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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part Eight ► The Powers That Be

The Charles Avenue Historical Marker with
the E.W.F. Stirrup House in the background.
My quest to save the E.W.F. Stirrup House, and my running headlong into the Powers That Be in Coconut Grove and the City of Miami, began a few years back when I first happened across the Charles Avenue Historical Marker. I had never been in Coconut Grove before and, since I've always been a sucker for history and historical markers, I stopped to read it. It was by sheer coincidence (or total synchronicity) that on the day I discovered the marker detailing the oldest Black community in on the Florida mainland, I was also reading "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism" by James W. Loewen. Lowen has written an amazing book of more than 650 pages, which goes to great lengths to explain why every 'Merkin city looks the way it does.



The broken base of the marker
with garbage piled all around
On the day I discovered the Charles Avenue Historical Marker it was leaning backwards against a fence because the base was broken. However, I didn't even know the base was broken on my first visit because of the garbage bags piled up all around it. Maybe it was the book I was reading, or maybe because I have studied race relations most of my adult life, but I knew INSTINCTIVELY that the reason the marker leaned and the reason it had garbage piled up all around the base, was due to Institutional Racism. Nothing in my subsequent research has disabused me of that notion. The Charles Avenue Historical Marker, and treatment of the E.W.F Stirrup House, seems to me to encapsulate the Black experience in 'Merka.

It was only after I took in the sign did I look across the street and, for the first time, saw the beautiful, historic 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House (pictured below). When I saw that house in 2009, empty and being allowed to rot, I started my research. It was all that subsequent research that led to my campaign to save this house.

The saddest marker I have ever read.
As I said, I love historical markers. Word of warning: Never travel with me because if I see a sign that points towards an historical marker, I'll detour from the main route just to see it. I have seen hundreds of historical markers in my lifetime, but the saddest one I've ever seen is one in my home town of Detroit commemorating where Paradise Valley once stood. To quote Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

While Joni Mitchell once lived in Detroit [where I met her at "The Castle," the apartment on the east side that she shared with her then-husband Chuck Mitchell, but that's another story], I doubt she was singing about Detroit's Paradise Valley. Yet, the words apply to Paradise Valley better than anywhere else. An entire neighbourhood was razed in the name of progress and not a single building remains. Imagine that. A vibrant Black business district was destroyed for freeways under the guise of urban renewal. However, let's not sugar coat it: This would have never happened to a thriving White neighbourhood. White folk would have had enough clout to have stopped it or have had the plans modified.

[I've touched upon the topic of Paradise Valley briefly in my two posts about the Detroit Riots.]

There was once a plan floated to tear down most of Black Coconut Grove in the name of Urban Renewal. In the 1950s the City of Miami considered the neighbourhood blighted. Compared to other houses in the area, the houses in Black Coconut Grove were somewhat ramshackled. However, that tended to be a function of the relative poverty of the residents, when compared to White incomes in the area, and the fact that many of the homes had been in the same family for several generations. Furthermore, whereas all the surrounding neighbourhoods had running water and sewers, Black Coconut Grove still used hand pumps and outhouses -- in the ''50s!!! People who lived in the area at the time have told me about the "honey wagon" that was just a way of life on Charles Avenue back then. Why would all the White neighbourhoods in the area have the amenities denied to Black Coconut Grove? I'll let you answer that for yourself.

Had this been Detroit it's possible the neighbourhood would have come down just like Miami city planners wanted. However, what saved the neighbourhood was E.W.F. Stirrup's foresight. Back in the 1890s, when he was one of the largest landholders in the area, he had this crazy idea that home ownership was important for growing Black families. According to Kate Stirrup Dean, Stirrup's eldest daughter:
Father believed in every family having a house, a yard and a garden, so you would feel like you had a home. He felt that people became better citizens when they owned their own homes.
The 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House, the showplace
Ebenezer Stirrup built for himself that once looked out
over his estate, which included most of downtown
Coconut Grove at one point.
To that end E.W.F. Stirrup built with his own hands, and with help from his neighbours, more than 100 houses in the area. This is why Coconut Grove, at one time, had a larger percentage of Black home ownership than any other place in the United States. It was that high percentage of Black home ownership that saved Black Coconut Grove. People simply refused to sell out at the cut-rate prices the city was offering. These were the houses passed from one generation to the next, the way that some families hand down precious family jewels.

