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Little Haiti is up for grabs. Will gentrification trample its people and culture?

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For two decades, Marie Jefferson scraped out a steady living running a botanica — a distinctly Haitian combination of variety store and vodoun dispensary — in a decrepit shopfront in western Little Haiti owned by Hialeah investors. Then the not-so-invisible hand of the free market that’s stirred up a surge of redevelopment across Miami arrived in long-shunned Little Haiti.

New investors, drawn by cheap land prices, bought the strip of shops on Northwest Second Avenue near historic Edison Middle School, part of a portfolio of 30 Little Haiti properties they acquired for $6.7 million. Before embarking on a badly needed gut renovation, the new landlords cleared out all the tenants, including Jefferson, another botanica and a neighborhood fried-chicken place.

Jefferson and her botanica neighbor, Emilienne Derosiers, were luckier than most merchants displaced by redevelopment. Instead of just giving them the boot, Adar Investments’ principals last year moved both to a set of newly redone shops they own in the commercial heart of Little Haiti, on Northeast 54th Street. It might have been a happy story.

But to cover purchase and renovation costs, Adar tripled their rent — in Jefferson’s case to $6,000 a month for a 1,100 square-foot space. And though Adar managing partner Eli Dadon says he threw in several rent-free and discounted months to help out, Jefferson and Derosiers have struggled to make the nut. Two months ago, Derosier closed up shop.

Like Derosiers, Jefferson says she lost much of her strictly local, walk-in clientele when she made the move three-quarters of a mile to the east, and now business at St. Michel Super Botanica, a marginal enterprise in the best of circumstances, is so slow she doesn’t know if it can survive much longer.

“Rent is up high,” said Jefferson, 62, pointing to the bulging veins in her forehead and speaking in an agitated mix of Creole and English. “I feel stress, terrible. I don’t have enough money.”

Jefferson’s plight encapsulates the trepidation and uncertainty that’s enveloping the neighborhood where she has lived and worked since arriving from Haiti as part of a wave of refugees and boat people four decades ago.

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Walk-in clienteles numbers are dwindling and many business owners don’t if they can survive much longer. “Rent is up high,” said Jefferson, 62, pointing to the bulging veins in her forehead and speaking in an agitated mix of Creole and English. “I feel stress, terrible. I don’t have enough money.” Jefferson’s plight encapsulates the trepidation and uncertainty that’s enveloping the neighborhood where she has lived and worked since arriving from Haiti as part of a wave of refugees and boat people four decades ago. Little Haiti is up for grabs. And the future of one of Miami’s poorest, yet most singular and misunderstood, communities hangs precariously in the balance. Customer passes-by after a short visit Marie Desir’s thrift shop where she has lost most of her inventory due to a leaky roof. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Little Haiti is up for grabs. And the future of one of Miami’s poorest, yet most singular and misunderstood, communities hangs precariously in the balance.

Surrounded by gentrifying neighborhoods like Wynwood, the Design District and the upscale Upper East Side, the centrally located Little Haiti has become a magnet for real estate investors, business owners and speculators looking for opportunities with a low cost of entry and a potentially big upside.

THE SOUL OF LITTLE HAITI: ESSAY BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT

Starved of private investment for decades and isolated from the rest of Miami by language, crime and poverty, an unfamiliar culture and what some in the neighborhood say is racial and ethnic animus on the part of those outside it, Little Haiti desperately needs physical and economic regeneration.

But many in the neighborhood say rising rents and land values represent an existential threat to a vulnerable immigrant enclave. Median household income is a meager $24,800; businesses barely subsist on the narrowest of margins; few residents or merchants own property. Many lack formal education or a command of English.

Investors in some sections of Little Haiti have pushed out small, longtime Haitian commercial tenants, many of whom have no leases. Many have gone out of business or been forced into shaky situations elsewhere.

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Sisters Tah’Siah, 13, left, N’Deirah,12, right, pose outside the Little Haiti Cultural Complex’s Caribbean Marketplace while taking a break from helping out at their father’s Via Vegan booth in June. The cultural center and market are a hub of cultural and social activities and tourism in Little Haiti. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

ONE BUSINESSWOMAN’S STORY

In an almost-certain sign of rising real estate speculation, a big chunk of the single-family homes and duplexes in the neighborhood are now owned by limited liability corporations with names like Vulture Property Investments, Strictly Profits LLC and World Domination Enterprises. While there is so far little evidence of widespread residential turnover, advocates for Little Haiti residents say it’s only a matter of time. Some 82 percent of Little Haiti residents are renters, according to a report by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center.

