Rebuilding the Black Grove

caines | 11/9/2011, 7:58 a.m.

Coconut Grove has seen its number of Black residents dwindle in recent years as more young people move away for better opportunities and homes become abandoned. In fact, based on the most recent U.S. Census numbers, there are only about 3,000 Blacks living in the Grove a marked decline from its high of 10,000 when generations ago skilled Bahamian immigrants first began to populate the area. But there are some longtime residents who refuse to admit defeat despite the challenges of substandard housing and joblessness like Thelma Gibson and Jihad Rashid. Gibson, 84, is an icon in Coconut Grove, not only because of her almost 85 years of life and service to the community, but because she is the widow of Father Theodore Gibson former City of Miami commissioner, leading civil rights activist and the priest of Christ Episcopal Church, one of the oldest churches in the Grove. I have 10 siblings and am 20 years older than my youngest brother who knows nothing about how things were in the Grove when it was totally segregated, Gibson said. We are the oldest section of Miami since we were incorporated in 1876, 20 years before Miami. But everything was separated racially until well into the 1960s. There is still a real dichotomy here between rich and poor and Black and white. Like portions of Goulds and other South Dade communities, we need to bring economic development into our community. Gentrification has occurred with more whites and Hispanics moving in but Blacks have yet to see any significant, positive change. Rashid, 63, is CEO for the Coconut Grove Collaborative, Inc. He says that because the area has been designated as a neighborhood development zone or targeted urban area, by all levels of government, that there are many opportunities to build affordable housing and to reduce the social and economic disparities that currently exist between Blacks and whites. This has been a long-neglected area and for decades we have been trying to bring in redevelopment and revitalization projects, he said. Finally, we are seeing a breakthrough. Former Commissioner Gimenez did nothing for us while he was in office but Commissioner Suarez has done just the opposite in only a few months. We needed that helping hand. The Collaboratives major initiative is Gibson Community and Educational Center a project slated for Coconut Groves Village West neighborhood. This will improve housing and business as well as the quality of life for our residents. And while we have had great success working in collaboration with other affordable housing groups, this will be the first major project that the Coconut Grove Collaborative has undertaken alone. Things are in motion for the groundbreaking and the bidding process starts soon. Its going to finally happen. Rashid says his community the hole in the donut surrounded by wealth but suffering from poverty, will see better days in the future. The spirits of our Bahamian ancestors are still among us and we are determined to not only recapture the glory of the past but make this the kind of place to which our kids want to return, he said. I know some projects were delayed and loans were held up because of the economy, Gibson added. But after three or four years of promises from developers, its time that they make good on those promises. We keep hearing about things in the works. I still dream that it is possible for us to see this community return to its past when our streets were safer, our people were healthier and where everyone could earn a decent wage. By D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com