Denis Boyer has spent 15 years selling CDs of Haitian konpa music and Creole-language comedies to his fellow countrymen hungry for reminders of their homeland.
But while the crowded aisles of his Fakidj Variety store — stocked with a dizzying assortment of goods that range from French perfumes to long-distance phone cards to aluminum pots — have largely remained unchanged, Boyer recently uprooted the Little Haiti fixture and headed north.
He is among a growing number of Little Haiti merchants who have decamped for North Miami strip malls in pursuit of a customer base that has moved beyond the traditional immigrant enclave to more suburban neighborhoods.
“We have to go to where the customers are and right now they are in North Miami,” said Boyer, who transplanted the contents of his store to a new storefront on West Dixie Highway in August. “North Miami is like the new Little Haiti.”
The trend mirrors similar tales found in other immigrant communities — from the Italians that once upon a time turned Mulberry Street into New York’s Little Italy to the Cubans who turned Miami’s Southwest Eighth Street into Calle Ocho.
“The Cubans were once situated in Calle Ocho, now the Cuban community is everywhere,” said former North Miami councilman Jacques Despinosse, who recently moved his consulting firm out of Little Haiti. “Haitians are also moving out of the heart of the community.”
The area now known as Little Haiti earned its name with the first influx of Haitian immigrants fleeing political unrest and economic hardship in the 1980s. With each subsequent wave of immigration — following hurricanes, coups and even more devastating poverty — the newcomers found solace and support in the neighborhood anchored by Northeast 62nd Street.
“There is the legacy of Little Haiti being the first home base of Haitians,” said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, a Little Haiti-based social agency.
Little Haiti remains the symbolic heart of the Haitian community, Metellus said.
But as Haitians become more affluent and acclimated to South Florida, they are shifting mostly north to North Miami and Broward communities — and soon after, businesses follow.
“There are some very savvy Haitian entrepreneurs,” Metellus said. “A number of bakeries, restaurants and specialty services saw the writing on the wall and moved to North Miami.”
Despinosse, who since 1979 has operated an immigration consulting business in Little Haiti, moved his company to North Miami last year. The move made it easier on his customer base, most of whom were traveling from North Miami and other North Dade cities, he said.
Some of Despinosse’s customers tell him the gentrification of Little Haiti is pricing out Haitian residents and some businesses. Some fear the Wynwood and Upper Eastside neighborhoods bordering Little Haiti will inch their way into the commercial heart of the neighborhood, putting the enclave’s identity at risk.
High-end boutiques and trendy cafes now dot the fringes of what has traditionally been considered the border of Little Haiti.
But despite the tonier shops, Little Haiti still remains a draw for entrepreneurs hoping to cater to the Haitian community.
“People have concerns, but I don’t,” said Despinosse, noting that businesses that have left are often replaced by ventures also backed by Haitian entrepreneurs.