Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Little Havana, where tour buses journey past the famed Domino Park, and where tourists stroll Calle Ocho, stopping at cigar shops, Latin cafes and the Bay of Pigs Invasion memorial, is one of Miami's most popular cultural attractions. But it's also a neighborhood under threat, at least according to the United States' most prestigious preservation society.

Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the sprawling neighborhood, which extends some 35 x 45 blocks, on its 2105 list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. “A symbol of the immigrant experience and the American melting pot, Little Havana’s scale and character is threatened by zoning changes and lack of protection for its many historic buildings,” the National Trust wrote.  

For now, Little Havana remains a working class ethnic neighborhood. The Cubans who migrated there in force after the Castro revolution of 1959 have been joined by a melting pot of immigrants from Central and South America. The neighborhood is anchored by its famed main drag, Calle Ocho, where Latin markets, cafes and cigar shops have been joined by numerous art galleries and a growing night club scene. But throughout Little Havana, daily life is characterized by an active street scene. Beauty shops and barber shops are social gathering spots day and night, locals purchase groceries on foot at small markets and stop off during their errands for a Cuban sandwich or the sugarcane juice, guarapo.

A typical market in Little Havana.
A typical market in Little Havana. Photo Credit: Steven Brooke Studios

However, Little Havana's central location, just across the Miami River from the city's gentrifying downtown, and just east of posh Coral Gables, makes it alluring to developers. In downtown, gleaming condo towers stand on blocks that 15 years ago were little better than an urban wasteland. Another 8,700 condo units are in the pipeline.

Now, an up-zoning being contemplated by the Miami City Commission could help extend the development boom to Little Havana, where the vast majority of buildings are between one and three stories in height. The zoning change would allow for 65 units per acre and buildings of up to five stories tall.

This spring, Miami created a small, protected historic district in the Riverside area of east Little Havana. But the vast majority of Little Havana, including the central stretch of Calle Ocho, where Domino Park sits, isn't in that district.

For sure, an upscaled Little Havana has the potential to be an even bigger tourist draw. Right now the gritty neighborhood attracts day and evening visitors, but there is little in the way of lodging. In contrast, downtown Miami's urban revival has drawn several high end hotels, including JW Marriott Marquis, Epic and coming soon, The Langford in an historic 1920s City National Bank building.

But defenders of Little Havana say that much will be lost if the neighborhood isn't true to its roots.

“Do I think that hotel and development could bring more people to the area and more business? Probably, but I don't consider that a win,” said Zack Bush, co-owner of Ball & Chain lounge, which opened in September across the street from Domino Park. Bush restored the Ball & Chain in its original location nearly 60 years after it closed amid a fight between famed big band leader Count Basie and the owner, who Basie had sued for lack of payment. Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and vocalist Billie Holiday were among the other performers to play at the club, Bush said.
“A win to me is preserving history,” Bush explained.

One of the many unique apartment buildings scattered around Little Havana.
One of the many unique apartment buildings scattered around Little Havana. Photo Credit: Steven Brooke Studios

Laura Levernia, executive director of the nonprofit Dade Heritage Trust, said that too much gentrification in Little Havana could actually reduce tourism in the neighborhood.

“These tourists wouldn't come here just for a trinket shop. They come here because it's real,” Lavernia said. “They come here to experience an ethnic enclave. It's always retained its authenticity and that's what draws tourists.”
Maintaining that authenticity, even as Little Havana evolves, will only enhance the neighborhood's allure to travelers.

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