Miami Could Officially Put Little Haiti on the Map This Week, but Opponents Prepared to Fight

Update: On May 26, 2016, the City of Miami Commission voted to grant the Little Haiti designation to the area. All of the commissioners voted in favor of the resolution. According to Miami Herald reporter David Smiley, who was tweeting during the debate, Little Haiti Cultural Center director Sandy Dorsainvil, developer Avra Jain, preservationist Enid Pinkney, and activist Gepsie Metellus were some of the people who addressed the commission before the vote.

There's already a Little Haiti Cultural Center and a Little Haiti Park. Ask any Miamian for directions to Little Haiti and they won't hesitate to point you toward the Caribbean area centered on NE Second Avenue. And yet Little Haiti has never been an officially designated neighborhood in the City of Miami.

That could finally change this week. Commissioners on Thursday will consider a resolution to finally put Little Haiti on the map, a move activists have pushed for years. The change wouldn't just recognize Haitian contributions to the city, they say, it would help battle gentrification.

"We feel it's a very important step forward," says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative forces right now, a lot of developers and investors who would be happy to buy property here and change the name. This would make that impossible."

But that move won't come without a fight. Peter Ehrlich, who owns warehouses in the area, says opponents will speak against the move on Thursday. Ehrlich says he's motivated by both commercial interests and history. 

"If there's going to be an official designation, hire a historian first who really understands the role of African-Americans and Bahamians in this area," Ehrlich says. 

Thursday's resolution, which is sponsored by Commissioner Keon Hardamon, comes after years of argument over the idea of an official Little Haiti — and just as acrimoniously, where the boundaries should be drawn. 

Hardamon's resolution would pin Little Haiti roughly between 79th and 54th streets and NW 6th and NE 2nd Avenues. The full map breakdown is online here, but this is approximately what the area would look like:

Those boundaries came after months of discussion, Bastien says — and they won't totally please anyone. Bastien, for instance, would like to see the southernmost boundaries moved down to 46th Street. 

"We are still hoping for better map that includes 46th Street, and we're going to fight for that," Bastien says. "But this is much better than nothing."

The way Bastien sees it, the move is a long overdue recognition of Haitian immigrants' contributions to the city — and a smart way to market a tourist-friendly neighborhood.

"People come from all over the world to see Little Haiti," she says. "The name represents the history of the people who through sheer determination and will turned a depressed neighborhood into vibrant, culturally rich area."

Ehrlich sees it differently. Officially changing the area to Little Haiti would erase other historic names like Lemon City and infringe on areas like Buena Vista that border on the neighborhood, he argues.

"I have a great respect for history and I don't think we should obliterate all the others who have contributed to this area," he says, noting in particular the early role of black Americans and immigrants from the Bahamas. 

But Ehrlich also doesn't deny Bastien's contention that developers and realtors wouldn't be thrilled to have an area called Little Haiti enshrined in the official property registers. "We know from 20 years experience that people prefer more generic names or truly historically accurate names including Buena Vista and Little River," he says. "Yes, there are some negative connotations with Little Haiti."

That's simply wrong, Bastien argues — and hints at inherent racism toward Haitians.

"So why is it OK to have a Little Havana but not a Little Haiti?" she asks. "Let's not kid ourselves, there are forces out there who want to pretend Little Haiti never existed, to wipe it off the map. We have to prevent that." 
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink