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Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Introduction to Trolleygate

The Coral Gables "Trolley" is not. It is a bus with a diesel-powered
internal combustion engine disguised to look like a cute old-style trolley.
Anger is beginning to roil to the surface in Coconut Grove over the latest scandal involving Miami City Hall. In a nutshell: the city of Coral Gables has been allowed to plunk a polluting diesel bus garage into the middle of a West Coconut Grove residential neighbourhood attempting to rehab. While residents and businesses in Coconut Grove are used to Miami running roughshod over their interests, Trolleygate might just be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 

This will be the first in what will no doubt be a continuing series as I peel back the layers of the onion of Trolleygate. To understand this scandal first one needs to understand some of the players:

• Coral Gables, a fully incorporated town [which calls itself a city] of about 47,000 people which abuts Miami on the western edge of Coconut Grove. Coral Gables has been called the "first planned community" in Florida, but that designation has also been disputed. Whether it was the first, or not, is immaterial to the reason for its creation. More about that later.

• Miami City Council. Control for everything that has ever happened in Coconut Grove has resided with Miami City Council since annexation in 1925.

Coconut Grove Village Council. The Coconut Grove Village Council has no power whatsoever to do anything anywhere, except to pass along recommendations to the City of Miami, which then appears to promptly ignore them.

Ironically at one time there was a real Coral Gables Trolley.
This pic is of the Colonnade Building and Coral Gables
Trolley, mid 1920′s. State of Florida Archives.
• The Coral Gables "Trolley." The word "trolly" is a misnomer. A trolly is defined as:
1. a trolley car. 2. a pulley or truck traveling on an overhead track and serving to support and move a suspended object. 3. a grooved metallic wheel or pulley carried on the end of a pole (trolley pole)  by an electric car or locomotive, and held in contact with an overhead conductor, usually a suspended wire (trolley wire)  from which it collects the current for the propulsion of the car or locomotive. 4. any of various devices for collecting current for such a purpose, as a pantograph, or a bowlike structure (bow trolley)  sliding along an overhead wire, or a device (underground trolley) for taking current from the underground wire or conductor used by some electric railways. 5. a small truck or car operated on a track, as in a mine or factory.
Nowhere in that definition is there room for a bus with rubber tires and a diesel-powered internal combustion engine freely running on roads, not rails. That's what the Coral Gables "Trolley" really is. Forget the word "trolley." This is Trolleygate.

Marc D. Sarnoff is a Coconut Grove resident, the City of Miami Commissioner for District 2, Vice-Chairman of the City of Miami Commission (which sounds so much fancier than city council) and uncrowned (and never publicly declared) Emperor of Coconut Grove. It has been said that Marc D. Sarnoff never met a developer he didn't like (to side with and support above the wishes of the local community).

• Always last and always least: The West Grove, aka Black Coconut Grove. As much as Coconut Grove is used to being ignored by Miami City Hall -- which ironically is in Coconut Grove -- Black Coconut Grove is used to being ignored by everybody.
The long-abandoned Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Pic by author.
Black Coconut Grove owes its continued existence due to the foresight of E.W.F. Stirrup [a story told elsewhere on this blog at length, so I won't go into it here]. It was his vision that gave Coconut Grove the highest Black home ownership in the country. That high percentage of Black home ownership is what prevented the city from razing the entire neighbourhood in the 1950s because unlike all the surrounding residential areas, it didn't have internal plumbing or sewer connections. Way back in 1919, in the wake of the "Bright Plan," the Charles Avenue neighbourhood was almost lost as well. The entire area was to be turned into a golf course. Several factors -- the depression, annexation, hurricanes and the high degree of Black home ownership -- put a stop to all that. However, the Bright Plan was based on a Mediterranean-style of architecture. Before the Bright Plan had been abandoned, it brought forth the Coconut Grove Theater (later Coconut Grove Playhouse, which is a whole 'nother scandal in itself), which is why the theater is in the Mediterranean-style. [Incidentally, E.W.F. Stirrup sold the land on which the Coconut Grove Theater was built.] However, all that to explain why there has always been a Black community in Coconut Grove strong enough to resist most efforts at urban renewal.

