Early on a Saturday morning in the middle of Art Basel week, University of Miami law professor Anthony “Tony” Alfieri reported to duty at the monthly meeting of the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance.
At the exact same moment as millions of dollars were flowing into neighborhoods like South Beach and Midtown, citizens of the West Grove gathered in a bare bones meeting room in their local church, passionately sharing concerns and fears for the neighborhood they’ve called home for generations.
Alferi sees his work as more important than ever before. Gentrification and real estate development is having a disproportionately negative impact on minority communities in Miami, but it’s much more subtle than the institutionalized segregation of the Jim Crow era – and therefore easier to overlook.
“We need to get real – Miami started as a Jim Crow town and it’s still a Jim Crow town, and in fact growing more race segregated every day. Take a look around, our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and public spaces are segregated by race and race-based economic inequality,” Alfieri said.
In today’s Miami, the disparities in income and resources are stark. A drive through the Design District is all colors, glass, and chrome. A drive down Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove reveals empty lots, “for rent” and “for sale” signs, vacant apartments, and historic houses in states of deterioration.
With developers poised to swoop in, it is falling to the residents of the West Grove, also known as Village West, and their advocates at the University of Miami Law School to push back.
Alfieri has dedicated his career to serving racially and economically disadvantaged communities. He started as a young lawyer in New York City working at Legal Aid, and has led the Center for Ethics and Public Service at University of Miami Law School since 1996.
Their work with churches began as an effort to work with grassroots organizations to address poverty in the inner city. Alfieri and his students started a door knocking campaign in West Grove. They soon realized that the churches were the backbone of these communities. Editor’s note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify the location of the door knocking campaign.
Today the Historic Black Churches Program works with 59 churches in Miami-Dade and Broward.
“Because Miami lacks a strong backbone of civic groups, foundations, and nonprofit organizations in inner-city neighborhoods, relative to metropolitan communities like New York, Boston, Chicago, DC, and Los Angeles, churches stand out as important sites for institutional partnerships,” explained Alfieri.
Law students as changemakers
Alfieri and his co-leader Catherine “Cady” Kaiman, a lecturer in law at the Center for Ethics & Public Service, lead a group of about 10 law students each semester. The students research and document historic and current issues affecting residents in Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, including what amounts to forced eviction and “re-segregation” of low income communities, driving residents from the urban core to far-flung parts of the county.
One of their most important recent accomplishments was stopping the city of Coral Gables from using a large space on Douglas Road (part of West Grove) to house its out-of-service trolleys.
The law students educated residents about their rights and helped them file two complaints, leading to rulings that the City of Miami (which includes Coconut Grove) and Coral Gables had violated local zoning laws and federal civil rights law for failing to conduct an impact study on the race consequences of the construction.
“Professor Alfieri and his group have brought a voice and given time that the residents of this community couldn’t otherwise afford, and it has truly made a difference to hold the city’s feet to the fire,” said Commissioner Ken Russell, at the December meeting of the Alliance.
While investigating the trolley depot, the law students also uncovered old environmental assessment reports that had been ignored. The documents provided clear evidence of contamination in the smoke and ash from Old Smokey trash incinerator, which got its nickname from the amount of smoke that regularly poured out of it from its opening in 1925 until 1970, when it was shut down.
Residents recall having to run inside when Old Smokey was blowing to avoid the dark clouds of smoke that would descend upon their homes and backyards.
“When I was growing up in Coconut Grove, I remember they would burn the smokestack, and you couldn’t hang on the outside because there was soot. So many people died of cancer over the years, and I’m sure that was partly to blame,” said Pastor John Chambers, current president of the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance. Editor’s note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly identify the alliance.
The City of Miami conducted environmental testing of the soil in the area and found toxic chemicals, which led to the inspection and closure of other surrounding parks in South Coral Gables and Coconut Grove.
The law students are currently working with the citizen group to put together a lawsuit seeking retribution for the harm to West Grove.
“They have been almost like a miracle. Professor Alfieri and his students have allowed us to have a voice that’s being heard through the politicians and the city,” Chambers said.
Gotta have faith
With the Historic Black Churches Program, the mostly African-American and Bahamian West Grove has gotten a megaphone that can talk to the city in a way that it can’t. The law program’s students are getting an education they couldn’t get in the classroom.
“We don’t envision ourselves as ‘great white fathers;’ we see ourselves as brothers and sisters engaged in a common collaborative project,” said Alfieri. “Our church partners – clergy, congregations, and ministries – teach our students what it means to be politically disenfranchised and economically impoverished and, equally significant, what it means to be a diverse, inclusive, and shared community.”
Alfieri says that working with church-based communities has changed him, too, and often changes the way his students see their work.
“Faith and spirituality are crucial for a lifetime commitment to public service and the hard work of civil rights and anti-poverty law,” he said. “For me, surprisingly, the work has rekindled my own faith, faith in a common democratic mission to strengthen communities to participate politically and economically in American civic life.”