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How Miami neighborhoods got their names

Ah, Miami-Dade County: the land of dreamers, visionaries, builders, and fabulously peculiar towns and neighborhoods. Before the real estate land boom of the 1920s it was a swampland, but that didn’t stop the country’s rich from coming to make their mark. These early pioneers came with big ideas that would be the beginning of quirky, one-of-a-kind places. We took a look at the origin stories of nine Miami neighborhoods.

Brickell

Brickell Avenue (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/67458)
Brickell Avenue (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Brickell sure has come a long way. Remember when Brickell Avenue was Millionaire’s Row? For the younger set, how about when Tobacco Road was one of the only bars around and parking was a breeze? In 1871, Ohioans William and Mary Brickell (now the name Mary Brickell Village makes sense) came to Miami and set up shop on the south side of the Miami River. They opened and operated the area’s first trading post and post office. Brickell is now the booming Financial District of the city thanks in part to Mary. You see, Bill was more of a recluse, while Mary was a social entrepreneur. She developed Millionaire’s Row on present-day Brickell Avenue, as well as Brickell Hammock, which is now The Roads. Their land was so expansive, it stretched to parts of Coconut Grove. As the neighborhood continues to change (we see you Brickell City Centre) and expand, its boundaries are spilling over into another historic neighborhood, Little Havana.

Little Havana

Little Havana (Phillip Pessar photo)
Little Havana (Phillip Pessar photo)

Standing in the neighborhood’s main artery, Calle Ocho, enjoying an Abuela Maria ice cream from Azucar, it’s hard to imagine the neighborhood has roots in homesteading. In the 1920s, the area was annexed by the City of Miami and developed, becoming two distinct neighborhoods- Shenandoah and Riverside. For decades, it was a large and thriving Jewish community with numerous delis and markets of note. Then it hit a bit of a slump in the 1950s. Enter the ’60s, when thousands of Cuban immigrants descended upon the city, escaping political persecution after the rise of Fidel Castro. Much of that group moved into what is now Little Havana, made up of pieces of those original neighborhoods — Shenandoah (South Little Havana) and Riverside (East Little Havana). Little Havana began as a Cuban enclave, but over the years, those demographics have changed as well. It remains predominantly Latin American with many Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Mexicans, and others also calling the neighborhood home.

Design District

Originally part of Buena Vista, the Design District began as a pineapple farm. You can still see nods to Buena Vista on certain buildings throughout the neighborhood. In the 1920s, with the help of interior designer Richard Plumer, T.V. Moore decided to turn his own plot of pineapple bliss into Moore’s Furniture Company on what is now NE 40th Street. The district was the center for home and design through the 1970s, when many of the companies packed up and moved to Los Angeles. The late 1990s and 2000s brought renewed interest and resurgence, with the likes of developer Craig Robins and chef Michael Schwartz. But, let’s not forget Lorena Garcia’s early endeavors, Food Café and Elements Tierra. The legacy of design continues today, with the next vision for the neighborhood as a home for ultra-high luxury retail. Will it be the Fifth Avenue of the South?

Omni

The word omni means “of all things,” and that’s what this small downtown neighborhood was in the 1920s, when it was a high-end shopping district featuring stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company and Burdines. Designed by Biscayne Boulevard Company, you can still see nods to Art Deco design hidden in the area’s buildings. However, it didn’t officially become the Omni until the Omni International Mall opened in February 1977. With two stories, an adjacent hotel, nightclub, movie theater, carousel, restaurants, and high end stores like Hermes and Givenchy, it was a pioneer of its time. The mall closed in 2000 and was later replaced by the Miami International University School of Art & Design. In more recent years, the neighborhood has experienced a revival due to its close proximity to the Central Business District and many new high-rise developments.

Overtown

Located mere streets from the heart of downtown Miami, this neighborhood was previously known as Colored Town. Shortly after incorporation, it became the designated area for the black community, under Jim Crow-era segregation. Before desegregation, this was the heart and soul of Miami’s black community, often referred to as “the Harlem of the South.” To get there, one had to go “over town”, which was worth it to experience music and entertainment from great black entertainers of the day. Overtown experienced great tragedy in the ’60s with the building of I-95 and later I-395, which physically split the community and forced many residents out of their homes.

