I read recently that Viter Juste, who spent decades as an activist in Miami’s Haitian community and gave little Haiti its name, has died. He was 87. Got me thinking of the day I spent in Little Haiti as I did a community mapping, met with locals to get a mobilization project off the ground and waited for a tow truck as we had locked ourselves out of our car rental smack dab in the middle of Little Haiti. Yes, we were left stranded for about 5 hours in the middle of little Haiti and everyone we called for help was extremely worried for us. But, truly, at no point, did we feel we were in danger.
Little Haiti, also locally known as Lemon City, is a neighborhood in Miami known as a traditional center for Haitian immigrants, and Francophone culture in Florida. In the 1980s and 1990s, Little Haiti was one of the poorest areas in Miami and was known for its crime and drug cartels. Some of this still exists today. Perhaps even a big part of this still exists today. Just this past September, local newspapers noted the bloody week Little Haiti had undergone with a woman shot dead along with three others. Such a headline reminds me of scenes from the ‘80s Miami Vice TV. In the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Little Haiti is home to a Haitian gang led by Auntie Poulet who lives in a small wooden shack, one of many shacks ascribed to Little Haiti. In the game, Little Haiti is more sadly portrayed than Little Havana, with the presence of run-down buildings, parasitic businesses and smaller homes (i.e. shacks). If you look on travel websites you will find discussion boards in which many people like to note that Little Haiti is a ghetto, crimes-infested area that is similar to the South Bronx. As a South Bronx native I am not too sure what to make of such comments. All this to say, that Little Haiti’s image-at-large is not one that is inviting to the many tourists that Miami receives on an annual basis. Florida tourism board states that the Greater Miami and Beaches area hosted a record 12.6 million overnight visitors. Those visitors (myself being one of them for each of the last five years-although I am a business traveler) spend a lot of money. Supposedly, tourists this past year spent a record $18.8 billion on lodging, food, shopping, transportation and entertainment. I doubt, however, that many of the local businesses in Little Haiti have seen much of those tourist dollars. But like the South Bronx, Little Haiti is experiencing a cultural renaissance and deserves a little bit of your love.
Recently, the community opened the Little Haiti Cultural Center where they provide activities for the community that promotes imagination, creativity, and positive experiences for children and adults throughout the year. It is a beautiful center that is both very modern and very traditional; and filled with young children. It was also the place where we hunkered down for a few hours while we waited for a tow truck and a cab to the airport.
So, our day in Little Haiti started off like any other business trip in which we were to also do a community mapping to better understand the values, resources and needs of the community. We stopped at their grocery stores, down their major boulevards and zig zagged through the residential areas. We did note that some stores, namely those near or at gas stations operated with bullet proof glass. All the cashiers were behind the glass and if you wanted a diet coke, milk, or other refrigerated items the store workers got them for you from behind the glass. Honesty, that was a bit disconcerting. As we drove around neighborhoods there was definitely a sense that we were not from those parts. People looked at us from their front porches very, very carefully. Can you blame them? There we were slowly driving through the neighborhood, clearly not from the area and history just tells them that no tourists ever come around there.
In our community mapping, we came across a high number of ads concerning children, their health and their future. We also saw a deep sense of pride as Haitians, Floridians and as Americans. There were American flags throughout the neighborhoods. There was the use of Florida’s outline for businesses. Which hopefully the state of Florida won’t go after them for (in the past, my company was reprimanded for using the state outline of Massachusetts, I kid you not. Oh, how wisely our government officials use their time). There is also a great sense of giving back to those they have left behind. I once had a female cab driver in Miami, which for a New Yorker who takes a lot of cabs, is a somewhat rare sight. I did have a female kamikaze cab driver in South Carolina that scared the living daylights out of me (see my previous blog on flying). This Haitian female cab driver was an amazing woman. She had raised her kids alone when she had been a nurse. She suffered an accident that did not allow for her to be a nurse any longer. She took up cab driving. When she is not driving, she is out talking to her friends and neighbors about HIV and getting tested. She tries to ease people’s fears around the test. How cool is that? I told her about the availability of the over-the-counter test and she was fascinated and immediately started thinking of holding testing parties. While I do believe there is a need for pre and post-test counseling if such a party would get people to know their status and have her around for support, well, it can’t be that bad. I bet, if I had the chance to meet more locals I would find similarly-oriented others. At a larger level, there are several community based organizations that are working extremely hard to meet the needs of the local population and they are doing a truly wonderful job. I had the great fortune of meeting a few of them and to see how they work to get housing, food and medications to people is heartwarmingly admirable.
Anyway, after our mapping excursion, we stopped at the cultural center to meet the staff and to then have a local meal. That is when we left the keys in the car. Oops. We went and had our meetings. We went and ate. Came back and we still could not find the keys. We could the rental car company and they had no keys for the car. Say What? They then wanted us to tow the car to Miami airport although we were leaving from Ft. Lauderdale. Our adventure in Little Haiti was turning into a nightmare and it was due to the rental car company. You realize those companies are not really there to help out, right? Every misfortune you have renting a car brings them money. Eventually we found a local tow truck company that needed three hours to create a key for the car. Meanwhile I called my New York City car service company that hooked me up with their colleagues in the Miami area. They were worried about getting us out of Little Haiti ASAP. Apparently, there was a witching hour of sorts. They all seemed to feel that we needed to get out of there by 6pm. After that it would be a very iffy situation, or so they said.
Luckily, the Cultural Center was open and we were treated warmly; brought in to relax and stay safe. There was a cultural event taking place that night and the attendees were from all over Miami, it seemed. It was an extremely diverse crowd that came by bus, foot, and car in their evening attire for a Haitian experience.
We ventured back out to the corner to look out for our tow truck and car service. Tick tock. Tick tock. At 5:30 the tow truck came. The driver somehow opened the car; we took our items out. He had us sign some paperwork, he hooked the car up to his truck and left. In that whole exchange, he never said a word. Never said hello. Never said goodbye. We just hoped that the car would make it to the Miami airport but at that point we didn’t care too much. Tick tock. Tick tock. At 6pm. There was a marked shift in activity. Busses were coming by more frequently and women were boarding them. Actually, they are called jitneys (reminiscent of the old country). Perhaps night-shift jobs? Groups of young men passing by were more frequent. They all looked at us. It was obvious we were a little out of place. But we did not feel we were in danger. We were just outsiders and everyone, including us, knew it. At 6:10 our car service arrived. He hurriedly rushed us into the car. We waved goodbye. Not too sure who we were waving at. Perhaps just the town, the people in general. There are many untold stories in that community. And, I for one, would like to hear more of them. I will go back, and have some tchaka and kabrit and catch a cultural event.