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