MiMo District

MiMo is an abbreviation for Miami Modern Architecture, a style of architecture originated in Miami during the 1950s and 1960s. It was prevalent in buildings all along Biscayne Boulevard. Now this district, which runs from 50th to 77th Streets, exists to preserve the quirky style. The style sprung in rebellion to modernist and post-war architecture, which designers found too minimalist. So they added touches of futuristic whimsy to the designs like boomerangs and trapezoids — think The Jetsons. The most important aspect of the style is that it takes into account Miami’s weather with the use of breezy corridors, shaded courtyards, and free flowing interior spaces, all very subtropical cool. Why motels? The advent of the automobile era increased traveling, and thus also the need for lodging.

Wynwood

Wynwood (Phillip pessar photo)
Wynwood (Phillip pessar photo)

From factories to a fashion district, El Barrio, and now an art district, the neighborhood has seen many changes, but its roots run even deeper. Local history buff Casey Piket notes on his blog, Miami History, that Wynwood dates back to 1917. Early Miamians Josiah Chaille and Hugh Anderson purchased the land where Wynwood is located. They were a bit indecisive, however, on what to call their newfound purchase. It started as Wyndwood. Then the d was dropped and it was renamed Wynwood Park (now Roberto Clemente Park), for the impressive park built on the land. Then they decided to drop the park too. Chaille and Anderson have interesting backgrounds in Miami history. Chaille created the street name and number plan that downtown Miami uses today, while Anderson helped develop Miami Shores and the Venetian Islands.

Lemon City & Little Haiti

Little Haiti Cultural Center
Little Haiti Cultural Center

Is it Lemon City or Little Haiti? The demarcations are a little blurry and, well, it depends on whom you ask. Both names have history and both are legitimate. Lemon City was one of the city’s first settlements, before the city was even a city. It was an agricultural hub consisting of lemon, lime, and guava groves. But the money was in those lemons, hence the name Lemon City. They also instituted the first school, Lemon City School and their very own Rockmoor Grocery became the first of the supermarket empire, Winn-Dixie. In the 1970s and 1980s, Haitians fleeing dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier moved into the area. The history books record it as follows: “Haitian pioneer Viter Juste wrote a letter to the Miami Herald calling the area ‘Little Port-au-Prince,’ the newspaper headlined the letter Little Haiti. The name stuck.”

A few more names …

But wait, there’s more. Allapattah is Seminole for alligator, while Flagami is a hybrid of the names Flagler and Tamiami and a nod to its geographic location. The Venetian Islands on the Venetian Causeway is a neighborhood of artificial islands (Di Lido, San Marino, and Belle Isle to name a few) inspired by Italian living. The neighborhood was even supposed to be larger, but the 1926 hurricane put an end to that Italian dream.

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.

  • MiamiParkAdvocate

    Lemon City traces its history to the 1850’s. Yes, there were lemon groves. The early pioneers had it rough. Dense mangroves, no bathrooms, no hot water. Insects as large as raccoons. Early settlers came from the Bahamas and the deep South. Lemon City Library is the oldest or second oldest library in Dade County. NE 61st Street was formerly called Lemon Avenue.

  • MiamiParkAdvocate

    Lemon City traces its history to the 1850’s. Yes, there were lemon groves. The early pioneers had it rough. Dense mangroves, no bathrooms, no hot water. Insects as large as raccoons. Early settlers came from the Bahamas and the deep South. Lemon City Library is the oldest or second oldest library in Dade County. NE 61st Street was formerly called Lemon Avenue.

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  • Pingback: How Miami neighborhoods got their names ManhattanMiami()

  • Love this post, thanks for the info!

    • Liz

      Thanks for reading! We’ll try to have more posts like this one soon 🙂

  • Love this post, thanks for the info!

    • Liz

      Thanks for reading! We’ll try to have more posts like this one soon 🙂

  • Pingback: The Wrap: How Miami neighborhoods got their names, architects like Miami’s Rene Gonzalez could help builders cope with global warming… and more | Caribbean Real Estate()

  • Pingback: » The Wrap: How Miami neighborhoods got their names, architects like Miami’s Rene Gonzalez could help builders cope with global warming… and more()

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  • Headly Westerfield

    What you don’t mention about Overtown is that it was Miami’s original Black folk, those Bahamians in Coconut Grove, who named it. After Coconut Grove came the Black district that Flagler built for his workers. It became the entertainment district. However, in the meantime downtown Miami grew up. It was the folk in Coconut Grove who would go “over town” to what officially was called Washington Heights.