Many fear the pace of redevelopment will only accelerate with the Miami commission’s recent approval of the massive Magic City Innovation District plan, which envisions construction of a nearly 18-acre, high-rise mini-city of apartments, shops and offices in the heart of the low-rise neighborhood.

Debate over the proposal, which bitterly split the Haitian community and played out over months in heated and prolonged Miami Commission hearings and public meetings, coincided with the opening of an upscale food hall, The Citadel, in the northern end of Little Haiti. Its inauguration drew protesters angry that the developers have sought to re-brand its corner of the neighborhood over the past five years as Little River, a historic name that had faded into disuse after Haitian refugees began settling in the area in the early 1980s.

The re-labeling rankles many in Little Haiti who contend the name game exposes developers’ true aims.

“The plan is not to develop Little Haiti, it is to erase Little Haiti,” said veteran Little Haiti activist Marleine Bastien, director of the Family Action Network Movement, of FAMN, headquartered a couple of blocks from The Citadel, and a leading critic of the food hall and Magic City.

To date, the Magic City district’s developers have done little beyond renovating a collection of warehouses on the periphery of their property, most of which remain unleased. And they say they have no plan as yet for the launch of new construction. Some observers believe they won’t be ready to build for several years amid a broader real estate slowdown.

Tony Cho, a broker active in Little Haiti and also a partner in the Magic City venture, blames the loss of Haitian businesses not on their redevelopment plan or investment from outsiders, but on the neighborhood’s sagging economics.

“There is no traffic,” he said.

But many in the neighborhood blame the project for encouraging speculation and inflating rents and real estate asking prices in Little Haiti. Brokers are heavily touting Magic City in ads and brochures for dozens of Little Haiti residential and commercial properties.

“I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of displacement,” said Meena Jagannath, an attorney with the Community Justice Project in Miami, which has represented FAMN in its opposition to Magic City.

Different versions of the story are playing out in several other urban-core neighborhoods in the city of Miami, including historically black Overtown and West Coconut Grove, where substantial displacement and inroads from new development are dramatically evident. Some see rising speculation in East Little Havana, which some real estate brokers have tried to rebrand as West Brickell, though the impact so far appears limited.

Gentrification is a complex process with many critics, who say the poor rarely benefit and are only pushed out. But it has advocates as well. Research is mixed, with some studies showing that longtime property owners can benefit as blighted neighborhoods are revitalized, a process that can broadly improve the quality of life and health of cities.

In Little Haiti, the surge in investor interest has set off a struggle for the soul of the neighborhood. Its many partisans say Little Haiti, as the symbolic center of a vibrant immigrant community famed the world over for its art, music and culture, represents an unmatched value not just for those who live and work in it, but for Miami and South Florida as a whole.

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Haitian-born artist Jude Papaloko Thegenus sits in his studio, Jakmel Art Gallery, on the edge of Little Haiti near Miami’s Design District in July. Thegenus, who draws inspiration from his Haitian roots, has had to move his studio several times as affordable spaces become scarce. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“The soul of Little Haiti is the culture, the music, the food, the dances — all the things we brought with us from Haiti,” said said Jude Papaloko Thegenus, an artist and musician who maintains a studio and gallery in a rented warehouse in a strip once considered part of Little Haiti. That area, abutting State Road 112 just west of North Miami Avenue, has been subsumed by expanding Midtown Miami.

“For Little Haiti to stay Little Haiti, we need to stay around and keep the spirit. When people come here, they need to feel like they are in Haiti. The developers need to meet halfway with the Haitians. They have to make sure it doesn’t lose the essence,” Thegenus said.

ORIGINS

The neighborhood traces its origins to the 1970s and 1980s, when the area once known as Lemon City and Little River began losing droves of mostly white residents to new suburban development just as large numbers of Haitians were fleeing economic calamity and brutal dictatorship under Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The area’s older, inexpensive housing drew so many Haitian refugees that it quickly became known as Little Haiti.

