City of Miami gives Little Haiti a win during a tough time

Miami’s Haitians scored a big win yesterday when the City of Miami voted to officially designate their neighborhood as Little Haiti.

This victory came amid a broader fight to preserve the neighborhood amid an onslaught of change. The Haitian Cultural Center has been on shaky ground since its manager was fired, a monthly festival celebrating their culture recently ran out of money, and developers are knocking on longtime residents’ doors, trying to convince them to sell their homes.

Today’s meeting drew over 70 residents from the community who jolted out of their seats to shake the hands of their commissioners upon hearing the good news.

Residents have been sounding the alarm for years now about what they call the whitewashing of their neighborhood. As prices soar in nearby areas, particularly in Wynwood to the south, developers have looked north to Little Haiti as the next frontier of development. Officially designating the neighborhood Little Haiti gives them something more solid to hold on to.

Residents are angry about the lack of concern with preserving their cultural enclave, which is the only Little Haiti in the US. They point to all the attention given to preserving Little Havana as a signature tourist destination in Miami

“This is a long time coming,” says Gepsie Metellus, the Executive Director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center. “Little Haiti is the matrix of Haitian culture, the matrix of Haitian diaspora, and it defines us as a Haitian people.”

Yesterday’s debate devolved into a battle over whose historical narrative should trump the other — those who came first but then left, or those who came later but who have shaped the neighborhood into a culturally vibrant, distinctive one.

A group led by developer and local property owner Peter Ehrlich argued that the Little Haiti designation wipes out another history — that of Lemon City and Little River, earlier names for the same general area. Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who represents Little Haiti and crafted the resolution passed yesterday, said commemorating Lemon City smacks of racism because it was mostly a community of white property owners profiting from cheap black labor.

“We have to know our history, we have to know what happened to us before today,” he said. “But I wouldn’t praise the Confederate flag because blacks fought under it.”

Some black residents whose ties go further back disagreed with the decision.

“Haitians don’t know what fighting for your equal rights is about. You are standing on the shoulders of African American,” says Alma Brown of the Buena Vista West Neighborhood Association.

The roots of Lemon City

In the 1800s, citrus groves, especially lemon trees, took over South Florida, from Biscayne Bay all the way to Hialeah. Early Bahamian settlers moved to the area in the late 1870s. The large agricultural community became known as Lemon City, according to Dr. Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami.

The first public record of the name Lemon City was in 1889 and by the time railroad mogul Henry Flagler built the Lemon City Depot on NW 59th St. in 1896, the name was written in stone.

While Flagler came to South Florida for the lush trees and abundant agriculture, his railroad introduced manufacturing and warehouses into the tropical farmland.

By the early 1900s, another agricultural town had sprung up along the mouth of Little River, on today’s 79th Street. Seminole Indians taught early inhabitants how to grow and harvest the crop coontie, an edible starch once commonly grown here. Because the town’s livelihood was based on shipping coontie along the waterway, the area slowly became known as Little River.

Through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the whole area encompassing Lemon City to Little River transformed from a rural, agricultural wetland to paved neighborhoods. The development of the American highway in the 1970s decimated pedestrian culture and prompted a mass move to the suburbs by the middle class.

The transition to Little Haiti

What followed was a couple decades of neglect. By the 1980s the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, filled with warehouses and adult book and video stores. The forsaken area was one of the only places Haitian refugees pouring into the US could afford.

Over time they transformed the desolate area into the vibrant Haitian community that it has become today, according to George.

By the mid-1980s, almost 50,000 Haitians lived there. Haitian activist and journalist Viter Juste wrote an article about it in the Miami Herald and called the area “Little Port-au-Prince,” drawing inspiration from Little Havana. Editors at the Miami Herald thought the name was too long and suggested shortening it to Little Haiti.

The name stuck, becoming the go-to for the area that the Haitian community has steadily made its own over the years. With the official designation, the area is irrefutably theirs.

“We are proud people and we raise our flags in this month of May,” said Flore Lindor Latortue, a Little Haiti resident and local radio host, referring to Haitian Flag Day, which happened May 18.

Roshan Nebhrajani contributed reporting