The Wall

When David White was a boy back in the 1930s, he and his family used to walk the three blocks from their one-story house in the Bahamian section of Coconut Grove to Plymouth Congregational Church in the white neighborhood, just through the trees to the south. The Whites' house was on the middle of the block on Marler Avenue, which shared a tree line with that wealthier white area. From their front yard the Whites would meander a half-block to the end of Marler Avenue, then turn right onto a footpath that led to Hibiscus Street, which was then a dirt road. Two blocks more would bring them to Plymouth. For decades the majestic coral stone church was the only racially integrated house of worship in Dade County; it still towers over Main Highway.

In those days residents of the Bahamian Grove, now known as the black Grove, routinely walked to and from the white neighborhood -- the adults to work, the children to play. White's parents, who moved to Coconut Grove from the Bahamian island of Eleuthera in 1901, were no exception. His father worked as a gardener and his mother as a maid. As a young man David also worked as a gardener and made the same brief commute, on foot, as his father.

White and his wife Tessie still live on Marler Avenue, in a house next to the one he was born in. But nowadays he would have to climb a ten-foot chainlink fenced topped with strands of barbed wire to take that first right onto Hibiscus Street into the predominantly white section. Not too easy for a 66-year-old retired public school administrator who is moving kind of slow these days.

Barricades around black neighborhoods are, of course, nothing new in Miami. Construction workers put up a long concrete-block wall just a few streets west of Marler Avenue in the late Forties, along the southern edge of a housing project for low-income blacks. Although historians and city officials seem oblivious to this relic of segregation, most of the original 1300-foot barrier is still standing. Indeed, the old wall is now simply an accepted feature of the landscape for those residents who live near it.

Not so with the hodgepodge of newer barriers on and around Marler Avenue. White says these fences are an example of modern racism. Erected ostensibly as a deterrent to crime, their net effect is to make it difficult for residents of the black Grove to leave their neighborhood. In some cases these fences (and the barbed wire placed atop them) appear to be in violation of city code. But the city, White says, has done nothing about them -- despite his protests.

One look at Marler Avenue clarifies White's frustration: Not only are he and his neighbors fenced in at both ends of the block, but along the southern edge of the tiny street is a ten-foot fence. "This all used to be open," White explains, standing in his driveway and pivoting 180 degrees as he points from one end of the street to the other. "We used to walk through there." He gestures toward one section of fence with a coil of concertina barbed wire -- the kind used in military operations: "Totally unnecessary," White exclaims, shaking his head, his hands now tucked inside his back pockets.

Will Johnson, who returned home to the black Grove four years ago after eighteen years in the U.S. Army, is offended by the notion that white Grovites would put up barricades to protect themselves from their black neighbors. "The idea that a man would put that damn concertina wire on top of the fence there," says Johnson, age 46, surveying the barrier with White. "The truth is it won't make any difference at all. The guys know how to get over there and rob their ass anyway. It's not a deterrent."

White regards the barriers as vestiges of "segregation and white dominance. And I say, look, I pay taxes the same as anyone else. I don't necessarily want to go into their community, but I do want to make sure that if I need to go over there for anything I have the accessibility. Now, if I'm going to go over to Plymouth Congregational, I gotta go all the way around" -- he twirls slowly in a half-circle to indicate the circuitous route he would have to take -- "instead of the way the streets were supposed to be."

David White, president of the West Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association for the past three years, would be a happy man if he could get to Plymouth Congregational Church as easily as he once did.

One day in the Fifties, when city workers came by to pave the streets for the first time, White went down to the corner of his block to see if they would be paving Hibiscus Street all the way into the white area. That way he could walk out his front door, go left to the end of the block, and walk right down. Like in a normal grid system.

"I asked the question 'Are you going to cut this street through here?' And they said, 'No no no no. We got to stop.' And I said, 'Why? Why aren't you going to cut it through here?' They said, 'No. Nuh-uhh.' The city wouldn't permit it."

Instead of running continuously from the black Grove to the white section, Hibiscus Street stopped at a thicket when it reached Marler. White could still cut through a trail in the thicket. Until 1972, that is, when private developers built a row of condos on that lot and sealed them off from White's neighborhood with a ten-foot chainlink fence topped with the notorious barbed wire.

At the other end of Marler is Plaza Street, which might also have provided White and his neighbors a route into the white Grove. Except that the city refuses to pave the street. For nearly a decade White's group has been writing letters to commissioners pleading with them to do so. Plaza Street, he argues, would be an ideal thoroughfare leading from the black Grove. But White's appeals have met with no response from city officials. In fact, five years ago white homeowners were allowed to install a chainlink fence that sealed off the still-unpaved swath of Plaza from him and his neighbors.

