|Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros|
How do you define a community? Who gets to define a community? Should it be Little Haiti or Lemon City?
Haitian Creole is a mixture of French and various West African languages. It’s the most widely spoken language in Haiti, yet French remains the official language of government and legal documents. But at least it’s legal now to speak Creole on the radio in Haiti.
Back in the 1960s, it wasn’t. Jean-Marie Denis, also known as Jan Mapou, was well aware of that. He used to host a radio show in Port-au-Prince that featured folk stories read on the air, in Creole. The subject matter wasn’t controversial. But this was the time of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, one of Haiti’s most brutal dictators. Even reciting fairy tales in Creole on the airwaves could get you in trouble.
“The regime was concerned that by talking to the people in Creole, we would start opening their eyes and they’ll understand what’s going on,” Mapou says today.
On April 6, 1969, at 8:00 a.m., Mapou was arrested by the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier’s personal militia, and thrown into a cramped cell with two dozen other men in the infamous Fort Dimanche prison. There he listened to the sounds of prisoners being shot in the courtyard. “I was there for four months and four days,” he says. “How did I get released? I couldn’t tell you. On August 13, they just opened the door and said, ‘The president said you can go.’”
That year Mapou caught a plane for New York. Forty-four years later, he continues to promote Creole and Haitian culture in his adopted country through his artistic group (Sosyete Koukouy), his plays, his dance performances, and his poetry. A resident of Miami Shores, Mapou owns property in Little Haiti and runs a Creole-language bookstore, Libreri Mapou, at 5919 NE 2nd Ave.
It’s here that his fight for Haitian culture is entering a new stage -- preserving the name and character of Little Haiti, an area just west of Miami’s Upper Eastside that for decades has been the center of the Haitian exile experience in South Florida.
“Little Haiti is here to stay,” Mapou vows, “and it will always remain Little Haiti.”
On the surface, Haitian culture and the name Little Haiti seem secure in this part of Miami. A statue of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’ouverture stands at NE 62nd Street and NE 2nd Avenue. There’s a 12-acre, city-owned soccer field and track called Little Haiti Park at 6301 NE 2nd Ave. The Caribbean Marketplace, a failed experiment at creating a tourist attraction for Little Haiti, is being renovated, thanks to a $900,000-plus investment from the city. Behind the market sits the 20,000-square-foot Little Haiti Cultural Center, where nonprofits rent space to provide arts and after-school programs for the community.
Haitian-owned shops, stores, restaurants, offices, and other businesses are easy to spot along commercial corridors like NE 2nd Avenue and NE 54th Street. There are also plenty of churches in Little Haiti whose congregations are predominately Haitian, the most well-known being Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church.
“Any Haitian, even if they’re not from Miami or Florida, if they come from New York or Chicago, the first place they come is Little Haiti,” Mapou beams. “They ask their family members: ‘Take me to Little Haiti.’
“They want to mingle with their own people,” he says. “They want to be surrounded by their culture. They want to shop in the Haitian businesses, and eat Haitian food. I met a Haitian who was living five years in Chicago, and during that time he had not been able to eat Haitian food.”
But Miami is changing. In the downtown area, developers have hatched plans to build some of the tallest skyscrapers in the southeastern United States. Wynwood is transforming from a land of artist studios and galleries into a hub of bars, restaurants, and tech startups. Developer Craig Robins and French-based luxury retailer LVMH are gutting swaths of the Design District with the intention of turning it into South Florida’s ultimate high-end shopping destination. Motels from the 1950s and the sprawling Biscayne Plaza Shopping Center are being renovated in the Upper Eastside.
In the midst of all this activity is Little Haiti, which is also changing. Over the past few years, a growing number of warehouses in the area have been transformed into chic offices and art studios. Within the past decade, as many as 35 non-Haitian-owned businesses have opened between the FEC railroad tracks and NE 2nd Avenue. That trend may accelerate as developers and business owners scout for cheaper alternatives to the Design District and Wynwood.
At the same time, a growing number of Haitian-owned businesses, unable to cope with rising rents and slowing sales, are closing. The protracted reconstruction of NE 2nd Avenue has been blamed for the woes of various businesses along that road, both Haitian-owned and not. But the main culprit has been the dismal economy, which hit Little Haiti’s residents especially hard. Many of them worked as low-level service employees, and they still serve as the main customer base of Haitian businesses in Little Haiti.
