Miami-Dade County

Little Haiti undergoes transformation to draw, welcome outsiders

Serge Toussaint works on a mural at the northwest corner of 62nd Street and Northwest Second Avenue in Little Haiti.
Serge Toussaint works on a mural at the northwest corner of 62nd Street and Northwest Second Avenue in Little Haiti. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Days before Art Basel kicked into high gear, business owner Schiller Sanon-Jules decided to start the city’s celebration of expression early.

With the help of some artists, Sanon-Jules transformed his Little Haiti Thrift & Gift Store into a bohemian hangout featuring “a cool, lounge-like vibe” and music that got people of varying backgrounds dancing. The change brought a new crowd into the Miami neighborhood that marks the beginning of Little Haiti’s transformation, said Joann Milord, director of the Northeast Second Avenue Partnership.

“Somebody said to me it’s all about branding; so then a light bulb went off in my head, and I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s what I’m going to do –– I’m going to start branding Little Haiti,’” said Milord, 37.

Identity has always been a talking point for the neighborhood, Milord said. Some residents want to call the area Little River, while others want to pay homage to the local farmers who founded the land and call it Lemon City. Milord and others tied to the movement want to call it “the new Wynwood.”

The Northeast Second Avenue Partnership is an organization working with the Little Haiti Cultural Center, city agencies, business owners, other nonprofit organizations and local residents to strengthen the community. NE2P was created in 2008, and Milord, who at the time wasn’t a board member, was hired after the organization received grant funding that same year.

She left her full-time job as a senior loan officer and began actively working through NE2P.

“I’m not really much of a risk taker,” she said. “But I really felt like this was a good cause, and if it was meant to be, God would work it out.”

In the past three years, Milord has grown NE2P to become an official charitable organization and increased the amount of grant-based funding it receives. Aside from cultural events to bring in outsiders, Milord started a small business association to both advocate and provide technical training for the local business owners. The association was originally conceived to advocate for the businesses along Northeast Second Avenue that were negatively affected by construction projects two years ago.

The City of Miami crafted a small business grant that NE2P would disperse to the stores affected. Milord says working with the different business owners has shown her the amount of diversity that exists in the neighborhood.

Sandy Dorsainvil calls Milord the “business leg” of the project to redefine the neighborhood, while Dorsainvil, managing director of the Little Haiti Cultural Center, has taken the reins on the other aspect of their vision: the arts.

“For years, we have been trying to find ways to reinvigorate Little Haiti. How do we make the rest of the world know what a wonderful, vivacious, culturally diverse, fantastic space this area of Miami is?” Dorsainvil said. The answer, she said, was simple: “It’s the arts.”

During this year’s Art Basel, the cultural center held its first satellite event called Art Beat Miami, featuring three days of pop-up galleries, mural showings, music and food. The interesting thing, Milord said, is not just the Haitian artists taking the lead, but artists from outside the neighborhood coming in and embracing the culture.

Tara Long, who helped organize a rara fashion show at the Little Haiti Thrift & Gift Store, says the change is both “organic” and about the “preservation” of Haitian culture. Rara is a parade-like music festival that originated in Haiti.

“Its a collaborative effort,” Long said. “Schiller, the owner, he had a vision; Mimi, his wife, she had a vision; I had a vision; and we put it together under one roof –– kind of like what a thrift store is. It’s just a bunch of people’s stuff under one roof.”

Local artist Anthony Lumpkin said that as Little Haiti grows into a destination, he hopes the cultural fabric is not lost.

“Just like most of America, it’s one of those things where people capitalize on energy,” Lumpkin said. “In the Overtown and Midtown area, they created this energy that was undeniable. I just hope that we can hold on to essence of the area and build from within. I don’t want to see artists get pushed out of the community.”