If all this seems bizarre, it only gets more so.
According to the City of Miami's current municipal atlas, David White should be able to pull out of his driveway and head west on Marler Avenue without running into a chainlink fence. According to plat book 125, page 71, he should come to a nice big intersection. From there he should be able to bear left on Plaza Street. As should be apparent, that option has been eliminated.

But according to city records, White should have another option: He should be able to proceed west for another block on Marler, until it runs into Douglas Road. Indeed, if the municipal atlas is to be believed, Marler Avenue has been a two-block street since the drafting of the 1905 plat. But the city has never developed that second block of Marler Avenue into a roadway. Instead, that wooded public land has been taken over by white homeowners who over the course of the past few decades have simply extended their back-yard fences north into the public right of way.

In June 1996 the city commission passed a resolution, introduced by then-Commissioner Miller Dawkins, to clear and pave the unfinished block of Marler Avenue. That drew vociferous opposition from some of the white homeowners whose extended back yards would become a street. A month later, the commission reversed its decision and, paradoxically, voted to eliminate the nonexistent segment of Marler Avenue.

The commissioners even took the plan a step further, voting to allow the homeowners on Loquat Avenue to buy what was, in essence, illegally seized land. Half of the right of way would go to them and half to the St. Hugh Oaks community, a city-financed housing project on the north side. Under the plan, the encroaching homeowners would also assume the costs of replatting the street plan and would pay additional taxes on their expanded property. But a number of the homeowners were unwilling to pay, so the deal has lapsed.

White is planning to take advantage of this impasse to ask the commissioners to reverse themselves again and approve construction of Marler's second block. As far as White is concerned, city officials have allowed what amounts to a land-grab to go unpunished.

"Those people just can't do that stuff willy-nilly," says Will Johnson, who serves alongside White as the vice president of the West Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association. "They have to pay for that land. [City Commissioner] J.L. Plummer would have a fit if he thought they were getting that property for free." But so far they have.

White is also sending his association's letter to the City of Miami public works director requesting that the chainlink fence at the intersection of Marler and Plaza be removed. That fence is illegal, White claims, because even though it crosses no pavement there, the fence still blocks a public right of way.

"My understanding from the people who live on Loquat is that they put that fence there because of the intrusion of the people using and selling drugs back there," says Thelma Edwards, administrator for the West Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office. "And I guess they were trying to protect their own property and themselves."

Having been apprised of the situation by New Times, Edwards pledged to send her code enforcement inspector to survey the fence immediately -- a measure that White's association has been asking the city to take for four years.

"You can't put a fence in a public right of way," says Len Helmers, chief civil engineer of the City of Miami public works department, sounding as if he has issued this proclamation a thousand times during the past month. But he declines to render an opinion about the legality of the fence at the unpaved intersection of Marler and Plaza. "I don't have a survey or anything that shows where that is or anything, so I have no opinion." He suggests a call to the code enforcement department, which handles complaints about violations.

To White and his neighbors, the fences and severed streets that hem them in are disturbing enough. But the coils of barbed wire -- relatively new flourishes -- are downright offensive.

"You're definitely not my brother, that's what they're saying [with the barbed wire]," says Johnson. "Shades of apartheid."

Edwards says barbed wire is "strictly forbidden" in residential areas without a special permit. Edwards cites section 908.8.1 of the City of Miami zoning ordinance, which states that residential use of barbed wire in or on fences or even on top of a wall requires a special permit and "a written finding that its use and placement are essential to the safety, welfare, and security of the property and/or its inhabitants." Edwards says her inspector will check the fences on and around Marler for illegal barbed wire.

Miles Krier is a long way from the shack he used to live in on Calistoga Mountain in northern California. But his old one-story wooden house on Loquat Avenue, one street south of the Marler Avenue barrier, is still on the rustic side. The back yard is just as it was when he and his wife bought the place a year and a half ago -- extralong. Krier's back yard is the first one David White's Chevy Cavalier would traverse on the way to Douglas Road -- following the phantom portion of Marler Avenue that exists only on the City of Miami municipal map.

As a recent arrival on Loquat Avenue, Krier wasn't responsible for extending the back yard onto that illusory street. But he did inherit the encroachment problem from the previous owners. He says he hasn't decided whether he's willing to pay the replatting costs and taxes for the extra land, as the city insists.

In their brief time on Loquat Avenue, Krier and his wife Rebecca have gotten a taste of Miami's crime problem. A vandal chopped the phone and electrical lines and ripped the power meter off an outside wall the week they closed on the house. A week later someone jumped their wooden fence and stole all their gardening tools -- hoe, rake, shovel, trimming saw, and hose. "So maybe somebody took them who's employed as a gardener," he jests.

The most unnerving incident occurred last year. Krier crawled under the house to look for one of the couple's three house cats. Instead he found an unfamiliar sleeping bag, some pornographic magazines, and some recently emptied cans of food. "To ... find that some indigent has actually been nesting underneath the house -- I mean, if this is what residents of Miami put up with, if this is normal for this area, then you deserve Suarez and all of his nuttiness," he concludes with a yelp of laughter. "Then you're all crazy."

