Deemed one of the “final frontiers trying to retain a local identity,” by Pari Passu Foundation director Gustavo Alejandro Garcia, Little Haiti is undergoing a cultural renaissance. In the last year, scores of established art galleries and a slew of newcomers have opened their doors in both Little Haiti and Little River, an as-yet affordable area where many local artists have maintained studios for quite a while.
But in a neighborhood in which less than 26% of residents own their properties, will an artistic boom inevitably drive the cost of living to uninhabitable heights?
The gentrification of a neighborhood through the arts isn’t exactly a novel concept. Artists and gallery owners move into neighborhoods that are affordable, developers take note and encourage major retailers and restaurant owners to move in, and the area is often transformed, with plenty of tensions along the way between new residents and old.
It’s a story reiterated in major cities across the globe — from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg to Buenos Aires’ Palermo Soho and Berlin’s East Side. While it can be argued that it’s a process that stimulates and revitalizes otherwise rundown areas, it too often drives smaller, local businesses that didn’t own their spaces out of the very places they helped shape, while leaving longtime residents priced out of the neighborhoods they grew up in.
Art and consequences
In Miami, where rising real estate costs and growing income disparity remain some of the most pressing issues facing its citizens today, gentrification of neighborhoods isn’t a new phenomenon. Beginning with South Beach in the 1990s and early 2000s, when a strong presence of local art galleries and the arrival of Art Basel led a push to revitalize the once crime-ridden streets of South Beach, to Wynwood, the most obvious example of rapid gentrification through the arts today.
In a few short years, Wynwood went from being an impoverished neighborhood to an international destination for art and entertainment, though not without consequences for it’s mostly working class residents. Many credit this rapid transformation to developer Tony Goldman, who pioneered a gentrification through the arts model to revitalize New York’s SoHo district and later successfully applied the concept in Miami Beach.
Noticing that many emerging artists and galleries were already setting up shop in Wynwood due to an abundance of affordable warehouse space, Goldman began purchasing land in the area, commissioning mural artists to create what has become that iconic Wynwood look, and organized the Wynwood Arts District Association, tasked with the mission of transforming the neighborhood into a full-blown cultural capital.
The area blossomed practically overnight, with rents tripling to $60 per square foot in less than three years. Eventually, the artistic pioneers in the area were driven out, and pricey restaurants and luxury retail replaced them. While Wynwood remains one of Miami’s most vibrant neighborhoods, it’s become nearly impossible for an artist or gallery to open a space there.
Rising real estate costs force cultural communities and longtime residents out of their neighborhoods, and they inevitably move on to areas they can afford. That’s part of the trouble with gentrification – it’s a cycle that can be repeated again and again.
But that doesn’t make the act of rejuvenating neighborhoods inherently bad, especially when the people leading the charge are intentional in their efforts in a way that roots their presence in the community in a lasting and positive way. In Little Haiti and Little River, several gallery owners are taking steps to ensure that the neighborhoods retain the unique cultural community and identity they have today.
“Here for the long term”
For many, rooting yourself in a community starts with the ownership of property. While most galleries can’t afford ownership, those more established ones have opted for buying rather than leasing, making a more permanent home in neighborhoods still accessible to their base of collectors.
“I’m a native of Miami, I’ve built my gallery from this city, and I intend on being based here for the long term. So it really made sense for me to no longer be a tenant,” says Nina Johnson-Milewski, the owner and director of Gallery Diet, which was formerly operating out of a much smaller Wynwood space.
Gallery Diet recently re-opened in a 15,000 square-foot, four-building compound on 63rd St. and NW 2nd Ave. Likewise, Wynwood pioneers like Dorsch Gallery and Yeelen Gallery announced they would be re-opening in newly-purchased properties in Little Haiti, signaling that the neighborhood remains one of the few places in Miami where small business owners can still thrive.
Opening in 2014, &gallery is one such newcomer that’s elected to own their property instead of lease it. Owners Annie Berkowitz and Jordan Tracthenberg, a realtor and architect, respectively, understand the benefits of ownership for gallerists and artists alike.
“We’re here to provide a platform for local artists,” says Berkowitz. “Not just in the gallery, but in the community. I help a lot of artists find affordable space in the neighborhood, and I help sellers make sure they’re handing their properties over to people who want to keep the neighborhood vibe.”
Additionally, Trachtenberg works closely with the Haitian American Community Development Corporation, an organization assisting families with capital raising for home ownership. “We’ve been talking with them about the ways we can integrate with what they’re doing with community development by expanding our programs,” Trachtenberg says. To that end, Trachtenberg and Berkowitz purchased an additional 13,000 square-feet to expand &gallery. They have a packed schedule of programming that often celebrates the local community, such as &gallery’s Hecho in Miami event, designed to give local artists and artisans an opportunity to present their current work. Participants have included photographers, stone and jewelry makers, potters, and fresh food vendors.
Ownership is key not only for gallerists, but for artists, too. Owning their homes and studios ensures they won’t be shuffled out with the next big development boom, and cements the neighborhood’s cultural survival. In Little Haiti and Little River, the effects of gentrification have already uprooted some.
A notable example is a juice vendor that had become a long-time staple along 83rd St. being pushed out after plans for the coworking space MADE at the Citadel were formally announced. Should rents begin rising for spaces occupied by galleries and artists, it’s possible that another move would be imminent. “I think it’s important for cultural producers in any city to be as invested as they possibly can be, and that includes ownership of property, ownership of enterprise, and home ownership,” says Johnson-Milewski. “I think that kind of investment allows for a more harmonious relationship for the kind of cultural development Miami has benefitted from to date.”
Those who don’t own their spaces are integrating the neighborhood through community projects and creating accessible art. In addition to working almost exclusively with local artists, Sarah MK Moody, a photographer and owner of pop-up Maggie Knox Gallery, created #IHAITIBASEL in 2013.
“I ran the project out of a Little Haiti thrift shop, renting space from them and working with them to make it happen in a way we were all comfortable with,” says Moody, noting that “closing your eyes to the community and culture you’re moving into is foolish.” Moody, along with &gallery and others installed in the community, are engaging and integrating with the neighborhood by hiring locals as often as possible.
While it’s retained a strong cultural identity, Little Haiti residents are no longer predominantly Haitian, but rather a mix of South American and other Caribbean immigrants, along with an influx of new residents from other parts of Miami. Valeria Fiñana, an art director who moved to Miami from Argentina 15 years ago, has been a Little Haiti resident for the last four years. Alongside her partner and friend Miguel Ullivarri, Fiñana opened FU Gallery knowing that the vibe in Little Haiti would complement their mission to present accessible, reasonably priced art that responds to its multicultural community. “We wanted to take the pretension out of art collecting, and encourage people from the neighborhood to walk in,” says Ullivarri.
Focusing on presenting local Latin American artists, FU is opening a February show that includes artists working out of studios in the area. Collaborating with three other galleries renting space in their building on NE 2nd Ave. and 83rd Street, FU is hoping that holding regular meetings will start a conversation about the growth of the neighborhood.
“The fact that people are buying property gives me hope that this is going to become a creative community,” says Moody. “You want to work where you can be accessible to the urban core of Miami, where you can get out and connect with other people.”
And retaining the neighborhoods’ cultural identity might be the key to creating an artistic scene that’s integrated with the local community, embracing the future without erasing the past. As Fiñana says, “We want it to grow, but we don’t want another Wynwood. Little Haiti has a particular essence to it that needs to remain.”