“When people can’t buy a pastry for 60 cents, things are bad,” says Leaman Bien-Aime, owner of Lakay Tropical Ice Cream at 91 NE 54th St.
Another indicator of change: The green “Welcome to Little Haiti” signs the city once planted at intersections along NE 2nd Avenue and N. Miami Avenue have disappeared during the road construction and haven’t come back.
“People seem to think that they need to do more -- otherwise they’ll lose Little Haiti to the developing part of the Design District and Buena Vista area,” says Faidherbe “Fedo” Boyer, owner of the translation service CreoleTrans at 375 NE 54th St.
By “lose,” Boyer means a future in which most Haitian-owned businesses have closed, Haitian-themed wall murals have been painted over, and references to a “Little Haiti” within the City of Miami vanish.
To prevent that from happening, Mapou and other Haitian-American business owners and activists have decided, as Boyer puts it, “to do more.” They’ve organized themselves as the NE 2nd Avenue Partnership, and they’re pushing for a study that would define the boundaries of Little Haiti. Then they’d like the city to officially christen Little Haiti as a neighborhood, with borders clearly marked by new signs. Their hope is that an officially designated Little Haiti will be promoted as a cultural-tourism destination.
The idea was discussed, twice, in Miami City Commission meetings last fall, thanks to Michelle Spence-Jones, who at the time was the commissioner for District 5, which includes Little Haiti. During the October 24 city commission meeting, several prominent Haitian community members made speeches about Haitians’ contributions to Miami and the United States, but in the end there was no clear direction given to city staffers on how to proceed.
Spence-Jones is out of office, but the activists remain undeterred. They vow to lobby her successor, Keon Hardemon, to continue where she left off.
“I’m committed to Little Haiti because it’s the heart and soul of the Haitian diaspora,” says Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center. “Little Haiti is where the Haitian people fought for acceptance, and it was a battle of epic proportions.”
But that effort has sparked a firestorm of opposition. An assortment of landlords, business owners, homeowners, and local historians have coalesced around efforts to block the creation of an “official” Little Haiti. Their motivations vary. For one thing, it’s unprecedented. Miami city officials do create zoning districts and borders for service areas, but they don’t set boundaries for named communities. That’s left to those living in and developing a particular area. Not even Little Havana has official borders.
“I think it’s crazy to try to define neighborhoods,” says Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College, “and I wouldn’t want to try to define Little Haiti.”
The area referred to as Little Haiti is generally located within the Little Haiti NET district, one of 12 “neighborhood enhancement team” zones designed by the City of Miami. The Little Haiti NET’s boundaries are from 36th Street to 84th Street, and NE 4th Avenue west to NW 6th Avenue. This territory includes communities such as Buena Vista East and West, the Design District, Bellaire, Brentwood, Edison, Oakland Grove, Little River Gardens, the Little River Business District, and Lemon City.
Another reason for opposition to an officially delineated Little Haiti is that many people who own land or buildings in the area want to preserve or reclaim old neighborhood names that were in use long before Haitians began arriving in the 1970s. “Look, many ethnic groups back to the 1600s have lived, worked, and prospered around this still-flowing river called Little River. The Haitian community is only one of many,” declares Bennett Pumo, a prominent landlord in the Little River Business District, an industrial section between NE 2nd Avenue and the FEC railroad tracks, from 62nd Street to 72nd Street.
Pumo adds: “You would think this group [the Haitians] would honor the many groups before them, and support the historical names and heritage prior to their most recent arrival.”
Silvia Wong, who has run a food-distribution business in the Little River Business District for the past 25 years, points out that Haitians are actually leaving. “Since I’ve been in Little River so long, I’ve seen the ongoing exodus of Haitians who’ve been leaving Miami for North Miami and other areas,” she says. “We’ve been told that Haitians have been leaving the area at two percent to three percent per year for the past 15 to 20 years. You can see from the recent federal census that the fastest-growing population in District 5 is Hispanic.”
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many Haitians live in Little Haiti because the U.S. Census doesn’t count Haitians as Haitians. Instead they are either “black” (a racial category shared with other groups, such as African Americans) or West Indian (ancestry that includes Haitians, Jamaicans, Bahamians, and other islands of non-Hispanic origin). Census figures suggest there’s still a large Haitian population living in Little Haiti, although they’re no longer the majority.
