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Sunday, March 24, 2013

No Skin In The Game; Part Two

A panorama of the Coconut Grove Village Council.
As we ended our last exciting episode (Part One of No Skin in the Game), I was leaving the Trolleygate protest in Coral Gables -- just as the protest signs were arriving. I was running to cover the Coconut Grove Village Council meeting, at which Trolleygate would be an agenda item. In hindsight I made the wrong choice.

During the drive I tried to place what I had seen into a context that I understood. That's when I decided to call this blog post No Skin In The Game. Nothing better explains the understandable apathy on the part of Coral Gables about Coconut Grove's problems. Coral Gables is 98% White and both literally and figuratively has no skin in the game.


It may only be 3.5 miles from Coral Cables Congregational Church to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, but it might as well be several galaxies away. The neighbourhood changes 3 separate times. From the conspicuous opulence of Coral Gables; through the blighted area of West Coconut Grove; past the non-conforming, polluting, Trolleygate diesel bus garage on Douglas; east along across Grand Avenue; where another imaginary line separates West Grove from White Grove, the exact spot where property values pick up again. It's visually obvious without using Zillow.

The only clue there was once a place called
Paradise Valley, aka Black Bottom, is this sign.
In other words: Coconut Grove, considered one of the most exclusive Zip Codes (33133) in the entire country, has had an historic Black enclave, surrounded on all sides by White folk, for the last 140 years. This area has been marginalized by racism over the years, the same racism that affected your part of the country during the same period. It has been allowed to become blighted, the same way that Black areas in your part of the country have been allowed to fester during the same period. It has been encroached upon by The Powers That Be -- Trolleygate is just the latest, most nakedly obvious example.

TO BE FAIR: Coconut Grove was not encroached upon by The Powers That Be like Overtown, where I-95 was jammed through the middle of the neighbourhood, cutting one side off from another. Nor was it was encroached upon by The Powers That Be like my hometown of Detroit, where only a sign remains of a once vibrant Black residential, retail, commercial, and entertainment district. The people of Overtown and Paradise Valley were mostly tenants with absentee landlords. They had no skin in the game.

Black Coconut Grove always had some skin in the game. This is entirely due to E.W.F. Stirrup. Mr. Stirrup was Black. Had he been White his house would have been restored by now; like The Barnacle, Commodore Munroe's estate just a block away. It is now a State Park. However, Mr. Stirrup is also the reason West Grove still exists. There have been a few attempts to tear down the entire neighbourhood over the years. All have floundered due to the high percentage of Black home ownership -- the highest in the nation. That is directly attributable to E.W.F. Stirrup, who thought that home ownership was important for growing Black families. All the more amazing because it came during a period of racial discrimination. The Powers That Be could only screw with West Grove around the edges. Black Grove had too much skin in the game.

During the 4 years I have been researching Charles Avenue I have been asked many times by White residents of Coconut Grove why I even care about Black Coconut Grove. Some are just curious. Some can't believe that anyone would care about those people. One person used the expression "no skin in the game" and knew it was a clever racial pun. It echoed through my head ever since, but this drive from Coral Gables to West Grove to White Grove put it into context. It all depends on what skin you have in the game, and what the game is.


Taking questions about treeremediation along SW 27th. Yawn.
That's the state of mind I arrived in, late for The Coconut Grove Village Council meeting, which was already in progress. I slipped into the back row of a sparsely attended meeting. More apathy on display. No one seems to have any skin in the game.

There were almost as many people on the executive council as observers in the room. The residents were getting an update from the City of Miami on the redesign of SW 27th Avenue, including its new, radical, peanut-shaped traffic calming circle at Tigertail Avenue. There were questions from the councilors about how traffic circles work (Really?) and questions from the residents about tree remediation. Yawn.

The MEGO factor [My Eyes Glaze Over] kicked in almost immediately. The only topic I care about is Trolleygate. Besides, I already knew the Coconut Grove Village Council was a paper tiger. This presentation was merely a courtesy from the City of Miami to keep Coconut Grove in the loop, the exact opposite to what happened when Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff quietly slipped a polluting diesel bus garage into West Grove. He said he purposely didn't inform the Village Council because it just slows things down.

Panorama of SW 27th Avenue presentation.
By the time a project has reached this "presentation stage," the fix is already in. People can jump and shout all they want. The Village Council can vote unanimously against a project. But . . . but . . . but . . . the Village Council only has an advisory roll and the City of Miami, more likely as not, is going to ignore what the residents of Coconut Grove want and do what Emperor Marc D. Sarnoff wants.

