A Century of Coconut Grove Racism ► Soilgate Is Trolleygate Writ Large
One of hundreds of thousands of Racist internet memes

Follow the bouncing ball: Trolleygate is modern day Racism, pure and simple. Furthermore, the Racism that allowed for Trolleygate is exactly the same Racism that thought West Grove was the perfect place for Old Smokey, an incinerator that belched carcinogenics into the air for 5 decades. Racism — which is a cancer on our body politic — may have led to actual cancer clusters in Coconut Grove. I’m here to prove that thesis. 

Let’s start here: It’s been a truism since the founding of ‘Merka that People of Colour have always gotten the short end of the stick. There is no disputing that. But that’s a thing of the past, according to modern day Racists, because we now have a Black president. We are now living in a post-racial society. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!! Right?

For an explanation on the pics used to illustrate this article, please read my essay Racist Memes and Blogging ► Unpacking the Writer

Not even close. While some Racism is less blatant than it has been in previous decades, one can find hundreds of thousands of Racist memes against President Obama, each more disgusting than the next. However, make no mistake: It’s still Racism. Racism doesn’t have degrees. Like being pregnant, a meme can’t be a little bit Racist. It’s either Racism, or it isn’t. The entire story of Coconut Grove depicts a Racism that continues to this very day, culminating in Trolleygate.

West Grove is a quiet residential neighbourhood that has remained predominantly Black since its founding in the late 1880s. It was settled by Bahamians who came up through Key West, at one time Florida’s largest city. The Black Bahamians who settled in Coconut Grove worked for The Peacock Inn and Commodore Ralph Monroe, among the earliest residents. As a nascent tourist trade flourished, more Black folk arrived to do all of the backbreaking work and menial labour that made it all happen.

That West Grove wasn’t razed is due almost entirely to the efforts of one man, Ebeneezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup. E.W.F. Stirrup was one of Florida’s first Black millionaires and, at one time, the largest landholder in Coconut Grove. On some of the land he owned he threw up more than 100 houses with his own hands. These he rented, sold, and bartered to other Bahamians. That’s why, at one time, Coconut Grove once had the highest percentage of Black home ownership in the entire country, making it unique.

It’s for that reason and that reason alone that The Powers That Be were unable to dislodge the Black residents of Coconut Grove. Overtown, just up the road and the second Black neighbourhood in Miami, had I-95 rammed through the middle of what had been the Black Shopping and Entertainment district. However, Overtown was mostly renters with absentee landlords, who were happy to cash out on their investments. The same pattern took place in Paradise Valley, in my home town of Detroit, which was leveled for I-75. The same scenario played out all across the country.

It’s not as if the Powers That Be didn’t try to get rid of Black Grove. There were three separate attempts to get rid of the neighbourhood. In 1921 an urban renewal project called The Bright Plan, approved but never realized due to an economic downturn, would have created a golf course on everything west of Main Highway to Douglas and north to Grand Avenue. In 1925 City Fathers tried to get Miami to annex around what was called Coloredtown, instead of including it. Miami decided to annex it all instead, which led to the creation of Coral Gables, the city that Racism built. In the ’50s, long after the rest of the city had indoor plumbing, West Grove still used outhouses. Honey wagons were just a way of life long after every surrounding neighbourhood (read: White neighbourhoods) had an indoor toilet. In the ’50s. The city wanted to raze the entire blighted neighbourhood and start all over, but the high percentage of Black home ownership defeated the proposal. People, who in some cases were now the 2nd or 3rd generation in the same house, refused to sell. They knew better. Where could they go? They would be redlined out of any neighbourhood they wanted to buy into. It was better to stay put and bequeath their homes to their children and their children’s children.

Which is to explain why the neighbourhood has remained predominately Black. That and the fact that White folk tend not to move into Black neighbourhoods. I’ll now let Nick Madigan, writing in yesterday’s New York Times, pick up the story of Old Smokey:

MIAMI — When she was little, Elaine Taylor remembers rushing home whenever Old Smokey fired up. Clouds of ash from the towering trash incinerator would fill the air and settle on the ramshackle houses and the yards of the West Grove neighborhood.

Her mother, who took in laundry, would be whipping sheets and shirts off the clotheslines. Often, the soot would force Elaine and her mother to wash everything again, by hand.

Old Smokey was shut down in 1970, after 45 years of belching ash, but its legacy might be more ominous than mere memories of soiled laundry. Residents of the neighborhood, established by Bahamian immigrants in the 1880s, have become alarmed by recent revelations that soil samples there show contamination from carcinogens like arsenic and heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and barium.