Out of 33,800 people living in eight census tracts within the Little Haiti NET district, 14,800 (about 44 percent) are identified as West Indian, according to a U.S. Census survey taken between 2008 and 2012.
Gepsie Metellus admits that Miami’s Haitian enclave has shrunk in recent years, but she insists that a predominately working-class Haitian community exists north of 54th Street. That area, she adds, is still the first place of residence for many Haitians arriving in the U.S. “This is where they come and begin their journey to self-sufficiency,” she says, “and to all those wonderful things this country is known for.”
Settled in the years following the Civil War, Lemon City was once the most populous community in a sparsely populated South Florida. It sprawled, too. A Miami News article from September 1980 defined Lemon City’s 20th-century borders as NE 60th Street to NE 72nd Street, and from Biscayne Bay westward. “Lemon City used to mean all the land from the bay west to Opa-locka and Hialeah,” according to the article, “but that was before Miami was Miami.”
There’s no firm date for when Lemon City was founded because it was never an actual city. As author Thelma Peters noted in her 1971 book Lemon City: Pioneering on Biscayne Bay: 1850-1925: “Though Lemon City was a port, it never was a port of entry; though it called itself ‘city,’ it had no local government, no land taxes, no police or fire department, no newspaper, no zoning, no garbage pickup, no sewer, no water system, and, until 1909, no electricity. Yet as a pioneer community it functioned well. It had a school, a post office, churches, stores, a library, a livery stable, and an active community improvement association.”
Peters did acknowledge that Lemon City was a community of firsts. Lemon City had the first library south of Jacksonville (Lemon City Library, founded in 1894), Dade’s first community church (Lemon City Methodist Church, now Grace United Methodist Church, finished in 1893), and Dade’s first public school (Lemon City School, started in 1886).
Until the latter half of the 19th Century, there were few non-Seminoles living in southern Florida, except for Key West. The federal government aimed to change that. In 1842, soon after the end of the Second Seminole War, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act, under which a white man could claim 160 acres of Florida land so long as he lived there. Back then, the future Lemon City was simply known as Section 18.
John Saunders, his wife, Natalie, and his seven children settled Section 18 as homesteaders in 1876. Saunders, a white Bahamian, worked as a laborer in a starch mill, as a farmer, and a sailor, but for some reason he was known as “John Saunders the Jailer.”
“How he got the name of Jailer is not known,” Thelma Peters wrote, “but it helped distinguish him from another John Saunders who lived at Elliott’s Key.”
In 1883, Saunders filed his claim for 148 acres. On 100 of those acres, Saunders grew orange, mango, coconut, and lemon trees. Within a few years, he sold 12 acres of his land to Eugene Harrington for $400. Harrington promptly subdivided that land and sold the parcels at a handsome profit. For just one acre, Harrington snagged $500 from Key West investor Charles Moffat. That acre of land, incidentally, was on the bay. The deed of sale between Moffat and Harrington was the first time “Lemon City” was mentioned in the public record. The date: December 28, 1889.
In 1892, Lewis Pierce set up a large steamboat wharf just south of today’s Legion Park, at Lemon Avenue, now known as NE 61st Street. “The first dockage for vessels in Miami was not at the FEC dock in downtown Miami, where the American Airlines arena is,” notes historian Seth Bramson. “It was actually in Lemon City.”
Three years after the wharf was completed, the U.S. Census listed Lemon City as the second most populated community in Dade County. Back then, Dade included what are now Broward and Palm Beach counties. West Palm Beach, with a population of 1000, held the No. 1 spot.
Like everywhere else in the southeastern United States, Lemon City was segregated. Three black communities once existed there, according to Peters: Boles Town (located west of today’s N. Miami Avenue by NE 57th Street); Knightsville (a five-acre area by NE 2nd Avenue and 68th Street); and Nazarene (between the railroad tracks and NE 2nd Avenue, south of NE 71st Street). Most of Lemon City’s black inhabitants were migrant Bahamians and their descendants, known for their skill at growing crops in coral rock soil.
Several churches and lodges catering to black residents were started in Lemon City’s Knightsville. St. James A.M.E. Methodist Church in Liberty City was founded in 1906 in Knightsville. So was Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church, which was finished in 1902.
