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North Miami lures businesses from Little Haiti

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.

He also points to Notre Dame D’Haiti, the Catholic church on Northeast 62nd Street that is the spiritual home for many Haitian immigrants. It is undergoing a major expansion.

“It is our home no matter where we go,” he said. “When something happens in Haiti or in the Haitian community we go to Little Haiti.”

For the children of Haitian immigrants, moving out of their parents’ old neighborhood can be something of a status symbol.

When Ludvy Joseph, a second-generation Haitian American, mulled the idea of opening a restaurant he said he only considered North Miami.

“The second generation of Haitians don’t feel like Little Haiti is the place to be. North Miami has a better reputation than Little Haiti,” he said, saying the Northeast Miami-Dade municipality feels safer and looks “cleaner” than the Miami neighborhood.

He says he also wanted to cater to a broader clientele in hopes of turning a bigger profit.

His Fritay Restaurant, which specializes in Haitian street food such as fried pork and fried grated malanga, draws a more diverse crowd in North Miami, he said.

“It’s not only Haitians who eat here,” he said. “People from different cultures come here.”

The demographic shift has also played out politically: North Miami was among the first cities in the country to have a Haitian-American mayor, and today has a city council that has a majority of Haiti-born politicians.

At the recent grand opening of Fakidj, North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre and other city officials were on hand for a ribbon-cutting.

“It’s important for the smaller businesses to feel that the mayor and council support what they do,” said Pierre, who said the city does not keep statistics on Haitian-run businesses, but estimates about 90 businesses run by Haitian Americans have opened in his city during the past two years.

Boyer, who said he was twice held up at gunpoint, beaten and robbed at his Little Haiti location, agreed the city feels safer.

“In North Miami, I feel more police presence and security,” he said.

The move north by Haitian-owned establishments is not lost on larger companies who rely on Haitian businesses to sell their products.

Nopin, a telecommunications company that offers various services including long-distancing calling cards, used to target much of their vending opportunities in the Little Haiti neighborhood.

“We’re noticing the business volume is getting more prominent in North Miami,” said Caroline Zenny, who oversees the company’s product distribution to local businesses.

The company’s brand ambassadors are actively scouting stores in North Miami to place products, she said.

Pierre, North Miami’s mayor, said the growth of Haitian-owned businesses — and small business in general — is a testament to the city’s brand and allure.

“I love Little Haiti. My mother still lives there,” he said. “But sometimes people come where the water is fresher. At this time, North Miami is where it is.”