Where The Sidewalk Ends, Racism Begins ► Chapter Two

Our next destination in Where The Sidewalk Ends, Racism Begins.

This path runs along another section of The Colour Line in
Coconut Grove. Note the fence. We’ll get back to that later.

Before beginning our second West Grove stroll, it’s worth reading the last Where The Sidewalk Ends, Racism Begins. Since it was published in December, additional info about the Coconut Grove Colour Line has been found. In Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America [published by Augsburg Fortress, 1991], Joseph R. Barndt writes:

A southern version of these traceable corporate decisions to create a Black ghetto exists in Miami Florida. Running through the entire area called Coconut Grove on the South End of Miami are the remains of an eight-foot stone wall, built to separate Black and white residential neighborhoods. Resolution 745, adopted at Miami City Planning Board meeting of July 21, 1941, reads as follows: “A resolution recommending that the establishment of a permanent diving line between white and colored occupancy in the area north of Grand Avenue and east of Douglas Road.” There are also later resolutions that describe the placement, size, access, roads, and responsibility for maintenance of the wall. The wall’s remains still stand, but few citizens of Coconut Grove remember its original purpose, or the decisions that created it.

Fewer remember the next Colour Line we will visit on our Where The Sidewalk Ends, Racism Begins walking tour, although it’s far less hidden. Rather than running along the backyards of a neighbourhood, it’s in plain sight. An entire block of houses stare out at it. Furthermore, it’s not just in plain sight, but maintained and fortified to this very day. Let’s go for a walk.

From where one sidewalk ends to where the next sidewalk ends.

We begin right where we left off the last time. While standing on Douglas Road at The Colour Line facing The Wall of Shame, turn left, and cross Douglas. This will put you on Franklin Avenue. Walk east along the southern edge of the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, named after the wife and childhood sweetheart of E.W.F. Stirrup. This was once the only place in Miami where Black folk could be buried and, contrary to some references found on the internet, is not where Michael Jackson filmed Thriller. Past the cemetery is one modern 2-story home and then several single family homes in the Coconut Grove vernacular of being either modified Conch or Shotgun styles. Turn right at the little traffic circle at Plaza, the first street, and walk down to where the sidewalk ends. That’s where racism begins and Marler Avenue begins.

Marler Avenue is a funny little street in Coconut Grove, “little” being the operative word. It runs east-west for one short block, from Hibiscus Street to Plaza Street, with houses only along the north side. Every one of those houses looks out at a wall — overgrown with foliage and almost invisible in parts, unless you know where to look.

I first learned of Marler Avenue from an article called The Wall, which Kirk Nielsen wrote for Miami New Times way back in 1998:

One look at Marler Avenue clarifies [Marler resident David] White’s frustration: Not only are he and his neighbors fenced in at both ends of the block, but along the southern edge of the tiny street is a ten-foot fence. “This all used to be open,” White explains, standing in his driveway and pivoting 180 degrees as he points from one end of the street to the other. “We used to walk through there.” He gestures toward one section of fence with a coil of concertina barbed wire — the kind used in military operations: “Totally unnecessary,” White exclaims, shaking his head, his hands now tucked inside his back pockets.


Will Johnson, who returned home to the black Grove four years ago after eighteen years in the U.S. Army, is offended by the notion that white Grovites would put up barricades to protect themselves from their black neighbors. “The idea that a man would put that damn concertina wire on top of the fence there,” says Johnson, age 46, surveying the barrier with White. “The truth is it won’t make any difference at all. The guys know how to get over there and rob their ass anyway. It’s not a deterrent.”


White regards the barriers as vestiges of “segregation and white dominance. And I say, look, I pay taxes the same as anyone else. I don’t necessarily want to go into their community, but I do want to make sure that if I need to go over there for anything I have the accessibility. Now, if I’m going to go over to Plymouth Congregational, I gotta go all the way around” — he twirls slowly in a half-circle to indicate the circuitous route he would have to take — “instead of the way the streets were supposed to be.”

A map dated 1947-1949, before Marler Avenue was closed off on all sides.

That wall is the Marler Avenue Colour Line, but it also demarcates the end of the backyards of houses that front along Loquat, one block south. If you look closely at the map above, you will see a faint line running west from Marler, which would have extended the street all the way to Douglas Road, also known as 37th. In fact Marler was supposed to have gone through to Douglas, as this map from the late ’40s indicates. It also shows some other Marler mysteries. For instance both Plaza and Hibiscus were also supposed to link up to Loquat Avenue.

Back then Marler, Plaza, and Hibiscus were nothing more than a dirt roads that became mired in mud during the rainy season. However, a curious thing happened on what should have been the western end of Marler Avenue. The White homeowners on Loquat Avenue illegally extended their backyards into the right of way, closing off Marler. And, that’s how Marler Avenue lost access to Douglas Road. Quietly. Illegally. Racially.