Absent organized law enforcement, Lemon City saw its share of crime. Jerome Sands, an old-timer raised in Lemon City, told the Miami News that his teacher, Ada Merritt, would excuse her students from school whenever there was a murder. “We had about 20 of those holidays a year,” he said.
Railway workers, many of whom were convicts leased by the FEC from the State of Florida for $2.50 a month each, got most of the blame for crime and violence. As the Miami News article put it: “Gamblers and loose women followed the crews, and Lemon City began feeling the pinch of economic expansion, bloodshed and killings.”
In 1896, Henry Flagler built his railway through Lemon City and south to the small settlement by the Miami River. “Up until the time Flagler brought his railroad at the urging of Julia Tuttle in 1896, the area around the Miami River did not attract community development as did Lemon City and Coconut Grove,” wrote Florida State University professor Ron Blazek in the journal Tequesta.
But a wave of development followed after Flagler gathered 368 adult males, including 162 black rail workers under his employ, to vote for the incorporation of the City of Miami in July 1896, according to the 1993 book City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami, written by Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick. By 1900, Miami had a population of 3000 people. By 1904, 4500 people called Miami home, at least in the wintertime.
As Miami grew, so did Buena Vista, a settlement just south of Lemon City that had sprouted from a pineapple plantation during the 1910s. In 1924, Buena Vista incorporated as a city. But one year later, Miami annexed both Buena Vista and Lemon City. Soon afterward, Thelma Peters wrote, “the Lemon City railroad station was phased out, the post office became a branch of Miami’s, and the school was given a new name.”
Some say annexation by Miami marked the decline of Lemon City. In the 1980 Miami News article, John DuPuis, son of prominent developer, doctor, and businessman Dr. John DuPuis, said the area “started disintegrating in the 1930s.” That’s when the saw mills and starch plants started shutting down. By the time of his interview with the newspaper, DuPuis said few old-timers were left. “None of the descendants of the original settlers live in Lemon City,” he noted, “and I don’t blame ’em for leaving.”
From the beginning, Haiti’s economy and politics were unstable. France threatened to invade once again unless Haiti paid it 150 million francs as reparations. The United States, meanwhile, refused to trade or establish diplomatic relations with Haiti. Formally recognizing a nation created by a bloody slave uprising was unthinkable for a nation dependent on slavery.
Led by President Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. finally did recognize Haitian independence in 1862. That recognition, however, didn’t stop the American government from intervening militarily in Haiti 17 times between 1862 and 1915. From 1915 to 1934, U.S. troops were a constant presence there.
During its 212-year history, many of Haiti’s leaders came to power via violent coup d’états. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, on the other hand, came to power in 1957 by the ballot box (albeit rigged), thanks to support from the Haitian military. Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes killed or tortured the dictator’s opponents while extorting tribute from Haitian businessmen and peasants.
Thousands of Haitians, unable to prosper under Duvalier, left their homeland. Many of them were members of Haiti’s educated middle-class. “We all left because we couldn’t stay in Haiti,” says ice-cream shop owner Bien-Aime, who flew to New York in 1969. “We got less from school. We got less from politics. One day my father said, ‘We don’t have any future here. We have to go.’”
They didn’t go to Miami, at least not at first. Many went to Québec or to France’s former colonies in Africa. New York was the most popular U.S. destination for Haitians during the 1950s and 1960s. Says bookstore owner Jan Mapou: “New York was the economic engine.”
When Papa Doc died in 1971, his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, took over as president-for-life. Political repression, corruption, violence, and economic conditions worsened. By the end of the decade, Haitian peasants were fleeing the nation any way they could, and in greater numbers. For a time they settled in the Bahamas, working as laborers. But when the number of refugees increased, Bahamians shut the door. Then: “Just like Christopher Columbus,” Bien-Aime laughs, “we discovered Miami.”
According to City on the Edge, 60,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida between 1977 and 1981. Instead of arriving by plane, as many of the New York migrants had done, most came in flimsy vessels via unscrupulous smugglers. The bodies of those who didn’t make it sometimes washed ashore on South Florida’s beaches.
In response to pleas from Miami leaders to stop the influx, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched a “Haitian program” in 1979 that sought to deport Haitians as soon as possible. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration sent Coast Guard cutters to patrol Haitian waters “around the clock so that Miami-bound boats could be intercepted at sea before reaching U.S. jurisdiction,” according to City on the Edge.
