Allapattah, one of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods, is getting a new look.
On its walls, women are painted wearing both traditional dresses and less than modest beach clothes, and the bright colors of its storefronts have a distinctly Caribbean flavor.
Even the striped face of a zebra stares off the wall of a highly trafficked street corner. Surrounded by flowers and birds native to the Dominican Republic — the place of origin of many of the area’s residents — the zebra is part of a mural recently painted in the Miami neighborhood.
“Don’t be fooled — that’s a Dominican zebra, a ‘debra,’ ” joked Ariel Cruz, the artist of Dominican origin who painted the mural, located in the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue and 36th Street.
DANF, a local nonprofit that offers social services to the community, was one of the organizations to work last spring with UM’s School of Architecture to explore the potential for economic growth in the area.
Under the leadership of Chuck Bohl, a UM professor and project coordinator, the group analyzed the rehabilitation of old, vacant buildings and other methods to create a more vibrant economy with a “main street feel,” keeping the neighborhood’s Dominican identity as its engine.
“It was a local effort by the local community to brand the area as Little Santo Domingo,” Bohl said.
Locals have called the area Little Santo Domingo for about a decade, but the neighborhood has been rekindled with a new kind of energy.
“It’s more about creating a place where people want to come, like a Calle Ocho, where people want to come learn about the history and culture of people who live in this area,” said Rudy Duthil, DANF chairman.
And over the past two years, the city has invested about $450,000 in a beautification project, leading to the renovation of 58 businesses’ storefront facades and other repairs. City Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, whose district includes Allapattah, and other groups also have collaborated with property owners to allow Dominican style murals on their storefronts.
The Allapattah Business Development Authority, a local nonprofit active since 1983, is one of the main groups working with the city. The director, Xiomara Pacheco, says the façade improvement component of the beautification project is key to stimulate business activity.
“That’s the only way to help businesses get more clientele because unfortunately for a few years we’ve had very high inflation and businesses haven’t been able to fix their facades since 1992,” said Pacheco.
But even as the community is moving toward achieving a more vibrant and revitalized economy, some are wary of doing too much too fast and sacrificing the neighborhood’s cultural identity as Little Santo Domingo in the process .
“We would hate to see Allapattah become another ritzy Miami neighborhood,” said Mileyka Burgos, DANF’s president.
In other neighborhoods, such as nearby Wynwood, low income residents have been displaced by expensive development they can’t afford and a by a quickly transformed environment where they no longer feel at home.
“And that’s a really realistic fear,” said Paul George, a South Florida historian and professor at Miami Dade College.
However, he stressed that with the right kind of local action and an emphasis on the area’s identity as Little Santo Domingo, this transition can be avoided.
“We’ve seen what happened when visionaries developed other neighborhoods, but we’ve also seen what happened in Little Haiti, which was developed on a smaller scale and has kept its cultural identity,” said George. “There’s no reason why Allapattah can’t do the same.”
For this reason Burgos says an incremental approach to development with emphasis on the area’s Dominican heritage is best for Allapattah.
“Our vision is to see Allapattah as a place where middle income families, young entrepreneurs and low income families live together,” Burgos said. “Where we can see a mix that really represents what Miami culture is, what Dominican culture is.”
Allapattah, a Native American word for alligator, was a predominantly agricultural region in the early 20th century with a thoroughly Deep South culture. It later transitioned to a blue collar working class area during the ’60s but with little business investment, according to George, the historian.
George says that the influx of Dominican immigrants is a phenomenon of the last 25 years, when Dominicans began moving to South Florida from New York and the Dominican Republic.
Ana Francisco moved to Allapattah from the Dominican Republic in 1974. Like her, other Dominican immigrants chose to settle in the neighborhood because they were searching for a Spanish speaking area with a tropical climate similar to their own.
“They were looking for a place where they could have both the heat and the language of our country — where they could identify with our culture,” said Francisco, a founding member of DANF.
Miami is South Florida’s most ethnically diverse city with Dominicans just one in a long list of Hispanic communities, the fastest growing population in the nation.
Allapattah has been a magnet for many immigrant communities over the years including Cubans and Central Americans. Within the parameters of Allapattah, 72 percent of residents are classified as Hispanics, of which Dominicans comprise a significant portion.
This reality is evident from local restaurants’ offers of meals such as sancocho and mangú to the naming of a park and portion of Northwest 17th street, a main artery of the neighborhood, after Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the Domincan Republic’s founding fathers.
“In less than 20 years we’ve achieved a lot,” said Johnny Matthews, a Dominican business owner in Allapattah. “At first we were a question mark, but now we’re a statement.”
Even as Dominicans have sunk roots in Allapattah, the area has struggled economically. The median household income in Allapattah is estimated at $19,141, far less than the median income for Miami as a whole, which was $29,762 from 2008-2012, according to U.S. Census data.
While Francisco still volunteers with DANF in Allapattah, she left the neighborhood for a home in Miami Gardens in part so her children could enroll in schools with stronger academic ratings.
Her decision to leave in search of better opportunities is one that many Dominican families have made over the years. Several residents and community leaders said that Allapattah does not yet offer a path to upward mobility, but they are hopeful that is changing.
For many, like Francisco, Allapattah is home. Even though she moved away, she returns often to do volunteer work with DANF.
“I work here to try and move the community forward, to try to help the kids that live here,” she said.