France 2020 Ineffable Miami: Little Haiti by Conor Andrich

Student Bio:

I study photography and digital media at Florida International University, where I am a member of the Honors College, the class of 2022, and Professor John Bailly’s Spring 2020 Art, War, & Human Rights class. I did not grow up in Florida and have only lived in Miami since I started at FIU, but have since fallen in love with its vibrancy, diversity, and unique effervescence. I have become involved in a photography project centering around gentrification in Little Haiti, and I have gained a newfound respect and reverence for the city. Through this project I hope to further explore Miami and familiarize myself with its ins and outs, and in the process continue to foster my admiration for its history, culture, and communities.

Geography:

Something that sets Little Haiti apart is its unique geographic and topographic situating. The neighborhood covers three and a half square miles in the northeastern part of the city, bordered to the south by NE 54th Street, to the west by Interstate 95, to the north by the Miami city limit on NE 80th Street, and to the east by NE Second Avenue. These borders are the product of redlining, and it would be disingenuous to sugarcoat it. When government surveyors began delineating between neighborhoods in the 1930’s, low-lying areas along the coast that were predominantly white and affluent were marked as having the highest value, while high-elevation inland areas with predominantly black communities were labeled as hazardous, declining, and low-value. This subjugation has caused a suppression of wealth in the area that has impacted its residents for decades. Due to climate change and the threat of rising sea levels, however, the tables have turned. Little Haiti has an average elevation of 7 feet above sea level, higher than nearly any other part of the city. This fact that was once used to disparage the area now makes it valuable to developers, as it is less likely to flood and will be less susceptible to sea level rise in the future. However, it is not the residents, who are predominantly low-income people of color, who will be benefitting from this apperception. Instead, they face a new threat that will inevitably subjugate them even further: climate gentrification. Developers like the Magic City group have already begun to tighten their grip on the area, resulting in higher rents, changing cultural landscapes, and increasing displacement. The community suffers while investors line their pockets. Climate change only portends to exacerbate these issues as, according to a theory posited by Harvard researcher Jesse Keenan, gentrification will accelerate in high-elevation communities as problems such as flooding become more pressing, especially in low-lying coastal cities like Miami. This demonstrates how crucial geography is in determining the future of an area and the people who live there. In a cruel twist of fate, when the same features used to disparage the area in the past suddenly became recognized for their value, rather than being delivered from their suffering the community has to face it in a daunting new form. Such is the black experience in America.

Photo by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

History:

The area now known as Little Haiti has a deep history as a stronghold for South Florida’s black population dating back far before the incorporation of the City of Miami. After the Civil War, a number of Bahamian migrants and displaced former slaves settled on unclaimed land north of the Miami River and west of Biscayne Bay. They eventually applied for homestead grants, securing acres of farmland, and by 1889 had formed a community named “Motto” that boasted little more than a school, a post office, and a cemetery. While harsh winters in the late 1880’s devastated most of Florida’s crops, the groves of citrus trees along the Miami River thrived. The name Lemon City became official in 1993 and the community swelled to 350 people, at the time one of the largest in South Florida. When the Florida East Coast Railway extended to Miami in 1896, however, the booming municipality quickly overshadowed the modest agricultural settlement. Although it continued to grow, adding paved roads, manufacturing facilities, and a high school, the rapid growth of the City of Miami and discriminatory zoning policies made Lemon City an afterthought by the 1920’s, and it has remained one of the poorest communities in the area. The 1980’s breathed new life into the area, however. When thousands of Haitian refugees fleeing the brutal Duvalier regime began to land in Miami, Lemon City was one of the few placed they could afford. They bought houses, started businesses, and transformed it into a vibrant Caribbean community. Tens of thousands of Haitians came to call the area home, and it became a bastion of hope for the waves of refugees that Miami would take in throughout the decade. The Miami Herald coined the name Little Haiti, and in 2016, when the Miami City Council voted to incorporate the neighborhood, the moniker became official, and the impact the community has had on the city was eternalized. Little Haiti exemplifies how, through perseverance, resourcefulness, and fervent optimism in the face of immense strife, marginalized peoples, especially immigrants, have molded Miami into what it is today. Communities like Little Haiti are the lifeblood of this city, and it is impossible to picture this place that we so deeply cherish without the yearnings that those early pioneers sowed into the soil of the lemon groves so many years ago.

