Keeping Calle Ocho from becoming a mini-Epcot

“Un café con leche, please,” a tourist shouts gleefully at a ventana at Calle Ocho’s El Cristo Cuban restaurant. A few blocks away, a big red tour bus unloads visitors at Domino Park. On one corner, an elderly Cuban man dances freely to the beat of batá drums. On another, a tourist poses holding a peace sign next to a colorful rooster statue.

But it wasn’t always this way. As little as a decade ago, few visitors would think to walk along 8th Street — an area that was always bustling with locals, but rarely touted as a tourism destination because of higher crime and crumbling infrastructure.

Once home to Miami’s Jewish community, the neighborhood fell into disrepair in the mid-1950s as those residents moved to Miami Beach and parts of Broward. They left behind a slew of empty, cheap houses waiting to be populated — and the influx of Cubans that followed the revolution there became the next ones to fill them, bringing new life to the neglected area.

For the next 50 years, the neighborhood would be molded by its new inhabitants — with small ventanas serving up cortaditos and pastelitos and son, a Cuban style of music featuring a guitar, bongos, and maracas in a syncopated rhythmic pattern, spilling into the streets.  ​In the last two decades, many from Central America have come to call Little Havana home as well, bringing fritangas and taquerias.​

Now, as the neighborhood thrives, it faces an entirely different challenge — how to grow without diluting this cherished pocket of Latin American culture. The local business owners’ effort to guide Little Havana through the change became a test of whether, in a city seemingly dominated by developers, community voices could still be heard.

The beginning of the boom

While Little Havana, as it was known by the late 1960s, was culturally rich, it lacked the resources it needed to become a thriving city center, according to Bill Fuller, co-founder of Ball & Chain, one of the neighborhood’s most iconic bars.

Fuller lived in Little Havana briefly from 2004 to 2007. The founder of the Barlington Group, a commercial real estate agency, started his real estate career by buying up residential properties in the neighborhood.

“I didn’t have deep pockets so I started buying stuff I could afford like small houses, apartments and then eventually commercial buildings,” Fuller said.

Fascinated by the history of Ball & Chain and realizing the bar’s ultimate potential, in 2007 Fuller bought the crumbling building.

The story of Ball & Chain parallels the story of the neighborhood itself. The nightclub hosted musical legends like Count Basie and Chet Baker in the 1930s, but its clientele and set list changed with the neighborhood. In 1958, its name changed to Copa Lounge Tavern and the live music faded away.

It briefly became a furniture store in 1967, but that business moved out as the rest of the neighborhood fell into disrepair. With no other tenants, the building was shuttered in the mid-1990s.

It remerged in full force just two years ago. Now, the space pays respect to its historical and cultural legacy, hosting local and international Latin American musicians. Its live music, craft drinks, and interior design – a blend of historical Great Depression-era and modern Latino influences – draw visitors from all over Miami to Calle Ocho, enlivening the street and encouraging the growth of a number of local businesses as well.

Business owners organize

But Fuller knew the bar could only thrive if the community did. So he teamed up with Corinna Moebius, cultural anthropologist and Little Havana tour guide, to start the Little Havana Merchant Alliance in 2012.

The alliance’s mission statement was to “promote, preserve and champion Little Havana as a great place to live, work, shop, and play.” Over the years they gathered local leaders like Raissa Fernandez, whose family owns Brickell Kidz Bus, a school bus transportation business started by her grandfather in the 1970s. Others like Suzanne Batlle, the founder of Azucar Ice Cream, and community activist Anneliese Morales joined too.

The alliance hosted weekly community breakfasts at Cafe Versailles that brought together business owners from all around Little Havana, not just Calle Ocho. They called attention to the trash on the streets, rampant homelessness, and thefts, achieving the level of “squeaky wheel” more typical of much more moneyed parts of the city.

This united voice eventually reached the City of Miami, prompting commissioners and the mayor to devote some much needed resources to cleaning up the streets of Little Havana after decades of neglect.

City Commissioner Frank Carollo remembers in 2010, when he came into office, “Calle Ocho was not thriving. It was gloomy, some of the businesses were closing down, and the the City of Miami was nearly bankrupt.”

