Developers, Historians, and Activists War Over the Future of Little Haiti

Marleine Bastien argues that officially recognizing Little Haiti as a neighborhood will help prevent gentrification from changing the area.
Marleine Bastien argues that officially recognizing Little Haiti as a neighborhood will help prevent gentrification from changing the area.
Photo by Stian Roenning

Marleine Bastien marveled at the packed room inside the Miami-Dade County Commission chambers. Five busloads of Haitian-Americans waved flags from their homeland and wore matching T-shirts, and people overflowed into the lobby outside, buzzing with hopeful energy.

The day was May 26, and the crowd awaited the culmination of years of lobbying to give Little Haiti an official place on the city map.

"It was unreal," says Bastien, founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami (FANM), a Haitian community organization. "We were really passionate. It reminded me of the old days when we used to have huge demonstrations on the street."

As anticipation built for the vote, speakers were met with stifled cheers in a hall that prohibits applause. Speakers lined up "from all social strata, from all professional backgrounds," Bastien says.

Finally, midway through their ten-hour meeting, the commission brought the issue to a vote. A yes would mean a new name for a sizable swath of the city roughly bounded by I-95 and NE Second Avenue to the west and east and 54th and 79th Streets to the south and north. But for Haitian activists, it would mean much more.

"The reason really we were so concerned about making official the area and boundaries," Bastien says, "[is] it is our belief that Little Haiti would completely disappear otherwise."

Many held their breath as the votes came in: five votes to zero. Applause exploded through the chamber. Traditional Kreyol songs broke out. Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who had brought the proposal to the chamber, had to implore the crowd for quiet.

For many outside the neighborhood, the vote may have seemed like simple common sense. After all, Haitian immigrants have spent decades remaking the area. The Little Haiti Cultural Center and Little Haiti Park are already on the map. Kreyol blasts from speakers along the main drag of NE Second Avenue, and griot is easier to find at lunch counters in the area than a cafecito. The neighborhood is distinctly Haitian, from the businesses to the people who walk the streets.

But Little Haiti's designation is arguably the most controversial in Miami's history. Amid all the Haitian pride at the meeting, a who's who of wealthy landowners and prominent developers — including Silvia Wong, Avra Jain, Tony Cho, Bennet Pumo, and Peter Ehrlich — stepped up to argue against the change. They rest their claim on history, because the boundaries of Little Haiti overlap a far older neighborhood called Lemon City, which dates back to the mid-19th Century and includes some of Miami's most notable black history. They say the name change was a poorly debated "sneak attack" that disrespects the intricate backstory of the area.

"I think it was really unfair the way the process took place with no notice, no notice to the stakeholders," Ehrlich says. "There should have been a discussion. I think professionals should have been involved in how the maps were drawn. And I'm extremely disappointed in the commissioners who didn't ask any of the obvious questions."

The untold history of the area that was once Lemon City and is now Little Haiti is both more fascinating and sometimes darker than either side has explained — and it gets to the heart of a fight that won't go away anytime soon.

"No matter what the case is, you cannot bury the fact that there was a Lemon City. It was vibrant. It was blue-collar. It was a mishmash of different people going back to the 1870s and '80s, which is really phenomenal," says historian Paul George of HistoryMiami.

Even after the commission vote, the conflict over this neighborhood's name remains tense and loaded with complicated issues of race and poverty. On one side, the developers who are crying history and worrying about the sanctity of the city's process also stand to make millions on a gentrifying neighborhood; on the other, Bastien and other longtime residents and activists are fighting to keep Little Haiti Haitian.

In December 1901, two friends got into an argument that quickly devolved into a full-on duel. At dawn in the crisp tropical winter, local men Charles Freeman and Sandy McEaddy slowly marched down a dirt road lined with modest pine buildings — now known as 79th Street — before facing off in front of a general store named Huskey's. One man was armed with a pistol, the other a Winchester rifle. A bustling crowd followed them, hiding behind trees and wooden lean-tos, as the pair paced off and then grabbed their weapons.

Two shots shattered the morning calm, but the men weren't sharpshooters. Only McEaddy was nicked with a minor flesh wound, while Freeman was so spooked at the sight of blood that he soon turned himself over to the justice of the peace in Lemon City. Both were fined for the escapade.

The so-called Little River Duel, recounted in Thelma Peters' book Lemon City: Pioneering on Biscayne Bay 1850-1925 is one of the most colorful moments in the long history of a neighborhood with an identity that has shifted multiple times.

