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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Coconut Grove in Black and White

Francisco J. Garcia of Miami's Department of Planning
and Zoning provided the answers to residents' questions
Community involvement was strong last night in Coconut Grove as more than 200 residents packed a meeting hall at Plymouth Church to vent and make plans. 

The homeowners of South Grove are up in arms and called this "Community Organizational Meeting," which was attended by Miami District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, Miami-Dade District 7 Commissioner Xavier Suarez, and Francisco J. Garcia, of Miami's Department of Planning and Zoning. Homeowners want to develop a strategy to put a stop to the division of large properties to build more homes; the demolition of old houses; the building of 'cookie-cutter' houses, derisively called White Boxes; and the continued destruction of the Grove's famous tree canopy.

Oddly enough, these are the exact same issues I've been quietly researching for the last several weeks, even before this story bubbled up to the surface. My interest began when a source suggested I attend a Planning and Zoning meeting about potential "up-zoning" of a certain property. Up-zoning is when a developer asks for more than is allowed by the Miami21 code and -- usually -- gets it. This piqued my curiosity. A few weeks later the same source took me around to show me the contemporary 'cookie-cutter' houses being built. These concrete White Boxes stick out like sore thumbs among the older homes that fit the neighbourhood.

Just some of the White Boxes being built all over Coconut Grove
However, all my research -- and all the houses we looked at -- was in West Grove, where the prevailing style of house are either one-story Shotgun Homes or Conch-style houses, both reflecting the neighbourhood's rich Bahamian history.

South Grove architecture, on the other hand, is distinctly different and all over the map, as it were. The houses there are more suburban in style, from the earliest one-story small cottages, to the more recent Monster Homes of the last few decades, and everything in between. Because this area was developed from the 1920s onward, the houses reflect nearly every kind of home architecture attempted since then. And, as people were told at last night's meeting, these White Boxes are what developers want to build because, they claim, it's what people want to buy.

This demolition on Charles Avenue has taken place
over the last 6 weeks. That is not a typo. This is how it
looked on April 27, 2016, the same day South Grove
residents complained about their precious tree canopy.
However, that's not the most glaring difference between West Grove and South Grove. In fact, as I've joked before, the difference is like Day and Night.

West Grove is the Black area of Coconut Grove. It can't be said any simpler than that. The area is blighted, and has been for decades, precisely because it's the Black area.


QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Unlike most Black neighbourhoods of its era, Coconut Grove is unique because the people owned their own homes. At one time Coconut Grove had the highest percentage of Black home ownership than anywhere else in the country. [Read: Happy Birthday Coconut Grove. Now Honour Your Past] This meant they couldn't be dislodged as they could in other U.S. cities where Black folk rented from absentee landlords. However, the same economic factors that kept Black neighbourhoods in poverty elsewhere also worked on West Grove: low wages, an inability to get home improvement loans, and systemic racism. However, the neighbourhood has remained predominately Black as folks passed their houses down to generation after generation, the way White people pass down the family jewels.
End of history lesson.


This is the same rooming house as above on April 2, 2016
Earlier in the day I met with a second anonymous source who has also been researching the White Boxes in West Grove. Oddly enough, before we went to look at them, they wanted to take me to see a house on Charles Avenue that I had already taken a number of pictures of.

This demolition has so far taken about 6 weeks. The site has never been secure, making it an attractive place to play for local kids. But the nails sticking out of the boards are the least of the problems. This house was filled with asbestos, from the roof shingles to the several layers of paint on the walls. The prevailing winds have scattered some of it to wherever prevailing winds blew for the last 6 weeks.

The woman who lives next door has asthma and was just getting sicker. She and her husband have gone to live with relatives up north, in Georgia. The rest of her neighbours will just keep breathing it in until something is done about it.

One kind of nondescript White Box being built in West Grove,
this one on William Avenue. That's actually the front of house.
People have complained to By-Law Enforcement about the unsafe demolition site and are still waiting for something to happen. There is, apparently, a promise for it to be cleaned up by the city in the morning. I sure hope they take into account the toxicity of some of the materials.


For more examples of these 'cookie cutter' homes go to The White Boxes.


Meanwhile, South Grove residents were told on Wednesday night if they see anything hinky happening in their neighbourhood -- from illegal tree-cutting to demolitions without a permit -- to call By-Law Enforcement. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that they respond a lot quicker than they have to this disaster on Charles Avenue in West Grove.

As South Grove meets with their elected representatives, West Grove is as ignored as ever. As South Grove begins the task of forming a Homeowners Association, West Grove is quietly gentrified without anyone noticing. When will West Grove get the same kind of attention from the City of Miami as South Grove?