That's why I tuned out and started writing a children's parable instead.

George Merrick, founder of Coral Gables, in front of Coral
Gables City Hall, just like Coconut Grove never had.
Okay . . . okay, kiddies, sit down right here and I'll tell you a little story about the founding of a town called Coral Gables. It's not the kind of story you can find in the history books. Believe me, because I've tried since the first time I heard it about 3 years ago. I promise to keep trying, but this ain't the kind of thing that gets written down.

However, kiddies, I have now heard pieces of this oral history more than once, from more than one source, which lends it some credence. Call this the Alternative History of Coral Gables and stop fidgeting, Tom.


FADE TO BLACK - FADE UP


Once upon a time there was a sleepy little village called Cocoanut Grove, with what appears to be an extraneous "A". Cocoanut Grove had a small tourist trade in the Peacock Inn. Commodore Monroe built his house nearby and, immediately south, created Camp Biscayne, a rustic camp that attracted incredibly wealthy people, who wanted to camp and boat and fish and pretend for a week, or so, that they were living in earlier, halcyon times. Camp Biscayne was so exclusive that one can find its guests lists in online searches. So exclusive were all these nascent tourist attractions, they needed Black folk to do the hard work. Consequently, right beside this tourist trade grew a Black enclave, of mostly Bahamians. E.W.F. Stirrup (documented on many different pages on my blog), through hard work and industriousness, wound up becoming the largest landholder in Cocoanut Grove and one of Florida's first Black millionaires.

In the early '20s the movers and shakers of Cocoanut Grove saw dollar signs in developing Cocoanut Grove. To that end they hired some architects who put together what became known as the Bright Plan. It was elaborate, like every real estate development reaching for the brass ring. A Cocoanut Grove City Hall was envisioned for where Cocowalk now sits. It would have been magical, children. Imagine: Cocoanut Grove City Hall would have been at the end of a long boulevard with fountains down the middle, all based upon a Mediterranean design. City Hall would have been a short walking distance to the golf course, which would have been located along the streets both north and south of Charles Avenue, stretching all the way to Douglas. In fact, that would have included a fair chunk of what would later become known as Black Grove.

The bottom fell out of the swampland market soon after the Bright Plan was put on paper. It's all depicted as laughs by the Marx Brothers movie "The Cocoanuts," which takes place in Cocoanut Grove. But for some it probably wasn't all laughs. Some people would have lost money.

It's interesting to speculate, no pun intended, how much E.W.F. Stirrup might have profited had the Bright Plan gone ahead and how much he may have lost when it stalled. He still died a wealthy man, mind you, and did it in a time when Jim Crow laws and discrimination made the achievement all the more incredible. The Bright Plan was never implemented, except for one building: 200 feet from Mr. Stirrup's front door is the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Had the Bright Plan ever come to fruition, it would have been a game-changer for Cocoanut Grove.

However, this fable is about how Coral Gables, called one of the country's first planned communities, was created. I'm still getting to that. If Tom doesn't keep interrupting, I could get back to our story, kiddies.

Everyone should read this book. ~H.W.
A few years after the Bright Plan died, Miami started sniffing around to annex Cocoanut Grove. Some of the same boosters from earlier saw benefit in being swallowed up by Miami. Some did not. This is often as it always is. According to this alternative oral history one faction of boosters suggested annexation of everything BUT Black Coconut Grove. This thinking, especially in 1925, was not unusual at all. Across the country one can find many instances where communities purposely did not annex the Black areas at the same time the White areas were annexed. The infamous 8 Mile Wall in Detroit is a physical example of this at work. The book "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism" by James W. Loewen was instructive in helping me understand how annexation often left out Black neighbourhoods as communities grew and why all 'Merkin cities look the way they do. But, I digress again.

For whatever reasons The Powers That Be in Miami ignored the racially inspired boundary proposal. Miami wanted it all, so Miami took it all, annexing everything to the bottom of Cocoanut Grove, including the odd little Black enclave in the middle of it. In our alternative history, that's when Coral Gables became a viable idea in the minds of some people. There were enough . . . okay, I'll keep calling them boosters for the purposes of this story . . .  BOOSTERS who didn't want to live near those people in Coconut Grove. What better way than to start your own town from scratch? You can keep out anyone you want. To this day Coral Gables proudly proclaims on its web site it is 98% White. That doesn't happen by accident.

