Monday, July 12, 2010

Coconut Groove

I have a visitor from the Northeast staying with me for a few days while he does a job search. In an effort to get him acquainted with the area, we took a tour of the area of Miami called Coconut Grove.

When I first knew it in 1971, it was nice quiet little neighborhood; part Greenwich Village, part upscale suburb, with the flavor of a small village on a Caribbean island thrown in. I lived in an apartment about two blocks away from the little business district at the intersection of Main Highway and Grand Avenue. Back then the streets were lined with little stores and bars (including the Hamlet, which was the first gay bar I ventured into. I had one beer and left) and head shops. It was definitely the hippie section of town, to the point that one of the clothing shops was called The Joint, and over the door was a papier-mache doobie the size of a phone pole. It was also home to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, a storied old theatre that was home to winter stock tours of Broadway shows. When I was a theatre student at the University of Miami in the early ’70’s, guest stars ranging from Mickey Rooney to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. trod the boards in such classics as No Sex, Please; We’re British to The Secretary Bird to Summer and Smoke with Eva Marie Saint and Ronny Cox and Butley with James Daly.

Like all neighborhoods, the Grove has had its ups and downs. In the twenty-five years between the time I moved out of Miami after college and returned in 2001, the Grove went through what could be politely called “gentrification.” Little shops that sold discount clothes to gave way to art galleries and boutiques; the little beaneries and bars gave way to trendy restaurants, and where once stood a Winn-Dixie supermarket grew a Planet Hollywood — which fortunately met its demise sometime between 1997 and 2001. A corner shopping area became an urban mall with Starbucks and a multiplex, and apartments that once housed students went condo, including the place where I shared a two-bedroom third-floor walk-up for $215 a month.

I understand progress, and I believe in it. I would have hated to see Coconut Grove become desolate and forgotten, and I am glad that it is still a vibrant and interesting part of town. What I feared the most — that the Disneyfication of the area would overwhelm the charm — happened early on and seems to have been subdued by both nature and the simple economics. While a place like the Grove can attract tourists, especially those with money, or snowbirds who own a condo on Bayshore Drive, it still has to be a home to people who still remember what it was like when it was a place that welcomed college kids and artists driving VW Beetles with flowers painted on the side. Some of the upscale shops in the urban mall have closed and been replaced by more local-friendly outlets, next door to the tragically hip boutiques.

When I took my friend on a walking tour of the Grove on a hot Saturday afternoon, I was able to see some of the old reminders of the days when I lived there. The banyan trees still arch over the streets, turning them into green tunnels, and the little houses are still hidden behind towering bamboos and live oaks. Neighborhoods, like some people and good friends, change and grow, and Coconut Grove just keeps on going on in its own little groove. Peace out.