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The Miami Times - 12/9/2015

The gentrification of
Little Haiti beckons

FANM calls for designated boundaries of community to preserve creole culture, residential homes and businesses

by: Alex Blencowe

As early as 1850, Bahamian immigrants came to Miami and created what was once known as Lemon City, a thriving farming community of libraries, churches, schools and businesses. That provided the foundations for Miami's Black communities. By the late 1980s, waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier settled in Lemon City, changing it into what Viter Juste called "Little Port-au-Prince" or "Little Haiti."

Juste, a Haitian-born activist and community leader, had often advocated for the preservation of Haitian culture in Florida, organized boycotts against businesses that discriminated against Haitian Americans, and even created the first French-language newspaper in Miami. Today, only three years since Juste’s death, Haitians have a new battle against what organizers say is the gentrification of and displacement of families and businesses in Little Haiti.

On Thursday, Dec. 3, Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami /Haitian Women of Miami (FANM), in the midst of art galleries on show during Miami Art Week, held a protest in response to the rise in property values in Little Haiti and the development of new real estate that has forced its residents into Broward, Miami Gardens and other areas. In front of the FANM's headquarters at 181 NE 82nd St., homeowners, business owners, state representatives, members of the Haitian American Community Development Corp. and Dream Defenders gathered in protest.

"While we welcome and admire the art and diversity of Art Basel, we are gravely concerned about the threat of losing the character, cultural history and legacy of Little Haiti," said Marleine Bastien, executive director of FANM. Bastien encouraged others to enjoy Art Basel's beauty, while informing incoming tourists on the crisis in the backdrop.

"When there is success and glory in this city in the form of Art Basel or huge development or wealth, all too often it is at the cost of the long-term communities that have been in Miami, that have struggled through poverty, that have made themselves roots," said Gihan Perera, executive director of The New Florida Majority, street-level organizers.

"Little Haiti has to respond and protect itself in order to be a part of, and not be displaced by, the changing nature of Miami," Perera said before reading FANM's list of demands for the City of Miami.

Among these were the creation of a Little Haiti Historic/Cultural District; the designation of boundaries and an official naming of Little Haiti; the funding of a Community Land Trust to preserve existing homes; the development of a sustainable growth plan including new zoning and permitting requirements with a Social Impact Assessment to identify the affects on small businesses; as well as a district-wide Community Benefits Agreement to ensure local residents are hired at living wages; and to secure the economic prosperity of Little Haiti's long-term citizens.

While some say the gentrification of Little Haiti is a product of discrimination arising from deep-seated racial issues, others argue it is more in line with class warfare and lack of affordable housing. City of North Miami Clerk Michael Etienne argues the latter.

"What's going on today is going on across the country and I don't think it's a race issue ... it's more-so of a class warfare going on," Etienne said, adding that the city and its representatives must ensure that individuals continue to live in the neighborhoods that they grew up in and helped build.

"You have a lot of companies that are supported by big banks and big businesses that are literally pushing out the working class people out of their own communities," he said.

Bastien said when the Haitian refugees arrived to the Miami area, they settled in "a blighted, slum-like neighborhood located between 36th and 87th streets known as Little Haiti, where they were basically left to fend for themselves."

Bastien goes on: "Out of sheer resilience and determination, the newly arrived refugees worked hard, bought homes, developed business. They turned Little Haiti into a dynamic, attractive, and culturally rich community."

Jackisha Fanfan, who spoke on behalf of State Rep. Daphne Campbell of District 108, said, "[Campbell] wants to maintain the legacy and historical importance of Little Haiti and stands to work with Commissioner Hardemon ... and other officials, to make sure the residents of Little Haiti and Overtown do not get pushed out."

Florida attorney and leader of the Community Justice Project, Charles "Chuck" Elsesser has seen similar promises and fights in other areas such as Little Havana, Overtown, Liberty City and even parts of Coral Gables. He said the only way to change the outcome of this issue is for the people of these districts to stand together and demand real change for all people.

"The real question is: What is the future of Miami?" Elsesser said. "Do we destroy our historical heritage, or do we build on that and let the people decide?"

Bastien said District 5 Commissioner Keon Hardemon led his original campaign on the promise of bringing such progress and initiatives to the people of Little Haiti, but has yet to deliver.

Commissioner Hardemon has helped a number of inner city youths and community members with a variety of outreach programs and proposals since 2014, including the renovation of the Little Haiti Cultural Arts Complex's Learn & Play room in partnership with the Miami Heat and the NBA, as well as the reopening of the Caribbean Marketplace in partnership with the cultural center, Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs and the Northeast Second Avenue Partnership.

Hardemon did not immediately return calls requesting comment.

Still, FANM calls for more action to be taken before Little Haiti disappears completely, much like its predecessor, Lemon City.

"The time is now, because tomorrow there will be no more time left," Bastien said.

"We are a strong people full of pride and full of culture and beautiful cuisine," said James Valcin, a Dream Defender born and raised in Miami, who watched Little Haiti's bustling neighborhood transform from the windows of his stepfather's barbershop.

"Now we have shutters, we have locks on windows and boards," Valcin shouted. "This is not Wynwood! This is not South Beach! This is Little Haiti! And as the Haitian people have done forever, we will persevere!"

You may reach Alex Blencowe at alexblencowe17@gmail.com.