Challenging this policy was the Haitian Refugee Center. The organization was founded in 1972 by the National Council of Churches to provide comfort and shelter for Haitian refugees. After Gérard Jean-Juste, a firebrand Catholic priest, was named director of the HRC in 1979, the organization became renowned for leading street protests against the deportations and filing lawsuits in federal court. Both strategies worked, and U.S. policy started to budge. In time, tens of thousands of Haitians were granted residency. (The Haitian Refugee Center dissolved in 2003. Jean-Juste, who returned to Haiti for 15 years, died of leukemia at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital in 2009. He was 63 years old.)
But it wasn’t just poor Haitians from the island who were coming to Miami. “Middle-class Haitians came from New York to join the entrants released from INS custody and those who managed to slip in undetected,” wrote Portes and Stepick. These more prosperous Haitians usually didn’t move into the old Lemon City or Little River areas. Instead they bought houses in other parts of the county. One exception was Buena Vista, where Haitian professionals purchased single-family homes, sometimes on the same block as residences that had been converted into rooming houses for Haitian laborers.
Middle-class Haitians did, however, pick the Lemon City area as a place to conduct business. In 1974 there were 34 Haitian-owned businesses in Little Haiti. By 1989 there were more than 300.
All Haitians, no matter their education or economic class, were deemed ignorant boat people by many South Floridians, according to City on the Edge. Worse, Haitians were often victims of unfounded rumors that they were disease carriers. The federal government played a part in this prejudice. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration identified Haitians as an “at-risk” group. Both decisions were eventually reversed. (Later studies showed that AIDS was introduced to Haiti from the U.S., not vice versa.) “But the damage had been done,” Stepick wrote in a 1990 report for the U.S. Census Bureau. “Many Haitians lost their jobs and negative stereotypes became firmly embedded in the general South Florida population.”
“He was having a conversation with a reporter in the late 1970s,” recounts his son, Carl Juste, a Miami Herald photographer. “He always admired how the Cubans were able to come to Miami and retain their identity. So he said, ‘The Cubans have a Little Havana, why can’t the Haitians have a Little Port-au-Prince?”It was in this environment that Viter Juste, who had moved from New York to Miami’s Buena Vista neighborhood in 1973, sought to create an identity for Miami’s Haitian enclave. He published the first Creole-language newspaper and opened Les Cousins, the first Haitian record store, which flourished for years at 7830 NE 2nd Ave.
Viter Juste wrote a letter to the Herald, proposing the idea. But “Little Port-au-Prince” was too long for the headline. Herald editors used “Little Haiti” instead.
The rest is history, but Viter Juste wasn’t satisfied with just a name. He and several other Haitian business owners dreamed of a Little Haiti commercial sector that didn’t just cater to Haitians but also to tourists interested in experiencing Haitian culture. “It’s up to us now to make something out of the community, to bring people into it,” he told the Herald in 1984. “If we succeed, we’re going to be sailing on the high seas.”
The Haitian Task Force hoped to make that dream a reality. The nonprofit community organization, formed in 1982, managed to snag a $740,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to provide low-interest loans for Haitian businesses. The task force obtained another $30,000 grant to help paint the façades of Haitian businesses.
The most ambitious task force plan was to transform an empty furniture store at 5925 NE 2nd Ave. into the Miami version of Port-au-Prince’s landmark Iron Market. Over the course of several years, the group’s members managed to raise $1.2 million in grants and loans from foundations and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It was the promise of the Caribbean Marketplace that inspired Mapou to open his bookstore. Mapou came to Miami-Dade in 1984, after his employer, Kinney Parking, transferred him from JFK Airport in New York to Miami International Airport to supervise the company’s garage operation here. “To tell you the truth, they put me in a desert,” Mapou laughs. “No friends. No family. I was alone.”
Mapou became friendly with a director of the Haitian Task Force. The director, who knew of Mapou’s poems and plays, encouraged him to set up a Haitian bookstore in the Caribbean Marketplace. Contacting his friends from New York and utilizing his own personal collection, Mapou had 300 books in stock.
