Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said Thursday that her push to create official boundaries for Little Haiti would fulfill a promise made by the late Miami Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr.
“I feel it is my responsibility to carry that out. I wanted to leave direction,” said Spence-Jones.
Her statement ended weeks of speculation as to why the term-limited commissioner, whose term ends next month, was undertaking a task that angered some of her constituents, pitting some of the oldest black settlers in the city against Haitians who began migrating to Miami four decades ago.
After just under two hours of often heated debate, with speakers for both sides, nothing was set in stone. No decision was made on whether to create official boundaries for a cultural or neighborhood conservation district. Spence-Jones simply asked the administration and the city’s planning department to continue meeting with residents and neighborhood groups to determine if a boundary is necessary and if so, where it should be.
“We can sit in a room and throw all kinds of stones at each other,” she said. “All I was doing as a public servant was being responsible and following through on a request. This process is to get a clear understanding of the neighborhood.”
That’s always been a tricky issue for Little Haiti, broadly defined as running from 38th to 79th streets, and between Interstate 95 and the Florida East Coast Railway. Many proponents, though, acknowledge that if official boundaries are ever created they’re more likely to run from 54th to 82nd streets.
The discussion has created an ethnic and at times ugly divide: Haitians who moved to the U.S. to escape oppression have taken sides mainly against the city’s black elders and mostly white business owners who worry about losing historic districts encompassed by Little Haiti, like Lemon City and Little River.
While Thursday’s discussion didn’t resolve the issue, it did give supporters and opponents of any plan a chance to air out their differences.
The meeting began with the county’s representative of the Little Haiti area, Commissioner Jean Monestime, calling recent public hostilities over the divide “not very healthy.” Monestime said Thursday’s meeting had little to do with boundaries.
“We are here seeking your advice about establishing a process,” said Monestime. “We want to be able to be part of a more healthy conversation.”
North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau compared Haitians moving to Miami to escape oppression to Cubans leaving their dictatorship and creating Little Havana.
“Little Haiti is known as the capital of diaspora,” said Tondreau.
Property owner Bennett Pumo argued that creating a conservation district would only add another layer of bureaucracy and force him to increase rents.
“Little Haiti is not going to lose its identity. You’ve got it. You’ve earned it. The mechanism being proposed is the wrong mechanism,” he said.
Preservation leader Enid Pinkney held up an autographed copy of a book on the history of Lemon City written by author Thelma Peters.
“I’m proud of the Miami heritage. I’m proud of the Lemon City heritage,” said Pinkney. “When names are changed, people forget.”