Hibiscus Street never went through to Loquat as it should have either. Eventually that land was sold off and condos built. And, that’s how Hibiscus lost access to Loquat Avenue. Even more curious is the evolution of how Plaza Street lost access to Loquat.

Plaza Street begins its southward trek at the famed US-1. At Grand Avenue, once the thriving Black business district of Coconut Grove, it takes a slight jog. Today, it continues all the way down to Marler, where the sidewalk ends. According to that 1940s map, [above] Plaza Street was supposed to take another slight jog at Marler before continuing south past Loquat in South Grove, where at Poinciana Avenue, it would make a gentle left turn to connect to Main Highway. However, that was not to be.

When the lower section of Plaza, along with Marler and Hibiscus, were paved sometime in the ’70s, this dogleg, between Marler and Hibiscus remained dirt. It was little traveled by vehicles because it wasn’t well maintained and, quite frankly, South Grove had little reason to go north into West Grove, which was considered unsafe. West Grove, for the most part, traveled north to Grand Avenue to shop and be entertained. This little section of what should have been Plaza Street eventually became an overgrown footpath that crossed the Coconut Grove Colour Line from West Grove to South Grove, Black Grove to White Grove.

It remained a footpath until some time in the early ’90s when — without warning and city approval — a chain link fence was erected that closed off the bottom of Marler Avenue entirely. No one knows who paid to have it put up, but fingers were pointed at White residents in South Grove reacting to a perception of heightened crime, accusing the perps using this path.

The chain link fence didn’t stay up very long.

IRONY ALERT: Just like it was the complaints of White folk that got Old Smokey closed down, and
just like it was the White folk that finally got the western edge of the Wall of Shame taken down, it was the White folk of South Grove who were
responsible for getting the chain link fence taken down. A good many of the residents of West Grove worked for families in South Grove as gardeners, maids, handymen, and nannies. When the Plaza extension was closed off to foot traffic, these tradesfolk started complaining to their employers because, suddenly, they were forced to walk a lot farther to get to work. The fence came down.

There had been other leaks in The Wall of Shame. Along the south side of Marler that section of the wall had been porous. People remember using dirt paths to take shortcuts to Loquat and walk to Plymouth Congregational Church. But over the years one link after another was closed off until the Plaza foot path became the last surviving link between West Grove and South Grove along residential streets.

For the longest time it remained a dirt path. Eventually this rough footpath was improved by the City of Miami. Paving stones were added and the foliage would be cut back occasionally. However, it was poorly maintained over the years. That is, until quite recently.

In February this reporter first visited Marler Avenue to begin research on this post, and to scope out the lay of the land. Way back then the edges of the path were falling apart. Many pavers had been stolen. Sinkholes in several places made walking a baby stroller difficult. A second visit a few weeks later showed newer destruction. The post that would keep vehicles off the foot path had been flattened, probably by a vehicle. [A big rock at the south end of the path would have kept it from exiting on Loquat, however.] A third, more recent, visit held a much bigger surprise. A new, sturdier post had been installed to keep vehicles out and the path had been repaired. All the pavers were replaced and leveled, with the edges shored up. It wasn’t until I started taking videos to document the maintenance that I noticed something very disturbing.

BEFORE:

February 25, 2014: Crossing The Colour Line in Coconut Grove, from
Black Grove to White Grove, from Marler Avenue to Loquat Avenue

AFTER:

April 21, 2014: Note the brand new
addition to the fence along The Colour Line.

This is pretty much where maps say Marler Avenue should have met Douglas Road

As the path became more navigable, and the wild foliage cut back drastically, someone must have felt far more vulnerable. Why else would another 2 feet be added to the top of The Wall of Shame, The Colour Line of Coconut Grove? Furthermore, it was done in the cheesiest way possible, by just nailing new boards on top of the old ones.

No matter. It still makes a statement about keeping Black Grove separate from White Grove in 2014, 16 years after Black residents told Miami New Times how offended they are by a constant reminder of systemic racism. Despite the One Grove mural, the Black and White communities in The Grove are quite separate, and have been for decades.

As I said in the first entry in this series:

The Coconut Grove Wall of Shame™ is not unlike the wall in my home town of Detroit known alternatively as The 8 Mile Wall, The Wailing Wall, or the Birwood Wall. A search on the Googalizer for the 8 Mile Wall turns up references, history, as well as tons of images. However, one has to go digging to find any images or references to the Coconut Grove Wall, the history of which is being buried like much of the history of West Grove.

The Coconut Grove Wall of Shame is far longer that the 8 Mile Wall. The more I research Coconut Grove, the more I realize it is the story of Race Relations in this country writ large. However, West Grove is the exception that proves the rule. What has always put Coconut Grove into stark relief is the fact that, at one time, it had the highest percentage of Black home ownership than anywhere else in the country. Consequently it couldn’t be colonized; it had to be surrounded and walled in on all sides. Much of that wall still exists and the current invisible Colour Line can still be traced.

COMING SOON: Another walking tour along the Coconut Grove Colour Line.


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