    • Liz

      Headly, that’s fascinating, thank you for sharing! I grew up in Miami and to this day had no idea where the name ‘Overtown’ came from.

  • Headly Westerfield

    What you don’t mention about Overtown is that it was Miami’s original Black folk, those Bahamians in Coconut Grove, who named it. After Coconut Grove came the Black district that Flagler built for his workers. It became the entertainment district. However, in the meantime downtown Miami grew up. It was the folk in Coconut Grove who would go “over town” to what officially was called Washington Heights.

    • Liz

      Headly, that’s fascinating, thank you for sharing! I grew up in Miami and to this day had no idea where the name ‘Overtown’ came from.

  • This piece felt rushed. Not sure if Tropic’s format allows for these deep essays, but I’d love to see you take your time and focus on one neighborhood and go deep into its roots. Miami has interesting stories to uncover and a bit of meticulousness would help deliver neighborhood profiles that makes the city really shine.

    • Thanks for letting us know what you think, Mike. We’re working on lots of different story formats. This piece was not “rushed,” but was intended to be a quick look at a particular slice of history of some of Miami’s popular neighborhoods.
      If you’d like some deeper historical dives, here’s one we really enjoyed:
      http://thenewtropic.com/miami-black-history-florida-memorial-university-in-the-civil-rights-movement/
      We’re working on lots of different kinds of stories for lots of different kinds of readers, so we hope you’ll stick around and keep letting us know what you’d like to see.

  • This piece felt rushed. Not sure if Tropic’s format allows for these deep essays, but I’d love to see you take your time and focus on one neighborhood and go deep into its roots. Miami has interesting stories to uncover and a bit of meticulousness would help deliver neighborhood profiles that makes the city really shine.

    • Thanks for letting us know what you think, Mike. We’re working on lots of different story formats. This piece was not “rushed,” but was intended to be a quick look at a particular slice of history of some of Miami’s popular neighborhoods.
      If you’d like some deeper historical dives, here’s one we really enjoyed:
      http://thenewtropic.com/miami-black-history-florida-memorial-university-in-the-civil-rights-movement/
      We’re working on lots of different kinds of stories for lots of different kinds of readers, so we hope you’ll stick around and keep letting us know what you’d like to see.

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  • Rosemary Ravinal

    Clarification on Venetian Islands: Belle Isle is the only natural formation; all the others are man-made.

  • Rosemary Ravinal

    Clarification on Venetian Islands: Belle Isle is the only natural formation; all the others are man-made.

  • Tim Dodson

    I think it’s important to note that the mall was named Omni because of the Omni Hotel that was built at its center. In retrospect, it seems kind of stupid to name a mall after a hotel that might change brands down the road (and did, many many times).

    • Thanks, Tim! That was an … interesting … decision.

  • Tim Dodson

    I think it’s important to note that the mall was named Omni because of the Omni Hotel that was built at its center. In retrospect, it seems kind of stupid to name a mall after a hotel that might change brands down the road (and did, many many times).

    • Thanks, Tim! That was an … interesting … decision.

  • Susan Jacobson

    So I live in the neighborhood formerly known as Ojus. What is an Ojus?

    • Welp, according to an old Herald story, Ojus is the Seminole word for “plenty,” and the neighborhood got its name from farmer Albert Fitch, who found that “plenty” would grow there. Also, your ‘hood was a prison camp and a center for rock mining in Miami! http://ojus.dadeschools.net/history.html

  • Susan Jacobson

    So I live in the neighborhood formerly known as Ojus. What is an Ojus?

    • Welp, according to an old Herald story, Ojus is the Seminole word for “plenty,” and the neighborhood got its name from farmer Albert Fitch, who found that “plenty” would grow there. Also, your ‘hood was a prison camp and a center for rock mining in Miami! http://ojus.dadeschools.net/history.html