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Bodegas, botanicas and money-transfer businesses sprung up to serve the burgeoning community, which also became known as a center of activism as the Haitian Refugee Center won precedent-setting legal battles on behalf of Haitians and other refugees. Its status as the center of Haitian-American life was cemented by development in 1992 of the Caribbean Marketplace, inspired by the central market of Port-au-Prince, and the later addition of the Little Haiti Cultural Center, another architectural and cultural landmark, behind it.

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Georges “Ti Georges” Laguerre operates “Ti Georges Cafe” inside the Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti. Laguerre serves coffee grown in Haiti. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

About 24,000 people live in the five Census tracts within the official city boundaries of Little Haiti, with poverty rates running from 27 percent to 45 percent, according to 2017 estimates, the latest available. Because the last full Census occurred so long ago, in 2010, and the estimates don’t provide reliable ethnic or national-origin figures, it’s hard to tease out recent changes in Little Haiti’s population.

Overall population numbers and the proportion of black residents, which runs from 76 percent to 90 percent, have remained more or less constant since 2010. Enrollment at the two main public schools in Little Haiti, Edison Senior High and Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary, has dropped from 862 and 463, respectively, to 737 and 392 in 2019.

There are some indications of gentrification over a longer period. Between 2000 and 2014, the FIU study found, the white non-Hispanic population has increased by 54 percent, though from a low base, while the number of households earning more than $50,000 has increased by 188 percent. Educational attainment, considered another gauge of gentrification, has also improved markedly.

Until now, redevelopment in Little Haiti has been mostly modest and limited to specific pockets. Those include the area around The Citadel, in the northernmost stretch of Little Haiti that runs along Northeast Second Avenue between 79th Street and the Miami city line, a location close to more-affluent suburbs such as El Portal and Miami Shores.

Last November, longtime Little Haiti commercial investor Mallory Kauderer sold a building just north of the Citadel that once housed a sandwich shop for $1,775,000 to the owners of Plant the Future, an arty plant-design shop that got its start in Wynwood and already had a warehouse in Little Haiti. Kauderer said he bought it for around $600,000 in 2015.

Farther south, across the street from the spot where Marie Jefferson’s botanica once did a steady 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. business with vodoun drum music playing from a sidewalk speaker is a high-end art gallery, Emerson Dorsch, whose husband-and-wife owners bought and renovated the strip of shops after selling their former space in increasingly pricey Wynwood.

Next door is a new Panther Coffee roaster and cafe. Brook Dorsch and Tyler Emerson-Dorsch had Jefferson provide drummers and dancers for their opening, and say they miss the personality and authenticity her botanica lent the street.

Jefferson’s situation illustrates what happens when the complex dynamics behind gentrification collide with an insular community that’s ill-equipped to cope.

The strip of shops where the botanica once operated is still vacant, renovations now just done, are awaiting arrival of a high-end, Haitian-owned nail salon, Adar managing partner Dadon said.

He said he and his partners are not out to exploit or displace anyone, and they have tried to work with new and existing tenants in their Little Haiti portfolio after spending $10 million on renovations, Dadon said. Those include a high-end hair salon and a barber shop and Zuki, a new restaurant serving Haitian-American food and run by local entrepreneurs, that will move into a strip Adar owns farther south in Little Haiti.

Dadon said he and his partners don’t expect to see any profits on their investment for several years. But by making improvements and bringing in new shops and customers, he argued, they can bolster the local economy, ensuring they eventually do. And everyone benefits, Dadon said, including Jefferson — if she can hang on long enough.

To save on bills, Jefferson keeps the lights dim and switches the new central AC off in her new shop, a roomy, high-ceilinged space with polished concrete floors that’s sweltering on a summer day. Like her old shop, it’s crammed full with a bewildering hodge-podge of merchandise that includes statues of Catholic saints; peanuts, popcorn and candles for religious ceremonies; racks of colorful dresses and men’s shirts; pallets of water and a tabletop filled with deodorant.

Dadon said has also offered them a smaller space at less than half the rent back at their old location, he said, where renovations were recently completed.

“These are tough areas,” Dadon said. “That building was in the worst shape you have ever seen. People were not paying the rents. We are changing the area. The people who live in this area should be happy someone is putting money into the neighborhood. This is creating jobs.

