Unpacking Coconut Grove, Florida ► Part One

The marker that started my quest. Click to enlarge.

After a short hiatus, here’s a fair warning for those who got tired of hearing me spout off about Charles Avenue and Coconut Grove: I got the bug all over again, so get used to hearing me spout off about Charles Avenue and Coconut Grove all over again.

At my old, former, moribund blog Aunty Em’s Place (now overgrown with spammers and ivy) I started a series called The Shame of Coconut Grove™, which I continued on facebook on my old, former, moribund Aunty Em Ericann account. Before Aunty Em was kicked off facebook, she (me!) had unpacked quite a bit of Coconut Grove, both its history and internal politics, all because of an accidental encounter with a historical marker (at left).

A must read book on race

People who have known me a long time know I gravitate towards stories about race relations, a life-long interest. Had I really taken up that Black Studies Program when I first considered it, I’m sure I would be Black by now. Coincidentally on the day I discovered the Charles Avenue historical marker, as part of my independent study reading list, I was in the middle of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” by James W. Loewen, which is the single greatest book on race relations I have ever read. It explained to me why every ‘Merkin city looks the way it does and why the overt racism of days gone by led to the covert racism of today. It also explained, for me, how White Privilege was woven into the fabric of life as generations experienced it so that, today, it covers us like a warm blanket that is so comfy we don’t even realize we’re wrapped in it. The events and attitudes described in Loewen’s book affect our lives every day, whether we stop to consider it or not.

There was just something about the Charles Street historical marker that spoke to me. The sign, the location, and the condition seemed to encapsulate the Black ‘Merkin Experience: a rich history not only ignored and forgotten, but mistreated in its memory. The panorama below shows the condition of the marker and the historic E.W.F. Stirrup House across the street. [More about the house and Mr. Stirrup in later chapters.]

Panorama of the historical marker and the E.W.F. Stirrup House across the street. Click to enlarge.

Detail of sign’s base. Click to enlarge.

The sign was leaning backwards at an uncomfortable angle. If not for the fence behind it, it might have fallen down completely. The base (see right) was broken. The first time I visited (early 2009) I just thought the pole was bent. I didn’t see the base due to the garbage bags piled up all around it. [I cannot seem to find the pics of my 1st visit, but have all the rest.] On my second visit, and subsequent visits, the garbage had changed, which meant that it was being used as a regular, accepted trash collection site. And, why not? The base had clearly been broken for quite a while to have sustained the damage I saw. The aluminum post, when new, had been filled with cement and steel rebar, which was in a dreadful state of disrepair having been exposed to the elements for…how long? I had no way to estimate, but it was clearly not recent. The sign had been sponsored by Eastern Airlines, a defunct company, in cooperation with The Historical Association of Southern Florida, an entity I could never find.

The location of the sign is no less significant. There’s no way to whitewash this: Coconut Grove, Florida (incorporated into Miami in 1925) is considered one of the most exclusive addresses in all of ‘Merka.


View Charles Avenue, Coconut Grove, Fl, 33133 in a larger map. Zoom out to see Coconut Grove in relation to Miami.

E.W.F. Stirrup House

Let’s get oriented: Coconut Grove is nestled up against the western edge of Biscayne Bay, where the 3,000 mile long intercoastal waterway trails off into nothingness. The E.W.F. Stirrup House (pictured at left), the Coconut Grove Playhouse (pictured below) and the Charles Avenue historic marker are on the eastern end of Charles Avenue at Main Highway,  On the opposite, eastern side of Main Highway is a residential area I have been unable to breach. It is one of the most exclusive areas in ‘Merka, so gated and secured even Google mapping cars aren’t allowed inside. I once walked to the gate and started taking pictures and within a minute was shooed away by a security guard that appeared out of nowhere. These fuckers are serious.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse taken from
the more exclusive side of Main Highway.

I became obsessed with the Charles Avenue historical marker and Coconut Grove, to the point where I decided it was the perfect place to locate my favourite character in my novel-in-progress. That gave me another reason to research Coconut Grove. Work took me through the area every couple of weeks. I would always stop and take as many pictures as I could stand before the oppressive Florida heat got to me. I now have thousands of pictures of Charles Avenue and enough research to think I have uncovered a years old scandal in the village of Coconut Grove that could become a non-fiction book all on its own.

However, two years ago my circumstances changed and I no longer had any reason to drive the 35 miles to
The Grove. When I was visiting it regularly, Aunty Em Ericann would come back and post dozens of pictures on facebook with a small essay describing the lack of changes on Charles Avenue from week to week. I became dejected. Aunty
Em
had spent a considerable amount of my time posting pictures, writing essays, and contacting community
activists. However, I couldn’t get any traction on my
Save the Charles Avenue Sign campaign. Worse, I couldn’t get anyone interested in what I (still) believe is a massive, multi-gajillion dollar real
estate scandal.

Since I couldn’t get anyone to listen, and I am no longer an investigative journalist with an editor to support and sponsor these expensive fishing expeditions into possible malfeasance, I gave up. However, I never forgot about Coconut Grove, especially since my novel character Adrian had moved there at the end of the ’60s, after Detroit had started to become toxic.

Lately Charles Avenue has been nagging at me. Because it’s 35 miles away —
all crazy Florida highway — I have been putting off making the trip for the past few weeks. I knew I would need a minimum of 3 hours to do it justice; get there, take some pictures, check on recent developments, and come home. It was difficult to work into my schedule and the longer I tried, the guiltier I felt for having abandoned Charles Avenue. Last week I finally bit the bullet, gassed up the tank, and made the harrowing highway adventure. I returned more despondent than ever about Charles Avenue. I came back even more pissed off at what is clearly The Shame of Coconut Grove™. However, it also made me more determined than ever to do something about it. What? I do not know. I am still processing and writing about the trip, which will be Part Two in this series. Part One is long enough already, but I felt this background was needed.

However, before I sign off, there was one bit of good news on Charles Avenue. Someone (or a group of someones) have taken it upon themselves to attempt to straighten the Charles Street historical marker. They have also planted a drought-resistant flowering bush next to it. It will look nice when it fills in.

The sign, while still not true, no longer leans against the fence. The new plant is staked in the ground to the right of it.

The late afternoon sun streams down Charles Avenue in this recent panorama.

However, this small sliver of hope doesn’t even begin to mitigate all the negative I saw. That’s why I have decided to take up the cause of Charles Avenue once again. I am going to make Charles Avenue the most famous street in ‘Merka, representing centuries of institutional racism. And, along the way, I just might expose a multi-gajillion dollar Coconut Grove boondoggle. Who’s along for the ride?

Stay tuned for Part Two of Unpacking Coconut Grove.


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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.