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The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

The West Grove’s war: Ever-waging, never won

By Max Strongman
Opinions Editor

The population of the greater Miami area has been progressively rising since its beginnings, but it was not until recently (as in, a matter of decades) that the city’s real estate market began to boom. Prices would rise and fall throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, but after ample recovery following the historic market crash of 2008, the housing market would skyrocket. 

Attracting many tourists and families hoping to settle down, Miami has long grappled with their inability to captivate the more corporate, techy audience. That was, until COVID-19.

New-wave, modern architecture and development in the West Grove next to a historic cemetery. (Photo by Max Strongman)

Acting as a catalyst, the pandemic has possibly prompted the massive migration of large organizations and tech companies. The likes of Elon Musk, Twitter, Google, and countless investment banks have communicated with the Miami mayor, Francis Suarez, surrounding their possible moves to the city, charmed by none other than Coconut Grove—and lower taxes, of course.

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Coconut Grove has long been a haven for the eclectic, its unique past and associated culture definitive qualities of the bohemian-feeling neighborhood. Some of the first settlers in the midst of the 19th century were those lured from the Bahamas and surrounding Caribbean. Drawn by the promise of a 160-acre plot of land—to be bestowed by the Homestead Act—many came unassumingly, bringing their independent cultures, traditions, and identities.

As residences were established, businesses developed around them, and Bahamian traditions steeped and simmered: untouched wetland became settlement; settlement became community; community became town. In a matter of years, venerable conch stew incrementally bubbled to a boil, and Coconut Grove was born in an ode to Blackness and Caribbean culture.

This culture, integral to Coconut Grove (primarily the historically Black West Grove), is  slowly being diluted, if not outright erased. Architects, developers, and investment groups have been teaming up: buying properties like the iconic Mayfair Hotel, revamping sites like Cocowalk, and constructing hyper-modern office spaces. All to make room for the new wave of typical Miami hype, to uphold the promises made and expectations kept. 

Merely blocks away from the ever-changing Central Grove lies the West Grove, what has become a makeshift battleground of gentrification. Where classic shotgun homes meet homogeneous block-homes, the West Grove is forced to fight a war they certainly do not wage. Here, the effects of gentrification are being expedited by the ripple effects of COVID-19 and choices made for them, not by them. 

The classic shotgun home pictured here is representative of the sheer prevalence of the Caribbean influence in the West Grove. (Photo by Max Strongman)

“The West Grove (or what’s left of it) is the final frontier for cheaper land grabs. Slowly but surely we have been seeing its charm and character, whether you like it or not, slowly disappearing into more look-a-like boxes designed for a more affluent demographic,”  Principal and broker for The Company Real Estate, Cyril Bijaoui, said via text.

Developers have realized the Grove has appeal, especially to the white, non-Hispanic, population of Miami. According to the Statistic Atlas, the overall white demographic makes up 11.2 percent of the total city population; North-East and South-East Coconut Grove are in fourth and sixth place for individual neighborhood white population in the entirety of the greater Miami area, 51.9 and 34.6 percent white, respectively.

This gentrification crisis has been decades in the making. Though it is difficult to uncover or pull data and demographics from the West Grove as it is technically part of the larger South-West Coconut Grove, the Community Equity, Innovation, and Resource Lab at the University of Miami’s School of Law has extrapolated some preliminary statistics. From 2000 to 2017, they report, the Black population of the West Grove decreased some 32 percent. Simultaneously, the white population rose by more than 176 percent.

“The Grove’s re-development craze and blatant gentrification lead to cookie-cutter townhomes that basically eliminated the Center Grove’s charm and then spread into the West Grove. Parts of the West Grove will take a very, very long time to find their way forward into something that hopefully reinvokes its traditional culture, unlike the recent tasteless, bland additions we see today,” Bijaoui said as he explained gentrification’s conquest of the Grove.

The rather covert muzzling of the neighborhood’s heritage in the Central Grove—vaguely visible with the new-wave corporate influence, coupled with COVID-19—is diffusing outward. Gentrification is not a single-angled crisis, affluence (typically white) not affecting one targeted area, but a stark shock answered with widespread absorption. The consequences of calls for new business in the Grove, subconsciously or otherwise, is directly correlated with white gentrification in the West Grove. As Mr. Bijaoui implied, history is repeating itself.

Lillian Armbrister’s church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, located in the heart of the West Grove. (Photo by Max Strongman)

Businesses passed down for generations, Baptist churches operating nearly since the area’s settlement, shotgun homes galore: it is all at risk. The West Grove’s nod to its beginnings, its ode to Blackness and Caribbean culture: that’s what is at stake, Lillian Armbrister, MAST’s beloved Grove-born security guard opined over the phone.

“I’ve been here all my life. I was raised in the Grove. It’s a close-knit family. Everyone knows everyone. My church [Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church] is in the West Grove and I have been attending all my life. We’re the oldest African-American church in Dade County. We just hit our 125-year anniversary. Here, we learn from and remember our roots, our background, what our ancestors went through and what they sacrificed,” Ms. Lillian said with respect to her involvement in the historic West Grove.

The uniform block-homes being developed in the Grove are parasites to a host of Black culture, to a neighborhood brimming with rich history. Every new tear-down, every new development, Armbrister noted, is a stab at the heart of the community she once knew so well: ancient shotgun homes turned homogenously-styled townhomes, the newfound war of past and present.

Stories, like those of Ms. Lillian, are far from bizarre nowadays, commonplace discussion circulating affected communities. That is because everybody feels the effects of gentrification, the communal scar. As more and more developers are seizing land in the West Grove, erecting seemingly monolithic, expensive housing, they are subverting heritage, roots—history.

An example of the modern, block-like homes and townhomes spreading throughout the West Grove which push property and zoning bounds. (Photo by Max Strongman)

These newer homes also take advantage of passive, rather non-regulatory zoning laws. To that end, developers build these large homes right up to property lines, overshadowing the more modest homes next door. Not only does this reduce the property value of the older homes nearby, but also raises the area’s property taxes. This has spelled disaster for countless Black families, Ms. Lillian recounted.

“The West Grove is not looking like what it used to be. When I went to Day Avenue recently and looked around and I said, ‘Oh my god! When did they put this [a hypermodern home] here? This was so-and-so’s house, they knocked down that house,’” she said with dismay. “It doesn’t look like the Grove I once knew. To me, it looks like all the African-Americans are being pushed out.”

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