Eventually the City of Miami was forced to put in sewers and running water. However, as much as some things change, some things never change. Institutional Racism has kept Black Coconut Grove in a bit of a time warp. While the 33133 Zip Code is now considered one of the most exclusive in the entire country, Black Coconut Grove has languished. This being the United States, Black income has always been less than their White counterparts -- an undeniable truth -- as have opportunities for Black folk. While other areas of Coconut Grove have thrived, Black Coconut Grove did not. Nothing represents that better than the E.W.F. Stirrup House, allowed to rot away at the end of Charles Avenue. And that's where the Powers That Be mentioned in the first paragraph comes in.

The Powers That Be

Ever since I started making noise with this series, people I trust have told I am messing with dark forces far more powerful than little old me. People have told me that I am screwing with the power structure in Coconut Grove. People have told me that the City of Miami is one of the most corrupt in the nation. People have told me that Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has always been in the pocket of developers and runs his own district like a minor Fiefdom. People have told me that developers make the decisions and the Commission just rubber stamps them. People have pointed to the story of Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis as a cautionary tale of what can happen to someone who gets in the way of someone's multi-million dollar deal here in South Florida. [My Canadian family and friends are aware of Gus Boulis, even if they don't know his name.]

What do I know? I am still making noise, but now I'm watching my back very carefully.

The other night two facebook status updates crossed my screen simultaneously. Take a look at the unedited screen grab I captured:

Unedited screen grab. Nothing comes between the Coconut Grove Chamber of
Commerce and the owners of the Calamari Restaurant, both literally and figuratively.




The Grove Gardens Condominium Residences with Calamari,
La Bottega restaurants and Taurus Bar on the ground floor.
Does Gino Falsetto own and/or control the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce? They appear to move in lockstep, as evidenced by those messages sent out virtually simultaneously. It would make sense because Gino Falsetto appears to own, or control, almost everything else in Coconut Grove, at least that which can be seen from the corner of Charles Avenue and Main Highway. You see, Calamari is owned, in part or full, by Gino Falsetto, whom I have documented elsewhere in this series. He also owns, in whole or in part, La Bottega Restaurant, the Taurus Bar, and the Grove Gardens Condominiums Residences, all of which share the same plot of land. Falsetto, who left Canadian taxpayers on the hook after a string of restaurant bankruptcies in Canada before he high-tailed it to Miami, also controls the Coconut Grove Playhouse by virtue of a loan he made to the Playhouse board when the board was still thought viable. Because of that financial interest he has scuttled several potential deals to return the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the City of Miami. He is also said to be the owner, through a series of shell companies, of the two vacant lots immediately behind the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which are immediately across Charles Avenue from the E.W.F. Stirrup House. Falsetto's Aries development company also controls the E.W.F. Stirrup House with a 50-year lease. It would appear in one way or another Gino Falsetto has almost all the properties surrounding the E.W.F. Stirrup House all sewed up.

How much power can one man have? I am beginning to think Gino Falsetto has the City of Miami Building Department all sewn up as well. On the 17th of August I reported to the City of Miami Building Department that demolition work was proceeding within the E.W.F. Stirrup House without the benefit of a Building Permit. Several phone calls later I have confirmed the case was closed without any notation of the resolution of the complaint. I have now been told twice that a lack of notation is very unusual and contrary to City of Miami policy. Many phone messages left with various people within the City of Miami Building Department have gone unanswered. The last time I phoned, on August 30th, while I was still on the phone a City of Miami employee sent an email to the Building Department requesting that they finally return my phone calls and let me know how my complaint was resolved. I am still waiting for that return phone call. I still do not know why my complaint was closed. Anyone is welcome to find out the determination of complaint #1200243103. Let me know if you have any success.

Meanwhile, I am also still waiting for a response to my email to the City of Miami's Press Relations Department sent on August 10. Having had no reply, and not being able to get a single human on the phone, nor having any of my many messages returned, I published it as an Open Email to the City of Miami. That has still brought no results.

The historical marker that started it all.
Gina Falsetto is clearly a powerful force in Coconut Grove and, hence, the City of Miami. Not a single phone call, email, or public plea I have made has resulted in a response of any kind. Meanwhile, Gino Falsetto continues to wreak havoc on the E.W.F. Stirrup House in his attempt to turn it into a Bed and Breakfast without benefit of the proper building permits and without the Commercial Zoning required for such a business. After the (alleged) rapacious developer Gino Falsetto is done with the E.W.F. Stirrup House, all that may be left to honour the large and culturally rich Bahamian community that once existed in Coconut Grove might be an historical marker.

Everybody sing along with Joni Mitchell as you read all the parts of this ongoing series, Unpacking Coconut Grove:


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