On a steamy Friday night, the muraled plaza in front of the Little Haiti Cultural Center is packed with hundreds of revelers dancing and singing along to a Haitian band. The smell of fried fish, pork and goat is wafting in the air. In one corner near the stage, people drink fresco, cups of crushed ice soaked in mint-, coconut- or cherry-flavored syrup.
Those seeking a break from the mingling and partying can duck into the Cultural Center’s gallery and admire the Haitian paintings and sculptures on display. The shows there are often curated by Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, whose studio is just a few feet away. Both his work and shows feel like immersions into the lush Caribbean imagination.
This raucous celebration, known as Big Night in Little Haiti, takes place every third Friday. The evenings often close with a spirited procession courtesy of the group Rara Lakay—with its drummers, maraca shakers and bamboo trumpeters—that transports you across the sea to Port-au-Prince.
Visitors often go straight for the food—Little Haiti is full of mom-and-pop-type restaurants that serve authentic Haitian meals, rice and beans, conch and pumpkin soup. Others come to worship; there are perhaps as many churches in Little Haiti as there are botanicas, small shops where one can buy herbs, incense, candles and other religious items. The most attended of all churches is the newly renovated Notre Dame d’Haiti.
Despite its name, the neighborhood is not culturally hermetic. A few months ago, when my friends Régine Chassagne and Win Butler of Arcade Fire came to play in Miami, they rocked Little Haiti with an intimate indie show for a few thousand people, which highlighted the neighborhood’s growing international appeal for all generations.
I have been living in Little Haiti for over ten years now, yet it still manages to amaze me with its warmth and its ardent determination to survive against all odds. For 35 years the most common reason for outsiders to visit the area, which stretches from 58th to 62nd streets north of the Design District, was Churchill’s, a British pub and rock venue with its own double-decker bus out front. But that’s changing quickly. The effects of gentrification are being strongly felt, even in a place where streets are named after revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture and other Haitian notables. The boundaries of Little Haiti keep shrinking as the adjoining neighborhoods, including the Design District, continue to attract high-end restaurants and shops.
Many in Little Haiti, myself included, hope the cultural richness can be preserved.
Perhaps the best way to experience Little Haiti is to walk into Libreri Mapou bookstore. You will get a warm greeting from its owner, the poet and playwright Jean-Marie Denis, affectionately known to locals as Jan Mapou. Libreri Mapou not only sells books but also dispenses Haitian delicacies like tablèt pistach, a peanut, sugar and milk confection. It’s also a gathering place for lively political discussions as well as poetry recitals and performances by Sosyete Koukouy (Firefly Society), the dance and theater troupe founded by Mapou. Like Mapou’s brainchild, Little Haiti may now only spark like a firefly in the night, but in the words of the late Viter Juste, the man who coined the term Little Haiti, when the community is finally given its due, being there will feel almost as exciting as “sailing on the high seas.”