Arva Parks and Gepsie Metellus have lived in the same neighborhood for decades. Parks attended Edison High School in Edison Center, a town within the larger region known as Lemon City. When she grew older and began teaching at Edison, she was working in the exact same building. Except now it was in Little Haiti.
And for Metellus, who has lived in Miami for 30 years and currently serves as the executive director at Sant La, a Haitian Neighborhood Center, the neighborhood has only ever been Little Haiti.
According to Metellus, Little Haiti spans from NW 54th to NW 87th streets, and is bordered by I-95 and the Florida East Coast Railway. Parks, who is a historian and has written and contributed to several books about Miami’s history, however, thinks the borders are much looser. “[It’s] hard to say,” Parks admitted. “I’d say it starts at the Bay and goes over to 7th Ave. to the west, and NW 71st St. to the north.” Beyond NW 71st St., it’s Little River, according to Parks. By contrast, Metellus calls it northern Little Haiti.
And they’re both right, according to Dr. Paul George, a historian and professor at Miami-Dade College.
“Little Haiti was never incorporated, so it’s very informal, and very subjective,” George said. He, by the way is somewhere in the middle. He defines the neighborhood as extending from Biscayne Bay to NW 7th Ave. and from NW 54th St. on the south up to roughly NW 77th St. to the north.
When it was Lemon City
Lemon City began as a homesteader, agricultural community in the 1870s. A large Bahamian community inhabited the land, made up of both blacks and whites, according to George. By 1895, there were almost 350 people living in the area, contrasted with just 9 people living at the mouth of the Miami River, which is now PortMiami.
“It was so easy to inhabit because there was a natural deep water channel that ran through it, allowing for easy navigation by boat,” George said. Eventually, citrus groves, including lemon trees, overtook South Florida from Biscayne Bay all the way to Hialeah — giving birth to the name Lemon City.
In the late 1880s, while the rest of the state succumbed to harsh freezes that killed off agriculture, Miami’s trees were thriving and bearing fruit. This attracted railroad mogul Henry Flagler to Miami, who would go on to build a railroad line to the city.
In 1889, the name Lemon City was used for the first time in public records, and by 1896, Flagler had built the Lemon City Depot on NW 59th St. Though Flagler was drawn to the agriculture, the arrival of his railroad spurred the development of manufacturing and warehouses in Lemon City.
Eventually, roads, schools, and services were created. The town’s first high school was opened in 1915 and was called Dade County Agricultural High School. “They called them the ‘Aggies,’” according to Parks. That name would change to Miami Edison Senior High by Oct. 21,1931, at the very hour of Thomas A. Edison’s burial.
Through the 1950’s Lemon City was completely segregated, and when Parks attended Edison High School, “it was 100% white.” When she went back to teach in 1964, it “was the first year the high school was integrated, and there were three black students then.”
This coincided with a time when, throughout the country, middle class residents were moving away from the cities and into the suburbs, leaving houses and businesses completely empty.
“The movement of people to the suburbs created avenues for people to settle. This created a vibrant, tremendous community — racial and otherwise,” George said.
From Lemon City to Little Haiti
In the early 1980s, refugees from Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, were moving into Lemon City, which was one of the few regions that were actually affordable. They transformed the area into a vibrant black Caribbean community, according to George.
“I moved here in 1984,” said Jean Mapou, owner of Libreri Mapou Creole & French Bookstore, which is now an anchor of downtown Little Haiti. “I opened this bookstore because I wanted to be connected to the Haitians who were traveling here by the hundreds. I also wanted to help students and scholars learn about Haitians.”
Through the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Haitians fled the brutal François “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime, where citizens were being persecuted in droves. “They took a chance. They knew they only had 1% of making it on those boats, and many didn’t make it. They capsized or drowned in the high seas,” Mapou said.
But for those who did make it, “They came with nothing. They had their clothes and shoes and that’s it. … Most of them were not educated because they were peasants or people from the outskirts of the country,” he added. “That’s where I came in. … I wanted to start educating our people.”
With almost 50,000 Haitians inhabiting the space we now call Little Haiti, there was quite a story to be told, and activist and journalist Viter Juste was the one to tell it. He wrote an article in the Miami Herald and called the area from NW 54th St. to NW 62nd St. “Little Port-au-Prince,” drawing inspiration from Little Havana. Editors at the Miami Herald, however, thought the name was too long, and suggested shortening it to Little Haiti. And so, from one day to the next, Lemon City became Little Haiti.
The story of Little River
Pristine red signs reading “Little River Business District” declare the land from NW 63nd to NW 79th street an entirely different neighborhood. By contrast, looking down at the sidewalks, the words “Little Haiti” can be found etched into the dried concrete. Driving north on NE 2nd Ave., there’s very little aesthetic or demographic difference from NW 54th Ave. and even up to NW 79th Ave, as the two neighborhoods share much of the same culture and energy.
The name Little River tips its hat to history, harkening back to the time of shipping and agriculture. Inhabitants often grew coontie, an edible starch once commonly grown in the region. Seminole Indians taught early inhabitants how to grow and harvest the crop.
By 1915, the going rate for a barrel was about 15¢, which equates to $5 in today’s currency, according to Little River, Issue 01, a zine published by Sun & Sons, a design firm in Miami.
The town’s livelihood was based on shipping coontie along the Little River, whose mouth was along modern day NW 79th St. Through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the town transformed from a rural, agricultural wetland to a quaint neighborhood. By the 1970s, however, with the onset of the American highway, businesses were receiving less foot traffic and the middle class began moving to the suburbs.
By the 1980s. the neighborhood fell into disarray, filled with warehouses and adult book and video stores. Similar to the streets below, many Caribbean immigrants moved in at a time when housing was affordable, and so this neighborhood, too, began to be known as Little Haiti by some.
Seasons of change
Whether you call it Lemon City, or Little Haiti, Little River, or something else entirely, the region spanning from NW 54th St. to NW 79th St. has gone through immense changes, geographically, demographically, and culturally.
While at the height of the 1980s there were upwards of 50,000 Haitians living in the area, many have moved northward to Miami Shores and even Broward County. Yet many Haitians who have settled here take deep pride in the neighborhood.
“I moved here and had children here. So there’s two generations here that make up the culture, vibrant food, dance, music, art. This all exists and is alive in Little Haiti. You can’t change that overnight,” Mapou said.
Metellus agrees, and adds that Little Haiti is a source of pride, and not just in Miami. It serves as a center of Haitian culture for folks from all over the world. “Haitian culture is visible in this area. Even Haitians throughout the diaspora take tremendous pride in Little Haiti, as it’s the first and only geographic area [like this] that exists in the US.”
According to George, as the neighborhoods change, progress can be a positive thing, as it “brings stabilization to the area.” But as that happens, it’s important to consider all of the people throughout history who have made up these vibrant communities spanning back from the early days of Lemon City to today. “Haitians really saved the community from falling into a ditch. … They came here to pursue the American Dream,” he added.
Business owners like Mapou and community activists like Metellus plan to keep advocating for preserving this community they’ve called home for the past three decades.
“Haitians are invested here. I’m invested here. I have a house and land in several places in Little Haiti,” Metellus said. “Money talks, but you have to keep fighting. We can’t stop fighting.”