A hyper-local community news site produced by students in the University of Miami’s School of Communication has become the de facto source of information for residents of Coconut Grove’s Village West community.
The Grand Avenue News site contains several images of Village West life captured by School of Communication photojournalism students, including this picture taken by Paul Franz. In it, Anthony Davis, right, a Washington, D.C., native and co-owner of Headliners Barbershop, tends to a customer.
Mark Daniels’ first trip into the South Florida neighborhood people warned him not to visit was to a home in such disrepair that city officials threatened to fine its residents $250 for every day they violated the local zoning ordinance.
There, with his reporter’s notebook in hand, Daniels sat in the living room, listening to Tyrone and Patricia Borden explain how diabetes and other serious health conditions had forced the couple to quit their jobs and go on disability.
During his four-hour conversation with the Bordens, the University of Miami student learned something else: The Village West, a western enclave of Miami’s Coconut Grove where unemployment can run as high as 20 percent, isn’t as ravaged by crime as the stories he heard had suggested, and its residents “really do have a strong sense of community and look out for each other,” he says.
He talked with other Village West residents, learning about their struggles and the history of their neighborhood, an underserved community divided from Coconut Grove’s thriving tourist district.
The stories Daniels would later write, including one about a nonprofit that is helping the Bordens and other low-income families repair their homes, are now part of Grand Avenue News (www.grandavenews.com), a new UM School of Communication-produced online newspaper that includes stories and other useful information on the community and its residents.
Daniels, a journalism and political science major from Boca Raton, Florida, is one of several student reporters who write stories for the site. Student graphic designers, videographers, and photographers also produce content for the project.
“We’re using this as a pedagogical tool,” says Kim Grinfeder, an assistant professor of visual journalism and the project’s coordinator. “These are real-world assignments. Students have learned that this is a community that has real problems and that they can do something about it by telling a story and shining a light on it.”
After producing subject matter for the site as part of required class assignments, many students from the school’s visual journalism and journalism departments decided to volunteer to work on the project, realizing “it’s a good opportunity for them to add to their portfolio,” Grinfeder says.
“The stories that the bigger newspapers, Web sites, and TV news can’t cover or won’t cover about this community, we can,” says Tsitsi Wakhisi, associate professor of journalism and a former Miami Herald staff writer who supervises the student reporters who write stories for the newsletter.
Though only a few weeks old, Grand Avenue News is already rich with content: a feature on Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, a 113-year-old graveyard that contains the remains of Coconut Grove’s earliest Bahamian settlers; a story on Pat’s Kitchen, a family-owned restaurant that has been serving Chinese-Jamaican cuisine for more than 30 years; an article on a local church’s efforts to help the homeless; a documentary on a community garden that has created jobs and is feeding the poor. There’s also a weather page and a directory of local businesses and houses of worship.
Grinfeder says more content is being created, as the students have taken greater control of the project, coming up with their own story ideas and gathering information from sources.
Interestingly, it was a paucity of information on the Village West that gave Grinfeder the idea to start the site. As part of a multimedia project on last November’s historic presidential election, Grinfeder sent a group of his students into the Village West community to document residents’ reactions to Barack Obama becoming the nation’s first black president.
It was during that project that the assistant professor became aware of a harsh reality: residents had no reliable and steady source of news on their community. “No one knew what was happening in the neighborhood,” he said. So he applied for and received a New Voices grant from the J-Lab at American University, which he used to launch the project.
The site, which is updated weekly, has had close to a thousand hits in the four weeks it’s been live, with users staying logged on for an average of five minutes. “Pretty good numbers for a micro-local news project,” Grinfeder says. The most popular section: the photo gallery of Village West life, from worshipers at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church to a practice session of the town’s undefeated Pop Warner football team.
Working on the project has helped students learn more about the predominately African-American district that exists in stark contrast to the upscale shops and cafes of CocoWalk in downtown Coconut Grove.
“Through the stories I’ve written, I’d like to think I’ve gotten to know the community in a much more intimate way,” says graduate student Akilah Johnson, 30, who first became aware of the Village West, once known as the West Grove, while working as an editorial assistant in the Miami bureau of Fort Lauderdale’s daily newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel.
“I’ve met everyone, from community matriarchs and patriarchs, men and women struggling to survive, and those struggling to revive this historic community,” she says. “There’s history in the West Grove that I have gotten a chance to share, and that’s what has meant the most to me.”
Wakhisi says Grand Avenue News is giving students “the best kind of experience. This is getting them into a neighborhood they normally would just drive by. This is getting them into a community to understand the issues, to get used to talking to poor people, people who are homeless.”
While the initial $17,000 New Voices grant has helped get the project going, Grinfeder has already begun to explore advertising, sponsorships, community partnerships, and other avenues as possible strategies to perpetuate the online news source, planning for the day when he hopes to transfer to Village West residents the responsibility of producing the site.
“If the community doesn’t get involved, we fail,” he says.
He also wants to secure funding to open a training news lab for journalism students that would be located in the Village West.
One partnership that’s already materialized: In January, Grinfeder will give weekly photography lessons to a group of youngsters at the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, a center founded by the UM trustee of the same name that provides health screenings, HIV testing, and other social services for low-income Village West residents.
Canon has donated eight digital cameras, and the pictures taken by youngsters will eventually end up in the Grand Avenue News photo gallery.
“It’ll be a good learning experience for them,” says Patricia Taboas, youth program manager at the Gibson Health Initiative.
Like UM student Daniels, Taboas used to hear all sorts of negative comments about the Village West. She has worked in the community for more than a year and attended a local high school near the area.
“They used to call Grand Avenue Snatch and Grab Avenue,” she says, referring to the main drag that runs through the heart of the town. “But things have changed a lot. The beauty of the West Grove is its strong community feel. Everybody knows everybody. People are very tight, and word gets around fast. There’s a lot of history here and older folks who have a lot of stories to tell. Grand Avenue News will help bring this out.”
Grinfeder says students will produce a print version of the online newsletter, giving residents without online access a way to keep abreast of the information that affects them.