The Bicycle Shop The Latest In The Cultural Plunder of Coconut Grove

The Coconut Grove Playhouse before the hoarding was fixed

Recent news trickling out of Miami-Dade County has exposed more backroom machinations concerning the Coconut Grove Playhouse and — appearing for the very first time in any of the negotiations — The Bicycle Shop. 

Before getting too deeply into the weeds, this news proves that once again the ultimate stakeholders — the citizens of Coconut Grove and taxpayers of Miami — were played for dupes. All decisions concerning the Playhouse’s future have already been set in stone, without any public input whatsoever. Furthermore, not all those decisions have been made public yet, such as the ultimate design. 

There was a time I was ambivalent about the Coconut Grove Playhouse. I vaguely understood it to be mired in scandal and controversy. However, my cursory research showed that it was one of those things that served White Coconut Grove and I was researching the unique history of Black Coconut Grove. I was already committed to saving the historic, 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House; I didn’t have time for another Coconut Grove boondoggle.

My Trolleygate series proved why I need to follow all anonymous tips to see where they ultimately lead. It’s all interconnected in ways I could never have imagined when I started this research 5 years ago. The Stirrup House is catercorner to the rear of the Playhouse, just across the
street from the Charles Avenue historical marker. Oddly enough it’s been empty and undergoing Demolition by Neglect just about as long as the Playhouse has been shuttered. However, proximity and similar fates were not all that connected the two properties. I have since found two important links between Ebeneezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup and the Coconut Grove Playhouse that finally placed it on my radar screen.

The Charles Avenue historical marker with the E.W.F. Stirrup House

The first goes all the way back to the 1920s and, to understand it, a small history lesson is in order. At that time E.W.F. Stirrup was one of the unlikeliest Movers and Shakers of a nascent Coconut Grove tourist industry. Ebeneezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup was a Black man who, through hard work and a good business sense, became one of the Grove’s largest landowners and one of Florida’s first Black millionaires. His own house on Charles Avenue, which looked out over his holdings, was a 2-story showpiece, in a 1 story Conch house neighbourhood.

Together, with the other Movers & Shakers of the Grove, Stirrup must have anticipated reaping a financial windfall when, in the early 1920s, they commissioned The Bright Plan, the first urban renewal plan ever devised for Coconut Grove. Had the Bright Plan been implemented, Coconut Grove would have become the jewel of South Florida. A long boulevard with fountains down the middle would have led to an ornately appointed Coconut Grove City Hall, located approximately where Cocowalk is nowadays. All the designs of the buildings and fountains were based on a Mediterranean style. The Charles, Franklin, and Williams Avenue corridor would have become a golf course and the neighbourhood now known as West Grove would have been lost.

On the planning maps “Coloredtown,” would have been pushed to “the other side of the tracks,” just like in every other city in ‘Merka. That it didn’t happen is one of the things that makes Coconut Grove unique in this country. While Coconut Grove had its own Colour Line circling the traditional Black neighbourhood, it did not include railroad tracks.

However, it was not to be. Before the Bright Plan could be implemented, the Florida land boom went bust. By 1925 the words “Florida real estate” had became a national joke, so much so that George S. Kaufman’s Broadway musical-comedy The Cocoanuts revolved around swampland, tourism, and Irving Berlin tunes. Starring the Marx Brothers, it was set in Cocoanut Grove [note the “a,” the original spelling before amalgamation] and was a huge hit. The 1929 movie of the same name, with the same Marx Brothers, further cemented the town’s reputation.

A page from The Bright Plan shows the grand boulevard from Biscayne
Bay to a Coconut Grove City Hall. The odd shape in the upper-left is
where Coloredtown would have moved had this plan been implemented.

After the Bright Plan fell apart (younger) Miami annexed (older) Coconut Grove, including all of West Grove, or Coloredtown, or Black Grove, or Kebo, the African name given by the original Bahamian residents.

And, that almost didn’t happen either. Some White folk — among them some of those same Movers and Shakers that didn’t get rewarded financially when the Bright Plan died — lobbied against including West Grove in the boundaries of the new Miami.

It was fairly common in this country, as towns expanded and new areas
annexed, to exclude any of the small Black enclaves that had developed here and
there. The mere presence of Black folk could depress property values (and still does, for that matter). Whenever possible annexation occurred around these small Black enclaves until they were eventually swallowed up by the city.