But the cash-strapped city’s deficit slowly shrank as the economy improved, making funds once again available. The formidable voice of these united business owners, in addition to support from longstanding neighborhood organizations like the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, CAMACOL, and ConnectFamilias helped Carollo advocate for the neighborhood, overriding occasional protests from the rest of the commission.

In the case of extending the city’s trolley route to Little Havana, for example, “there was pushback because the administration believed that other areas should receive this prior to Calle Ocho,” Carollo remembers. Other commissioners advocated for an extension into parts of Coral Way, Wynwood, Downtown, and the MiMo district. (Of these, Wynwood and Little Havana were prioritized by the end of the final commission meeting.)

Local organizations work to improve Little Havana

As the city began devoting more resources to the neighborhood, other local organizations began working harder than ever to improve Little Havana, too. For example, ConnectFamilias, a local civic engagement organization, partnered with the City of Miami and the Health Foundation of South Florida to launch a multi-year campaign to implement health interventions throughout the community.

Meanwhile, CAMACOL, the Latin Chamber of Commerce of the United States, awarded local business Azucar Ice Cream a grant to build the businesses’ incredible façade — which now is a centerpiece of Calle Ocho.

As one success led to another, a thriving city center was born.

But as the neighborhood flourished, it also became more financially attractive and, big-box developers began to set their gaze on Calle Ocho. Little Havana Merchant Alliance faced one of its biggest challenges yet – the interest of non-local franchises. Through letters to their city commissioner and the Calle Ocho chamber of commerce, they blocked an AutoZone from setting up shop along Calle Ocho.

And although the alliance was unable to block a McDonald’s from arriving, it forced the company to bring in local artists to paint the exterior walls of the cookie-cutter building. Now its tan walls are brightened with murals from world-renowned painter Xavier Cortada and tiled with mosaics by local legends Nelson and Ronald Currás.

Ultimately, the goal was to keep Calle Ocho authentic by challenging city officials to think twice about deals that would make the street feel like a “mini Epcot,” Fuller said.

“When people come to Little Havana, they’re looking for the authentic experience … so you have to push and promote local businesses and not force feed something.” he added. “The small businesses are the heart of the whole neighborhood.”

Keeping Little Havana affordable

The alliance’s success shows that even in this city where developers and foreign investors often seem to have the upper hand, community organizing can get places like Little Havana a seat at the table.

Residents have begun speaking up, too. For example, when developers wanted to change zoning laws to allow five-story buildings (called upzoning) in the historic district, they organized the Little Havana Neighborhood Association to combat it.

Looking east to Brickell, where buildings went higher and higher, community activist Marta Laura Zayas feared that this instance of upzoning, while only to five stories, would make it easier for developers to push for the glassy, soaring buildings in Little Havana, turning it into an extension of Brickell. Those taller buildings would be both antithetical to their desire to preserve the historical buildings and to keeping around housing that longtime residents could afford.

Developer Carlos Fausto Miranda, a commercial real estate broker and investor in Little Havana, argues that it’s possible to increase density but retain the character of the neighborhood by building more units that include affordable housing options.

Miranda says that with the Little Havana Neighborhood Association vocally opposing upzoning, “the City is taking it’s time to consider everyone’s opinion on it, which is a good thing.” The final vote is now stalled at the city commission.

The Little Havana Merchant Alliance and the Little Havana Neighborhood Association stress that they are not anti-development (in an interview for our “How to be a good neighbor” story, Fuller offered advice to potential developers). But they want development that helps Little Havana remain affordable and connected to the community — and that doesn’t dilute the culture that makes the place so special to them.

Fuller has since moved on from the alliance, handing the reins over to local community activists and business owners Anneliese Morales and Raisa Fernandez. Morales looks forward to growing the network and continuing to provide workshops, resources, and meetings for local business-owners all around Little Havana.

For Fernandez, it’s all about building a connection.

“A successful business in Little Havana is all about community involvement. If not, your business will not be here for 50 years,” she said. “You have to feel connected to your place and that makes you feel proud of your neighborhood.”