Lemon City is said to have gotten its name from a lemon grove, but the pioneers Peters interviewed in the 1970s barely remembered it. Whether its name was inspired by citrus fruit or not, the area was among the most desirable in the area thanks to the Little River, which cut a natural channel out to the bay.

"Mother Nature bestowed this channel that allowed people to come into the bay and allowed people to settle there," George says. (An adjacent community, called Little River, developed a mile or so north of Lemon City but had a separate identity.)

The people who came, by and large, were seeking escape — from the industrial North or overseas poverty. Even the harsh reality of early Miami was better than a Chicago slum at the turn of the century. Land in Lemon City was available for free through a homestead application process, with a filing fee of $14 plus the cost of newspaper notices to make sure no one else could stake an earlier claim.

But tropical homesteading was not paradise. Settlers worked and reworked the land in the 1870s and 1880s, before the foundation of the City of Miami and Coconut Grove. Lemon City, in fact, is the oldest continuously settled area of Miami-Dade County.

"It predates Coconut Grove, it predates Buena Vista, it predates Fulford-by-the-Sea," George says. "It's a community that came together in the 1870s, and that's a long time ago for Miami."

During the Civil War, sparsely settled Florida was mostly untouched, so after the fighting, many Southern farmers who had lost their homesteads moved here. Some settled in Lemon City, which began to fill with colorful characters, such as Sheriff Billy Mettair, later known as Dade's Wyatt Earp.

Mettair, who patrolled the county in the 1880s on the back of his spotted gray stallion, Prince, became a legendary figure. He was a blacksmith, fiddler, butcher, skilled sailor, and prolific hunter known for regularly killing black bear for jerky and panthers for a $3 bounty. Many tales about him are unconfirmed and legendary. After a ship ran aground in the "Great Wine Wreck," which left hundreds of barrels of vino strewn across the sands of what would later become Miami Beach, Mettair supposedly bathed in wine. And he might have once worked for famed abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

On the other side of the law was sharpshooter Sam S. Lewis, who ran the Lemon City Saloon on 61st Street before going on a killing spree, the worst crime in 19th-century Miami. The bloody escapade began in 1895 when Lewis got stern with a couple of his drunk customers and they threw pool balls at him.

"He warned them: 'If I see you again, I'm going to kill you,'?" George says. "He shot them dead the next day." After the double murder, Lewis fled to Bimini. He was later caught there, but escaped again, pirating a boat back to Lemon City to settle some scores. After a sting operation, "Sure Shot" Lewis killed another man during capture and then a fourth while trying to escape from jail until he was finally shot dead himself.

In 1888, the area's name nearly changed by accident when the local post office branch opened. An influential man of the time, William Freeman, proposed the name "Motlo," after a local Seminole chief who'd been friendly to white settlers. In 1889, given the necessary 20 signatures, the feds approved the new "Motto" post office, misspelling the name. Some boosters began calling the neighborhood "Motto," embracing the error. But Lemon City ended up sticking.

The area soon became home to one of the first major pieces of the South Florida economy (aside from a reportedly bustling house of prostitution). The Hurst Starch Mill used native Florida coontie roots to make arrowroot starch, which was sold to national baking companies. When the mill opened in 1910, most of the workers were black; although it closed 16 years later, after the root had nearly been depleted, the business brought many black settlers to the area.

"We don't know exactly how many blacks lived in early Lemon City," says Marvin Dunn, a retired Florida International University psychology professor who later became one of the foremost authorities on black Miami history. But by the early 1870s, "as many as 1,000 black people were living in and around Lemon City."

Black Americans weren't the only key residents of color in the area. According to George Merrick, the developer who founded Coral Gables, black Bahamians taught locals how to farm soil on top of Miami's limestone base, which they were familiar with due to similar coral rock bases on the islands. Miami might have failed as a settlement without their expertise.

Beginning around 1900, records show the roots of three black settlements around Lemon City: Nazarine, Knightsville, and Boles Town. Residents there mostly worked at white-owned farms and factories, while they had their own school and small social systems, with churches, stores, community centers, and even the Lemon City Colored School, which dates to at least 1898.

Lemon City's early black history is a key part of Miami's African-American narrative, says Dunn, author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. "In another ten years or 20 years, there will be no common knowledge that this community ever existed," he worries.

The neighborhood began changing after World War II and into the 1950s, when "white flight" took most nonblack residents to the suburbs.

