Little Haiti: will an ambitious project risk a ‘diverse mecca’ or revitalize it?
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Little Haiti: will an ambitious project risk a ‘diverse mecca’ or revitalize it?

Jan Mapou has seen many changes in Miami’s Little Haiti in the 28 years since he opened the Libreri Mapou bookstore, an informal art gallery-cum-community centre where locals come to absorb the culture of their homeland while discussing the issues of the day.

Most recently, the Haitian poet, playwright and activist has watched an increasingly rapid gentrification of parts of the colourful and historic neighbourhood once known as Lemon City for the citrus trees that prospered there.

But nothing he has seen compares to the gargantuan Magic City Innovation District, a proposed 17-acre behemoth, including a 27-storey tower block and millions of square feet of commercial, residential, hotel and entertainment space, that would change forever the look and ambience of the heart of one of south Florida’s most vibrant immigrant pockets.

The development, which counts among its investors Canadian Guy Laliberté, the billionaire founder of Cirque du Soleil, and which is currently awaiting the approval of Miami’s city commissioners, has caused friction in the community.

On one side are those who believe the time is ripe for the ageing and more run-down parts of Little Haiti, one of the poorest areas of Miami, to be revitalised with modern amenities and sustainable construction that the developers insist will provide a large economic jolt while remaining true to the neighbourhood’s Caribbean roots.

On the other are people such as Mapou, 77, who worry that residents and small-business owners like himself, who have lived and worked in Little Haiti for decades and helped forge its strong cultural identity, will be forced out by unaffordable rents and the rampant ingress of capitalism.

He acknowledges the developers, who include three Miami-based companies, are offering a “community benefits package” through its Magic City Foundation, but says it doesn’t go far enough to support locally owned businesses or preserve the authentic small-neighbourhood feel of Little Haiti and its population of fewer than 35,000.

“We want affordable housing for all the people, we are asking for space for small businesses that are shifting out of this area, and job creation and also education for the arts,” he said.

“I feel they are going to use our art, our music, our bands … I can understand it, this is the flavour of Little Haiti and they want to keep that, but they have to create a way to protect that culture, meaning that they have to have some kind of Haitian music school, a dance school, a cuisine school, they can partner with the cultural centre to keep these things.”

Mostly, Mapou says, the quiet way of life that residents have known since waves of Haitians fled to Florida to escape the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s could never be recovered.

Another critic is Wilkinson Sejour, owner of the Chef Creole chain of restaurants headquartered in Little Haiti, who admits he would benefit from a wealthier clientele of the type Magic City hopes to attract.

“My own property is going to go seven to 10 times its current value, but what’s the trade?” he said. “You’re going to lose the originality of the indigenous rich Creole culture.

“There’s not going to be a Haitian voice here in 10 years’ time because the landscape is going to be totally different. When you’re in these real nice bars and five-star restaurants, you’ll be talking about these places you used to go.”

Unsurprisingly, those invested in the project offer a different perspective. Neil Fairman, the founder of Miami-based Plaza Equity Partners, said Magic City’s vision was to reinvigorate a community in need, provide more than 11,000 jobs and provide financial support for existing neighbourhood groups, in the arts, sports and other areas.

The project calls for 2,600 residential units, of which 7% will be designated “affordable housing”, and promises up to four acres of open space, including an interactive theme park from Laliberté’s Lune Rouge entertainment company.

Fairman likens Little Haiti to the Wynwood and Midtown, neighbourhoods of Miami, which once struggled with poverty and crime but are now thriving after regeneration into areas of “urban cool” with galleries, museums and bars.

“The area is suffering. It’s dying on the vine, half the places are shuttered and it’s not an attractive area,” Fairman said. “Without someone coming in to help it, in 10 or 15 years there won’t be any Little Haiti left. We’re trying to keep the cultural Little Haiti and turn it into a prosperous tourist destination where the local Haitian merchants will be able to survive.”

Fairman is angered at the suggestion the Magic City development, whose footprint he says covers barely one and a half percent of the neighbourhood officially recognised as Little Haiti by the Miami city commission in 2016, will be evicting anybody.

“The properties that we own are industrial properties and an old abandoned trailer park,” he said, referring to the historic Magic City mobile home park that closed in 2015 and gave the project its name.

“We are not moving a single soul off the property. There have been other people who have bought shopping centres and are renovating them and some tenants have been moved out. We have not done that and I think we’re being unfairly painted with a broad brush.”

Tony Cho, founder and chief executive of Metro 1, another Miami-based partner company, acknowledges the value of the land, which sits well above sea level in a city with areas that regularly flood in high tides. But he insists so-called climate gentrification has nothing to do with him wanting to help an area of which he is part.

“I bought my first building here in 2003,” he said. “I didn’t come because it was 18ft higher than Miami Beach, it was because of the cultural fabric that was there, the artists, the affordable real estate.

“Magic City’s vision is to elevate the entire community, bring jobs, educate and integrate the local community, and we’ve done a lot of that. When people say we don’t care about the community it hurts because we’re in that community.”

Miami city commissioners will vote whether to grant initial approval in December, the same month as they discuss another proposed hotel and residential development several blocks south. Marleine Bastien, executive director of Little Haiti’s family action network movement, decries what she sees as “overdevelopment on steroids”.

“Through hard work, sheer resilience and determination, the Haitian immigrants transformed Little Haiti into this inclusive and culturally diverse mecca,” she wrote in an open letter to commissioners. “Through the process of gentrification and forced displacement, most of the Haitians lost their homes.”

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November 8, 2018

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