That Little Haiti look

We’re incredibly excited to announce that for our next Neighborhood Guide, we’ll be exploring our own backyard — Little Haiti. 

The corridor of NE 2nd Ave., between 54th and 71st streets, is filled with exceptional architecture that is completely unique to Little Haiti, with swooping, lacy facades and A-frame roofs, all set in tropical hues, some glowing, some faded. It’s been recently christened Downtown Little Haiti — but the neighborhood extends beyond that.

Architecturally speaking, Little Haiti is an island surrounded by Miami. The neighborhood has been developed by the Haitian diaspora since the mid-20th century, and the buildings on that main strip have a striking look that derives from Haiti’s aesthetic, but with a style entirely its own.

“It’s the Gingerbread style,” says Marie Vickles, resident curator at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, who last year organized the exhibition Maison Gingerbread: Haiti’s Living Architecture. Asked to define the aesthetic of Gingerbread, Vickles says, “It’s the highly ornamental, decorative design elements that make it — the really complex fretwork and intricate woodwork, especially around windows, doors, the edges of the building and façade. It’s got almost a lace kind of quality.”

This highly ornamental Gingerbread architecture was used in Victorian-style homes. However, as anyone who’s visited Le Petit Haiti or its eponymous motherland would know, Vickles observes, “Colors are the defining thing that were different from the Victorian-style homes you would find in Europe and America.”

Indeed, iridescent splashes of bright yellow, cool aquamarine, and igneous orange transformed the usual conservative pastels into a stunning postcolonial palette.

The Little Haiti Cultural Complex, where Vickles held the exhibition, is itself the centerpiece of Little Haiti’s unique architecture, a pinnacle structure surrounded by similarly designed buildings up and down the avenue, meant to recreate the feel of Port-Au-Prince.

Designed by Zyscovich Architects — known for high-profile, mixed-use retail and residential spaces — LHCC is a merging of a French Creole façade with a modern interior, composed of naturally lit, interconnecting exhibition and group meeting spaces.

The architecture of the cultural complex is at the heart of the conundrum of developing a historic enclave, the challenge of preserving historic aesthetics with a modern sensibility. Within the building, there is balance. The long, windowed halls and rooms of the LHCC are used as community spaces for art and education. It’s a place where locals and other groups gather.

Little River Business District entrance (Courtesy of Marc Averette/Wikimedia Commons)
Little River Business District entrance (Courtesy of Marc Averette/Wikimedia Commons)

While mixed-use and shared co-working spaces proliferate in a rebounding, flexible economy for some, recent data reported in the Miami Herald shows that home ownership is unobtainable for much of Little Haiti’s residents, due to recent spikes in housing costs and slow wage growth. Just 26% of Little Haiti homes are owner-occupied.

It’s endemic of the difficulties of gentrification. Community leaders want to kickstart commerce and grow jobs, but outside groups can instead see an opportunity for cheap housing, which can have developers seeing dollar signs. In this way, the architecture of Little Haiti is especially politically charged right now, particularly with the changes in Miami’s other urban neighborhoods.

“Little Haiti is not the Design District, is not Wynwood, but rather it is one of Miami’s final frontiers in its hold to retain a local identity,” says Gustavo Alejandro Garcia, who runs a nonprofit in Haiti called the Pari Passu Foundation. He co-curated the Gingerbread exhibition and studied architecture at FIU.

Given its uniqueness, Garcia acknowledges the multiple influences that impact the architecture on NE 2nd Ave., including nostalgia for Haiti, the Caribbean reality of Miami, and the desire to drive traffic there to boost local business. He considers the area around NE 2nd Ave. the epicenter of Little Haiti architecture.

“By comparison, the adjacent neighborhoods tend to have a more manicured image, with murals and retro furniture on display. It’s reminiscent of a distant cousin from New York,” he says. This architecture — single story businesses with hand painted signage and bars on the windows — is not the bright, vibrant type found on NE 2nd Avenue, yet it has a character all its own.

“Little Haiti resembles any other neighborhood of an American inner city, but with one big difference: the emergence of a unique style that imitates itself,” Garcia explains. “By ‘imitates itself,’ I mean that the neighborhood does not try to imitate any other place — not even Haiti. It is quite neither here nor there.”

What are some of your favorite places in Little Haiti? What are the issues facing the community, and who are the people we should be talking to? Let us know in the comments!

*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there was a lack of zoning protections for Little Haiti’s historic architecture.