For around 30 years, Lemon City was primarily an African-American neighborhood until the 1970s, when Haiti's political unrest brought more upheaval. As the ruthless father-and-son regimes of François "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier wracked the nation, tens of thousands fled to America. Despite pushback from locals and immigration authorities, at least 60,000 Haitians landed in Miami between 1977 and 1981. Many moved to Lemon City because housing was relatively cheap.

By the late '80s, "Little Haiti" had become common parlance for the area where so many had moved. Today, per the Migration Policy Institute, more than 208,000 Haitian immigrants live in Miami, and the diaspora has spread throughout Miami-Dade County.

The change wasn't always smooth. In fact, tensions often boiled over between longtime black residents and the newer Haitian immigrants. The most famous case came in the 1980s when Phede Eugene, a young Haitian student, killed himself after his black American girlfriend heard him speaking Kreyol.

Around that time, Dunn was brought into Edison High School to study the rift between black American and Haitian students. For older residents, he says, job competition fueled more animosity between newcomers and long-standing black families.

"This is inter-ethnic conflict, not racial conflict," Dunn says, "and it's very deep and very real. Those strains continue. And this historical contest between the naming or renaming of Lemon City has made it worse in recent months."

Marvin Dunn, a historian of black Miami, says erasing Lemon City's name obscures the important history of African-Americans in South Florida.
Marvin Dunn, a historian of black Miami, says erasing Lemon City's name obscures the important history of African-Americans in South Florida.
Photo by Michael McElroy

As he pilots a luxury SUV around Lemon City, Peter Ehrlich casually uses the word "centimillionaire" a lot. Ehrlich, a tall, soft-spoken developer with a perpetual half-smile, defines the word for the less familiar: It's a person worth more than $100 million — a delineation most Miamians might not know exists but which is key in high-end real-estate circles.

The native New Yorker owns about four acres and approximately 100,000 square feet of property in historic Lemon City, the equivalent of an entire city block. He's owned property in the area for decades, and he knows every one of the property owners. While he drives, he points out the luxury cars on one block.

"There's a big Bentley down there," he says before pointing at another place. "They have two Bentleys, and the guy on the left who owns our building now, he drives a Bentley."

In the past decade, a new kind of change has been brewing in Little Haiti — one tied less to demographics than wealth. As Wynwood has gentrified into a high-rent, bar-and-restaurant-heavy district, many artists have fled for Little Haiti's cheaper rent. Some big-money developers were already there, but others have followed.

These days, long gone are the Bahamian and white pioneers who scraped muck and limestone to feed their rough-and-tumble families. Now a Ferrari racecar driver lives in the neighborhood near a high-end furniture store, a fancy water company, and event spaces for films, documentaries, and luxury parties. Argentine wine firms rent space near dot-com startups and sexy local brands such as Jugofresh and Plant the Future.

"It's not the future," Ehrlich says of that shift. "It's here."

But Ehrlich worries having "Little Haiti" enshrined in the books could stall that change. "We know from 20 years' experience that people prefer more generic names or truly historically accurate names, including 'Buena Vista' and 'Little River,'?" Ehrlich says. "Yes, there are some negative connotations with 'Little Haiti.'?"

In the past year, Ehrlich has become the outspoken face of a surprisingly diverse group pushing back against changing the name of Lemon City. They're an odd coalition of black historians, developers, and residents whose reasons for opposing the move range from the commercial to the historic.

Ehrlich is far from alone in worrying that having "Little Haiti" in city records will be bad for business.

Silvia Wong has been in the neighborhood for 25 years and owns three acres and 60,000 square feet of property. She's fighting for Little River's name to be preserved, and notes the area "was officially named the Little River Business District by the City of Miami as a branding mechanism to attract and retain hundreds of businesses, providing employment for hundreds of workers."

Others are even blunter, such as Frank Rudman, CEO of Sportailor Inc., who owns three acres and 100,000 square feet of warehouse in Little River. In a letter to the city dated May 24, he writes that "associating the name Haiti and/or Little Haiti, which represents one of the poorest and crime ridden countries in the western hemisphere, to our area, will be in detrimental [sic] to our ability to do business and pay our real estate taxes."

But many of those same opponents also say the rich history of the neighborhood is at the root of their concerns. Ehrlich, for one, considers himself a history buff. He speaks fondly of his father's role in the historical society in New York and with genuine pride about his own work helping to preserve the Lemon City Cemetery, a mostly black pioneer burial ground that was almost lost to an affordable-housing development.