That’s because — no matter where you go and no matter the era — the Movers and Shakers are, essentially, the monied and propertied of a given area. What Movers and Shakers generally want is to acquire more money and property, in order to become bigger Movers and Shakers. The Coconut Grove Movers and Shakers were no different. It was thought not having a Black area would make the new Miami more attractive for development, rewarding those who held property in Coconut Grove.

When Miami decided to annex West Grove along with the rest of Coconut Grove, a smaller group of those Movers and Shakers were already building their own lily White city of Coral Gables, just next door to Coconut Grove. The ugly historical fact is that the creation of Coral Gables was White Flight; a reaction to the Kebo neighbourhood of Bahamians, who could not be dislodged because the land was Black-owned, all due to the hard work of E.W.F.
Stirrup.

A White city could more easily control the movements of Black folk and their presence in Coral Gables was severely restricted. Right into the ’70s (according to anecdotal reports from a 73-year old who has lived in the same house on Charles Avenue his entire life), one needed ‘papers’ to be Black in Coral Gables. This usually amounted to a letter from your employer. However, if you couldn’t produce one, you’d be arrested for vagrancy and everyone in West Grove knew it.

To this day Coral Gables is 98% White. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Statue of George Merrick,
founder of Coral Gables,
outside Coral Gables
City Hall

Related reading:

No Skin In The Game is a
series looking into some of
the disparities between
Coconut Grove and Coral
Gables, Florida

Part One looks at a protest
against Trolleygate aimed
by the citizens of Coconut
Grove to land at a debate
for mayor of Coral Gables
in order to bring awareness
to the controversy.

Part Two is a continuation
of the evening in which our
intrepid reporter daydreams
about the founding of
Coral Gables.

Part Three is all about the
exception that proves the
rule; how Coral Gables
allowed a Black conclave
within its boundaries to
house its service workers.

Which brings us to the Coconut Grove Playhouse. 

In the mid-’20s, while George Merrick was building his lily White Coral Gables and Miami was annexing Black and White Coconut Grove, one item from the Bright Plan finally got built. E.W.F. Stirrup sold a large parcel of land on the northeast corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue on which a developer could build the Coconut Grove Theater, now the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in the same Mediterranean style dictated in the Bright Plan.

There’s one other thing that links the E.W.F. Stirrup House to the Playhouse and that’s Gino Falsetto. Falsetto is the rapacious developer who arrived in the hot Florida real estate market after walking away from a string of bankrupt restaurants in the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, area.

It’s an open question whether Falsetto became a Miami Real Estate Mover and Shaker on the backs of the Canadian taxpayers, his vendors, and the employees from his restaurants. All lost money — estimated to be more than $1,000,000 all told — when the Canadian government seized the physical assets of the eateries. Falsetto walked away, allowing the companies to go bankrupt. How much money did Falsetto pocket? The answer to that may never be known. What is known is that bankruptcy appears to be a tactic of Falsetto’s, which has served him well so far, as you will see.

Seemingly from Falsetto’s first arrival in the over-heated Miami real estate market, his various companies have been tangled up in one lawsuit after another. However, for unexplained reasons, he seems to keep falling up. Eventually he (Aries Development) acquired property at Main Highway and Franklin Avenue, large enough to propose building the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums. During the permitting process there were three major objections from neighbourhood groups, all of which Aries promised to satisfy:

► The rich White folk on the east side of Main Highway — in Camp Biscayne, one of the oldest gated communities in south Florida — didn’t want to lose their spectacular sunsets for which they paid several million dollars for. They wanted the height of the condo building scalled back. Done. The multi-use condo complex was limited to 5 stories and stepped back as it rose, so it didn’t present a huge facade to Main Highway;

► The White drinkers at the venerable Taurus Bar were upset that they might lose their drinking hole, one of the only bars in Coconut Grove with free parking. TO BE FAIR: The Taurus dates back to AT LEAST 1906, when it was a tea room. Regardless, the developer heard the protests. Done! The Taurus is still there (although a possibly non-conforming awning was being built when this reporter visited on December 17th);

The lay of the land:

Gino Falsetto has sewn up a number of properties along Main Highway and Charles
Avenue. Now, to release his claim to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, he is being
given ownership of the Bicycle Shop, with valuable frontage on Main Highway

► The Black residents of West Grove were concerned that the development would threaten the 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House.

