How to be a good neighbor in Little Havana

We’re spending March celebrating Little Havana as a part of our monthly neighborhood guide series, powered by Lyft. Where should we eat, drink, and explore? What do you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments below.

A few months ago, we wrote about the seeds of gentrification being sown throughout Miami, sprouting from Little Haiti to Little Havana. We considered how communities can benefit from new residents if they aim to integrate, rather than displace, the existing community.

Many of you came to us and asked “How can I be a better neighbor and community member when I move into one of these neighborhoods?” It’s unrealistic to stop the move into these areas as the urban core of Miami becomes difficult for even professionals to afford, but there are ways that incursion can be done better.

So, when we set out to explore Little Havana for this month’s neighborhood guide – out tomorrow! – we asked community leaders, residents, and merchants there the same question you posed to us.

Here’s some advice they have for newcomers to Little Havana.

The responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Paul George leading a walking tour.

Paul George leading a walking tour.

Paul George, historian and longtime Little Havana resident

My parents had a house in Little Havana. When I moved back to Miami after I graduated from college and I met my wife, we ended up buying the house from them. I’ve been back here now for 30 years.

I remember once my father fell and had an accident outside of our house, and a man ran over and picked him up and helped him into the house. I’ve found so much of that friendly neighborliness here. I think someone who makes a good neighbor reaches out and is friendly and helpful. And I’ve seen that in many ways here and I think I’ve been a good neighbor too.

As different types of people move in, I think it’s great because neighborhoods are always more exciting and interesting when there’s a mix of people. Little Havana is a center city neighborhood so people are also moving here because housing is more affordable than most places, and it’s close to Downtown, Brickell and the Causeway. In five to ten years going it’s to be a very highly-trafficked neighborhood

Even though it’s still very Hispanic, the number of non-Hispanics is growing. More and more “yuppie-types” are moving in, and I’d say they need to pick up a very basic, primer level understanding of Spanish. The second thing I’d say is understand that there’s a high noise level on Calle Ocho, and not only with music, there’s also lots of roosters walking around this whole neighborhood.

As a newcomer, the best thing to do is just walk around. Check out the old housing, walk from West Calle Ocho all the way to Flagler, there’s so many interesting mom and pop businesses and old houses. Get a real feel for the neighborhood — in some ways it’s an old timey neighborhood so you need to get out and walk and listen. That’s my strongest advice.

Go on the route of my walking tour through Little Havana. Visit El Sigla Nueva for your groceries, it’s got a bunch of interesting Cuban and Hispanic items. And you need to visit the Los Pinarenos Fruteria and try their shakes, and exotic fruits and vegetables.

Jose Zelaya and his family at El Cristo. (Courtesy of Jose Zelaya)
Jose Zelaya and his family at El Cristo. (Courtesy of Jose Zelaya)

Jose Zelaya, owner of El Cristo Cuban restaurant and longtime Little Havana resident

I’ve lived in Little Havana for 39 years, and this is where I was raised.

Little Havana is changing demographically and economically. I think people are attracted our neighborhood’s location. In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of people left because of crime and it was a bad situation. It’s changing now and more investments are coming in and people are moving in from all over — not just around Miami, but also other countries like Canada, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.

It used to be a smaller town and with some development in the center. But now the household incomes are rising and there’s new development going on.

I’ve seen people buying up land in Little Havana. City officials are finally turning the attention to their old communities, where some of them were born and raised. Now they’re saying “This is my hometown,” and they are working to fix the roads and provide a little more safety. Police officers and the mayor is even a local.

It’s good for the community to grow, but as the neighborhood changes, I think what everyone needs is peace and respect. New people moving in should get involved in the community. You have the Kiwanis Club in Little Havana and you have the Viernes Culturales which is one of the main non-profit associations to promote the culture. These are good resources to get to know the culture.

I think a good neighbor is someone that respects you no matter what gender or race. People should interact with each other. You see your neighbor and he’s on the phone and shuts the door because he doesn’t want to socialize. I think that’s bad, it means we’re falling apart as a community. If you’re a respectful person, you welcome your neighbors and socialize with the others.

Corinna J. Moebius in Little Havana. (Courtesy of Corinna J. Moebius)

Corinna J. Moebius in Little Havana. (Courtesy of Corinna J. Moebius)

Corinna Moebius, author, founder of Little Havana Experiences walking tours and workshops, and longtime Little Havana resident

I moved to Little Havana 10 years ago. I was a gringa from Washington, D.C., moving into the heart of East Little Havana. I think one thing that is really important is to completely let go of this car culture thing of going from your house, into your car, to work, then back. To come home from work and just go into your house and turn on your TV — that’s disconnecting.

