Now’s the Time to Visit Little Haiti, on the Brink of Change
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Just north of downtown Miami, Kreyol conversations, konpa dance music and the spicy, caramelized aroma of pork griot fill the subtropical air.
But as indie art galleries and trendy eateries pop up next to humble storefront churches and family-owned markets, the neighborhood of Little Haiti teeters on the brink of transforming from immigrant enclave to the next Capital of Cool.
Any doubt that this 3½-square-mile stretch of 30,000 exiles and artists is on the move was erased in March 2019, when one of Miami’s oldest arts organizations announced plans to build a $30 million headquarters here. ArtCenter/South Florida – rebranding as Oolite Arts – intends to open a starchitect-built campus in 2022. The plans include 22 artists’ studios, exhibit space, a theater, a maker space for public workshops, an art library and a communal gathering spot.
When built, Oolite Arts will join The Citadel, a food hall that opened in early 2019 on Little Haiti’s northern edge. Soon to follow could be the proposed Magic City Innovation District, a 17-acre complex of residences and businesses with a pop-up theme park conceived by the founder of Cirque du Soleil.
With gentrification looming, the online real estate marketplace Zillow recently called Little Haiti the hottest neighborhood in Miami.
“The Little Haiti we know today is not going to be Little Haiti any more,” says Chef Creole Seafood owner Wilkinson Sejour, who built his Little Haiti restaurant into a culinary enterprise favored by Dwyane Wade, Vivica A. Fox and Goodie Mob.
Whether Little Haiti can retain its cultural identity in the midst of change is the subject of heated discussions at city hall and street fruit stands. With the 13-foot, bronze statue of Haiti’s revolutionary hero, General Toussaint L’Ouverture, presiding over North Miami Avenue and 62nd Street, only one thing is certain: Now is the time to visit the historic neighborhood while it remains true to its Afro-Caribbean roots.
As America’s home for the Haitian cultural diaspora, Miami-Dade County has the largest Haitian-American community in the United States. More than 100,000 Haitians have settled here since 1980, when crushing poverty and political violence forced many to flee their island home 700 miles from Miami. Little Haiti is a struggling, sprawling neighborhood wedged between downtown Miami and the happening creative zones of Wynwood and Miami Design District. Roughly bordered by 79th and 54nd streets, with Interstate 95 to the west and Biscayne Boulevard to the east, the neighborhood is liveliest along Northeast Second Avenue, from 54th to 62nd streets.
At its heart, the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 N.E. 59th Terrace, beats as a community hub, with gallery exhibits and shows. Visitors can watch Afro-Caribbean dance performances by Peter London Global Dance Company or Delou African Dance Ensemble, or catch live music by local and visiting Haitian artists. As a free monthly event in the complex’s outdoor courtyard, Sounds of Little Haiti presents bands and occasional superstars like Wyclef Jean and Arcade Fire on the third Friday of every month.
Next door, at the Caribbean Marketplace, 5925 NE 2nd Ave., weekend vendors sell Afro-Caribbean art, fresh mangoes and other produce, sugarcane juice, conch salad, flaky Haitian meat pastries and other prepared food inside a colorful gingerbread-style building. The marketplace’s latticework exterior was inspired by the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince and designed by noted Haitian-born architect Charles Harrison Pawley, who won an AIA Honor Award in 1990 for the structure.
Art in Little Haiti
Like Haiti the nation, Little Haiti the neighborhood is saturated in art. The painter and sculptor Edouard Duval-Carrié, whose private studio at 225 NE 59th St. is next to the Little Haiti Cultural Center, has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, including The Detroit Institute of Arts, Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie in Paris, and a major retrospective at Perez Art Museum Miami in 2014. Duval-Carrié’s multi-media works incorporate sequined banners, canvases with ornate frames and dramatic altars, mixing reality with mythology, vodou gods with national heroes of Haiti. He frequently opens his studio for artist talks and visits, particularly during Art Basel Miami Beach in early December.
Little Haiti has a long-standing street art tradition. Muralist Serge Toussaint, one of the neighborhood’s most recognizable muralists, paints cartoon-like portraits of President Barack Obama (at 54th Street and North Miami Avenue) and heroes of Haiti, along with dancing hair dryers and combs, on the outside of shops and hair salons. Look for his signature, $erge, in the colorful paint.
With the explosive popularity of Art Basel and Miami Art Week, contemporary galleries and satellite art fairs have seeped into Little Haiti over the past 10 years. Yeelen, a gallery founded by Jamaican-born art dealer Karla Ferguson to promote artists of the African diaspora, was one of the first to move in at 294 NW 54th St. Emerson Dorsch at 5900 NW 2nd Ave., Nina Johnson at 6315 NW 2nd Ave., and Pan American Art Projects at 274 NE 67th St. are among those that followed, transforming former warehouses into high-end showplaces. Artist-run collectives like The Fountainhead Studios at 7338 NW Miami Ct. and Laundromat Art Space at 5900 NE 2nd Ave. host studio tours and annual events.
Art Beat Miami is an annual art, food and music festival celebrating Haitian and Caribbean culture every December. Little Haiti Optimist Foundation and Northeast Second Avenue Partnership host the satellite fair inside the Caribbean Marketplace at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. An Art Basel Miami Week trolley provides free transportation between the Design District, Midtown and Little Haiti during the most frenzied art week in Miami.
