Second to South Beach, Little Havana is probably greater Miami’s best known neighborhood, steeped in the history of the pioneers who settled along the Miami River at its eastern boundary. Eventually it became a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, then fell into neglect once that wave of residents moved on.
Then came the 1959 Cuban Revolution — the single most important event for what would become Little Havana. By the thousands, those escaping Fidel Castro’s regime fled to Miami and moved into the sleepy, aging neighborhood just west of downtown Miami. They were drawn by the affordable rents in those old Florida homes and 1920s apartments.
Soon, the Cuban presence — the cafecito counters, bodegas, the frita stands, the renaming of its main thoroughfare to Calle Ocho — all contributed to its Little Havana moniker. In the 1980s, Cuban residents began to move west, making way for Central Americans also escaping political upheaval.
Convinced that this historic neighborhood is worth saving? Miami commissioners aren’t. Last week, three of them gave tentative approval to a proposal to revitalize East Little Havana, in essence changing zoning laws to allow five-story buildings and 65 units per acre, with “limited” commercial shops on the ground floor, not part of the Miami 21 plan.
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A final vote, expected soon, could change the zoning of a 32-block stretch north of Calle Ocho where about 12,000 residents live in older, low-rise apartments and homes, renting for about $500 a month.
Preservationists say developers have simply run out of Brickell land and want to turn East Little Havana into Brickell West. City officials stress that they are proposing a smart zoning change to save the neighborhood, not destroy it. Marta Zayas, an activist who lives in West Little Havana, believes gentrification is on the way, and that the city wants to push out poor, non-English-speaking residents.
Ms. Zayas has decided to fight City Hall, which for years, she says, has done little to enforce zoning laws to help the residents’ quality of life. She said slumlords have their way because residents don’t complain and they have no idea their neighborhood and their way of life are under attack. In fact, notices of last week’s hearing were posted around the area in English, leaving the impression that the city is seeking to suppress residents’ participation.
“The city has decided that the way to deal with the slumlords in Little Havana is by rewarding them by passing this zoning change and allowing them to sell their property at huge profits to developers who will run the poor people out of this neighborhood,” Ms. Zayas told the Editorial Board. It’s not the first time. It’s already happened to Wynwood, and Little Haiti is next.
She makes a good point. Miami commissioners seem too intent on eliminating affordable neighborhoods, where the government bears some responsibility for rundown conditions.
Little Havana needs a champion like the late Barbara Capitman, who in the 1980s forced the city of Miami Beach to realize that those old Art Deco hotels should be preserved. Ms. Zayas says she’s willing to fight the good fight, but developers, property-flippers and Realtors have already bought up empty lots in anticipation.
Development happens, but too many elected officials eschew balance in favor of luxury and glitz. It should not continue to give the city’s history — and its working-class residents — the bum’s rush.