Community Voices

Black in Time: Little Haiti/Lemon City chosen as revitalization demonstration site

Sant La staff members creating the Toussaint Louverture Memorial Park, a United Way activity. From left: Gepsie Metellus, Sophia Lacroix, Julie Jean Baptiste, Marlon Hill, Desiree Marrero and Lily Jules.
Sant La staff members creating the Toussaint Louverture Memorial Park, a United Way activity. From left: Gepsie Metellus, Sophia Lacroix, Julie Jean Baptiste, Marlon Hill, Desiree Marrero and Lily Jules. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

On the eve of the city of Miami’s 120th birthday, one of its oldest neighborhoods, Lemon City — known nationally and internationally as Little Haiti — has been selected one of seven demonstration sites by the National Main Street Center.

The sites are expected to use the refreshed Main Street Approach for comprehensive community revitalization. During the next 12 to 18 months, groups in Philadelphia; Milledgeville, Georgia; Biloxi, Mississippi; Detroit; Gary, Indiana; Lexington, Kentucky; and Miami will receive resources to establish and implement strategic plans. The program is supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Each community was chosen after a competitive selection process. In Miami, the Northeast Second Avenue Partnership (NE2P), a nonprofit organization, received the award. The goal is to energize and sustain one of Miami’s pioneer commercial corridors for the business and entertainment of residents and tourists.

In six months, by July 28, 2016, when Miami celebrates its milestone birthday, the Partnership should be well into the Main Street training. It is anticipated that national experts will provide hands-on technical assistance on how best to engage the community, plan and execute long-term strategic actions, and effectively measure the impact of those efforts.

The soon-to-be preservation-based economic development site has a storied past. Before Miami was incorporated, Lemon City began as a 19th century small farming community on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The name came from the groves of lemons that grew in the area. Historian Thelma Peters’ 1976 book, Pioneering on Biscayne Bay 1850-1925, details the hardships and successes of the early settlers.

Lemon City was a special place for white families, mostly Bahamians, “Conchs” from Key West and “Tar Heels” from North Carolina; and black families, mostly from the Bahamas. The blacks and whites lived in separate neighboring settlements. At that time, customs and laws in the United States separated black people from white people and limited the rights of black people in every phase of life.

Functioning as a frontier community, Lemon City was never incorporated. It had a school, churches, stores, library, livery stable, and an active community improvement association. Over time, other businesses were added including a doctor’s office, hotel, general stores, barbershop, real estate office, bakery, sponge warehouse, saloons, restaurant, blacksmith, sawmill and a photo studio. A 15-building metropolis developed into an active downtown commercial corridor that lasted several decades.

Peters’ research shows that about 1925 as the city of Miami became more progressive, the name Lemon City vanished from the map and early settlers relocated to other neighborhoods.

Haitian refugees began settling in the nearly deserted Lemon City in the 1970s and 1980s. “The neighborhood was christened Little Haiti,” according to Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center.

In her introduction to the 2005 publication, The Haitian Community in Miami-Dade: A Growing the Middle Class Supplement, published by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Metellus reports that Haitian small-business owners awakened the corridor along Northeast Second Avenue. More recently, increased interest in real estate, business development and Haitian art and literature prompted the Partnership to seek national assistance in the development of a sustainable downtown Little Haiti.

Locally, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to provide technical marketing assistance with tours and publications highlighting the area. Tourists can see tangible evidence of past existence in the Lemon City library and post office; a building owned by Dr. John G. Dupuis, a medical doctor and owner of the White Belt Dairy; and the Lemon City Cemetery.

Community activist Enid Pinkney spearheaded the organization of the Lemon City Cemetery Community Corp., when human bones of black pioneers were discovered at a construction site in the area. The community group identified family members of the deceased, applied for historical designation for the site, and sponsored a charrette to determine future plans.

In 2009, the city of Miami’s Historic Preservation and Environmental Board granted local historic designation to the cemetery. The Memorial Garden and Monument was dedicated Feb. 15, 2011; and the re-interment of human bones and Lemon City Marker dedication were Nov. 16, 2012.

The legacy of Lemon City and the magic of Little Haiti produce a culturally vibrant driving tour bounded by Interstate 95 and the Florida East Coast Railway, Northeast 54th to 87th streets, and the business district along Northeast Second Avenue.

In addition to earlier historic sites, the tour also includes: Toussaint Louverture Statue; Notre Dame Church; Little Haiti Cultural Complex; The Triangle (Northeast 62nd Street and Second Avenue, which will soon house an earthquake memorial); several shopping centers; Libreri Mapou Bookstore; Toussaint Louverture Elementary School; Northeast Second Avenue, also known as Felix Morisseau Leroy Avenue (named for famous poet and writer); Toussaint Louverture Boulevard and Manno Sannon Soccer Park.

Residents and tourists can experience the pulse and flavor of Little Haiti by taking a self-guided tour or visiting www.ne2p.org and www.artofblackmiami.com.

Connie Kinnard, GMCVB vice president for multicultural tourism & development, has announced that the 2016 Black History Month Heritage Bus Tour will include Little Haiti/Lemon City, Coconut Grove, Liberty City, Overtown and Brownsville. In addition, The Discover Greater Miami’s Heritage Neighborhood Guide is available for distribution to community groups. For details visit www.miamiandbeaches.com/events.

The farming community once populated with lemon groves adopted the name Lemon City. No lemon groves or trees remain. Today, the area is populated with brightly painted businesses and signs printed in English and Haitian Creole with exotic food, entertainment and original art. When asked what name should be used to incorporate the area’s past and present for its future, Metellus responded: “Welcome to Little Haiti/Historic Lemon City.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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