Unpacking Coconut Grove & The Writer

The first pic I ever took of the Charles Avenue Historic Marker, 2009

As I mourn the destruction of the E.W.F. Stirrup House, I’ve been asked how I came to write about Coconut Grove since I live 35 miles away. Get comfy, kiddies for another chapter in the never-ending series Unpacking The Writer.

Let’s face it: I’m a carpetbagger.

In 2009 I was relatively new to Florida. Embedded in my online Performance Art character of Aunty Em Ericann, this happened at almost the same time I started writing for NewsHounds. Coincidentally, I was also 2 years into a research project on Sistrunk Boulevard — once the vibrant Black business district of the once vibrant Black neighbourhood in Fort Lauderdale.

I was researching Sistrunk because one of the characters in Farce Au Pain will eventually need to leave Detroit in a hurry. I decided to place him near Sistrunk. [See if you can guess who.] Researching Sistrunk meant I was already learning about Race Relations in South Florida. On the day I am about to describe I was also in the middle of reading Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen. It’s a book that explains why every city in this country looks the way it does. The history of Sistrunk is no different than any other Black enclave in the U.S. — except NYC and, as I was to eventually learn, Coconut Grove, which followed a different path than most cities. [NYC is usually the exception to any rule.]

Hollywood to Homestead

Other stories here about Coconut Grove:

Where the Sidewalk
Ends, Racism Begins:
Part IPart IIPart III

No Skin In The Game

Trolleygate

Soilgate

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t at the library reading the stacks about Sistrunk, and when Aunty Em wasn’t trolling Right Wing Nut Jobs, I was freelancing for a financial institution (that I won’t name). My job involved visiting properties in foreclosure, taking photographs of them, and uploading them to a restricted web site to prove they were still there. My territory was huge: Hollywood to Homestead, including Miami Beach.

It sounds crazy, but I was sent to the same properties every 3-4 weeks and nothing ever changed. About 1/3 of the time I also had to leave a letter. I got triple the fee for those. I always took a pic of me leaving the letter, so there was never a dispute. I even got paid for arriving at a gated community, being denied entry, and taking a pic of the guard who sent me away.

It all seemed like money wasted to me, but the financial institution was shoveling it in my direction. Who was I to say no to Bank Money? It was during the height of the foreclosure crisis and there was no end to the work. Each week I’d get paperwork on some 100-250 properties and I was expected to return pictures of them in 3-5 days.

As an aside: Imagine you needed to visit that many properties. You’d drive yourself bonkers if you tried to chart the most efficient route. Thanks to (the now discontinued) Microsoft Street and Trips. I could plug all the addresses into the laptop, hit OPTIMIZE, and — after the machine thought about it for a while — it would spit out the perfect route. If I put my address as the first and last, it would route me down one side of Southeast Florida and up the other.

Being new to South Florida, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Coconut Grove, Hialeah, Hollywood, Opa-Locka, Cutler Bay, or Miami Beach — or how to get there. Thank goodness Microsoft Streets and Trips also had a USB GPS thangie to hang on my windscreen.

A recent pic of 3678 William Avenue, the first
house I ever photographed in Coconut Grove.

One day I was down in Cutler Bay. My next stop was on William Avenue, in Miami (actually Coconut Grove, but I didn’t know that then). The GPS directed me to Main Highway and told me to head north.

I remember laughing at the time because it was not a highway. Nor did it seem very main. It was a narrow two lane road — one in either direction — which felt hemmed in on both sides by vegetation and the walls of gated communities. I later learned that this actually was once part of the main highway to get from Miami to the very bottom of the state, long before the overseas highway was built to Key West.

Once I was on Main Highway the GPS told to me to turn left onto Charles Avenue. As soon as I did I saw the Charles Avenue Historic Marker. It’s rare to see a marker this big on a residential street. Being a history buff I pulled over and read the marker.

Charles Avenue

The first black community on the South Florida mainland began here in the late 1880s when Blacks primarily from the Bahamas came via Key West to work at the Peacock Inn. Their first hand experience with tropical plants and building materials proved invaluable to the development of Coconut Grove. Besides private homes the early buildings included the Odd Fellows Hall, which served as a community center and library, Macedonia Baptist Church, home of the oldest black congregation in the area, and the A.M.E. Church, which housed the community’s first school. At the western end of Charles Avenue is one of the areas oldest cemeteries.

