“Excuse Me, Where’s Coconut Grove?” Inside Miami’s Little Bahamas
The food truck is owned by Officer Beau, a community policeman who was born and raised in Coconut Grove. He has, it seems, the phone number of every person in the neighborhood. If you want some coconut candy, he knows who to call and dials her up on the spot. The food truck’s young chef, Jerry, worked at Coral Bagels for ten years before taking the job manning Beau’s food truck (more of a trailer, really—whenever the café needs to move, Beau has to rely on a friend with a truck.) The story is a kind of fairytale: Beau would go to Coral Bagels for breakfast, and he says he could always tell when it was Jerry making his omelets. When Beau decided to open the food truck he asked Jerry to be his chef.
“I want to have a place where people in my neighborhood can afford to get something to eat,” says Beau. And he means it—meals cost about five dollars, and I’ve never seen him turn away a hungry person (if after some haggling):
“Can I get some chicken fingers?”
“I’ve only got two dollars.”
“Well then you don’t get no chicken fingers.”
“Can I get just one chicken finger?”
Beau pauses and tells Jerry, “Give him a plate of chicken fingers.”
Weekend nights, with Cokes and a bottle of rum, a small crowd gathers around the table—mostly Beau’s middle-aged friends, and a few ex-convicts he employs in his construction business, working on houses in the neighborhood. Topics covered:
Prison: Beau mentions the practice of pharmaceutical companies paying inmates to test new drugs. “The guys are more fucked up when they get out of prison than when they go in. You would not believe what’s going on in there. I mean, you would believe it, but I’ll tell you.”
Gambling: One man (of whom I will say only that he is strikingly handsome, and that it was my husband who first pointed this out) confesses to once losing all his money at the casino and then, afraid of how angry his girlfriend would be, ripped his shirt up and pretended he got mugged.
Drinking and falling down.
Sharecropping: Every so often, the old men of the neighborhood wander by wearing their watches and their khakis and their messenger caps. Beau tells a story about how the family of one of the men had been sharecroppers in North Carolina. When he was young, the man had taken all his money (and maybe some that was not his own) and fled to Miami. He went back a few years later in disguise to see his family, but the owner of the land recognized him, and he had to hightail it back out. “How did they know it was him?” I ask. “Oh, they knew it was him,” says Beau. “They know all the slaves.”
City buses: Don’t take the 38.
Seafood: Strikingly-handsome-man tells me about catching conch and pouring hot sauce down the shells so they would come out. Beau remembers catching crabs in the “crab hole” on Franklin Avenue, when heavy rain would wash the crabs out of their holes. It used to be a cemetery, and now it’s an apartment complex, across the street from where I live. They’d feed the crabs bread for a few days to “clean them out” (because, of course, the crabs had been living in a cemetery) then cook them in a pit.
Policing: Beau became a cop because an aunt he loved very much, herself a policewoman, told him as she was dying that the only way to make a difference was to be on the inside. He had a bad time in the academy. His first beat was nights in Overtown, policing the same men he used to run with. Now, he’s a community policeman, working closely with local business owners to create better, safer neighborhoods. He’s found that what people care about most isn’t arresting drug dealers; they want him to clean up empty lots where kids get hurt playing, or search out absentee homeowners to do something about their abandoned, dilapidated houses.
The Police: Even though he’s a policeman, Beau says that he is still, as a black person, scared of the police. “You have no idea what it’s like to walk in our shoes,” he tells me. It doesn’t matter who he is; he fits the profile. Estelle, Beau’s sister-inlaw, who has emphysema and sits at the table with a small oxygen tank, says, “I will tell you something: I am going to be seventy-six years old next week, and I am still a little bit afraid of the police.”
Coconut Grove: In particular, the traditionally black neighborhood of the West Grove, or “Little Bahamas,” as Beau and some others in the neighborhood would like to rename it. It’s always there, what it is and what it used to be. No one is under any illusions: crime rates in the West Grove are high. There are gunshots at night. But Beau’s hope is that if the Bahamian culture of the Grove can be revived and preserved, so can the Grove—not a gentrified Grove, but his Grove, Little Bahamas. Beau’s Café on Wheels is part of the project: Beau says poignantly that he serves the food that “makes this neighborhood what it used to be.”
The men around the table joke about how tourists come driving through their neighborhood and stop them to ask, “Excuse me, where’s Coconut Grove?” Most people, when they think of the Grove, think of the touristy restaurants and stores that line Main Highway, where people drink lite beer and eat brunch at all hours of the day, or of CocoWalk, the outdoor mall on Grand Avenue that includes a theater, indoor/outdoor bars, and some small chain stores, one of which exclusively sells (I still can’t really believe it) plastic cups. Some people might know about the history of the Grove as one of the oldest neighborhoods in Miami; they might have gone on a walking tour, snapping pictures of the defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse (which is being perpetually “saved” and where Waiting for Godot made its US debut in 1956 to an audience that walked out). Some know about white settlers such as Ralph Munroe, whose house is now preserved as the Barnacle Historic State Park, and Charles and William Deering of the Deering Estate and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
But to a large extent, much of Coconut Grove was originally a Bahamian village. In 1899, a Bahamian man named Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup moved to the Grove, at that time pretty much a hill full of pine and palmettos and a few white settlers, including James Frow, who owned much of the land, and Charles Peacock, who owned the Peacock Hotel (then known as the Bay View Inn). Stirrup began buying land and building houses, which he would rent to Bahamian immigrants—many of whom worked at the hotel—and their families until they could afford to buy them. Stirrup helped build black-owned businesses, grocery stores, and restaurants along Evangelist Street (now Charles Avenue). The black business section of Coconut Grove stretched from Hibiscus Street to Main Highway, where the Mayfair shopping complex now sits. (CoconutGrove.com’s history tab makes almost no mention of any of this, and refers to the West Grove as if it isn’t part of Coconut Grove: “black Bahamians. . . created their own settlement along Charles Avenue.” The website mentions Peacock, Frow, and Fairchild, but not Stirrup. It mentions “charming ‘mom and pop’ businesses” being replaced by the Mayfair; it doesn’t mention who many of the moms and pops were.)