“I do care. For us, this is not strictly business. But I didn’t change the area to make it like it was 15 years ago. I’m doing it to make it better and make values go up. We are more than good for the neighborhood.”

PIVOTAL TIME

But making values go up, desirable in theory, will inevitably push out people like Marie Jefferson, activists say.

The developers’ inroads come at an inauspicious time for Little Haiti. Generational turnover and Haitian immigrants’ often- unacknowledged social and economic success means those with means have left the enclave for a better quality of life in North Miami, north Miami-Dade and Southwest Broward County suburbs like Miramar.

With the flow of refugees from Haiti and the Bahamas virtually at a standstill, Little Haiti is no longer the principal point of entry for Haitian immigrants. Those coming legally, sponsored by family members, mostly bypass Little Haiti for the suburbs.

Activists and social workers say that migration has left behind an aging, impoverished Haitian population in Little Haiti and a stagnating local economy that can’t support its shrinking number of neighborhood shops and businesses.

“The situation is serious. It’s not a joke,” said Jan Mapou, whose Libreri Mapou, selling books in Haitian Creole, French and English, is a neighborhood landmark. “The first generation that came here in the 1980s, they are retiring and dying. The second generation, they don’t come back to take over because they want something better for their families and for themselves. Thus, there is no replenishment. Our population is depleting.

“Now these men with big cigars come here to Little Haiti to transform it. You can see that transformation is going slowly, but surely we’ll get there. Economically and politically, we cannot face these people down,” he added. “We can only ask to be respected, to be included.”

The Little Haiti of today has already shrunk from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, when the area south of Northeast 54th Street, encompassing a then-declining Design District and adjacent Buena Vista, were widely considered a part of the immigrant neighborhood. But a gradual gentrification displaced Haitian residents from that section during the past 20 years as it marched north from the newly created Midtown Miami and a revitalized, upscale Design District.

Buena Vista saw an influx of more affluent, mostly white residents who drove creation of a historic district, extensive home restorations and a string of new cafes, restaurants and shops on Northeast Second Avenue. When Miami commissioners set official boundaries for Little Haiti in 2016, they left the area south of 54th Street out.

Change, though not yet sweeping in scope, is now readily apparent across the rest of Little Haiti as small redevelopment projects, evictions and demographic shifts chip away at the neighborhood’s characteristic mom-and-pop retail strips and its cultural and ethnic identity. Its main commercial spine, once-lively Northeast Second Avenue, where konpa music once blared from numerous botanicas, markets and shops, is dotted with shuttered stores and sees little foot traffic to support the few surviving businesses.

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Meena Jagannath, co-director and attorney at Community Justice Project, Inc., represents Little Haiti residents opposed to the Magic City Innovation District redevelopment project in Little Haiti. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

“You could walk down the street and see a bit of Haiti reproduced. It’s a beautiful thing for a city to have,” said Jagannath, the attorney who represents local residents opposing the Magic City plan, and who lives on the edge of Little Haiti.

She notes that its shops help define and sustain the neighborhood. “As you see that disappear, you see the culture disappear,” Jagannath said.





LOSS OF HOME

For residents, the threat to Little Haiti means not just the possible loss of a vibrant neighborhood with no equivalent anywhere else in America, but the loss of a cherished home.

Many prefer to stay in Little Haiti because it’s walkable, and they can get around without a car thanks to a popular private jitney service. Bodegas extend credit to regulars. There are support networks such as social-service agencies and a bounty of churches, including the Catholic Notre Dame D’Haiti, which draws well over 1,000 people back to the neighborhood for Sunday Masses.

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Parishioners of Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church walk through the streets of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood past a sign announced a new real estate development during the traditional Good Friday procession in April. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Jacques-Michel Fitzgerald Lemoine, 53, an academic counselor at Miami Dade College’s Padron campus in Little Havana, has lived a dozen years in Little Haiti in a rented apartment without a lease — a common situation in the neighborhood. Lemoine said he frequents its Haitian bakeries and restaurants, seeks out live Haitian music and attends seminars and performances at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

“I like having a rooster as my alarm clock,” Lemoine said, alluding to the poultry some keep in their backyards. “My neighbors say good morning to me. The other day, my neighbor gave me a coconut he cut open to drink from. This is what I don’t want to lose. I love this place. I love everything about it. I would love to stay here.

