Ghost Town

The rays of the setting sun filter through a skylight in the tin roof of the Caribbean Marketplace, down an atrium past the flags of thirteen Caribbean nations, and onto the perfectly round face of Leaman Bien-Aime. "This was the central place," the 44-year-old shopowner says wistfully, his tortoiseshell-rim spectacles glinting as he turns away from the light. "Everyone who came and sat here in this chair like I am found someone they knew. If you were from Haiti you could sit here and definitely find someone you hadn't seen for years."

The Caribbean Marketplace debuted in April 1990 as the engine that would power the economic revival of dingy Little Haiti, its brightly colored gingerbread trim and distinctive roof (designs loosely based on the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince) a brazen announcement that this neighborhood was finally open for business. Inside the cavernous main hall, a score of upstart local entrepreneurs were set to peddle books, records, clothing, art, food, and other ethnic wares. An ideal location -- 5927 NE Second Ave., in the heart of Little Haiti -- ensured a steady stream of neighborhood traffic. Lured by aggressive international promotion, tourists from as far away as Holland were expected to follow.

Bullish on the Marketplace, Bien-Aime opened Lakay Tropical Ice Cream, home of eight "famous flavors" spiced with exotic jungle fruits. Grenady (passion fruit), korosol (sour sop), and kachiman (sweet sop) shared the freezer with plain vanilla and strawberry. The frozen treats found complements in Bien-Aime's homemade Haitian meat pies, sodas, and bottles of iced tea.

"I was always interested in business," he says. "I grew up in business. My father was a farmer in Port-de-Paix, but he kept pushing me toward business. When I saw the community didn't have any ice cream shop around, I decided to open one."

The market itself was nearly a decade in the making. A nonprofit community group called the Haitian Task Force sponsored a contest and settled on an architectural design back in 1983, but had to wait seven years to scrape together enough grant money to cover the project's cost: approximately one million dollars. "At first lots of people thought we were foolish dreamers," task force executive director Henri-Robert Lamothe announced on opening day. "They didn't believe anyone could build or lease this project in Little Haiti, and didn't think the market could support it.... Today the task force and our tenants proved the cynics wrong. Today our dream became a reality."

Except the cynics never really went away. While opening day was truly a celebration, complete with politicians, balloons, and live compas music, Bien-Aime felt a neighborhood antipathy from the start. The building lacked air-conditioning, many complained; and the parking was abysmal. "Haitian people are so negative," the shopkeeper grumbles. "They are great at destroying things, but they are not great at working with what they have. They said they built the marketplace like the Iron Market in Haiti. People would walk in and say, 'Where are the flies? They had flies in the Iron Market. Where is the rice? Where are the beans? Where is this and where is that?' People were negative against this even before it opened."

The lackluster early returns prompted the task force to reconsider the nature of its project. At its genesis, in the early Eighties, the market was intended as a nightspot, with clubs that would draw people into Little Haiti. The concept mutated before opening day into a market aimed at the immigrant community. Then, faced with dismal support, it switched back. "They could never decide if it was for the tourists or if it was for the locals," remembers Frank Castaneda, who ran Miami's Department of Community Development at the time. "Originally they decided they would be for tourists, then they changed for the locals."

The argument, which was never really resolved, soon became moot. Half the new boutiques were opened by people who had no prior business experience. Nearly all the shopowners overestimated the amount of money they would make in sales. "Three months went by and six months went by," remembers Charles Harrison Pawley, the building's award-winning architect. "And slowly but surely these people who went into business and didn't know anything about business went out of business. The marketplace went from an active place where people went to buy and sell to a ghost town."

After only a year, task force executive director Lamothe resigned under pressure from his board of directors. One private group pulled its grant money. Others soon followed, causing a domino effect that could not be stopped. "With all the groups withdrawing their promised support, the staff tried to be creative," says Max Massac, former president of the task force's board. "That led them to use grant money earmarked for the purchase of property to purchase security doors, for example. That got us into trouble with the way finances were managed." (Lamothe could not be reached for comment for this story.)

In 1993 the federal Department of Health and Human Services demanded the repayment of more than $200,000 in "disallowed" expenditures. The task force never paid; instead it disbanded, leaving the water bills to pile up and the few remaining tenants, like Bien-Aime, to fend for themselves.

"Everything was wrong about the place from the beginning," he says. "The planning was wrong; the rents were too high for a place like this. I paid as much per square foot for my store as I would pay downtown ($450 per month for 150 square feet). Nobody can survive on that kind of rent, especially people starting out in business. It was bad planning."

Indeed, Bien-Aime would not have survived if it hadn't been for his stable second job: For the past seventeen years he has advised Miami-Dade Community College students about financial aid possibilities. The $250 daily gross at the ice cream shop (up to $500 on a good Saturday) is only a supplement to his income. "I did not have to take money out to pay my rent, so the business grew," he says. "If I had to pay my bills exclusively out of my business, I'd have been out like the rest of them."

The only remaining tenants are a woman who sells native jewelry, clothes, and art in the cavernous atrium ("She's only open on days when she feels like it," Bien-Aime snipes), and the Libreri Mapou bookstore, whose owner Jan Mapou countered the marketplace's decline by transforming his tiny shop into more of a general store. Alongside his hard-to-find Haitian books he sells records, cigars, and concert tickets. He'll even help customers with their tax returns, for a price.

The fallout from the market's failure has been especially cruel to Leaman Bien-Aime. Last month the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants ordered him to shut down, labeling his shop "a severe and immediate threat to public health, safety, and welfare" because he was selling food out of a store that lacked running water. Bien-Aime argued that the entire building had lacked running water for four years -- ever since the task force failed to pay several thousand dollars in water bills. Even so, he asserted, he compensated for the dry faucets by trekking in thirteen gallons of water a day, filled from a spigot at his own house.

His arguments were not persuasive. But had the state not stepped in, the shop would still have faced a bleak future. The entire Caribbean Marketplace will soon close, possibly as early as next week. A complaint was filed by the City of Miami, which is seeking to seize the property in order to recover a $150,000 loan to the task force; a hearing on a request for summary judgment is set for December 19. Deanna Gross Rasco, an assistant city attorney who specializes in foreclosures, predicts the court will rule in the city's favor. If she is right, a clerk of the court will assign a sale date to the project, at which time it will be put up for public auction.

Bien-Aime intends to be at the hearing. "I was there for the beginning. I want to be there at the end," he reasons. "I love this place. I still think with the right management it can be a good place. It can be made into what it was supposed to be."

He won't be sticking around, though. "No. I have too many good ideas for my business to stay here," he boasts. "I'm seeing Publix and Winn-Dixie selling my ice cream. And new shops on South Beach and in Coconut Grove. My base will always be here, in Little Haiti, because I am not going to abandon my community. But I need more space."

The winter sun has set before the marketplace can close for the night. A straggler or two drifts in and out of the bookstore. A few dim overhead bulbs flicker on. Outside, darkness covers the gingerbread trim with gloom.

"I knew when I started at the marketplace that it was a bad idea, with bad planning and no support from the community, but I took a chance," Bien-Aime muses. "I believe in life that one must take a chance. That is what we all did when we came here on a boat. The boat could have sunk, but it didn't. We were the lucky ones and we made it here."

He looks at his old shop, the price board still advertising $1.50 cones and a handmade sign still claiming, in Haitian Creole, that there is nothing God can't do. Bien-Aime says he's looking to purchase the building next door. "I still take a chance," he declares.


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