The Mediterranean-style of architecture also appears to have influenced George Merrick, who developed Coral Gables. The prevailing architectural style in Coral Gables is Mediterranean. In what appears to be an early example of White Flight, there is strong anecdotal evidence that the founding of Coral Gables was -- in and of itself -- a racial statement against Coconut Grove's Black community. The Bahamians, and other Blacks, were fully entrenched and could not be dislodged because of the high percentage of Black home ownership. Hence one could build a Coral Gables. This has been very difficult to confirm because this is not the kind of thing that is recorded in history books.

A man who has lived on Charles Avenue for all of his 73 years told this reporter what it was like for the folks of West Grove who wandered into Coral Gables back in the old days. It wouldn't take long before you were stopped by police and asked for your "papers." These consisted of a letter from an employer: "George works as a handyman for our estate" or "Rose is our domestic and needs to come and go as is necessary." [Editor's note: invented letters.]

Redlining and racism kept Blacks out of Coral Gables ever since. To this day Coral Gables is overwhelmingly White. Coral Gables own website cites the most recent demographics almost as if they are proud of it: White population: 90.76%; Black population: 2.86%. That doesn't happen by accident. It looks even worse when compared to Miami's population with 18.67% Black and 74.05% White residents.

Artists rendering of the diesel bus garage currently
under construction in the West Grove. Do those shutters
and that landscaping make the bus fumes go away?
What is Trolleygate?

Here's where it gets tricky for a journalist. Recently this writer joined a few gentlemen for what I thought would be chit chat about music, which it had been the last time we were together. The mistake I made was telling these people that I wasn't there as a journalist, so it was all off the record. I actually used those words. Who knew that it would turn into a meeting about Trolleygate? That's where I first heard the word. Consequently, much of what I learned is off the record. However, that doesn't mean I can't bring you up to speed:

One recent day the residents of the West Grove woke up to find construction beginning on a diesel bus garage at Douglas and Frow in the West Grove. It turns out that Astor Development acquired the land adjacent to the current Coral Gables diesel bus garage. It made a deal with Coral Gables to knock down the garage, locating it elsewhere, and redevelop the entire site for high-end commercial and residential  properties, the last place you'd want a bus garage. Coral Gables loved the idea of new development. However, Coral Gables, oddly enough says it could find no suitable land anywhere in Coral Gables for the Coral Gables diesel bus garage. Through some kind of land deal [that still needs to be explored further] the land at Douglas and Frow -- in the City of Miami, no the city of Coral Gables -- was purchased and construction began before anyone knew what hit them.

The neighbourhood is pissed, to put it mildly.

Article continues below the pics . . .

The current diesel bus garage. Just put some shutters on it and add some landscaping and you're golden.

A diesel bus pretending to be a "trolley" in a real bus garage.
Current state of the new bus garage. Residents say it appears work has accelerated along with the public outcry.
It appears as if the developer is hoping this diesel bus garage is so far gone it will be a fait accompli. Some residents appear to be willing to settle for a bus stop, at the very least. Others want it torn down, as it will change the entire character of the neighbourhood and does not conform with any of Miami's zoning by-laws.
Marc D. Sarnoff made some kind of deal with somebody because nothing can happen in Coconut Grove without the imprimatur of Emperor Sarnoff the First. Sarnoff seems to have negotiated with Astor Development and Coral Gables about this project, but no one in West Grove recalls him bringing such a non-conforming building up for public consultation. The issue of building a diesel bus garage in the West Grove appears to have been passed at a Miami City Commissioner's meeting. However, one of my off-the-record sources, who has attended hundreds of redevelopment meetings in more than one city, says approval was faster than "a hot knife through butter." No one can remember something like this getting through Miami City Hall so quickly, without someone in the neighbourhood being aroused to public meetings. Which was probably the point to keeping it under everyone's radar.