A chemistry teacher for "at risk" Miami-Dade County public high schoolers, Krier says he and Rebecca have seen black men slipping through a gap in the chainlink barrier at Marler Avenue and past his fence onto Loquat Avenue. But he doesn't want to assume that the vandals and thieves that visited his property came from the black Grove. "There are people wandering around all over," he says with a shrug.

Just about everybody in Krier's neighborhood has a horror story to tell. One woman woke up at three in the morning to find a prowler staring at her through her bedroom window. A man down the street was mugged at gunpoint one night in his driveway by two masked men he described as young black males, who ordered him to lie flat on the asphalt, took his watch, and rifled through his briefcase. Two women were robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight by a black man while they walked down Plaza Street in the white Grove.

Accounts like these, Krier notes, help explain the presence of the fences. Krier says he has no intention of topping his seven-foot wood fence with barbed wire (as some of his neighbors have done). But neither does he intend to remove the barrier: "I'm not so liberal that I want to take everybody's fence down and make everybody live in harmony, because that isn't going to happen. I just want to be left alone. I won't bother anybody. They can go do what they want" -- Krier gestures toward the black Grove -- "and the people over here can do what they want. Somebody wants to run a bordello next to me, they can go ahead."

And Krier insists that his fence will get bigger and wider if a thoroughfare from the black to the white Grove runs past it, as David White would like. "To protect this property I would build the most secure fence allowed by city code," Krier says. "And it's not because I have anything against those people over there, but I don't see where Miami is all that friendly a city anyway."

Krier himself, however, is quite a friendly sort. As is his wont, he pops over to check on his neighbor Helen, an elderly white woman who owns a small cottage on Loquat Avenue. Helen's house is opposite Krier's, on the other side of the unpaved gap in Plaza Street. Her chainlink back fence runs along Marler Avenue. Rene, Helen's black live-in nurse, appears in the doorway and says that Helen was hospitalized the night before with a lung problem but is going to be okay.

The conversation soon turns to the chronic theft and break-in problem, and it becomes clear that Rene takes a somewhat more aggressive stance on the crime issue than Krier. She owns two handguns -- a .38 caliber and a Magnum, which she hasn't ever used on anyone but is prepared to. She thinks someone tried to break into the house last month while no one was home.

"I don't want to kill nobody, but it's either you or them," Rene says gravely, though her menace is somewhat softened by her flowery silk bathrobe. "They come in your house, you don't know what they're going to do. The Bible says, 'An eye for an eye!'"

In 1946 the Miami Housing Authority approved construction of a 25-acre tract of small single-family homes for low-income blacks on Charles Terrace, west of Douglas Road. By the time the houses were completed in 1949, workers had also erected a concrete block wall along the southern boundary of the new development. As reported by the Miami Herald (and cited by Marvin Dunn in his new book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century), the city planning board required the wall in order to provide "suitable protection" for the white neighborhood. A Florida Supreme Court ruling three years earlier had rendered illegal Dade County's segregation of black residential districts. But that didn't stop the city from putting the wall up.

Brown and weathered, the concrete block barrier still runs a quarter-mile, from Douglas Road west to the Carver Middle School parking lot. Six feet tall, higher in some places, it divides the leafy back yards of Kumquat Avenue on one side from the tree-starved lots of Charles Terrace on the other.

Lou-vern Fisher, who moved to Miami with her parents in 1936 from Georgia, bought one of the single-family homes next to the wall with her husband back in 1950. She still lives there, with a daughter, granddaughter, and grandson. "We enjoyin' the wall," says the jolly 73-year-old retired maid. "They put it here for a reason. And you know the reason. To keep us from going over there," she wags a finger, letting off a loud gravelly ha-ha-ha.

Fisher recalls when Reverend Theodore Gibson, the esteemed civil rights leader, came by in the Fifties or Sixties (she doesn't remember exactly when) with a petition decrying the wall as a monument to racism and calling on the city to tear it down. But he could not rally the residents on her street, she says. "He was complainin' about the wall, that it looked like the Berlin Wall or something. But we told him, why did they put it there? To keep us from over there and them from over here. So let it stay. It ain't botherin' us. It still ain't botherin' us. And we ain't botherin' them. We all get along good."

"It's civilized now," adds her neighbor Minnie Cooper, who says that she's even had the white man who lives on the other side of the concrete wall over to her house for a neighborly chat. "People have learned -- you tend to your business --" she begins.

