West Grove wants to make a comeback on its own terms

Marler Avenue is a peculiar, one-block street that leads to not much other than the 10-foot fence that used to separate black and white Coconut Grove.

Driving down Plaza Street, you pass wooden houses and chain link fences, residents on bikes and Baptist churches. Then you hit it.

On one side are humble shotgun-style homes, on the other, beyond the fences of a gated community, are grandiose mansions with sprawling, lush backyards.

“This is that dividing line right here.  It still stands its a barrier. It used to be a brick wall. On the other side there are  bigger, more wealthier houses and they wanted to keep the, you fill in the blank, out of the neighborhood,” said Jihad Rashid, the ‎president and CEO of the Collaborative Development Corporation, an organization based in Coconut Grove that promotes neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing.

While segregation has long been outlawed, its effects linger. The Marler Avenue fence signals that the 65-block neighborhood between Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, known as West Grove, is still shut out.

But as developers start eyeing the main street of Grand Avenue, West Grove residents are demanding to be let into the conversation on their future — now that political and business leaders are treating them like they have one.

West Grove’s slow decline

In the late 1890s, the area now known as West Grove was home to Miami’s early black Bahamian settlers. They worked at the nearby Peacock Inn and occupied shotgun style houses, a thin Bahamian-style one or two bedroom home. Many of were built by E.W.F. Stirrup, one of Miami’s first black millionaires.

By the 1920s, there was an incredibly high homeownership rate and a strong sense of community among residents. But in 1925, when Coconut Grove was annexed by the City of Miami against its will, resources to the Grove’s black communities dwindled, kicking off a slow decline.

Thelma Gibson has lived in West Grove for all but a few of her 90 years. She recalls vividly when West Grove was known as “colored town.”

“We had no street lights and no running water — it really was a country town,” she remembers. Still, “it was very safe, we left our windows open and never locked doors.”

Through the 1940s, businesses along the once thriving Grand Avenue closed down and houses fell into disrepair. In the late 1950s, the local NAACP president Father Theodore Gibson, Thelma’s husband, appealed to white politicians and city leaders for help.

Instead, the county demolished swathes of single-family homes, replacing them with concrete public housing projects with absentee landlords. Many of the early Bahamian families moved away through the 1960s and 1970s, tearing apart the rich social fabric of the community. Without any investment or home-grown leadership, drugs and crime took over the neighborhood.

In the 2000s, city and county officials and developers made a slew of promises to revitalize the community — among them a central business district along Grand Avenue, historic preservation for the neighborhood’s early Bahamian homes, and community-centered affordable housing options. But then nothing happened.

“Unfortunately for us we’ve had …  a lot of unkept promises,” Gibson said. “We’ve never gotten all the things other places got.”

But now, a building that bears her name might be the sign of change to come.

Signs of change

The first new development in West Coconut Grove in 50 years opened its doors in January.

Named Gibson Plaza in honor of Thelma and Theodore Gibson, the 56-unit building is a collaboration between Pinnacle Housing, the CDC, and Miami-Dade College. It offers affordable housing to the community’s elderly population and community education opportunities.

The school provides continuing education for the area’s adults earlier in the day and after-school programming for children in the afternoon, according to Michael Wohl, a partner at Pinnacle Housing, a Miami-based developer focused on affordable housing around the southeastern United States.

The entire building was filled within just 30 days of opening.  And the community wants more of the same, according to Wohl.

“Millennials are also struggling with homeownership, not only African American people or people in West Grove, but also a lot of young people that live in the area,” said LaToya Stirrup, a resident of Coconut Grove whose family has a long history in the neighborhood, in reference to the issue of affordable housing all over Coconut Grove.

Editor’s note: This paragraph has been corrected to accurately reflect Stirrup’s comments. 

The key to that support was that it sought to preserve the character of the area rather than displacing the people that live there by creating an affordable space for those residents to live in, Rashid says. Even then, there was a lot of suspicion in the beginning, including of Rashid — a litany of broken promises from outsiders have made West Grove residents wary.

In addition to the Gibson Plaza, the CDC helped to open Kroma, an art gallery across the street, to promote the cultural life of the neighborhood. Rashid dreams of rebranding West Grove as the Village West, shedding an outdated reputation as a crime-ridden drug haven to take on one as a bohemian, artistic hub.

“What we want to do is create a critical mass, and make a Grand Avenue corridor that’s more walkable and pedestrian friendly. We want to create cafes boutiques and shops,” he said.

But not all development is so altruistic.

Local homeowner Douglas Shaw, who currently rents his house out but plans to move back, has seen families selling their homes all around him. He too is under pressure to sell his plot of land at the corner of Day Avenue and Ohio Street. He bought it in 1971 for $26,000 and now developers are offering him $500,000 for it.

“I’ve been having people coming and harassing my tenants banging on the door and saying ‘Why don’t you sell?,’” he said.

But he’s insistent: he’s not selling.

That amount of cash is hard to turn down for many of these families, but Shaw has seen how it changed the character of the block and drove up prices in a place he always imagined returning to in his old age and passing on to his children.

Shaw’s experience underscores the uphill battle CDC and organizations like it face, surrounded by developers hungry for property and plenty of money to get it.

Preserving West Grove’s Bahamian history

The mounting need to protect affordable housing as developer interest in the community grows is why the county subsidized the Pinnacle project and why it’s looking for similar avenues to invest some $1.5 million available for infrastructure improvements to the area, according to County Commissioner Xavier Suarez.

West Grove is “in an absolute renaissance and explosion, hopefully not gentrification,” he told The New Tropic.

Over the next few years, he said he hopes to bring a Bahamian consulate to the area and make West Grove “a Bahamian-themed neighborhood.”

It’s also important to preserve the buildings already there, like the Bahamas-inspired Stirrup House, a rectangular two-story house with wood plats and a wide front porch.

“These are people who are important to the fabric of Miami and they should continue to be a part of the story of Miami,” said LaToya Stirrup, whose great grandfather E.W.F. Stirrup built more than 100 homes for the area’s early Bahamian residents — many of which still stand today.

The story of the bid to preserve the Stirrup home underscores how new the desire to hold on to West Grove’s history is.

E.W.F. Stirrup built his home on Charles Avenue in 1897 and lived there until 1957, when he passed away. The house fell into slow disrepair, but in 2012, after it received historical designation, the family began seeking support to restore it.

With help from the CDC, they eventually partnered up with developer and Coconut Grove resident Peter Gardner, to transform the historical home into a bed and breakfast — honoring Stirrup’s legacy while also creating a site for visitors to explore.

The Stirrup family is turning to the 30 lots they still own around West Coconut Grove next, according to David Porter, the president of Stirrup Properties, Inc. and the great-grandson of E.W.F. Stirrup.

The plans for those lots aren’t yet public, but Porter says he wants to help preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“We want to make sure that affordable housing in West Grove is supported and we also want to bring it into the 21st century like the rest of Miami,” he said.