"MIAMI-DADE Published Sunday, July 2, 2000,
in the Miami Herald Neighbors East"
"Group Pays Visit to West Grove"
      By Charles Rabin

With the sun beating down on the homeless, and with drug dealers milling about, city of Miami and Miami-Dade County staffers experienced the long-neglected West Grove's problems up close Wednesday.

Led by Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton and his chief of staff Jason Walker, the group of about a dozen waltzed their way from the city's Virrick Park -- halfway through its renovation process -- up and down some problem streets, and finally along West Grove's centerpiece, Grand Avenue.

What they saw was a giant contradiction.

Freshly painted houses sat next to crack dens; old rusty appliances on street corners next to well-manicured lawns; refurbished apartment complexes alongside dilapidated ones; and sadly, dope-pushers walking past honest folks on their way to work.

"We've been on this program of taking back the neighborhood since January," said Winton. "We wanted people to get an up-close look at the progress. But we also wanted them to see the problems in the area."

Walker said he believes city and county staffers are more likely to get involved in cleaning up the run-down neighborhood if they actually get to see it for themselves.

Many of them, he said,probably have never taken the time to visit the neighborhood.

And just the presence of city officials is a boost to the homeowners who feel they've been banging their heads against the wall trying to make their neighborhood better, he said.

"It makes people feel there's really something going on," Walker said.

The West Grove's problems have been well documented.

Drugs are as easy to find as mosquitoes in the summertime. There have been murders. Some street corners accumulate so much furniture and appliances, it looks like a county dump site.

What it all means is that businesses and developers are afraid to move into the area -- an area only yards away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Coconut Grove, with glittery CocoWalk.

Even the Coconut Grove Local Development Corp., an arm that is supposed to be one of the economic engines of the neighborhood, is in trouble. A recent audit found it was hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red.

And yet through all the darkness, Winton, Walker and some developers see a light. Winton points to the handful of homeowners who have cleaned up their properties and painted their homes in the past six months.

He brags of the completion of Phase I of Virrick Park, which had been in decay for years with an old abandoned swimming pool, cracked pathways, and basketball courts badly in need of repair.

Now it is cleaned up. Some cinder block already is in place at the park, 3580 Day Ave., which eventually will have a new gym, theater, music room, even classrooms with computers.

Walker is enthused about a Grand Avenue apartment complex that Miami Beach developer Vernon Belle Garraway recently bought and fixed up.

"It looks like something that would be built in Coral Gables," said Walker.

Even Grove developer Andy Parrish recently sold a home on Carter Street in the West Grove, which he had to hold onto for a year because buyers were scared, he said.

"I knocked the old house down, and built a new one," said Parrish, who has done so with about a dozen other homes in the neighborhood in the past few years. "But then the bathtub started walking out the door and the door got smashed in."

Parrish said when Winton's group began the cleanup, he was able to attract a buyer.

But problems remain, Parrish said. Still, the future of West Grove is a lot brighter now than it was a few years back.

"When you have absentee landlords renting homes to drug dealers, it becomes a living hell," he said.

Parrish said he called Winton before the cleanup began, and informed the commissioner that he was one of the only developers in the area -- and if the crime continued, he was thinking of pulling the plug.

"My home stopped being vandalized," said Parrish. "And I was able to sell it."

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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