Demographics:

Little Haiti is, as previously mentioned and as the name would suggest, an historically Afro-Caribbean community and remains that way to this day. The most current data pins the population of around 31,000 at about 75% black, with Hispanics making up about 20% and whites and other races accounting for the final 5%. As recent years have seen Little Haiti and other poor communities of color cornered by gentrification in surrounding areas such as Wynwood, the area has become increasingly black and Hispanic, arriving at its current makeup from a population that was 65% black and 15% Hispanic two decades ago. Little Haiti is also one of the poorest parts of Miami. The median household income for the area is about $24,800, significantly below that of the City of Miami ($31,600) and Miami-Dade County ($52,205). This is mirrored by high rates of unemployment, limited access to education, homelessness, dependency on programs such as food stamps, and a high percentage of single-family homes. Under increasing economic pressure, many Little Haiti residents are struggling to get by. Through the photography project I mentioned in my biography I have worked closely with organizations such as the Family Action Network Movement and have spoken to numerous residents about their material conditions. They stare hunger and eviction in the face on a daily basis, living in constant fear under the heel of the powerful. The woman below, for instance, is Rosa. She had part of her trailer demolished by Soar Trailer Park and currently faces eviction unless she comes up with the money to pay exorbitant and erroneous fees, concocted by management on grounds that are shaky at best. This is the harsh reality of living in Little Haiti, and much of Miami; people are quite literally fighting for their lives.

Photo by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

Landmarks:

Little Haiti is full of colorfully painted, vivaciously decorated buildings that serve important purposes in the community. One of the most immediately recognizable of these is the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. A brightly colored building in a modern but distinctly Caribbean style covering an entire city block between NE 2nd and NE 3rd Avenues, the Little Haiti Cultural Complex is a keystone of the neighborhood that provides a plethora of outlets for creative and economic growth. It features local artists in its gallery, hosts events in its theaters and community centers, holds dance, yoga, and art classes for all ages as well as summer camps and after school programs, and supports Haitian traditions and local business in its 9000 square foot Caribbean Marketplace. The complex plays an increasingly integral role in the neighborhood and has helped keep the community, and the culture that it holds so dear, alive and well. The Cathedral of Saint Mary is another instantly recognizable building in Little Haiti. Standing at an imposing height and drawing from Byzantine and Mediterranean Revivalist architectural schools to stunning effect, the cavernous church has been central to the community for decades. Not only does it provide regular services, it runs a PreK-8 school and serves as the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. Finally, Little Haiti boasts the Villa Paula, a Neo-Classical mansion on Miami Avenue that formerly served as Miami’s Cuban consulate. It stands out, however, not for its sauntering bougainvillea bushes and gleaming white stucco walls, but for the simple fact that it is haunted by the restless spirit of the proprietor’s wife. This fun ghost story adds dimension and intrigue to what is already a building of historical importance, making it a memorable landmark in the area. What makes Little Haiti so special, however, has never been immense landmarks that command attention and stick out in a guidebook. The true appeal of the community is not so obvious or tangible. It is found in the smell of chicken curry, the sound of chattering voices in a packed salon, the overflowing botanicas and the crowded street corners. It is a feeling not tied to any single structure, but to a culture and a community with a vibrant presence and a distinct identity.