When Coral Gables incorporated as its own town -- one of the first planned communities in the country -- it claimed all the land surrounding Coconut Grove, ensuring that the Grove, and Miami, could not grow beyond its borders.

Was George Merrick racist? Not a single
one of my sources mentioned him
specifically, or anyone else..
However, and here's the ultimate irony: Just like elsewhere in the country, the people of Coral Gables didn't do their own hard work. Are you kidding? They could hire people to do that, as long as they went home at night. [See: Sundown Towns] The Biltmore (described in Part One of No Skin in the Game) f'rinstance had a large Black staff as did all those mansions in Coral Gables.

One of my sources for these oral fables is a 73 year old gentleman who has lived in the same house on Charles Avenue his entire life. He tells me of a time when Black folk wandering around Coral Gables would be stopped and asked for their "papers." Papers consisted of a letter from your employer: "Mrs. Jones is our housekeeper/nanny/cook" or "Jim Smith is our handyman/chauffeur/gardener." If you could not produce your papers you would be arrested for vagrancy.


JUMP CUT TO PRESENT


The Trolleygate item suddenly comes up on the Coconut Grove Village Council agenda. I put my phone on record and drop it in front of Pat Sessions, who drones on for a while. It only takes a minute to realize that he knows less than I reported a few weeks ago about where the case stood. It's a good he said nothing new because I have now learned that my fancy phone shuts itself off after a few minutes and doesn't save the recording when it does. Clearly I need a new app, but I digress.

However, Sessions did say that Astor Trolley LLC (a limited company created to spare Astor Development LLC from any adverse consequences due to Marc D. Sarnoff's Trolly Folly) is now claiming the parcels of land Astor slapped together in blighted Coconut Grove are worth $3 million. It's just another way West Grove has been fucked with around the edges and another land grab by another developer. Everything I learn about the east end of Charles Avenue makes me see another massive land grab by another developer. But I digress and that truly is another story for another day. Let's get back to our happy little story of the founding of Coral Gables.

These stone streetsigns are on every corner in Coral Gables.
The White stones are for loading and unloading.

SLOW FADE BACK TO BLACKS JAILED FOR VAGRANCY - FADE UP NARRATION


Picking right up where we were in our little morality tale, boys and girls. It's hard not to see Coral Gables as one of 'Merka's first redlined communities. It's the town that racism built. It never had any skin in the game because it could keep out any skin that didn't conform.

Another source told this author about Coral Gables (paraphrasing): "Growing up, you see those White stones, you know you was going in White areas. Parents and friends would warn you stay on this side of the White stones."

Coral Gables was a reaction to Coconut Grove in every way. Coconut Grove had a Black enclave that could not be shaken loose. It could not be shaken loose because of E.W.F. Stirrup and his legacy. Stirrup created a community unique to this country because it had the highest percentage of Black home ownership in the country.

So, you see kiddies, you can't really tell the story of Coconut Grove without also telling the racist history of Coral Gables, the town next door. Coral Gables never had any skin in the game.


FULL FADE BACK TO PRESENT - COCONUT GROVE VILLAGE COUNCIL MEETING


Sessions doesn't think there's anyone who thinks the Coral Gables Trolleygate diesel bus garage will ever open as a bus garage. This echos the sentiment of Edward Harris, from Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez's quoted in Part One of this story. However, as the CGVC goes on to other topics of less interest to me than tree remediation, I reread an email from one of my sources who claims there is a massive land grab going on at the eastern end of Charles Avenue, which includes the E.W.F. Stirrup House. My source tells me it will be turned into a mixed use condo/retail/theater/parking/entertainment extravaganza that will put Cocowalk and Commodore Plaza (combined) to shame. How many people on the Coconut Grove Village Council are aware of what's happening right in front of their noses. Maybe it's no skin off their nose, to mix skin metaphors. Maybe they have no skin in the game.

Who has skin in the game and which game do they have skin in? Because there's a lot of money being made by some people at the expense of others in Coconut Grove.



IRONY ALERT: I literally -- and figuratively -- have no skin in the game. I'm not a Miami resident. I'm not speculating on land in Coconut Grove. I'm not Black. I have merely identified an injustice and want to right it. For all these reasons, and because I listen to both the residents of West Grove and White Grove, I am trusted with confidential information and off the record conversations. Having no skin in the game can be a benefit as well.

Feel free to feed me any info. I know how to keep my sources private. And, thanks to everyone who read Part One and Part Two all the way to the bottom. You're my kind of reader.