Ash from the old incinerator is being blamed, and residents are asking why none of this came to light sooner.

Something that Madigan leaves out of his story — because it makes a simple story of soil pollution and subsequent coverup far too complicated — is that the coverup was only discovered due to Trolleygate, the story I’ve been following since January. The documents were discovered by the pro bono legal team researching Trolleygate while preparing its case against Miami, Coral Gables, and Astor Development. While that suit was thrown out of court for a lack of jurisdiction, the documents kicked loose during the research are still bearing fruit. Friday I wrote about an email from a City of Miami Zoning and Building Department official who said that Trolleygate did not conform to the Miami 21 Plan. Yet, after some undetermined jiggery-pokery, [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff managed to get the project approved anyway, despite the fact that it screws his owns constituents and rewards a developer in the next town over. But, that’s now a side issue to Soilgate, the discovery of toxic soil throughout Coconut Grove and greater Miami. [Coral Gables is now suing to get out of ever having to use the polluting diesel bus garage.]

The Racism that decided a Black neighbourhood was the perfect place for a polluting diesel bus garage — despite it not being zoned for it — can be seen as a parallel to the decision in the 1920s to build Old Smokey, the incinerator that polluted Miami. Miami needed an incinerator. Why not stick it as far away from the White folk as possible? Stick it in West Grove. Again from the New York Times:

Across the street from Old Smokey’s former site lies Esther Mae Armbrister Park and its playground. Down the block is George Washington Carver Elementary School, a once all-black institution that traces its history to 1899. Former students recall ash blowing in through the school’s open windows.

[University of Miami law] Professor [Anthony V.] Alfieri [of the Environmental Justice Project] said that the construction of Old Smokey “in the middle of a Jim Crow community” in 1925 exemplified the city’s pattern of neglecting the West Grove, an area that has never experienced the prosperity so evident in its neighboring communities. In a 1950 article in Ladies’ Home Journal, Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote that when the city installed a water and sewage system in Coconut Grove, its western neighbor was left out of the project, and for years residents continued to use wells and outhouses.

Old Smokey was shut down in 1970 after many years of neighbourhood protests and a successful legal battle initiated by the White folk of Coral Gables. Yet, 98% White Coral Gables learned nothing from that court battle. When it needed a place to build its polluting diesel bus garage, Astor Development chose West Grove. This is the neighbourhood that’s been given the short end of the stick since it was called Kebo by the original Bahamian settlers almost 130-years ago. Even if you attempted to argue, against all logic, that the developer was unaware it was a Black neighbourhood, the only reason the land was cheap was due to the last century of systemic Racism, that depressed every economic indicator you can name in West Grove, especially when compared to the rest of the 33133 Zip Code, now considered one of the most exclusive in the entire country.

The Supreme Irony: Air pollution — emanating from a fake diesel-powered trolley bus or a giant incinerator — doesn’t abide by the Colour Line, of course. There appears be less pollution the closer one gets to Old Smokey’s former site. As the expression says, “What goes up, must come down.” It seems a lot of Old Smokey’s toxins came down in the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park. Coincidentally, or not, that’s right across the street from where [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff lives. The New York Times again:

“Everything is testing to be residential standard,” Mr. Sarnoff said, referring to contaminant levels permitted under environmental regulations.

That may not be the final word. A cancer researcher at the University of Miami said that she and several colleagues discovered a cluster of pancreatic cancer cases in the West Grove several years ago.

“That’s the little region that lights up,” said the researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the issue. Although she found the discovery “puzzling,” she said she did not pursue it because of a lack of funds. But when she read a newspaper article this year about Old Smokey that said its ash had spewed arsenic and heavy metals into the neighborhood, she said “everything started making sense.”

The researcher noted that no correlation could be established between the cancer cluster and the old incinerator without more research.

Institutional Racism could be the answer as to why so many people in Coconut Grove are now being diagnosed with cancer. Yet, despite this ugly history of sticking the Black neighbourhood with what the White neighbourhood doesn’t want, [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, the City of Miami, and Astor Development all still think it’s appropriate for them to have played a shell game in order to get Trolleygate approved.

That’s nothing but Modern Day Racism, pure and simple.

Enjoy some videos of the Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park from September 13, 2013, as the soil testing was occurring.

About Headly Westerfield

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

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