For five decades, tens of thousands of Haitians fleeing hardship in their homeland rebuilt their lives about four miles north of downtown Miami, Florida, in a neighborhood widely known as Little Haiti. It was the first stop on the road to the American dream and one of the most efficient places for collecting donations and remittances to send back home. Even during power outages from hurricanes, Little Haiti was always open for business. Need candles or a flashlight? Follow the lively kompa music blaring from a dollar-store generator. Want a beer and a game of dominoes? Drop by Churchill’s, an Old English pub in a perpetual state of demographic adaptation that hosts everything from Haitian jazz to Argentine punk.
But resilient Little Haiti could soon lose its eclectic existence to Miami’s burgeoning arts industry if locals don’t combine efforts to promote the neighborhood’s own artistic and culinary treasures for tourists and socially conscious transplants. Driven by the demands of Art Basel, a world-renowned art show hosted each December in Miami Beach, luxury real estate developers have invested heavily in neighboring territories, replacing mom-and-pop restaurants with Louis Vuitton and Cartier, and even pricing local artists out of the galleries that first drew the attention of these haute couture designers.
“Miami’s art scene is growing fast and we Haitians don’t want to get left behind,” said painter and musician Jude Papaloko Thegunus, whose Jakmel Art Gallery has been priced out of two venues in the past 11 years. Who knows how long he can keep his latest space on NE 2nd Avenue, a few blocks southeast of Wynwood and Design District, two of Miami’s most arts-oriented neighborhoods.
Papaloko is hopeful, regardless. This winter, he’ll join forces as the top muralist of ART Beat-Miami, a new collective of 25 local artists and dozens of area businesses and non-profits to paint murals further north at the intersection of NE 2nd Avenue and NE 54th Street, Little Haiti’s main point of entry. Their colorful depictions of the neighborhood’s hardworking entrepreneurs will help those residents grow with the times, luring tourists to local restaurants, galleries, bookstores, botanikas (Caribbean spirituality shops), and the crown jewel: the state-of-the-art Little Haiti Cultural Center, with its special events auditorium and afterschool dance and arts programs. It recently renovated its adjoining Caribbean Marketplace with $1.2 million from the City of Miami and the Miami Dade Department of Cultural Affairs. The market, usually filled with artisan crafts and food stalls, will double as a gallery during Art Basel.
“Change is inevitable, but as a community, we have to be prepared to see how we can make something new out of the old,” said Haitian-American Joann Milord, a micro-enterprise specialist and founder of The Northeast Second Partnership (NE2P), a non-profit community development group that is partnering with ART Beat-Miami.
“Our culture is what’s making the destination sexy,” Milord said, noting Miami’s reputation as the capital of the Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora holds a special allure.
Learn More about arts and development in Little Haiti and about the Inter-American Development Bank’s research on creative industries in Part II.
Photos by Evelyn Posada