What’s in a name?
In Lemon City — make that Little Haiti — the answer, for those who live and work in the community, is everything.
And so cheers erupted and brows furrowed Thursday in jam-packed Miami City Hall when commissioners voted unanimously to designate Little Haiti as an official city neighborhood. The creation of legal boundaries for the community in northeast Miami has been pushed for years, but always unsuccessfully due largely to overlapping boundaries with Lemon City, a historic neighborhood that predated the incorporation of Miami.
For proponents and opponents of the proposal, who debated for hours Thursday, the at-times racially-tinged conflict came down to preserving history and heritage. Lemon City advocates worried the city would wipe out the story of the place where Miami’s first school and library were founded. Haitian activists argued developers are already buying up property and gentrifying the neighborhood, clearing out their community.
“We are elated. Now no one can come and erase the name of Little Haiti,” Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami, said after the vote. “If this decision was not made today, in a few years Little Haiti would disappear.”
Bastien, whose organization helped bring people in three school buses and two jitneys to City Hall, said she and others have been fighting for 16 years to have the city recognize Little Haiti, a haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing the political and economic turmoil of Haiti. She called the city’s new Little Haiti boundaries, roughly between 54th Street and 79th Street, and Northwest Sixth Avenue and Northeast Second Avenue, a compromise that recognizes the encroachment of the Design District.
But critics of the neighborhood designation — the first in the city to be done by a resolution of the City Commission — said the boundaries were insensitive, if not insulting, to the founders of Lemon City, built with the sweat of Bahamians before Miami was even recognized as a city. Historians, businessmen and activists said Hardemon never included them in a discussion that apparently reignited months ago, and said the proposal needed more discussion and tweaking.
One area property owner said the proposal was “nothing more than the theft of documented history.” And while dismissing sentiments that the debate had pitted African Americans against Haitians, Alma Brown, a former Lemon City librarian, argued that Haitian activists demanding respect were “standing on the shoulders of African Americans.”
“The Haitians didn’t start Miami. Miami was here when they got here,” said preservationist Enid Pinkney, who years ago helped save the Lemon City Cemetery from an affordable housing project. “This resolution you’re proposing here today is discriminatory and insulting to the history of Lemon City and the pioneers who laid the foundation for you to be here. When you change the name of the community, you also do something to the history of that community.”
Designating legal boundaries for Little Haiti was also opposed by the Dade Heritage Trust, which asked the city to continue to honor Lemon City with an addendum recognizing Little Haiti. Developer Avra Jain and others noted that Little Haiti is already a widely recognized community.
But commission chairman Keon Hardemon, who represents the neighborhood and proposed the boundaries, said informal recognition isn’t enough for a community that has often felt like second-class citizens in Miami.
“Everything that we do we say Little Haiti. But we won’t pay the homage to actually identify this community,” he said. “I think it’s all talked out.”