What’s amazing about Stirrup’s story is that he became a millionaire by creating a neighborhood: he believed that if people owned their own homes, they’d be better citizens, invested in their community. Other incredible things about Stirrup: His mother had been a black servant in his white father’s house, and when she died, Stirrup was taken in by relatives who made him work tirelessly until, at the age of fifteen, he escaped to Key West, where he worked tirelessly for another relative, traveling back and forth to the Bahamas to marry and have children. When Stirrup eventually moved to Cutler (before he moved to Coconut Grove), he worked as a pineapple cutter during the day and cleared land at night, but instead of being paid in cash, he was often paid in land, and invested whatever money he did earn in more land.
Stirrup could have built a grandiose estate like Vizcaya. Instead, he built a house just big enough for his family and he bought and sold land to help create a community. Not that Stirrup was a saint—an early Grove resident named Rebecca Johnson described him as a “loan master,” and very stern—but she also remembers that he called everyone his brother and his sister. They called him “Uncle Abe.”
Some of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century houses are still standing, including the Mariah Brown House, built around 1890 for one of the first Bahamian settlers in the Grove, and the Stirrup House itself. They are wooden, built from Dade County Pine, which is amazingly durable. When, a few years ago, Beau had to rip up the floor of an old Grove house he was working on, he said that there was still sap coming out of the wood. The Stirrup House is currently owned by the sinister Aries Development, which has allowed the house to fall apart completely behind their hideous corner apartment building/overpriced restaurant complex on the corner of Main and Franklin. (I found, on the Internet, an incensed journalist and blogger named Headly Westerfield who has been taking pictures of and advocating to restore the Stirrup House for years.)
In fact, it seems like every year a story just like this one comes out in the Miami New Times or the Miami Herald. In the age of the Internet, there have been more. Part of the history of the West Grove is the story of its unlikely survival. Someone, whether on the inside or the outside, is perpetually fighting to save the Grove while someone else wants to let it fall apart, to claim it as his own.
Even in the early days of the Grove, neither Frow (the primary developer) nor the village would agree to pave Evangelist Street. So, under cover of darkness, members of the black community carted shell and limestone to Evangelist and did it themselves. Residents of the West Grove had to fight for a sewage system as late as the fifties. It has been effectively segregated from the rest of the Grove by overgrown yards and barbed wire and hedges (look at Google Earth—you can see the tree line). In the eighties, drugs ravaged the neighborhood. Signs that read “Drug Dealers Ruin Neighborhoods” hang on fences and outside churches. Many of the men at Beau’s now have to carry inhalers, their lungs damaged from drug use. Robert, a friend of Beau, describes how many of the trees in the West Grove were cut down and ripped out, under the ridiculous pretense that drug dealers were hiding drugs in them—as if it were the palmettos’ fault. Grand Avenue, a main thoroughfare, has been effectively stripped: empty lots with absentee owners and concrete monster housing complexes line the street from 32nd Avenue to Douglas Road; the Ace Theatre is closed, the parks are closed, the corner stores are closed. It’s like a ghost street. If we face the facts, we know that this is because the West Grove is a traditionally black neighborhood in the traditionally segregated south. Most of the white people around are racing through in their Lexus LXs trying to beat traffic—or, more recently, developing empty lots and building houses that the people who now live in the Grove would not be able to afford.
But somehow, Stirrup still seems to be the presiding spirit, and the Grove—with its bright shotgun houses and mango trees and residents smoking ribs in their backyards—is still here. Officer Beau is doing his work serving cheap Bahamian food and fixing up old houses: he learned construction from his father-in-law, who learned it from descendants of Stirrup. The Coconut Grove Cemetery Committee is raising money to restore the Mariah Brown House. Although it has had its setbacks, and received little support from the city, the Goombay Festival has been held every summer for thirty-eight years, Junkanoo bands and all. And, although most of the houses being built by developers in the West Grove right now “aren’t for people who look like me,” as Beau puts it, the committee who throws the Goombay Festival is working to rebrand the West Grove “Little Bahamas,” in hopes the city will recognize it for the historical neighborhood it is and invest in its restoration, the way it has for Little Haiti and, more recently, Little Santo Domingo, preserving the culture without displacing the current residents.
As sea levels rise (climate change, climate change, climate change!), homeowners in the Grove, the highest point in Miami, are going to have to work even harder to keep their property. If they do, they’ll have been the first ones here, and the last ones left. Who knows what will happen to the West Grove then? For now, let’s call it Little Bahamas. Back at Beau’s Café, during a lull in the conversation, Beau says, with quiet exactitude, “Remember that place, what was it called—Beau’s Café on Wheels? Man, that place was great.”
SARAH TRUDGEON is a writer living in Miami.