Little Haiti Restaurants
Little Haiti is where West African stews, French pastries and Caribbean seafood come to meet, connected by a spicy, pickled, coleslaw-like condiment called pikliz. The multicultural mash-up produces comfort food, Miami-style.
Culinary explorers can follow the late Anthony Bourdain’s food trail through Little Haiti, where he filmed many of his adventures. First stop: Chez Le Bebe, 114 NE 54th St. The authentic, family-owned Haitian restaurant has been in Miami since the 1980s, serving heaping portions of goat, ox tail, pig’s feet, fried pork, mushroom rice and plantains.
The ruler of Haitian seafood is Chef Creole, another Bourdain favorite. Owner-chef Sejour turned down an offer from the Food Network in 2013, opting to maintain control of his expanding empire, which now includes five restaurants throughout Miami-Dade County (including one at Miami International Airport). His original restaurant in Little Haiti (200 NW 54th St.) blends Sejour’s Haitian and Bahamian roots, with jerk and creole wings, grilled conch and pork ribs, among other dishes. Look for the outdoor mural of a small fisherman reeling in a huge blue marlin.
One of the first and longest-running West Indian grocery stores in Miami, B&M Market, 219 NE 79th St., is where Bourdain famously sampled cow foot stew. Opened since 1980 on the northern edge of Little Haiti, the basic Jamaican grocery has a four-seat “restaurant” in the back that serves oxtail, stew beef, jerk chicken, goat roti, salt fish and ackee.
Miami-based small-batch coffee roaster Panther Coffee branched out from its Wynwood flagship and opened a Little Haiti lab in 2017 at 5934 NW 2nd Ave., where you can pop in for strong brew, as well as cakes, cookies, savory bites, beer and wine amid free Wi-Fi and local art. For authentic strong and sweet Haitian coffee, served with spicy manba peanut butter on cassava bread, head back to the Caribbean Marketplace, where Tigeorges’ Kafe offers respite in the cozy southwest corner.
In the Little River neighborhood just north of Little Haiti, The Citadel,
8300 NE Second Ave., is a trendy, new food hall built in a repurposed 1950s bank building. The expansive space has 15 food and beverage outposts plus a bar. Along with burgers, pizza, Caribbean food and ice cream, the indoor hall hosts maker workshops and pop-up vendors.
The Haitian diaspora has produced such Miami-based literary stars as MacArthur Genius and National Book Award Finalist Edwidge Danticat, author of “Brother, I’m Dying,” among other books. Like a beloved novel with pages worn from wear, Libreri Mapou, 5919 NE 2nd Ave., has been a cultural staple in Little Haiti since the early 1990s. Both library and gathering place, it features Haitian paintings on the walls, dance rehearsals and bottled kremas, an eggnog-like blend of rum, coconut milk and spices made from owner Jon Mapou’s secret recipe.
At Little Haiti Thrift and Gift Store, 5863 NE 2nd Ave., funky boots, furs and African-influenced fashion finds are packed into a small shop that also includes a juice bar. The indie-owned Sweat Records, 5505 NE 2nd Ave., offers new and used records and CDs – from rock, metal and punk to hip-hop and folk – plus rock-n-roll T-shirts, gifts and a coffee bar with vegan snacks.
Music in Little Haiti
Hymns are sung in Haitian Kreyol at most services at Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, where stained glass windows depict Haitian history. Surrounded by oak trees draped in Spanish moss, the church at 110 NE 62nd St. is often the first stop for new immigrants seeking assistance. The Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday, two days before Easter Sunday, includes a 12-block march to the church.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum from rara Carnival street processions, Churchill’s Pub, next to Sweat Records at 5501 NE 2nd Ave., is a grungy, underground club. Churchill’s has been presenting local bands and televising soccer matches since 1979. (U2 band members famously stopped by to watch the English FA Cup Final while recording in Miami in 1996.)
Tribal and electronic music performances occur periodically at Moksha Family Artist Collective, a psychedelic space for musicians and artists at 599 NW 71 St. Yo Space, 294 NE 62nd St. is a communal space for artists that offers comedy shows, exhibits and live music.
Despite its concrete and urban sprawl, Little Haiti is home to a funky green retreat called Earth-n-Us, a two-acre farm at 7630 NE 1st Ave. dedicated to peaceful co-existence. There’s an urban garden with chickens and an emu, as well as a communal living space. Potluck meals are held every Thursday and drum circles honor the full moon of every month.
In the nearby Miami Design District, the Haitian Heritage Museum, 4141 NE 2nd Ave., has a small but significant collection of historic artifacts from Haiti and contemporary art on exhibit.
Little Haiti Tours
Little Haiti is not an easy neighborhood to navigate. Fortunately, there are tour guides waiting to help. La Perle De Miami offers Saturday tours that delve into vodou and music, with guests meeting at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex and traveling in a colorful Haitian tap tap (bus). Urban Tour Host provides group and private tours of Little Haiti and other black heritage neighborhoods in Miami, with conversations with business owners mixed into the experience. HistoryMiami regularly schedules cultural tours of Little Haiti among the museum’s many guided walking, biking and bus tours. Cultural Heritage Alliance Tours (CHAT) has a walking and tasting tour of Little Haiti.
More info: Little Haiti Visitor Center, 212 NE 59th Terrace, 305-960-2969.