"And we tend to ours," Fisher jumps in, with a big pursed smile.
While Father Gibson's petitioning failed to inspire city commissioners to topple the wall, the fears of white parents proved far more effective. In 1970, the year Carver Middle School (then Junior High) was racially integrated, the western end of the wall was demolished, allowing a one-lane road to be paved from Kumquat Avenue to the school. White parents had demanded that southern access to drop their kids off because they considered the other route, down Grand Avenue in the black Grove, unsafe.

In August of that year, after the city commission voted in favor of knocking down part of the wall, Gibson told the Miami News: "I'm glad we the citizens finally agreed to do the right thing in a peaceful way." An editorial published in the same newspaper proclaimed: "Father Gibson has fought the good fight to achieve greater harmony for the races. If we are to grow in this community, there is no further need for psychological barriers which stand for racism and divisiveness. The wall should have tumbled long ago." But the fact is that more than 95 percent of the wall remained. It had only become a few yards shorter.

A similar, though much longer, segregation wall surrounded Liberty City's Liberty Square public housing project, built in 1936. Little historical information about this wall exists. "It appeared mysteriously, and it disappeared mysteriously," says Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. She remembers seeing the Liberty Square wall as a child; truncated parts of it remain standing. But in 23 years of research, she has not been able to find records of who built it or who tore it down. She notes that official records of other forms of segregation in Miami, such as "whites only" beaches, are also hard to come by.

While information about the Liberty Square wall is limited, research on its counterpart in the black Grove is virtually nonexistent. Fields says she has heard about the barrier "just in passing." Historian Arva Moore Parks has not only seen the wall but was able to produce a few newspaper clippings of articles published during the Carver desegregation episode.

Paul George of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida first heard about the wall when New Times phoned him for this story. On a recent walk, he got his first glimpse of the barrier. After pegging the houses along Charles Terrace as post-World War II, he looks between two houses and stops in his tracks.

"So that's the wall. My God!" he exclaims. "Look at the wall. Look at the wall! Isn't that amazing?"

As he walks, what first leaps to mind are the attempts by white Miamians in 1915 to build a segregation wall along the edges of Colored Town, which was located in the northwest part of what is now downtown. The city council soon tabled the plan in the wake of court decisions in other states that struck down segregation laws, George says. "So the idea of a wall is nothing new. But it didn't come to fruition [in 1915].

"But then look," he says, gesturing toward the Grove wall. "Ultimately it does."

While the wall was probably built illegally, given the state and federal court rulings prohibiting segregated housing, he doubts it will elicit much emotion any more. "It's a symbol today more than anything," Paul concludes. "I think for a lot of people, black or white, it's good to have a wall in your back yard because of crime problems, no matter what the race involved. And it also kind of delineates your property from everybody else's. I wouldn't much see it as racial any more. But maybe, ironically, it's practical. It's taken on a whole new purpose. Which is great!"

Even some black Grovites, including Will Johnson, who attended nearby Carver Junior High in the early Seventies, are astonished to find the old wall in their midst. "Wow! I hadn't noticed that," he exclaims during a recent drive-by tour of the area with David White. He quickly muses: "Berlin."

The wall and all it connotes are offensive to White, but he says the construction of the housing project enclosed by the wall marked progress. "It was a blessing, because they didn't have many good houses for blacks living here. At least there was something worthwhile being constructed in this community."

Back on Marler Avenue, Daphne Roberts is swaying slowly down her front steps. A retired kindergarten teacher, she lives down the street from David White in the white wooden house at the corner of Marler and Hibiscus where she was born 83 years ago. Her parents, also Bahamian immigrants, built the home in 1910.

She has left her walking cane inside, so when she gets to the sidewalk she grabs the rail of the short chainlink fence that surrounds her yard. She had to put that fence up, she says, "after the drugs came. People came from out of the neighborhood and we had to put up our own fence. They would come in. You didn't know what they might do. That's why we had to have a fence." So far, she says, it's kept the thieves out of her yard.

As she moves down the rail, she recalls the marvelous morning she found a television set in her front yard. "I said, well, I got a TV now. I don't got to buy one. Then the police came by and picked it up." Despite the surge in crime in her neighborhood, she insists that the criminals are not local.

Gazing out across Marler Street, she recalls her childhood days of scampering with her friends over to the white neighborhood. "We used to run out my door, and zoop, right across through there," Roberts says, pointing at the ten-foot fence and the row of luxury condos behind it. "Those condos were supposed to be low-rental," she says. "But then they turned into something else. What could we do about it?"

Roberts has gotten used to that fence, but her indifference is tinged with a certain embedded bitterness. "I don't want to look over there," she says. "I don't want to look at them."

She hobbles down the sidewalk, still holding on to the fence rail, eager to show off her own extralong back yard, which takes up almost the rest of the block behind her house. Roberts's only regret is that her parents didn't build the house in the middle of this elongated lot, rather than on the edge of Marler. If they had, the view from her front windows would be much more scenic than the tall chainlink fence. "We'd have a nice big front yard now," she says. "See?

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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