"They ignored the surveys, the maps, the warnings," Ehrlich says of the commission, which approved the project in 2009. "They started digging up graves."

Emphatically, he sees this as a historical fight and claims that "the Haitians, they really want to erase the historic names" and goes on to say that "they don't want anybody to use 'Lemon City' and 'Little River.'?"

Some historians agree with Ehrlich and his group. Dunn, for one, is apoplectic about Little Haiti being enshrined in city records.

"I am livid that this is being allowed to happen. It's a total disregard for history," he says. "It is as if there was nothing there before the Haitians came. You discount all these years of history and swap that over with new buildings and new people, and it's all gone."

Dunn says renaming a neighborhood erases its past. "One name or the other will survive history. There will never be a Lemon City-slash-Little Haiti," he says. "There will be a Little Haiti, or there will be a Lemon City."

The historian says money isn't at the root of all the complaints about Little Haiti's name change. "What's true to me is the historical record and not embellishing it, minimizing it, hiding it, smoothing over it," he says. "So that's why I say for anyone who supports these developers whose essential motive is to make money, not to preserve history, but to deny the presence of Haitians in that community because of how folks outside see that, it's sickening. It's very disturbing to me."

Ehrlich and others also complain about the process. "Nobody got a heads-up," he claims. "It was like Pearl Harbor."

In fact, this wasn't the first time a Little Haiti name change was brought before the commission. Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. first proposed it, and his successor, Michelle Spence-Jones, also brought up the idea. Ehrlich's group has been fighting this name change for years.

And despite the County Commission's vote in May, Ehrlich is still organizing. In June, he met with Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and brought along pillars of the community, including revered activist Enid Pinkney, to argue against the name change.

"I think it's a disrespect for the history of Miami. That's because people don't respect the history of Miami," Pinkney says. "We've lost our respect for our foundation and the people who helped us to get to where we are. We just don't have any respect."

Haitian talk radio plays loudly over the scratch of static inside Libreri Mapou, a bookstore in the heart of Little Haiti. The proprietor, Jan Mapou, is barely audible over the voices arguing in Kreyol over the airwaves. Although his shop is just blocks from Ehrlich's properties in historic Lemon City, it feels worlds apart.

"It is truly important for this community to be recognized," Mapou asserts. "The whole world knows there's a Little Haiti. The whole world!"

As people from the neighborhood stroll in and out, grabbing the free publications and newspapers on display, Mapou goes on to explain the reach of the neighborhood.

"I got tourists coming from all over the place, from Europe, Asia, all over," says Mapou, whose bookstore has been a standby in the area since the mid-'80s, selling books and snacks while also providing meeting and performance space for artists. Mapou fled Haiti after serving prison time in the '60s for defying Papa Doc's orders against speaking Kreyol on the radio, and has helped evangelize his language and culture in Miami.

"When they come here, they are looking for Little Haiti. They want to be in contact with the artists, with the culture, with the people from Haiti," he says. "On the map, every single map, even Wikipedia is talking about Little Haiti."

Although there's a unifying thread at the heart of all of Little Haiti's boosters — pride in Haitian culture and all it has accomplished in Miami — the arguments in favor of the change go deeper. They range from tourism dollars to the looming fight against gentrification.

The cultural argument is perhaps the loudest, and Mapou personifies that claim. The reasoning isn't complicated: Haitians, every bit as much as Cubans before them, have profoundly reshaped Miami. And they deserve proper recognition for that.

"This is the only, I would say, group of immigrants that stick together and form a community with all the elements, all the cultural elements of their country," he says.

Getting that recognition has been a tough fight. Mapou, who for years worked in the parking department at Miami International Airport, recalls battling to get Kreyol included as a third language at MIA. Mayor Alex Penelas finally added the language in the '90s, and Mapou used to sit for long periods at the airport just to listen to his native tongue broadcast in announcements.

"For some, it's just a name; for others, it's a heritage — it's an identification knowing that that is a community in which we live but also currently growing and trying to take to the next level," says Dr. Cassandra Theramene, executive director for Haitian Americans for Progress, a political action committee. "Any time you come into the city, I always say, 'Oh, I've got to take you to Little Haiti.' I think it's more than just a name. It's an identity."