Meanwhile, Black Coconut Grove gets stuck with all the negatives of a diesel bus garage from a neighbouring city. Furthermore, while it gets the increased traffic and pollution, the residents will not even get what is normally a benefit of a bus garage: a bus stop. Having a bus stop might allow Black Grove to get on the bus and ride to Merrick Park, or Miracle Mile, or any of those other swank places, including any multimillion dollar project by developers named Astor. It reminds me of how Robert Moses, who built the Long Island Expressway, purposely built all the underpasses too low to allow for buses. That's so the 'great unwashed' couldn't go to his beaches at Fire Island and Jones Beach.

There's not a single positive to the deal, unless Coral Gables is paying Miami taxes on the land, but no one is alleging that yet.

According to the Miami Herald, this has awoken a paper tiger:
The Coconut Grove Village Council on Thursday joined the chorus of opposition to a new trolley-bus fueling and maintenance garage now under construction on Douglas Road in the predominantly black West Grove.
Meanwhile, West Grove residents have lined up lawyers to fight the project, and a University of Miami law professor is asking federal authorities to assist the residents with possible civil rights issues.
Message sent out by the paper tiger, which also said it only
learned about the bus garage from media reports. Grrr.
That's not a stretch. I viewed this as a Civil Rights issue the minute I heard about it due to my 4 years of research into Coconut Grove. And, I'm not the only one: the University of Miami's Center for Ethics and Public Service agrees with me and issued a press release:
Professor Anthony V. Alfieri, Dean's Distinguished Scholar, Director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service, and Founder of the Historic Black Church Program, has taken up the call with residents of West Grove to try to halt the construction of large trolley garage adjoining a single-family home residential neighborhood. Professor Alfieri, with Zachary Lipshultz, a Post-Graduate Fellow with the Environmental Justice Project, and Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a Professor of Pediatrics and the George E. Batchelor Pediatric Cardiology Endowed Chair at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, have been providing those opposing the construction with valuable legal advice and raising awareness through meetings and rallies.

In their most recent salvo in an opinion piece for The Miami Herald, they point out the public health concern caused by exposure to diesel fumes from having a 12-bay garage housing the current fleet of six Coral Gables trolley cars located in a residential neighborhood and the seeming injustice of moving the garage from its present location in an industrial area in Coral Gables into a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood in the City of Miami.

They write: "The recent protests of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables homeowners in opposition to the City of Miami's decision to approve construction of a new Coral Gables Trolley garage in the West Grove raise important public health and environmental justice concerns. For the West Grove, a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, the protests arise against the historical backdrop of decades-long racial discrimination, municipal neglect, and Jim Crow segregation. Indeed, during the 1960s, the City of Miami operated a noxious incinerator "Old Smokey" in the West Grove closely abutting homes and schools. Now, years after Florida courts ordered the incinerator shut down as a public nuisance, the City of Miami again seeks to impose the social costs of polluting facilities on the West Grove without any concern for the public health of the community."
Coincidentally, today's Melissa Harris-Perry Show was making the same point. Not about Coral Gables' dirty buses, but in her words, "the ugly, but real link between environmental and racial justice" and what we dump "we don't dump in our backyard we dump in somebody else's backyard [...] and those are pretty predictably disempowered communities." It's as if she was talking about Trollygate. Watch:

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Public outcry has been such that a there is now a Stop construction of Coral Gables Trolley Garage in historic Coconut Grove petition at Change.org, which begins:
This depot will disrupt our neighborhood, lower property values, bring an industrial project into a residential area, pose a danger to our children, violate zoning codes, and undermine the healthy and prosperous development of our community.
Marc D. Sarnoff appears to be running scared. He knows he awoke a sleeping Black giant. He will never escape the accusations of Racism, but he is certainly going to try at the EMERGENCY TOWN HALL he's called for Thursday at Miami City Hall at 5:30 P.M.

There is far more to Trolleygate than I can mention here until I get people to go on the record. However, in a last bit of synchronicity for the day: the very White city of Coral Gables is currently advertising for a Trolley [sic] Manager. I presume that Blacks are allowed to apply.