Little Havana is very neighborly. Even though my Spanish wasn’t very good at first, at least I tried. Talk to everyone. That includes people in your building, across the street, from all walks of life, and not putting judgements on people. It also means building a tolerance for the differences among us all.

I had neighbors from Mexico. They played mariachi music, and they played it loud. Other friends from Cuba would play their timba, son, and reggaeton. It’s a musical place, so that means coming in and not imposing what you’re used to from somewhere else, learning that there’s a vibe here and being willing to adapt to that and join right it. But if it’s too loud, especially after 11 p.m.,  just ask your neighbors to turn it down, and usually they will.

In this neighborhood, we trade things with each other. For example, I have a sour orange tree and my neighbor trades her homemade ceviche with me.

Another thing is your body language. I would say walk, walk, walk. Even if your Spanish isn’t good, greet and interact with the people and build that connection. People respond to that very deeply.

Slowly, you’ll meet other locals and business owners who will appreciate you and then they’ll invite you to a coffee or a party or tell you about a great event.

I started a facebook group called Little Havana/La Pequeña Habana News & Events which is a resource to plug into events and news happening in the neighborhood.

Even if you’re a temporary resident you can think about it as an exchange. You’re going to receive something here if you’re willing and open to learn, there are a lot civic engagement groups working to make the community just, equitable and sustainable. I would suggest the following:

Marta Viciedo with Urban Impact Lab co-founder Irvans Augustin. (Courtesy of Urban Impact Lab)

Marta Viciedo with Urban Impact Lab co-founder Irvans Augustin. (Courtesy of Urban Impact Lab)

Marta Viciedo, urban planner and co-founder of the Urban Impact Lab

I think that something that goes a long way is always respect. That’s probably a little cliché, but it’s important to respect people who are working hard and have been doing a lot of work in that community for a long time. I can’t position myself as an expert in Little Havana, but I’m definitely passionate about the community because I think that it’s an immensely valuable place.

It’s also a vocal community, so you don’t need to dig very deep to figure out who is engaged that can speak for the community. Have community gatherings and hear what people have to say — but make sure sure that everyone is solutions-oriented and looking always to how things can be improved and carrying the conversation in that direction. In general, some good old-fashioned advocacy goes a long way.

For example, there’s a decent amount of energy around what’s going to happen to 8th Street, so people who have intentions of moving in have to become a part of the conversation about what happens on 8th Street, because it spills over to the rest of Little Havana. The better that street is designed, the better the whole neighborhood will be because it’s a big part of the community.

There are a few organizations working on this that you can get involved with. PlusUrbia is an urban design which firm leading the way with the street redesign effort. They have created the MyCalle8 campaign for redesigning Calle Ocho. ConnectFamilias
is another nonprofit group would be great for anyone to become involved with.

Ball & Chain (Courtesy of Mario Restrepo)

Ball & Chain (Courtesy of Mario Restrepo)

Bill Fuller, real estate developer, co-founder of the Little Havana Merchant Alliance, and co-founder of Ball and Chain

We should encourage more homeownership north of 8th street. If we work to build that, we’re going to get more civic engagement by residents. When that happens you’re going to see a lot of magic happen in neighborhoods that have been neglected for 50 to 60 years.

If you have the capital to buy, there’s lots of great first homeowner opportunities to buy in Little Havana. There are some great 1920s bungalows that can be found and restored with a little TLC. In the next five to 15 years, you’re going to see a lot of growth, doubling and tripling in value of the neighborhood.

Ultimately, it’s important to be mindful of who your audience is and how you’re going to assimilate in the community. You need to work to develop relationships that have existed for a while, introduce yourself to a lot of the business owners who have had success there. We’re always embracing new businesses.

As a bar owner, I don’t care if you bring a new bar — matter of fact I think there’s opportunity for that. Make sure you introduce yourself to other business owners so that we all feel aligned in our interest in improving the neighborhood. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie around Little Havana.
Some resources new business owners should consider connecting with include:

Pati Vargas of Viernes Culturales. (Courtesy of Pati Vargas)

Pati Vargas of Viernes Culturales. (Courtesy of Pati Vargas)

Pati Vargas, Executive Director of for Viernes Culturales

Little Havana is strategically placed so you’re minutes away from all the neighborhoods in Miami. It’s a great neighborhood, and it’s also a changing neighbourhood. We have have 22 art galleries in just 2.5 blocks, and these have been here for the past 15 years — not just now.

For new people moving in, I think they should get involved with the community, you should talk to the politicians and voice your concerns, make them know you’re a new tenant and want to take care of your new neighborhood.

I have a lot of opportunities for new artists. New artists can speak to me about having a free booth and exhibit space during Viernes Culturales, an arts and culture celebration along Calle Ocho on the last Friday of every month. I want them to get involved with us at Futurama gallery as well, and I want to share that with artists who might be new or have never had that opportunity before.