Boosters say there's a more practical reason behind the name change as well. Though much of Little Haiti remains blue-collar and Caribbean, the neighborhood is wedged against the Design District, which has become a high-end luxury outdoor mall, and is just down the street from Wynwood, the poster child for gentrification.

"Maybe in the next five to ten years, we'll be invaded by the Design District," Mapou says with a laugh. "There's nothing we can do. These people, they've got money, big money. We cannot stop them."

Some of the artists who have recently moved into Little Haiti spaces have also backed the change. Sarah MK Moody, a white artist who has worked in a space off 71st Street and North Miami Avenue since 2013, says developers have alienated many who support the neighborhood's Haitian roots. "The developers are speaking down to the Haitian community because they bought into the name of 'Lemon City' and 'Little River,'?" she says.

Beyond their own arguments, Mapou and others say those opposing Little Haiti's place in Miami's record books are using false arguments. They don't care about history — they care about development money or are fueled by a dislike of Haitians, Mapou and others say.

"It's not nice. You are living here with these people, eating their food," says Mapou, who is particularly critical of Ehrlich. "He's trying to create tension between the Haitians and the black Americans. We have nothing against the black Americans or the black Bahamians. If they are still here, they are our brothers and sisters."

Instead, Mapou says, the opposition is all "for [Ehrlich's] business." He adds, "He just wants to whiten the whole area."

Bastien is even stronger. "He's just a racist," she says of Ehrlich. "He's just trying to find a way to get his way. And using division, which has been used, it's not the first time by the white man for so long."

Little Haiti bookstore owner Jan Mapou says the city was right to recognize a neighborhood that has become a major tourist draw.
Little Haiti bookstore owner Jan Mapou says the city was right to recognize a neighborhood that has become a major tourist draw.
Photo by Mitchell Zachs for the Knight Foundation

Inside Marleine Bastien's cluttered conference room, stacks of paper sit on side tables, but there is no art on the walls, which leach in noise from two summer camps down the hall and a waiting room filled with women speaking Kreyol. Soon her organization must move again. This is the fourth office for FANM since 2000. And in two months, the group will be booted again to another location thanks to yet another rent hike.

"I go to bed every night dreaming that I meet someone who can say, 'Marleine, here is $900,000,'?" to buy a building for the organization, Bastien says.

One thing everyone agrees on is that big change is coming to Little Haiti. Rents are rising, property sales are booming, and — whatever the city calls the neighborhood — many longtime residents are being forced out. But after Bastien and her colleagues' big win at city hall, it's far from certain the developers will win in the long run.

However, Bastien says she has already heard horror stories of Haitians being pushed out of their longtime homes.

"Developers want to buy the Caribbean Market Place. They want to buy the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. They even offered to buy the church," she says. "These are not people who are animated by the best of intentions."

She says she envisions a future coalition — of artists, black residents, and Haitians — working together to keep big-money interests out.

"We can speak in one voice — the Haitian community, the African-American community, the artists. They need to join our struggle; they need to join so we can use their voices too," Bastien says. "The homeowners, a lot of them they think they have to sell. They can become advocates."

She has found allies among newer residents and artists such as Moody, who regularly advocates for the neighborhood through contemporary art shows. "Bringing people together is key," Moody says, "which means showing up for the neighborhood." Many newer residents, she says, hope to help make Little Haiti "the first culturally diverse harmonious neighborhood, one that embraces old historical cultures like Haitian heritage and African roots with tropical Miami art and culture."

But opponents of the neighborhood's name change don't look likely to go away quickly. Ehrlich is still organizing protests and meetings and believes the decision could be reversed. Others say a compromise could be found. Enid Pinkney says Mayor Regalado told her the city could otherwise memorialize Lemon City's history even with the new name.

"[He was] willing to help us put some historical markers up to identify some of the historical places in Miami," she says.

Historian Paul George says markers would be a logical first step toward respectfully remembering the long black history in the area without ignoring the more recent Haitian story.

"There's nothing there [at 61st street] that indicates that was the thriving street of the largest mainland, population-wise, community in Southeast Florida prior to the railroad of 1896," he says.

Bastien says that's another point upon which everyone should agree. History doesn't have to be erased, she insists, to give Haitian immigrants the place they deserve on the city's map.

"I do want to maintain the legacy of Lemon City," Bastien says. "I think it's silly for us to be fighting right now. I think we should really unite our strengths and find ways to maintain some of this land."

She asks, "Why can't Lemon City and Little Haiti live side by side?"


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