Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Time to designate Little Havana as historic

An older historic home in the shadows of a new five story apartment building in East Little Havana on, February 22, 2015. Activists and preservationists are fighting an up-upzoning and for the establishment of a historic district in the neighborhood.
An older historic home in the shadows of a new five story apartment building in East Little Havana on, February 22, 2015. Activists and preservationists are fighting an up-upzoning and for the establishment of a historic district in the neighborhood. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Despite decades of political rhetoric, the promise of a thriving Little Havana — a neighborhood with character, history and unique architecture — always stalled along the way.

Artists and galleries moved in, breathing new life into Calle Ocho and restoring 1920s bungalows in the surrounding neighborhood. A lovely Art Deco theater, the Tower, was restored, offering an acclaimed international program. A last-Friday-of-the-month art walk grew up around the action.

Studies of the enclave’s potential for historic designation were done (and shelved). Books were written; oodles of tourists have visited, although not long enough to soak up all the history.

Through it all, the City of Miami seemed to never be able to round up enough resources or partners to take Little Havana to the next big step.

Instead, the city allowed empty, overgrown lots to exist when, only a few blocks away in another neighborhood, they were unthinkable. Landlords weren’t forced to keep up their rental properties. Why was there little code enforcement — and no interest in giving official historic recognition to one of Miami’s oldest communities?

It was as if Little Havana were the city’s Cinderella neighborhood, a princess who had to be kept hidden in tattered maid’s clothing.

Now, with competing proposals to up-zone the Riverside-Little Havana area and to confer historic preservation to East Little Havana, we might be starting to learn the answer to those questions: With the overdevelopment of the nearby Brickell Avenue district and downtown Miami topping off, Little Havana is now primed for the raping.

And, throughout those years, well connected people bought undervalued properties cheaply. Now these property owners want to cash in and make big bucks by getting zoning changes that will allow high-rises, from five to eight and even 12 stories in some cases, irrevocably altering the character of the area.

In other words, it’s the making of a Brickell West at the expense of people who love their neighborhood, a mix of working class, creative class, low-income and immigrant.

“Where does this come from out of the blue?” asks Marta Laura Zayas, an elementary school teacher leading one of the grassroots efforts against up-zoning and for historic designation. She and her “Friends of Little Havana” group define the area’s borders as the Miami River to the north, Southwest 11th Street to south, Southwest 37th Avenue (the iconic Versailles area) to the west and ending in I-95 to the east.

It’s not too late to save Little Havana — in fact, the time is now.

There’s no reason for the City of Miami to deny Little Havana — not only the east side but all of it, including the Riverside area — historic designation.

Not all of the historic treasures are within sight, but they’re undeniable.

“I call it the Cuban Plymouth Rock,” historian Arva Parks tells me. “"It’s the perfect preservation story because there are so many layers of history.”

A significant slice of the Miami narrative has unfolded in these streets.

People may remember most the massive marches along Calle Ocho of a people fighting for the lost homeland, and on the other side of the spectrum, an annual carnival-styled festival in March full of cultural color and music, the largest Hispanic event of its kind in the country.

But this enclave of unique historic homes and low-rise buildings also has been the setting of Miami-made literature and visual arts, and has long been part of Greater Miami’s food culture and music scene. It has even made a unique imprint on fashion.

Here, the humble guayaberas worn by men in Cuba were turned into must-have crisp linen only-in-Miami accessories for women and children as well. Here, the fusion music of Grammy-nominated PALO! was popularized. Here, the barbershop may change hands, but it delivers the kind of cuts and ambience that attract a LeBron James and the latest arrival from Cuba.

Communities of Jews, Cubans and Central Americans settled in the area’s bungalows and Mission-style and Art Deco-accented homes. But it’s the Cuban immigration history of the past 56 years that has given the area’s sense of community its staying power.

Cultured visitors to Miami want to see two things — Art Deco and Little Havana, Parks notes. Miami Beach has done a good job of preserving its architectural style, but when it comes to Little Havana, the tour buses make a pit-stop for a little kitsch and cafecito.

Yet there’s so much more here.

“In no other American city has an immigrant group ascended to political power in one generation,” says Parks, who grew up on a bungalow on Third Street and 13th Avenue and lived there until she was 9. “It’s not just Cuban history. It’s American history and it needs to be told.”

A designation to protect all of that history is long overdue. The time to fight for it is now, starting with Tuesday’s 3 p.m. meeting of the City of Miami Historic Preservation Board. A petition drive also has been launched at chn.ge/1G1lCTe

Saving Little Havana shouldn’t be so complicated.

All it takes is replacing avarice with political will — and developing an appreciation for the unique architecture, the people and the stories that make a city what it is: home.

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