Green:

Little Haiti does not have an abundance of green space. Most of the nearby parks, such as Legion Park and Morningside Park, lay a few blocks outside of the neighborhood’s borders, but their playgrounds, farmers markets, and waterfronts are still within reach of residents. In Little Haiti itself, the minute Lemon City Park and the quiet Little Haiti Soccer Park are about all the green space there is to speak of. This is an issue all too common in poor minority communities. Due to, among other issues, discriminatory zoning policies, these neighborhoods lack the open areas that play such a crucial role in a healthy lifestyle. It is an unfortunate fact rooted in economic disparity, and it is yet another challenge that confronts residents of such areas.

Transportation:

Since it is a relatively small neighborhood and the rail system is quite limited, Little Haiti is not directly serviced by the Metrorail. The nearest stations are Allapattah, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, Brownsville, and Earlington Heights, but each are a few miles from the neighborhood. The best way to access Little Haiti is by the Metrobus and, other than an absurd September 2018 fiasco in which a bus crashed into a clothing store on the corner of NW 54th Street and remained lodged there for upwards of four days, it has diligently served the community and its transportation requirements. Routes 2, 9, 10, 62, and 95 all stop within the bounds of Little Haiti, and route 202, the Little Haiti Connection, centers around the neighborhood. It is also more than possible to drive around Little Haiti. There is an abundance of public parking, both in lots and on the street, and wide avenues such as NW 2nd run right through. Once in the area, however, the best way to get around is by walking. Since it covers only a few square miles, it is easy enough to traverse Little Haiti on foot. This allows you to take in the vibrant neighborhood, and all of its unique sights, sounds, and smells. I found most of the delightful eateries and eccentric little shops that I love in Little Haiti by wandering in off the street.

Food:

The food is, for many, paramount to the allure of Little Haiti. There is no shortage of spots serving authentic Caribbean food, always heartfelt and affordable. A personal favorite is B&M Market, a Jamaican restaurant/grocery on NE 79th Street. Run by a sweet elderly couple, B&M serves heaping plates of familiar recipes like roti and chicken curry and keeps a deep stock of Caribbean snacks and staples. I wandered in one day and fell in love with it, and after a few visits learned that the beloved chef Anthony Bourdain had, in 2017, done the same (an anecdote accounted for by the quality of the food and confirmed by the shop’s Facebook profile). Another Little Haiti essential is Chef Creole. The renowned eatery serves an array of Caribbean dishes, from oxtail curry to fried conch, in an open-air space under a charming thatched roof. It is perhaps the most popular restaurant in the area. Little Haiti is full of restaurants like these, hole-in-the-wall establishments with incredible food and a homely atmosphere. They are the glue that holds the neighborhood together, their smells, flavors, and milieu keeping the spirit of the islands alive even as they lie so many miles away.

A person standing in front of a sign

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Photo by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

Business:

Little Haiti has a rich tradition of community-centric small business. From the restaurants and botanicas to the barbershops and boutiques, the majority of storefronts you see are locally owned and operated, giving the neighborhood a unique and tight-knit feel. Recently, however, the invasion of billion-dollar developers has priced out, undercut, and shot down countless local businesses. This has drastically altered the socioeconomic landscape of the neighborhood, as shops that have been local stalwarts for decades can no longer even afford rent. With each local business that falls, the spark that gives Little Haiti its vibrant authenticity dims further. Organizations like the aforementioned Little Haiti Cultural Complex are making a concerted effort to foster local business and maintain community control in the commercial sector, but the battle against the power of capital is, to say the least, fought uphill.

Summary:

Little Haiti is one of the most vibrant yet deeply distressed communities in Miami. Its rich history and lively atmosphere, manifested on vital street corners by colorful shops, delicious food, and neighborly people, gives the area an alluring quality. However, deep-rooted racial and economic discrepancies have interred Little Haiti in an existential malaise that continues to threaten the neighborhood and its residents and only looks to worsen in the face of gentrification and climate change. The city would feel empty without Little Haiti’s presence, and I believe that we should do everything in our power to protect it.

Works Cited:

About Us. littlehaiticulturalcenter.com/about-us-2/. 2018.