When the market finally opened in 1991, there were 20 small businesses operating from booths inside, include Libreri Mapou and the first incarnation of Lakay Tropical Ice Cream. Unfortunately, the Haitian Task Force was neither a good landlord nor competent at bookkeeping. When the group failed to pay the marketplace’s bills, the Ford Foundation cut off funding, and the federal government demanded that $200,000 be returned. In response, the Haitian Task Force dissolved itself. In 1997 the city finally shut the place down.
Both Mapou and Bien-Aime blame the inexperience of Haitian Task Force board members and staff for the Caribbean Marketplace’s failure. “They charged too much money,” Mapou says. “I was charged $300 a month and I charged one dollar for a book, and I sold a book once in a blue moon.” Fortunately, both Mapou and Bien-Aime kept their day jobs. Mapou bought a building on the same block as the marketplace and a vacant lot across the street . Bien-Aime bought a strip mall on NE 54th Street with free parking.
In spite of his experience with the Caribbean Marketplace, Mapou campaigned for it to be reopened and, eight years ago, fought a proposal by then-Mayor Manny Diaz to tear it down. “This is a step in the right direction,” Mapou told the Herald in 2005. “It will attract people. The dream is still there and they can realize it.” (Miami officials hope to reopen the marketplace this summer.)
Little River landlord Bennett Pumo sees things differently. He calls the Caribbean Marketplace the “perpetual failing market” and cites the city’s contribution to the project as “$3 million and counting.” Pumo adds that the market is just one of several investments made by taxpayers in the name of Little Haiti, including $20 million to build the Little Haiti Cultural Center and as much as $44 million for Little Haiti Park.
“So I ask,” he concludes, “should this one ethnic group claim ownership of seven named areas, for most of the Haitian-named improvements that were done with the tax money from all those before them?”
Georgia Ayers never forgave them for it. A prominent African-American activist and historian, Ayers has long resented use of the Little Haiti label to describe the neighborhood her family once called home. Her mother and grandmother, the 85-year-old Ayers tells the
Enid Pinkney, a board member of Dade Heritage Trust and president of the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corporation, says she’s concerned that Lemon City and its residents’ contributions to the region, especially of its black community, will be completely forgotten. After all, Miami leaders had long forgotten about the Lemon City Cemetery, the final resting place of the settlement’s black residents, once located at NW 71st Street and NW 4th Avenue. In the 1950s, a YMCA was built on top of it. Rediscovered in 2009 during the construction of an affordable-housing project, the old cemetery yielded the remains of 525 people, including Pinkney’s grandfather and Ayers’s grandfather.
“The people don’t know the history of this community,” Pinkney says. “The lack of knowledge brings disrespect.”
Protecting the Little Haiti name, Gepsie Metellus insists, doesn’t mean erasing Lemon City. “Nobody is saying Lemon City should be wiped out,” she says. “We understand the value of history.”
Little River property owner Wong points out that Little Haiti has long been viewed as a crime-ridden area best avoided. “Names matter,” she says. “People tell us that out-of-town investors and potential new business owners have many choices when they investigate potential investment opportunities. Many people still associate Little Haiti with its appearance in Grand Theft Auto, the top-selling video game, and remember the wars between rival Haitian gangs from several years ago.”
Regardless of the area’s name, crime is still an issue. According to Little River landlord Pumo, car burglaries are rampant, as well as “the theft of metal, electrical services to many business, streetlight wiring, manhole covers, safety rails, water meter covers, and even awnings ripped from walls, which are all taken to the scrapper.”
Fred St. Amand, a prominent Haitian-American who owns the Pax-Villa funeral home at 54 NE 54th St., is quite aware of the area’s crime problems. After his funeral home was broken into a few times, he started carrying a pistol, “just to let them know I’m as crazy as they are.” But St. Amand vows to organize against any attempt to change the name from Little Haiti.
“You have some interest groups who want to take it out because they feel embarrassed,” says St. Amand. “But we’re fighting back. We’re not going to sit back and let it happen.”
Peter Ehrlich could be considered a member of one of St. Amand’s interest groups, though it’s not embarrassment that motivates him. Ehrlich, who owns four redeveloped warehouses near NE 3rd Avenue and 59th Terrace, dislikes the idea of a neighborhood name being imposed by the city. “We prefer people to feel free to use the historic names as they are now,” he says, “without making any changes.”
On a recent afternoon, Ehrlich gives a tour in his black SUV of an area of warehouses east of NE 2nd Avenue along NE 59th Terrace and NE 59th Street. He owns the ones painted white. “We only use white semi-gloss paint,” he explains.
