Little Havana - Flagami

They put everything into their taco shop. The mess outside is destroying it all

Construction at Flagler Street and 12th Avenue photographed on Friday, August 25, 2017. Area business owners have been losing customers and revenue because of the ongoing construction in the area.
Construction at Flagler Street and 12th Avenue photographed on Friday, August 25, 2017. Area business owners have been losing customers and revenue because of the ongoing construction in the area. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Victor Hijar’s dream is dying, suffocated by piles of gravel and swirls of dust, obscured by a backhoe and a mountain of pipes, cut off by a phalanx of orange barricades.

Hijar and his wife Jessi quit their corporate jobs and poured their life savings into La Gringa Taco Shop, a tidy, tasty restaurant they created in the heart of Little Havana. Perfect location, they figured, next to a bus stop on West Flagler Street, the Miami artery lined with small businesses and bustling with working-class people.

But then the reconstruction of Flagler Street began. It has dragged on for a year and a half, with no end in sight. Three miles of roadway, including Southwest First Street, from 27th Avenue to Second Avenue, have been ripped out at the roots to replace the 74-year-old water main, drainage system, sidewalks, lights and signals.

It is a mess. A dystopian landscape.

Business owners are more graphic:

“Un desastre del demonio.” A disaster from hell.

“Managua after the earthquake.”

“It looks like a hurricane hit. Or a bomb. You might see it this horrible in my country but to see it here in the United States is ridiculous,” said Ernesto Avac, owner of the Yaneira Discount Mini Market and a native of Guatemala.

Said Hijar, born in Peru: “This is worse than what you would expect in an undeveloped, third-world country.”

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Victor Hijar, the owner of La Gringa Taco Shop, on Saturday, August 26, 2017, is in deep financial stress because of the Flagler street construction's impact on his business. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Up and down Flagler and First Street, merchants are disgusted and distraught. They’ve counted 20, 30, 50 of their peers that have gone out of business. With the flow of customers reduced to a trickle, they fear they’ll be next.

La Gringa is suffering. The burritos received five-star reviews, but there’s an obstacle course leading to the door. Intrepid pedestrians must negotiate dirt, chunks of asphalt, café-con-leche-colored puddles, strands of rebar that reach out to trip them. Machinery blocks the façade. The financial strain has wrecked Hijar’s marriage.

“We’re getting divorced after 10 years,” he said. “We put our soul into this place, but now it’s in limbo because we are no longer a team.”

A disabled man on an electric wheelchair gets stuck trying to cross a portion of Flagler Street, which is under construction in Little Havana, on July 18, 2017. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) says construction contractors have to

The maddening song plays on a continuous loop in South Florida: A road undergoes repair, contractors move in, barriers go up, lanes close, traffic snarls, agony embeds, completion deadlines pass.

Ernesto Oliva has run his modest shoe store at First Street and Eleventh Avenue for a decade. One partner of each pair preens atop the neatly stacked boxes. Can he make it to next summer, when the Florida Department of Transportation says construction will be finished?

He opens the notebook where he keeps a daily tally of profits.

“Yesterday, look, $1.50,” he said. “Yes, it’s true, $1.50. My wife calls at the end of each day and asks, ‘How much?’ I say, ‘Don’t ask me, please.’”

Oliva, dapper in his pink polo shirt, ready to provide a fitting, looks like he could cry. You want to hug him. Or buy some shoes.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

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Construction at Flagler Street and 12th Avenue photographed on Friday, August 25, 2017. Area business owners have been losing customers and revenue because of the ongoing construction in the area. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

On the street, half of it blocked by ROAD CLOSED signs, there is no parking for their shops. So many shops. Pawn, hardware, cellphone, check-cashing and clothing shops, pharmacies, salons. Churches, dentists, botánicas. Here in what is now Little Managua, populated more by Central Americans than Cubans, numerous envíos shops like El Catracho Express, where customers send money and packages back home, are essential to the immigrant economy. Restaurants and takeaway joints serve Salvadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan food. “We’re Open!” their signs scream in desperation.

But to get inside, you’ve got to blaze through the mess. Cars bump through potholes as people dart across the road. An unappetizing Dumpster is plopped smack dab in front of El Castillo de las Frutas. A freight container impedes a gas station entrance. Heaps of pallets, drainpipes, cables and, what’s this? – a decapitated mailbox – get drenched in the rain. Hundreds of annoying orange barrels – all apparently owned by Bob – seem ripe for ramming. Trash is strewn everywhere.

“People see a construction site and use it as a dumping ground,” said Sergies Duarte, FDOT spokesperson. “We’ve asked the contractors to clean up.

“We hope to finish the north side of the street and switch traffic to the south side by January. You never know what you’ll find underground the oldest road in Miami-Dade County, and we’ll see how the weather treats us, but we’ve surpassed the hardest part of the job.”

Rafael Scatamacchia has heard that before. He expects more delays for work that was supposed to be done by now. He owns Il Italiano restaurant and Cholo Power general store. Customers who parked out front and bought cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets or pizza don’t come anymore. Business is down 50 percent.

“We hear next spring, fall of 2018. A lot of businesses won’t be here by then. Or maybe by the time they finish we’ll be dead,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “Landlords don’t care: ‘You need an extension? Screw you.’”

He smiles, offers a slice of pizza.

“We’re everyday people trying to survive. When it rains, it pours, it snows, it freezes, doesn’t it?”

A major complaint of the merchants is that they witness very little actual construction. On a recent day, heavy machinery sat idle along the Flagler and First street corridors.

“They’re milking the clock,” Hijar said. “You see guys smoking for an hour.”

Leonor Bello’s jewelry shop at 1229 West Flagler has been family-run for 47 years.

“It’s a joke,” she said. She used to have walk-ins buying batteries and watchbands. Necklaces gleam beneath the glass. A fan breaks the silence. “You can see where the weeds have grown, showing they haven’t touched it.”

Next door at the Latin Liquor Store, proprietor Jorge Villamil bemoans his 60 percent decline in sales.

“We don’t see nobody working for two days, five days. Sometimes they work for three hours and disappear,” he said. Cleaning dust off the floor and bottles creates extra labor for Villamil, who has a prosthetic leg. He raps his knuckles against it. “I wanted to retire this year and now I can’t afford to.”

Popular stores like La Ideal are hurting. Combo’s Cafe is shuttered.

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Construction at Flagler Street and 10th Avenue photographed on Friday, August 25, 2017. Area business owners have been losing customers and revenue because of the ongoing construction in the area. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

The 55-year-old Salon Miami Barber Shop is like other Flagler businesses – a fixture with regulars.

“We are not as affected because people want a particular barber; like a doctor, it’s personal,” said owner Robert Rodriguez.

But he echoes many merchants and residents when he asserts that the construction ordeal is meant to kill old businesses so gentrification can march in.

“No project could be this badly planned unless it’s on purpose,” he said, and a patron in the chair agreed with him. “Out with the poor, in with the rich. Same thing happened downtown. This was always a friendly neighborhood but now everyone is upset, on edge.”

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez has filed a bill to aid small businesses with mitigation grants from FDOT and prevent the same ruinous impact on Calle Ocho, where merchants are already uniting to oppose scheduled street improvements.

Victor Hijar worries that any relief will be too late for him. The mouth-watering menu is freshly chalked upon the wall. The counter is spotless. The ingredients are fresh. The employees are eager. But no one comes through the door.

Hijar wears a T-shirt printed with La Gringa’s logo. That was the nickname his friends gave Jessi, soon to be his ex-wife.

“We always dreamed of running our own restaurant,” he said. “We thought Flagler Street had so much potential.”   

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