“But I don’t know what the future holds. I could be kicked out anytime.”

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Educator Jaques-Michel “Fitzi” Fitzgerald Lemoine, who lives in Little Haiti, is worried about the future of the neighborhood. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Conspicuous changes in some pockets already provide dramatic contrasts. At The Citadel, in the northernmost stretch of Little Haiti that runs along Northeast Second Avenue between 79th Street and the Miami city line, the lone stall boasting a Haitian co-owner offers a Jamaican jerk-chicken bowl for $14.

Across the street, the Haitian-owned Pack Supermarket and Cafeteria, reputed to serve up perhaps the best fried chicken in Miami, does a thriving take-out and lunch-counter business out of a bunker-like building by catering to a mostly Haitian clientele. The charge for three drumsticks, pickled or piklis cabbage and fried green plantains: $4.50.

The Citadel’s operators, Urban Atlantic Group, which records show paid $2.7 million for the vacant building in 2014, declined a request for an interview. In a statement released through a spokeswoman, they referred to Little River as a neighborhood within Little Haiti.

“The Citadel supports, works with and employs people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, including the Haitian community, through its food hall, marketplace, events and partnerships,” the statement reads. “We will continue, as we always have, to embrace and respect our community as we empower and support local businesses.”

Some changes are incongruous, like Little Haiti Air BnB listings, or the opening off Northeast Second Avenue of several high-end art galleries that decamped from increasingly pricey Wynwood -- or the sight of white people jogging by the colorful Caribbean Marketplace as part of a Crossfit gym routine in a neighborhood that’s still up to 90 percent black, and where many outsiders long hesitated to set foot.

CORPORATE OWNERS

Other shifts are invisible, though potentially hugely consequential. One in every five houses and duplexes in Little Haiti is now owned by a corporation, an online mapping tool developed at the University of Miami’s Office of Community Engagement shows. Nearly 16 percent of homes and duplexes in the neighborhood belong to limited liability corporations, a favored vehicle for investors, the tool shows.

Though absentee landlords have been common in the neighborhood since the days of white suburban flight, observers say the movement to LLC ownership, a likely sign of real estate speculation, has accelerated since the 2008 recession forced many Haitian homeowners into foreclosure.

There is so far no evidence of extensive residential evictions or demolitions, though some instances have triggered alarm among residents. Observers say those could increase once land values rise sufficiently to justify renovations or construction of new homes selling or renting for much more than they do now.

Most home values in Little Haiti range from $73,000 to $180,000, a 2015 study by FIU”s Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Center found. In neighboring, historically African-American Liberty City and Model City, to the west, investors are buying similar homes and renovating them to resell at prices ranging from $200,000 to over $300,000. Buyers come from the area or overwhelmingly Hispanic Hialeah farther west, where prices have risen even more.

But Kauderer, the commercial investor, doesn’t believe the math for that adds up just yet in Little Haiti, given what he says is a lack of demand for housing there from more-affluent outsiders. He says they’re still deterred by Little Haiti’s generally rundown condition and its reputation as a dangerous place — even though Miami police statistics show crime there has plummeted over the past five years.

The investors buying Little Haiti houses instead typically put little money into repairs or maintenance while collecting as much rent as the market will bear, Kauderer said.

“People are buying the residential properties people because it’s cheap,” Kauderer said. “They do as little as possible in the meantime. That’s the only thing that’s economically feasible.”

But, he added, it’s only a matter of time before residential redevelopment kicks off on a broad scale.

“It’s five to 10 years away, but Little Haiti is so impoverished that eventually it will happen,” Kauderer said.

MAGIC CITY

Magic City’s Cho, however, says the $1 billion project will inject the economic energy into the neighborhood that Little Haiti needs. An agreement between the city and the developers requires jobs be set aside for local residents.

“It’s a very large value when compared to other areas, and it has the potential to be commercially viable. What we’re trying to do is make the district commercially viable and bring traffic to the area,” Cho said. “People do speculate. But it’s been depressed for a very long time. It was very undervalued.”

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Artist rendering of the Northeast Second Avenue entrance and the DuPuis building at the Magic City Innovation District development in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

The Magic City partnership, he concedes, is not yet ready to build beyond the warehouses now being rented out to tech-based firms like Motorsport Network, a family of websites catering to racing and automotive enthusiasts.