Barber, Timothy A. All About Miami’s Little Haiti and Lemon City. 2020, http://www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/lemon-city-and-little-haiti.

Green, Nadege. As Seas Rise, Miami’s Black Communities Fear Displacement From The High Ground. 4 Nov. 2019, http://www.wlrn.org/post/seas-rise-miami-s-black-communities-fear-displacement-high-ground#stream/0.

Jagannath, Meena, and Marleine Bastien. Little Haiti Residents Should Reap the Benefits of Proposed Magic City Development. 14 Nov. 2018, http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article221686760.html.

Little Haiti Community Needs Assessment 2015. 2016, http://www.thechildrenstrust.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/providers/analytics/reports/Little_Haiti_Miami-Dade_County-May2015.pdf.

Miami. 20 Sep. 2014, localwiki.org/miami/Metrobus.

Minta, Molly. Miami’s Haunted Former Cuban Consulate for Sale for $4.5 Million. 21 Oct. 2019, http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/villa-paula-haunted-mansion-in-little-haiti-goes-on-sale-for-45-million-10382945.

Nebhrajani, Roshan. The Many Names of Lemon City. 20 Jan. 2016, thenewtropic.com/name-lemon-city/.

Viglucci, Andres. Little Haiti Is up for Grabs. Will Gentrification Trample Its People and Culture? 29 Sept. 2019, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/real-estate-news/article232134932.html.

France Spring 2020 As Texts: Conor Andrich

Photo by German Ruiz, CC by 4.0

My name is Conor Andrich. I study photography and digital media at Florida International University, where I am a member of the Honors College, the class of 2022, and Professor John Bailly’s Summer 2020 study abroad trip to Paris.

Vizcaya As Text

Photo by Conor Andrich, CC by 4.0

There is of course much to admire at Vizcaya. You feel yourself return to nature as you walk through the exquisite native forest, the façade is mesmerizing as it emerges from the trees, and, upon walking inside, the grandiosity of the building is intoxicating. But as I ventured farther into the property, inspecting its details and learning its history, as it often does the intoxication turned to nausea. From staggering displays of opulence to baffling manifestations of ego and oppression, Vizcaya did not have the magical effect on me that I had anticipated.

This begins with the interior which, although filled with beautiful works of art, lacked elegance and cohesion. This was at odds with the natural beauty that is the estate’s trademark and took away from the exquisiteness of many of the individual pieces. The whirlwind of styles disoriented me and seemed to be little more than a vapid display of wealth. Whether this is a grievance I have with the house specifically or the Rococo style as a whole I have yet to fully determine, but nonetheless the lavishness of the house is not the root of the issue. Grandiose structures such as Versailles and even the United States Capitol are about as indulgent as they come and are the product of similar architectural approaches, but what sets such buildings apart from Vizcaya is a sense of purpose. These buildings represent the spirit of entire nations, abridging centuries of history into one monument. Vizcaya, on the other hand, struck me as representative of little more than one man’s inflated ego, built in an attempt to outmatch his own brother and outrun his own impermanence. This is exemplified through features such as the arch that leads into the garden. This is meant to be an homage to the Arc de Triomphe, but due to the Arc’s status as a material précis of French courage and victory, the tribute feels hollow.

This sense of hollowness was furthered by many of proprietor James Deering’s other design choices and the purpose they served. Much of the estate seemed to be a celebration of excess rather than a celebration of beauty, and the house dripped sordidly with glut. The painted fake marble was bizarre, the hidden door-slash-false bookshelf was outlandish, and I audibly groaned at the “J’ai Dit” stained glass. Deering even implied via sculpture an equivalence between himself and Ponce De Leon.

