This weekend South Florida history expert Paul George leads his Little Havana Bike Tour, a three-hour comprehensive four-to-five-mile trek that covers, as Dan Rather might say, the whole enchilada: the sizable chunk of land west of downtown, south of the Miami River, north of Coral Way, and east of Flagami. And what could be a more appropriate mode of transport in an area that has gone through more cycles than a Speed Queen?
The region radiating south of the Miami River that had been known as Riverside since the 1890s and had become a middle-class Jewish enclave by the 1930s, was rechristened in the 1960s to reflect the dramatic influx of Cuban exiles that had begun pouring in at the end of the previous decade.
In his 1991 walking-tour book of East Little Havana, George notes: "In other American cities, such an area would be a prime target for gentrification, but the massive influx of refugees has kept occupancy at near capacity, and has, accordingly, discouraged this kind of activity." So houses from the early 1900s, such as a classic bungalow at 727 SW First St., built in 1914 by Smiley Tatum, one of Riverside's original developers, can be found largely intact.
George, who has been bringing the area's history to life for thirteen years and exploring it since he was a child (he lived in what is now known as East Little Havana until he was eight and a half years old), predicts the neighborhood, especially north of Flagler (severely impoverished and congested as it is in some portions), will retain its eclectic flavor. Absorbing recent arrivals from the Caribbean and Latin America, the community, George maintains, will continue to serve as our own Ellis Island for years to come.
Bullhorn in hand, George directs pedalers east from La Esquina de Tejas restaurant, where Ronald Reagan ate in May of 1983 and consequently had both a lunch selection and street sign named for him. After a café cubano or two, stops include José Martí Park, the historic Miami River Inn (a functioning bed and breakfast), Henderson Park, the Orange Bowl, and, of course, Calle Ocho. Then there's the location of the old KKK building, where chapter #24 met circa the 1920s; the Firestone store that Thomas Edison allegedly hung out in to play with the tools; and the Ball and Chain (a joint across the street from the still-standing Tower Theater), which boasted major black entertainers, such as Cab Calloway, during the segregated 1940s. From a Tequesta Indian camp to Tent City, Spanish mission architecture to Streamline Moderne, Paul George uncovers beneath the layers of paint and shifting ethnicities a Little Havana you might never have expected.