Looking from the front door of the house on William Avenue

Instinctively I could read between the lines of this sign:

“If it hadn’t been for the Black Bahamians, the White folk would have starved. This is where they lived, close to where they worked in the nascent White tourist industry.”

After reading the Charles Avenue Historic Marker, I turned to look at the E.W.F. Stirrup House for the first time. In a neighbourhood filled with one story shotgun shacks and little Conch-style houses, it was this gloriously large 2-story house, painted white with yellow trim, shining brightly in the South Florida sun. I was struck by 3 things: 1). It’s beauty; 2). How different it looked from the rest of the houses; and that it was empty.

I moved on to photograph the house on William Avenue. Then I was sent over to an address on SW 27th Avenue, which the GPS told me was exactly a mile away. I wasn’t prepared for how the neighbourhood changed from an obviously depressed area to ritzy. So ritzy, in fact, that the nondescript street address I was given was the Ritz-Carlton Residences tower, right next door to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel tower, in Coconut Grove.

I couldn’t get past the concierge to deliver the letter I had in my hand. And, I’m not even sure I could have passed the dress code besides. Because I had hundreds of properties to photograph, I took his picture and demanded to know his name for my report.

Looking into the back door of the house on William

However, I couldn’t get that yellow and white house on Charles Avenue out of my mind. As soon as I got home I jumped on Google Maps. The first surprise was that on the satellite view there were two houses on the north side of Charles Avenue, across the street from the Stirrup House. Those houses were no longer there. Why? That was the first mystery to solve. After that I was hooked.

I soon learned that the house that I found so attractive for its majestic simplicity (not a contradiction) was known as the E.W.F. Stirrup House. There was scant biographical information for Mr. Stirrup on the net, but I hoovered up what I could as fast as I could.

I also learned that the 33133 Zip Code is considered one of the most exclusive in the entire country. I had discovered a place of extreme contrasts, but my education on Coconut Grove was just beginning.

It’s probably fortunate for all involved that this financial institution sent me back to the address on William every few weeks to make sure it was still there. I’m not sure I would have driven down on my own had it not been for that. After a few visits, following a bunch of research on Charles Avenue, I was hooked
on the legacy of E.W.F. Stirrup, which seemed to have been forgotten.
His house was empty and undergoing the DEMOLITION BY NEGLECT that I’ve
documented in the 7 years since discovering it.

Furthermore, going back to the same address on William every month, or so, allowed me to follow the progression of this other property over the same 7 year period.

When I first started dropping off letters and taking pics of the house on William, it was still occupied. I’d leave my letter in the screen door. The next time I’d return it was gone and there were signs of recent occupation. However, eventually the last letter I had left was still the door, along with flyers and the other paper detritus that marks the beginning of an empty house. I left the new letter, in case someone was collecting the mail piling up in the mailbox, but reported the house as empty to the financial institution.

The back of the house on William. One of the reasons it
stood out was, like the E.W.F. Stirrup a few blocks away,
was one of the few 2-story houses in this area of West Grove.

One day I arrived to find a fire-engine red notice on the door condemning the property. Right around that time I stopped working for the financial institution because someone undercut my price. However, I continued to visit Coconut Grove for my own research on various stories in Coconut Grove.

SYNCHRONICITY ALERT: Recently I’ve been working with someone in West Grove to research a complicated story that requires driving around the neighbourhood. Recently they were ranting about a property on William Avenue that was possibly being used as a crack house, but certainly being used by the homeless.

It’s the house on William that introduced me to Coconut Grove!!!

The front door is gone. The back door is wide open. It’s filled with mold and mildew and the ceilings have fallen in. There’s a hole in the roof. Clothing and blankets are scattered through the front of the house and it’s clear that people have been sleeping there.

I told my source the story about how this very house led me to discover Coconut Grove.  They told me they’ve reported this house to the City of Miami and we should go look at it. That’s when I took the pics that accompany this article.


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My Freedom of Information requests from the City of Miami are beginning to add up, not to mention all the other costs of researching systemic racism and corruption in Coconut Grove  


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