells how his affordable homes business went from slightly profitable to economically impossible. The key factors: a sharp increase in the price of land and the continued nonexistence of home loan programs for the working poor.

The first affordable home Parrish built -- three bedrooms, two baths -- was completed in 1995 and placed on the market for $77,900. "We couldn't find a buyer [at first]," he recalls, noting today it would easily sell for three times that amount. He managed to construct a total of fifteen such houses and eventually found buyers for all of them. Parrish says he and his partners (one architect and one general contractor) made a total profit of about $5000 to $10,000 per house.

Ever since word got out about Wind & Rain houses, black Grovites have been asking Parrish if he can hook them up with one. But that era is gone. Today Parrish would have to pay at least one hundred dollars per square foot for vacant land in the black Grove. "I can't find a lot for $125,000," he complains. Moreover, the cost of constructing the same size house has swelled from $60,000 to $80,000, he estimates, meaning that to place one on the market today he would have to spend a total of at least $205,000. If he and his partners were each to make a $5000 profit, the sales price would have to be at least $220,000, a figure out of range for anyone in the lower income brackets.

The black Grove's century-old shotgun houses provide another means of measuring the escalation. He bought one along Grand Avenue from David Blumenthal in 2001 for $85,000. Today he would expect to pay $150,000. "If you're lucky," Parrish warns. "You're basically paying for the land."

One of the most telling real-estate indicators in the Grove continues to be St. Hugh Oaks, a City of Miami development project hatched by commissioners and ex-mayor Xavier Suarez in 1986. The idea was to provide handsome townhouses that low-income residents of the black Grove could afford with the help of publicly subsidized construction and mortgages ("Yuppies in the Hood," February 25, 1999). The resulting three-bedroom, two-story structures, designed by the acclaimed architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, were handsome indeed. But, owing to thirteen years of delays and cost overruns attributable to questionable project management by city officials, when the houses finally went on the market in 1996, they cost $115,000, well above the cutoff price for subsidized home loan programs. By late 1998 all the units had been bought, and soon some of the canny middle- and upper-class owners had flipped their townhouses to new buyers for more than $200,000. One St. Hugh Oaks unit recently sold for $420,000 (that is, a $305,000 profit from the initial taxpayer-subsidized purchase price of $115,000).

All of which raises the question: How will black Grovites afford to live in the black Grove?

One answer to that question: Many won't. For black Grove apartment renters, especially, the days are numbered. "I'm one who's going to have to relocate soon," says John King, a roofer in his fifties chatting in front of the Coconut Grove Meat Market one recent evening. "My rent went from $285 to $425. In less than a year, I'll be out."

Some have already left. "They're shippin' 'em down south," says King. Standing next to him, Edward Brown, a 62-year-old owner of a lawn service company, clarifies, "Florida City, Homestead. To [housing] projects and apartments."

"A few people moving to Overtown, but a lot of people coming back [from there] because that shit's too hot," adds Brown's 25-year-old nephew, Anthony Johnson, who works at the moribund market. "A couple of my friends moved to Overtown. They couldn't deal with Overtown. They stayed there for like two months and said, like, 'No. That place is too wild. Have to get out of there.' Shootings every night. Too many gunshots. You can't walk around. You can't even sleep at night because of the gunshots. Too dangerous."

Johnson, who dropped out of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach after two years because he ran out of money, pays $450 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in a church-owned building on Williams Avenue. So far he's holding on, with his meat market job and the help of relatives.

Brown and his wife own a four-bedroom house in the black Grove and, along with other property owners in the black Grove, they stand to do okay, whether they stay or submit to the mounting pressure to sell. "People trying to buy everything over here," Brown reports. "My wife's got a lot of property up in Kissimmee. I don't want to go up to Kissimmee. But if she goes, I'm goin'. See, me and my wife been together since sixth grade! Woo!"

What if someone came by and offered you $800,000?

"Ha, ha, ha!" he laughs dismissively. "I got $800,000."

"We enjoy the peace and serenity of the neighborhood," Brown's nephew Anthony explains. "We don't want to go nowhere else."

"Then again don't ever say what you're not going to do," his uncle cautions. "I'm 62, my wife's 62. You know, shit, we're not no damn kids no more."

"When push comes to shove, they come and offer $1.2 million, you might take it," King offers. "But then again what you going to do with $1.2 million?"

"Take care of my nephew," Brown replies.

It all reminds Brown of "old man Dale," who in the early Seventies owned a laundromat near the site that would become CocoWalk. "I remember when old man Dale, who had that wash house up there, he was talking that day. He says, 'Shit, man, they can't give me enough money to move me.' A guy came that afternoon and say, 'Uh, how you like them figures?' [Dale] looked, and told everybody he was going to close it down."

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