There’s no graffiti on the buildings in this area, Ehrlich points out. There’s no trash on the street, either. The warehouses, those owned by Ehrlich and others, aren’t just storage facilities, but rather offices and studios.
Since 1998, Ehrlich, an Upper Eastside resident, has been investing his time and money in this section of Lemon City. In the early days, he says, he contended with homeless drug addicts and armed robbers. But he also had to deal with illegal dumping, much of it done, he alleges, by Haitian-owned rag shops that sorted through piles of clothes for material they could sell to Haiti, and then simply dumped the rest, sometimes right on the public right-of-way. The rag shops on Ehrlich’s block have since been replaced by new tenants.
“You see how clean it looks?” he asks. “I couldn’t achieve this if the Haitians were still here.”
Ehrlich is Mapou’s nemesis. He maintains that Mapou and most of the Haitian activists clamoring for an official Little Haiti don’t even live in Miami. Mapou, on the other hand, accuses Ehrlich of not only wanting to eliminate the Little Haiti name, but of wanting to drive out the Haitians.
“He’s a bug!” Mapou says of Ehrlich. It was Ehrlich, he asserts, who made the expansion of Notre Dame d’Haiti Church at 110 NE 62nd St. more costly because he complained that oak trees on the site might be damaged by the construction. In the wake of that complaint, the church was forced to spend more funds redesigning its plans.
“Imagine that the people of Little Haiti put their pennies together, for about four or five years,” says Mapou, “struggling very hard to build that church, where 2000 or 3000 people worship every Sunday -- and he tried to stop it.”
The church’s construction plans threatened the lives of nine majestic oak trees more than a century old, Ehrlich counters, adding that other Miami activists were concerned about the fate of the trees at Notre Dame. Many of those trees, he adds, will probably die in the next five or six years.
Ehrlich can’t help but wonder why the church doesn’t leave Little Haiti. “That would be smart,” he says. “They should be in Miramar or North Miami, closer to where their customers live.”
Like other critics of the Little Haiti name, Ehrlich stresses that Haitians are migrating out of Lemon City and Little River, a fact hasn’t been lost on Haitian entrepreneurs. Between 2010 and 2012, the Miami Herald reported, about 90 new Haitian-owned businesses opened in North Miami, a city with a large Haitian population.
Ehrlich isn’t shy about pushing the Lemon City name for the area. Aside from the historic implications, he believes, like Silvia Wong, the Little Haiti label scares away potential investors. “In order to bring more businesses here,” he says, “it has to be Lemon City or Little River.”
One of Miami’s biggest businesses is tourism, but some non-Haitian property and business owners scoff at the notion that Little Haiti could ever attract tourists. Yet hundreds of people, Haitians and non-Haitians alike, journey to the Little Haiti Cultural Center every third Friday of the month for an event called “Big Night in Little Haiti.”
Produced by the nonprofit Rhythm Foundation, Big Night in Little Haiti features Haitian musicians, Haitian art, Haitian food, and Haitian-brewed Prestige beer.
Adam Ganuza, a Rhythm Foundation production coordinator, doubts a mere name change will make the area any more or any less economically viable. “What will make a startup company locate to an area is going to be the environment fostered in the community,” he says. He does admit that he prefers the name Little Haiti. “Big Night in Lemon City sounds like the worst clown show you can imagine,” he says, adding, “The name Lemon City would make a lot more sense if there were still lemon trees.”
Jan Mapou intends to make sure he won’t disappear like the lemon trees of old. Even though he’s “still in the red” businesswise, he vows not to sell his store or the vacant land across the street from Libreri Mapou that he uses for parking. Just two months ago, he says, a man with a cigar told him he wanted to buy his building.
Mapou: “I said, ‘What about my books?’ He said, ‘Oh, you can take your books. Just tell me how much you’re interested for your building and land.’ I told him I have no need to sell it and I want to stay here until I die, and then my son and my daughter and my wife will take over. He said, ‘Mapou, you can make millions from the land across the street,’ and I said, ‘I know that. That’s the reason why I bought it 15 years ago. And I have no interest in selling it.’”
Volume 14, Issue 2, April 2016
For 21 years, Miami Light Project’s Here & Now festival has cultivated great work