3 ‘Conch Towns’ Where Florida’s Bahamian Culture Thrives
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
From Goombay festivals to junkanoo bands, Bahamian culture thrives in Florida, where the islanders have had a presence for centuries.
With the Bahamas only 50 miles away, it’s not hard to feel the calypso vibe, especially in several small Florida enclaves or “conch towns” settled by Bahamians in Florida.
COCONUT GROVE, MIAMI
The majority of Bahamians in Florida – about 21,000 in total – continue to live in and around Miami, with a Bahamian community planted firmly in the city's Coconut Grove neighborhood.
When the first black residents of South Florida arrived in the 1880s from the Bahamas to work at the Peacock Inn on Biscayne Bay, they established the Village West neighborhood in the Grove. The neighborhood thrived in the early 1900s with black-owned businesses and single-family homes.
Many of the early settlers were skilled stonemasons. You can still see their handiwork in the coquina walls, houses and churches that give Coconut Grove its unique ambience. Many Grove family names also derive from Bahamian culture: Rolle, Bethel, Malone, Sands and Russell.
“The Bahamas and Miami share a unique history,” said Harrison Thompson, a Permanent Secretary with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “The community of Coconut Grove was built and settled by Bahamians – our ’merican cousins.”
Strong reminders of the area’s Bahamian culture are wood-frame “shotgun shacks” that dot the West Grove with their front porches and stone chimneys.
Representing an architectural style that traces back to West Africa, the small homes get their nickname, according to one legend, from the straight alignment of the house's doors; a blast fired at the front door could pass straight through the house and out the back door.
The rooms are lined up, one behind another, starting with the living room, then one or two bedrooms, and the kitchen at the back. An architectural team led by the University of Miami has launched an initiative to save and restore some of the homes.
Bahamian landmarks in the West Grove include the Mariah Brown House, 3298 Charles Ave., built from Florida pine by a Bahamian family in 1897. There’s also the historic Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, 3575 S. Douglas Rd., where Bahamian settlers have been buried since the early 1900s. Its above-ground tombs reportedly inspired Michael Jackson’s song, “Thriller.”
The best way to experience the Bahamian side of the Grove is to join in the fun at the annual Goombay Festival, held every July, when the Bahamas celebrate Independence Day. Now based in Peacock Park, 2820 McFarlane Rd., the festival has been celebrating Miami’s Bahamian pioneers since 1976.
The event fills the Grove with Caribbean food, Bahamian Kalik beer, gospel services, music and culture, featuring The Royal Bahamian Police Band and Miami's finest Junkanoo Bands.
“We want to show the importance of Bahamians in the creation of Miami,” said Andre Whitle, president of Miami/Bahamas Goombay Festival in Coconut Grove Inc.
BAHAMA VILLAGE, KEY WEST
Follow the aroma of conch, peas and rice to the Bahama Village, a sprawling, 16-block historic "conch town" neighborhood in Old Town with a colorful arched gate entrance on Petronia Street.
The village lies southwest of Whitehead Street and northeast of Truman Annex, bordered by Whitehead, Southard, Fort and Louisa Streets.
There’s a flea market with fanciful kiosks and shops with a mix of souvenirs, straw hats, Caribbean art, T-shirts, beads, sea sponges and food.
Quaint homes lining the streets of this conch town are painted in shades of blues, turquoises, purples, yellows, and reds. The tiny yards often feature nautical accessories, whimsical paintings and funky yard art strung on fences or hanging from trees.
Once marginalized, the neighborhood is going through gentrification and hosts some of the island's popular restaurants.
Among them is a favorite breakfast spot on the island, Blue Heaven, at 729 Thomas St. Chickens and cats roam the al fresco, wood-deck dining space behind the shuttered blue building, which occupies the same spot where author and one-time Key West resident Ernest Hemingway used to referee boxing matches.
In its long, storied history, the space also has been a dance hall, a bordello and a playhouse. Today, there’s a second-floor Bordello Gallery above the restaurant and a fun souvenir shop adjacent to the restaurant. The village also is where Key West’s public swimming pool is located.
Junkanoo music is popular with residents and tourists alike here, and bands get a chance to strut their stuff at the annual Key West Fantasy Fest every October, which is a great addition to your Key West vacation.
This historic city of 24,000 on Florida's west coast – about 30 miles north of Tampa – has had a connection with Bahamians in Florida ever since an adventurer from Nassau named Joshua Boyer started the first family homestead here in 1877. At the time, both black and white Bahamian “conchs” were hooking sponges and catching turtles in Florida, from Key West all the way up the undeveloped Gulf coast.
Tarpon Springs and Nassau share a historical connection to the Greek sponge trade. The most experienced sponge divers in the world, from Kalymnos, Greece, began arriving in the Bahamas around 1887.
Some 18 years later, Greek sponge divers were recruited to Tarpon Springs, which has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any U.S. city.
Today, residents in both Tarpon Springs and Nassau are tied through the business of sponges, as well as marriage, family and culture. The Tarpon Springs Cultural Center often explores this connection with arts events, lectures and workshops.
Conch shells used as grave markers at Rose Cemetery, 312 E. Harrison St., are signs of Bahamian cultural influences in the area. With a reputation as one of the most haunted cemeteries on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the five-acre site is the oldest segregated cemetery in Pinellas County, with its earliest marker dating back to 1904. The cemetery is open to the public during the day.