“We’re starting to think about what’s next,” Cho said, but added there is “nothing concrete” yet.

Kauderer, a veteran of South Beach and Brickell who said he is now probably the largest commercial property owner in central Little Haiti, is betting that Magic City “won’t put a shovel in the ground for five years.” He believes the partners overpaid for some of the properties they amassed.

Magic City, Kauderer said, has skewed the expectations of other brokers and property owners. Numerous commercial properties are for sale in Little Haiti, for prices ranging from $514,000 to $3.3 million, but Kauderer says “they’re not closing.”

“It’s a lot of hype,” he said bluntly.

Kauderer says his tenants next to the city-owned Caribbean Marketplace are going out of business or struggling to stay open. One holdover, Sonny Records, is supposed to pay $1,200 a month but often can’t make the payment, he said. Next to that, UniTransfer, a money-transfer business that paid $3,000 a month in rent, abruptly shut down its store amid competition from online services and moved its reduced operation to Sonny. Meanwhile, a couple of Haitian entrepreneurs rented a space from him for a wine bar, but progress has been slow in part because they’ve had a hard time raising money, Kauderer said.

Because renovation of a typical Little Haiti commercial building needing a new roof can cost as much as $300,000, he said, “I might as well leave it empty.”

“You can’t have a set plan in an area like this,” Kauderer said. “You think commercial banks are funding this? No.”

A FEW WINNERS

For a few fortunate Haitian homeowners, investor interest has paid off.

Some were able to purchase homes for under $100,000 in the 1980s. Today, some have sold those homes for well into the six figures, said veteran Little Haiti activist Hermantin. But in today’s expensive Miami housing market, she noted, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can readily find other homes.

“If someone offered you $300,000, it’s hard to say no,” she said.

In fact, some Little Haiti homeowners find themselves fending off a barrage of letters, phone calls and visitors offering to buy their houses.

Michel Bien Aime and his family live in thee houses on a large lot off Northeast Second Avenue that he’s owned since 1990. Letters from brokers offering to buy offering to buy the property for cash, with no commission and in “as-is” condition, arrive several times a month, he said. But though his roof has been leaking since Hurricane Irma in 2017 because he doesn’t have money to replace it, Bien Aime, 66, says he doesn’t want to sell the property, which took him 20 years to pay off.

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Martin Nandy, a self-described “social entrepreneur” who is promoting the importation of coffee from Haiti to boost his homeland’s economy, said developers should help locals with capital and know-how. He and others say the way to address gentrification concerns is to raise the incomes and standard of living of Little Haiti residents, instead of replacing them. Local businesses like his are undercapitalized and can’t get loans, said Nandy, who has adopted a superhero persona called Captain Haiti to draw attention to the potential of U.S. buying power to help Haiti and Little Haiti prosper. Nandy, 44, moved from Montreal, where he was raised, to Little Haiti to establish his coffee-importing business. ”The challenge of gentrification in Little Haiti is that Haitians like me want to to contribute and can’t find the opportunities where we can invest and grow,” he said. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Given skyrocketing housing costs across Miami, he’s afraid he won’t be able to afford another place to live if he does sell.

“In a couple of years, if you want a spoon of dirt, you can’t buy it,” he said, alluding to rising real estate prices. “There will be nothing.”

About the only private investment in the neighborhood in recent years are several publicly subsidized housing towers scattered across Little Haiti, including a “luxury affordable” high-rise behind The Citadel. Because of federal equal-opportunity rules, though, those affordable apartments can’t be reserved for Little Haiti residents. Many are rented to low- and moderate-income Hispanic tenants. That helps account for a large proportional bump in Little Haiti’s white and Hispanic population since 2000 of up to 50 percent.

Under an agreement with the city, Magic City’s developers would provide up to $31 million to a new Little Haiti Trust Fund, while relieving the project of requirements to build affordable housing on site. Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who engineered the contribution, has promised to see that most of it is used to seed construction of low-income housing for Little Haiti residents.

But activists have vocally complained that’s all a pittance when compared to Little Haiti’s needs. Critics of Magic City and neighborhood gentrification say developers and the city of Miami need to do much more to embrace its businesses and residents.

