It’s noon on Saturday in Miami’s Little Haiti…
A thriving gallery scene, Caribbean culture, and stunning street art make for the city’s most sensory corner.
Words: Rebecca Kleinman
Images: Mary Beth Koeth
The sunlight glistens on a towering banyan tree in the Little Haiti Community Garden, where callaloo greens — a Caribbean staple used to brighten soups and savory pies — is coming in for summer. As neighboring shopkeepers spruce up their wares along the area’s main drag, Northeast Second Avenue, Soul Train videos blare from The Colorblock Miami. Inside this gallery and boutique, the namesake theme is celebrated through artwork and vintage ’80s fashions, and Toni-Simone Robotham, a retail associate, and a friend dance to the beat.
“I’m Jamaican, but still feel welcome in Little Haiti,” she says. “Everyone looks out for each other here.” Across the space, Colorblock owner Bean Blackett scans a trove of locally made delicacies, like a glass of hibiscus-lavender tea and a bottle of potent ginger-spiced moonshine brewed by a mom-and-pop purveyor nearby.
Blackett, who opened the prismatic concept six months ago, is among a surge of new and relocated gallerists, including Emerson Dorsch and Nina Johnson, attracted by the area’s affordable properties — voluminous warehouses, spartan stucco spaces, and 1920s bungalows — a rarity in Miami’s booming real estate landscape.
Rather than operate in a bubble, he prefers to integrate with the community and respect its roots, which first took hold in the 1970s when Haitian immigrant Viter Juste rechristened what was then called “Lemon City” to reflect the nationality of its residents. But it took until last year for Miami to officially recognize a portion of the district (between 54th and 79th streets and NW Sixth and NE Second avenues) as Little Haiti.
On weekends, Blackett hosts complimentary buffets with joumou (squash) soup and other Haitian specialties with fresh fruit platters for dessert. “Leela’s Restaurant next door was displaced, so I hire the chef to cater for anyone who wants to come,” he says.
With a botánica on every block proffering candles, potions, and incense, it’s hard to believe the Little Haiti of today is relatively nascent. But Lemon City’s citrus-growing homesteads date to the Reconstruction Era, rendering it Miami’s oldest settlement according to Paul George, historian for HistoryMiami Museum.
It’s this layered past that makes milestones like Sweat Records’ 12th anniversary this spring seem like a drop in the bucket. The vinyl mecca’s co-founder Lauren “Lolo” Reskin has witnessed the area’s transition in the last couple years.“We love being in Little Haiti, and hope it will be able to retain its culture and quirk,” she says.
Fellow proprietor Noam Yemini had quite a head start on her. Born in the backyard of his parents’ macrobiotic eatery-turned-Haitian-hub, he now runs Naomi’s Garden Restaurant & Lounge with his brother. A line queues around noon for dishes like fried snapper and a beef-and-vegetable mash called légumes that’s flavored with housemade epis (spice blend), all to be enjoyed under the tropical fruit trees. Though Israeli by heritage, Yemini is honored to play the Johnny Appleseed of this cuisine. “Seventy percent of our customers are Haitian, but I’d like everyone to know about this food just as they do Italian or Japanese,” he says.
The Little Haiti Cultural Complex is doing its part, too, spearheading monthly shopping events on second Saturdays, when vendors peddle Caribbean wares — food, art, fashion, housewares — in its marketplace. Designed by Haitian architect Charles Harrison Pawley, it’s modeled after the Marché Ferrier in Port-au-Prince.
The Complex also hosts Sounds of Little Haiti concerts. On those occasions, Schiller and Mimi Sanon-Jules, makers of that dangerously delicious moonshine the Colorblock crew was sipping, create their own party down the street. Schiller grills conch as Haitian guitarist Papi Joe jams behind their shop, Little Haiti Thrift & Gift, which they started to raise funds for earthquake victims in their homeland. “The only thing that matters,” he says, “is keeping Little Haiti on the map.”
4 Art Hubs to Tour
Little Haiti edition
This muralist has enlivened countless area avenues with his larger-than-life portraits: religious saints, political icons, Miami Heat basketball players.
This contemporary art space is the perfect spot to duck into during the area’s mid-day summer downpours.
Base Art Space
Unveiled last November, this illuminated aluminum installation is part of a planned cultural zone set to extend through 15 acres of Little Haiti. Northeast 62nd Street & 4th Avenue
Magic City Sculpture Park
Founded by Jamaican artist Marcus Blake, this bungalow-turned-gallery exhibits his works alongside other local artists.