In order to obtain its building permit Aries made certain promises and representations to preserve and restore the E.W.F. Stirrup House, either as a community museum and resource center, or a Bed and Breakfast. Anecdotal memories differ and, sadly, no one seems to be able to produce the actual meeting minutes in which the condo project was approved.

No matter what the promise MAY have been, it has been broken. Since getting his grubby little hands on it almost 9 years ago, Gino Falsetto has neglected the Stirrup House, except for some [allegedly] illegal interior demolition and destruction. This precious community resource, believed to be the 2nd oldest house in Miami, has been allowed to undergo Demolition by Neglect. Aries Development has proven to be a terrible steward of this historic 120-year old house, like no other in the neighbourhood.

IT GETS WORSE: In the same deal in which Falsetto acquired the lease on the Stirrup House, he also scooped up two double-size lots on the north side of Charles, across from the Stirrup House. However, there appears to be some subsequent irregularity — some say illegality — with those two properties.

Falsetto traded two units within the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums — the monstrosity he built behind the Stirrup House — for outright ownership of the two lots assessed at $87,615 and the 50-year lease on the Stirrup House. Heinz Dinter tells the next part of the story:

Gino Falsetto finds himself a real estate appraiser who dares to value the two lots heavy with weed and grass at $1,000,000. With the appraisal in hand Falsetto finds a daring banker who loans Gino Falsetto $700,000 — all so legal in accordance to the 70% loan to equity ratio. What a coup!

That’s not the end of the dramatic plot. Gino Falsetto defaults on the loan, the bank forecloses with a $720,546.28 judgment in hand and none other than Pierre Heafey’s Heagrand Inc buys the land in the foreclosure sale for $200,100. [Editors note: Pierre Heafey and Gino Falsetto are partners in other companies.]

The curtain rises on the last act. Falsetto forms a new company, 3227 Charles LLC, and that new company buys the two lots from Heafey for $215,800.

The bottom line must be called a stunning performance: Gino Falsetto gives up two condominiums worth $419,050 and in return is the sole owner of two vacant lots assessed at $87,615, but possibly worth many times more depending on the neighborhood’s future, and some half a million dollars in cold cash in his pockets compliments of the American taxpayer (the bank loan was insured by FANNIE MAE).

The Bicycle Shop is the latest, and possibly last, piece in the Coconut Grove
Playhouse puzzle. In the latest deal — struck in the backrooms between the big
boys — Gino Falsetto’s Aries Development gets ownership of this property (and
a nominal $15,000) to relinquish all claims to the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Got that? Foreclosure auctions are supposed to be at arm’s length. How is it that a company owned by Gino Falsetto managed to get its hands back on the same property after a company owned by Gino Falsetto defaulted on the original loan?

I’m not a lawyer, but that can’t be legal.

During the same period that Falsetto was scooping up valuable and culturally important Coconut Grove real estate through dubious means, he (through Aries) also loaned the defunct board of the defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse some defunct money. Holding a financial lien on the Playhouse, Aries has scuttled deal after deal for those who were trying to renovate and reopen the Playhouse. That is, until recently.

Which brings us full circle: When the news leaked that there may FINALLY be a deal to renovate the Playhouse, people were stunnded to discover it involved giving the Bicycle Shop to Aries Development. This small building at the northeast end of the Playhouse parking lot — which really was a bicycle shop a long time ago — and the nominal amount of $15,000 will be given to Aries Development to satisfy all claim on the Playhouse.

Currently the alley immediately to the north of of the Bicycle Shop [at right above] is the end of the demilitarized zone in Coconut Grove. Casual pedestrians tend not to walk any further south, unless they are walking on the OTHER side of Main Highway. The newly opened restaurant Acropolis, on the other side of that alley, is as far south as people tend to walk. Those who arrive at the restaurants on the ground floor of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums — just a block south — tend to arrive by car.

The Bicycle Shop is piece of Main Highway frontage that will be a goldmine once the Playhouse reopens. It will have a Playhouse on one side, restaurants on the other, with The Barnacle Historic State Park and some of the most expensive houses in all of Florida in heavily gated communities right across the street.

It’s an insult to the memory of E.W.F. Stirrup that Gino Falsetto and Aries Development will be rewarded for their avariciousness and Demolition by Neglect of the E.W.F Stirrup House. 

Before Miami-Dade gives away a piece of property worth potentially millions of dollars over the long run, why doesn’t the county see to it that Aries fulfill the promises it has already made to the people of Coconut Grove and taxpayers of Miami?


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.