Martin Nandy, a self-described “social entrepreneur” who is promoting the importation of coffee from Haiti to boost his homeland’s economy, said developers should help locals with capital and know-how. He and others say the way to address gentrification concerns is to raise the incomes and standard of living of Little Haiti residents, instead of replacing them.

Local businesses like his are undercapitalized and can’t get loans, said Nandy, who has adopted a superhero persona called Captain Haiti to draw attention to the potential of U.S. buying power to help Haiti and Little Haiti prosper. Nandy, 44, moved from Montreal, where he was raised, to Little Haiti to establish his coffee-importing business.

“The challenge of gentrification in Little Haiti is that Haitians like me want to to contribute and can’t find the opportunities where we can invest and grow,” he said.

CREDIT DESERVED

One issue, some say, is that Haitians in South Florida have not been broadly embraced, nor gotten the credit they deserve for building a vibrant enclave and achieving significant success as immigrants.

“I see a neighborhood that was built by boat people,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, director of the city-run Little Haiti Cultural Complex, who attended the since-closed Catholic Archbishop Curley High School in the neighborhood. “Those boat people, those cab drivers, those hotel maids produced college graduates by the tenfold.

“The Haitian-American community made the Little Haiti that is now so attractive to developers. They like it because manmi and papi are sitting out in front of the house making soup and playing loud music. There is something about it that screams ‘Caribbean.’ But when Haitian people moved in here, no one else wanted to live here.

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“It’s a really powerfully resilient community. I think people don’t realize how much this community has contributed to Miami. But they didn’t buy (property), and they’re paying for that now. We have to be brutally honest: They are pushed out because they don’t look like you want them to,” Dorsainvil said, referring to some investors.

But Dorsainvil, who was hired by Magic City’s developers to tout its benefits to the community before assuming the city job, said she is convinced redevelopment of the right kind presents Little Haiti an opportunity it can’t afford to pass up. The neighborhood is ready for a revival, she said, noting that younger Haitian Americans are looking to come back to Little Haiti to explore and savor their roots, providing opportunity for Haitian entrepreneurs.

Dorsainvil and two partners are among those trying to capitalize on the trend. Last week, they opened an upscale event space and lounge called Noire across from the Caribbean Marketplace. Local entrepreneurs have already garnered some success with the new Bon Gout Haitian BBQ, a lunch counter and, the 1804 Ink Tattoo shop, named after the year of Haiti’s independence.

“Why not come into the community that celebrates your culture?” she said. “They see the possibilities. They see the culture. They also want to make money.”

Some, though, are resigned to the gradual erosion of Little Haiti, including some of its leading advocates. But they hope to preserve at least a vital core of the neighborhood, in the area around the Caribbean Marketplace and the adjacent Cultural Center, that can carry on the Little Haiti identity as a spiritual and historic home for future generations of Haitian Americans, and a draw for venturesome visitors and Miamians.

“Our fight is for preservation of those landmarks and to mark the territory,” said Leonie Hermantin, a veteran activist and director of development at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, which followed the Haitian diaspora to North Miami after it, too, was gentrified out of Little Haiti. “People who are nostalgic come to Little Haiti. It’s a destination, not just for Haitians. It’s a real important point for us. We call it ‘the launch pad.’ You start in Little Haiti.”

Hermantin and bookseller Mapou say the key will be persuading developers and investors that it’s worth providing residents meaningful participation in their projects, housing they can afford and compensation to displaced business owners. And they must draw young Haitian Americans back to the cradle.

“Make it convenient for the second generation to come back,” Mapou said. “They are well educated. They are young professionals and willing to be included. But you have to have the means.

“We’re still fighting. If we can convince them that they have to give us affordable housing and help those businesses and residents to stay in this community, there is a chance we can control the turnover. The question is, ‘Who will be the next residents of Little Haiti? Who will occupy those businesses. Who will be the customers?’

“If these people would include us in their projects, then we will have a very nice community with the Little Haiti name.”

Herald Staff Writers Taylor Dolven and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

PRICED OUT OF PARADISE

This article is part of a series about South Florida’s high cost of living. Read the entire series and future articles at MiamiHerald.com/pricedoutofparadise/

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Andres Viglucci covers urban affairs for the Miami Herald. He joined the Herald in 1983.
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