This self-aggrandizement is underscored by the race- and class-based oppression that is woven into the fabric of Vizcaya. The labor practices that produced Vizcaya, despite being shameful compared to modern standards, were still somewhat commonplace at the time, so it would not entirely be in good faith to criticize it simply on these grounds. However, learning the extent to which Deering subjugated his workers was perturbing. He ensured that the black laborers who sustained his luxurious lifestyle could be neither seen nor heard, using hollowed walls and cork floors as a means of concealing (and in doing so, dehumanizing) them. This further served Deering’s ego, once again using the design of his home to posture himself as a superlative figure. I may have been more forgiving here if the estate had made a better attempt at retribution, but seeing as one of the few real visible tributes to these people is a series of small portraits featuring white artist David Rohn posing in darkened makeup in an attempt to portray various Caribbean servants, I cannot grant it such clemency.

Before visiting Vizcaya for the first time last Friday, I was not quite sure what to expect. I hoped to understand why this place holds such a prized place in South Florida’s lore. However, I left disenchanted. Although I appreciate the natural beauty and respect Deering’s contributions to conservation, much of the estate struck me as excess for excess’ sake and little more, and I could not reconcile this gut feeling with my artistic and political sensibilities.

Freedom Tower As Text

Few structures so perfectly encapsulate the rich history of Miami, all of the beauty it boasts and the tumult it has faced, as the Freedom Tower. Immigrants made this city what it is today, and without their vibrant cultural diversity it would be unrecognizable. By the preservation of such a landmark we ensure that their stories are forever impressed onto the concrete like a child’s handprint, a permanent marker of their hopes and aspirations. Seeing the faces of those who passed through the building on their way to a better life gave me a renewed appreciation for their struggle. Looking into their eyes I felt both a sharp poignancy and a warm gratitude. They plunged into the unknown and came up stronger on the other side. Although I am not Cuban, my family history follows a similar narrative. As the United Kingdom cracked down on Irish independence and civil war raged on, the country became unsafe. My great-grandmother was three years old when she was put on a boat set for New York City, alone in the world for those long days at sea. I cannot imagine the fear and confusion she must have felt, too young to comprehend the seismic shift taking place in her life. Nevertheless, she faced the future head-on, setting the stage for what is soon to be a century of my family history. She arrived at Ellis Island in the fall of 1922, and the name Bayliss is inscribed there to this day. Seeing the faces and learning the stories of the children who passed through the Freedom Tower was a profound experience for me. They faced immense hardship head-on and never flinched, making so much possible for us today. My understanding and appreciation of what made Miami the thriving metropolis it is today has been deepened, and I believe every Miamian should try to visit.

Deering Estate As Text

When visiting Vizcaya for the first time earlier in the semester, I fell to the whim of its designer, James Deering: I compared it directly to the Deering Estate, the Palmetto Bay villa of which his older brother Charles was the proprietor. James’ opulent residence, however, did not weather this comparison in the way he would have hoped. I adore the Deering Estate. Its quaint brand of elegance is a tasteful antithesis to the bombastic egoism of Vizcaya, its commitment to ecology is far more tangible, and it bears a sense of homeliness that its palatial counterpart lacks.

         My first time at the Deering Estate was in January for Richard Blanco’s poetry reading. I arrived an hour early to explore the grounds, walked through the brisk air down to the waterfront, watched the foam lap against the coquina seawalls. I spotted manatees playing in the bay, saw their noses emerge from the depths, watched the morning light refract through the spray from their breath. I took the long way back to the house, passed through the naturally lush gardens, took in the brilliant color of a bottlebrush tree. I felt the sun on my face, put on Clube Da Esquina by Lô Borges & Milton Nascimiento, and napped in the soft grass under the sweet shade of a bullet tree. I then rubbed the sleep from my eyes, walked back through the trees towards the house, and took in Richard’s heartfelt reading in a high-ceilinged room with light flooding across the checkered marble tile.

         At the Deering Estate I felt a sense of belonging that I certainly did not feel at Vizcaya. The property was beautiful, and I felt at peace amidst the natural beauty of Florida. I have not yet had the opportunity to return, but when I get the chance I won’t hesitate to whittle away another day under the trees.