Many descendants of the original Coconut Grove community own property in the neighborhood today, but development is a serious concern and a large part of the community is fighting to protect their homes.
Coconut Grove is one of the largest continuous communities in Miami and the first black settlement in the city. It’s also home to a number of shotgun houses, a style of wood frame vernacular home that reinforces the neighborhood’s unique identity—narrow, rectangular one-story structures built by the same community of Bahamian immigrants who have lived in Coconut Grove since its inception, over 140 years ago.
Bahamians first moved to Florida in the mid-1800s as laborers, chauffeurs, farm workers, tour guides, and construction workers. Not only did these immigrants significantly expand Miami’s workforce, they also built much of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. According to Christine Rupp, Executive Director of Dade Heritage Trust, Bahamian immigrants provided “a great benefit to the settlers that were coming [in that the Bahamians] knew how to make Miami their home. They were responsible for the early developmental stages of Miami.”
Bahamians used their unique knowledge of Southern Florida’s “coral-rocky” soil to their advantage. They brought their own trees, vegetables, and fruits to the area, as well as their skills in masonry building. In a 1941 statement, founder of the City of Coral Gables George E. Merrick said that some of the oldest buildings in Miami “are of the same construction which has been in use for 150 years in the Bahamas. Built… with the only native lime mortar, these houses have withstood the countless hurricanes of the Bahamas.”
In addition to the labor they put into constructing the city of Miami, the Bahamian community also built their own neighborhood in the shotgun style. The shotgun houses—named for their long, rectangular shape where a shotgun blast could supposedly travel through the building without hitting a wall—were one room wide, with rooms placed back to back.
One resident, Jacqueline Story, recalls her grandparents’ journey to America and their work to build their home together. “My grandfather, Timothy Gibson, and my grandmother, Estelle Gibson, were working on a ship [in the 1900s],” Story says. “They jumped ship, and came over here as illegal immigrants, and they stayed here and started a family.”
Story also explains that her grandparents were working full-time jobs while they built three structures in the community: “The women would hold the lanterns while the men would build the houses at night. They had no blueprint, they just did it by sight.”
The purpose of the homes was primarily to provide shelter, since most activities in the neighborhood were conducted outdoors, allowing for a generous amount of community interaction. According to Story, bonds among friends, neighbors, and families living in Coconut Grove continued through the 20th century. “It was wonderful in the neighborhood,” she recalls. “The kids could go out to play [every day], and we’d all walk down to school together. They used to block off the neighborhood park around Christmas so the kids could skate and bike.”
Many descendants of the original Coconut Grove community own property in the neighborhood today. Story rents out the same shotgun home on Frow Avenue built by her grandfather nearly 100 years earlier.
Story’s grandparents also constructed a boarding house where African Americans from the Carolinas and Georgia would stay until they found permanent work in Miami. The building continued this function until it was converted into a single-family home in 2014.
In 2018, Dade Heritage Trust worked with local community members to preserve and protect many of the historic shotgun homes in Coconut Grove. The City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Protection Board successfully designated multiple properties in Coconut Grove for both their architectural and historic significance.
But development is a serious concern for Coconut Grove, and a large part of the community continues to fight for the protection of their homes. Out of the designated properties, 15 are under appeal, the majority of which have come from owners who recently purchased the properties in order to demolish them.
“Owners of properties who have been there for a long time have an affiliation and a feeling for the neighborhood,” Rupp says. “But [the development] community has no regard for the historic fabric of the neighborhood. They don’t have that built-in sense of community and shared heritage.”
Story echoes this feeling of community common with other longtime residents. “We had to fight for the houses,” she says. “I joined the fight because the property I acquired… has been in my family for over 100 years. My grandparents came from Eleuthera, Bahamas—they settled there and built that home. It has been [ours] from generation to generation.”
While the fight to protect the shotgun homes continues, Dade Heritage Trust is also helping residents keep their properties in shape. Dade Heritage Trust recently started working with Rebuilding Together Miami-Dade, a nonprofit that provides home repairs for low-income people, to help community members repair their historic homes. Rupp explains that, unlike other organizations which rely on untrained volunteers, Rebuilding Together uses professionals to help with longer-lasting repairs—a benefit for historic homes that have more specific rules and standards for repairs.
Some of it may be at risk of demolition, but with nonprofit services and an official designation in hand, Coconut Grove still stands a chance to maintain its historic fabric. Both Rupp and Story hope the neighborhood can continue telling its story and ensuring that people who come to this community understand its true value. “If they wipe out Coconut Grove, there will be nothing left to show our grandkids or any generation after,” Story says. “It’s very important to see how the Bahamians came here and built everything, and how [we’re trying to] preserve everything now.”