What Art Thou, Little Havana?

Viernes Culturales is transforming Calle Ocho -- but into what remains a big question

Fernandez's shopping spree coincided with the arrival of artists like Suarez de Jesus, Marthell, and Alves. The timing was not coincidental. "Art brings retailers and retailers bring shoppers," recites the developer.

Fernandez uses the word art like the character in The Graduate used plastics: as a one-word key to unlocking the door to untold riches. He admits that, with the exception of a handful of artists, he doesn't think "the quality art thing" has been worked out. But then again it also seems to make little difference.

The mainstream press has jumped on the Little Havana art wagon with both feet. A two-page color spread in the July 23 Miami Herald "Living and Arts" section extolled the virtues of the "Bohemian, go-with-the-flow, all-night party" that is Viernes Culturales. It is an odd piece, by turns boosteristic ("It's one zany scene after another"), touristic ("It's not a bad idea to consume a little free wine while visiting the Little Havana art galleries"), and overly optimistic ("Here, artists rule"). The Little Havana described in the story bears only a passing resemblance to the neighborhood as it actually is, and no resemblance whatsoever to anything approaching a genuine arts district. Significantly the one truly vital cultural institution mentioned in the piece -- a weekly intellectual jam session nicknamed Café Neuralgia, which the Herald accurately describes as having featured "artists, poets, photographers, university professors, curious locals, foreign tourists, and friends of friends" -- lasted less than a year, disbanding this past February.

Landlord Aaron Lichtschein sees big rents on the horizon in Little Havana
Steve Satterwhite
Landlord Aaron Lichtschein sees big rents on the horizon in Little Havana

Still the idea of a cultural oasis in Miami-Dade continues to be an enticing one, and it's entirely possible that, in a city where image is everything, Little Havana will be successfully sold to investors and to the public as a vibrant arts district without ever becoming one.

Already rents and property values are spiraling upward. "I've been offered double what I paid for my Little Havana properties a few years ago," boasts Aaron Lichtschein, who owns five buildings in the area, including the complex at the corner of SW Twelfth Avenue and Sixth Street that artists such as Suarez de Jesus, Marthell, and Alves currently call home.

It is a development that will make it increasingly harder, if not impossible, for the few legitimate artists in the area to remain. Tony Wagner, director of the Latin Quarter Cultural Center, a nonprofit arts group, recently received a $300,000 Knight Foundation grant, money with which he intended to purchase the Arting Together building his organization currently shares with the Miami Hispanic Ballet and the Creation Art Center. However, the asking price for the property at the corner of SW Eighth Street and Fifteenth Avenue, which a few years ago could have been had for roughly the amount of the grant, has climbed, according to its owner, to $895,000. "My vision has always been for the art institutions now located in the building to have a permanent home here," says Wagner, who also is the city's Coral Way Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) administrator. "I'd like to be able to stick around."

Even if the Latin Quarter Cultural Center could come up with the money, Wagner's co-tenant, Pedro Pablo Peña, says there's a good case to be made for passing on the property. "To spend a million dollars on a cultural center and then have the powers that be turn this neighborhood into a bachata (a constant street party) doesn't make any sense," reasons Peña. "The way things are going, I don't think anything culturally important will happen here," he continues. "The area will become something else. Other activities, other interests will dominate."

Some area artists and arts entrepreneurs hold out hope things will be different. "I'd like to see a boulevard lined with painters," says Jesus Fuertes, himself a painter and the proprietor of Café Gallery 2000, a combination exhibition space/frame shop/tapas bar on Eighth Street. "Real painters, professional painters." Tony Wagner dreams about one day seeing " a multiplicity of businesses, open-air cafes, and artists throughout, like SoHo, like Ybor City."

There is talk among city officials of district designation, similar to the one South Beach enjoys, for the stretch of SW Eighth Street recently repopularized by Viernes Culturales. Their immediate goals for the area, however, are commercial in nature. Joe Sanchez eventually would like to see a Starbucks with a Latin theme open directly across from Casa Panza and not far from Little Havana to Go, a souvenir shop featuring T-shirts, caps, and even espresso serving sets emblazoned with the Cuban crest and flag. But that, according to José Fernandez, would only be the beginning. "Right now, our Lincoln Road is SW Eighth Street from Fourteenth to Seventeenth avenues," says the developer, "but the nucleus will keep expanding."

For his part Carlos Suarez de Jesus wonders how long it'll be before artists are forced out completely from yet another neighborhood they've helped bring back. "I don't have anything against anyone making a buck," he says. "But as an artist, I'm just waiting to be crushed."

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