Haitian rights activist Gepsie Metellus walks along Miami’s Northeast Second Avenue at 59th Terrace, pointing to the colorful Caribbean marketplace, an open-air center under renovation that is supposed to be a showcase of Haiti’s culture.
“This,” she says, arms spread wide, “is Little Haiti.”
Less than two blocks away, Miami businessman Peter Ehrlich stands in front of one of his many warehouses in the neighborhood — which to him, he stresses, is not Little Haiti, but historic Lemon City.
“We feel people should use whatever name makes them comfortable,” Ehrlich said.
For several years now, Miami residents have been quietly debating what to call the area.
“Nobody has a true definition of Little Haiti because there are no formal boundaries. It’s pretty subjective,” said historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George.
The issue of what is and what is not Little Haiti — an area broadly defined by the city as running from 38th Street to 79th Street between Interstate 95 and the Florida East Coast Railway — is expected to come before Miami city commissioners Thursday as they contemplate setting official boundaries for a cultural or neighborhood conservation district.
Proponents of setting Little Haiti’s boundaries on maps and official city registries acknowledge that any officially designated area is likely to be much smaller. They say Little Haiti’s southern and northern borders are really 54th and 82nd streets.
Whatever the boundaries are, the desire to officially establish the name Little Haiti has sparked a backlash and reignited old ethnic tensions and cultural divisions.
“Every day you hear of a new group encroaching into what we know as Little Haiti,” said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian activist pushing for the designation. “These groups moved into Little Haiti, so I don’t understand why they don’t want it to be named Little Haiti anymore.”
Opponents of the plan argue there is no need to make Little Haiti official. The designation, they say, will endanger the character of neighborhoods encompassed by the area known as Little Haiti, including Lemon City, Little River and Buena Vista, and could make the area less attractive to potential investors.
“Names do matter,” Ehrlich said.
The debate over what to call the area has been going on for years, but the controversy has been reignited by a push from City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones — whose district includes Little Haiti — for a study to determine which area should be officially recognized by that name. Spence-Jones did not respond to requests for an interview. Thursday’s City Commission will be last, so whoever is elected Nov. 5 to replace her is likely to inherit the issue.
Emotions are running so high that opponents of formalizing Little Haiti have sent out letters and email blasts.
“Changing the name from Lemon City to Little Haiti would further marginalize the presence of Lemon City as a part of Greater Miami. It will show disrespect for the existing name of Lemon City and its historical contribution to Greater Miami,” wrote preservationist Enid Pinkney in a letter to the City Commission.
Georgia Ayers, a descendant of the Bahamians who pioneered Lemon City, has long taken exception to the name Little Haiti. Ayers, an outspoken African-American activist, has spent years campaigning to restore the name Lemon City.
“This area was here before Haitians got here,” she said. “Why should the name be changed to suit them? I don’t care what the city wants to do — Lemon City is not in Little Haiti.”
Ayers accuses Haitian activists of disrespecting Lemon City’s history by trying to force another name onto the historic community that gave birth to Miami’s first school, the Lemon City School, and one of its early markets, Rockmoor Grocery, which later became the first Winn-Dixie grocery store.
“They have no right to change where I was born. Where my momma was born,” Ayers said.
Little Haiti gained its name as Haitian migrants, fleeing the regime of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, began to populate the neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Haitian pioneer Viter Juste wrote a letter to the Miami Herald calling the area “Little Port-au-Prince,” the newspaper headlined the letter Little Haiti.
The name stuck.
As Haitians have prospered, their story mirrors that of most immigrant groups. They moved out of the immigrant enclave to suburban neighborhoods. Today, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Homestead and parts of South Broward have sizable Haitian populations.
Those supporting the plan to make Little Haiti’s boundaries official say much of the rhetoric brings them back to an ugly time when Haitians first arrived to Miami and were deemed “less than” by other ethnic groups.
“When you hear someone say, why would you want to name this after a deforested country, or a poor country, you know it’s coming from a racist place,” Metellus said.
At a City Commission meeting in September, Spence-Jones called the tone of emails on the topic “disrespectful.”
“It’s almost embarrassing to hear all of the lies and the hate that has come from this exercise,” she said.
Metellus said making Little Haiti’s boundaries official would not erase existing neighborhoods.
“We can coexist side-by-side if we need to. I don’t have a problem with recognizing the Lemon City neighborhood which today is known as Little Haiti,” said Metellus. “But don’t tell me that we should not call this area Little Haiti.”
Name changes for long-time neighborhoods have occurred, and continue to occur, all over Miami and the nation, said Paul George, the MDC historian.
Shenandoah, once a core Miami Jewish neighborhood, for example, today is largely considered Little Havana. Like Little Haiti, Little Havana does not have official boundaries.
George, who gives historical tours around Miami, said he considers the Lemon City area as Little Haiti. The challenge for the city, he said, is to find a way to honor the past of Lemon City while also acknowledging the Haitian community’s contribution to Miami over the past 35 years.
“In America over the past decades we’ve seen a rapid change of neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a conundrum. But somehow you have to have people remember what was there, but today it truly is Little Haiti.”