The Little Haiti Mural Project

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A report by Felipe Rivas for the Miami Times.

Some say that Little Haiti is turning into an extended version of Wynwood. With its vibrant native culture, art and murals, and ethnic restaurants, this part of Lemon City is emulating many of the positive traits that abound in Wynwood. But all the positive attention in the neighborhood is enticing some unwanted attention from outside forces.

Much like what happened in Wynwood, big-brand developers salivate at the idea of using the desired, sturdy and vacant land of Little Haiti to establish a foundation and foster their vision of growth and development for the future.

Promises of change can impact the community in a negative way, and these residents, business owners and artists know it. Little Haiti has places that exhibit great art from many recognizable names that bring in tourist dollars. But that is countered by developers, whose goal is to renovate the area without accounting for the resident’s needs and culture.

Artists and proponents of art are using their voices and skills to consolidate community interests with developer’s plans of growth. Little Haiti is a lively place imbued with culture and artistic prominence. The community boasts many art studios and galleries, as well as dance classes, public markets and nighttime events. The warehouses, businesses and restaurants serve as canvasses that different artists use to beautify the neighborhoods with different aspects of Haitian and Caribbean culture and folklore. These murals were created by artists who want to improve the community by making art that reflects the roots of the residents therein.

Nate “Nate Dee” Delinois, a Miami native of Haitian background, has painted many murals throughout Wynwood, other parts of Miami and other states. He says his experience painting in Little Haiti was special in more ways than one.

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Nate "Nate Dee" Delinois mural
Nate “Nate Dee” Delinois mural “Wisdom: Seeing and Believing.” The women and the owls represent the different ways wisdom is interpreted by people.

“What I love about Little Haiti is that the people there they really love the street and public art,” he said. “I think the people appreciate it a little more; they will come to you, and they’ll take pictures … and that’s how you know you are affecting the area you are working in positively.”

Delinois was part of an initiative called the Little Haiti Mural Project.

The project was started by Yuval Ofir, a fellow Miamian, business owner and art buff, who has turned his passion for art and networking into a fully operational business. In 2011, Ofir founded YO Space, an event-planning studio and creative hub located in Little Haiti, where artists come together to elevate their craft, both creatively and professionally.

Ofir did not want this mural project to turn out like another Wynwood-inspired mural initiative, he explained.

“If we do this, we need to have a plan, and it needs to fit the neighborhood,” he said.

Ofir, who has curated different mural projects and traditional art displays, as well as produced different types of creative and engaging events from comedy shows to live music, used his network to amass different artists, many of Haitian and Caribbean backgrounds.

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Last week, Ofir, as well as Little Haiti residents and business owners, attended a contentious planning and zoning board meeting at Miami City Hall, where they voiced their concerns about the approval of the Magic City Innovation District (MCID) project. The ambitious project seeks to renovate more than 73 acres and turn the area into a business, residential, entertainment and technology hub. The problem, as many residents stated, is that the community feels underrepresented in the vision set forth by the MCID developers. The community fears the loss of indigenous business establishments, displacements due to unaffordable rents, as well as a total disregard for the rich Haitian and Caribbean history of the neighborhood.

There are several Special Area Plans (SAP) that are happening in a very condensed area of Little Haiti, many of which have their own vision of progress and growth. The residents are not against development of Little Haiti, but they say the city and developers need to hash out an all-inclusive and more cohesive masterplan for the different SAPs that want to come into the area.

“You can’t stop progress,” said Ofir, as he took to the podium. “But the thing that we can affect is the form in which the progress comes in. I think it would make more sense for the city to come up with a master plan for the area.”

The Magic City Innovation District was recommended for approval to the city commission. The commission is expected to take the latter up after it comes back from a break in September.

The artists who Ofir recruited for the Little Haiti Mural Project understand that gentrification is a complex process, but hope that the investors’ vision for growth is conscientious and beneficial for the community overall. Development is needed for a neighborhood to improve, but it needs to be fashioned in a responsible manner, explained Delionis.

“I hope developers appreciate the culture that is there and do a responsible job in terms of the ways in which they want to implement their vision in the area,” he said.

The Color Dreamers is another set of artists who participated in the Little Haiti Mural Project. The duo consists of Ivette Cabrera, longtime Miami resident of Nicaraguan descent, and Amir Shakir, Black and born in Louisiana, who’s been living in Miami for the last eight years. Together, they embrace the culture of Little Haiti and reflect it in their art, instead of making art for art’s sake.

The process of making a mural in Little Haiti is delicate and has to be designed carefully, explained Cabrera. “If we put anything out there that doesn’t relate to their identity, then we are going to change the identity of the whole community,” she said.

Designing a mural relatable to the community was done in part to foster pride in the area’s culture, much like Delionis did, but also to inspire the residents to take part in the process of developing the community.

“We don’t see development as a negative thing,” Shakir said, “but, the people should know that they can be part of the development and make it about themselves and about the larger picture at the same time.”

Since 2014, more than 30 murals have been created as part of the Little Haiti Mural Project. Some have been painted over, but many of them remain visible.

Wil Rivera is another artist who has taken part in the recent beautification process of Little Haiti. He works as a prop and stage designer for Santa’s Enchanted Forest, as well as pursuing personal art projects on his own time. Rivera, together with a slew of other established artists, decided to paint the warehouse where he prepares the park’s displays for the upcoming Christmas season. “It’s something that I have always wanted to do,” he said. Now that his children are older, he can begin to work in different kinds of artistic projects, he explained.

Ofir, Delionis, The Color Dreamers and Rivera understand the importance of using art as a vehicle to cement a sense of identity and pride in a neighborhood and its people. The hope that any future development can benefit the community directly, instead of the outside investors.

Rivera grew up around the Little Haiti area and remembers the times when the neighborhood was considered shabby and unappealing to outsiders.

“Little Haiti has changed so much, and I think the murals are a big part of its current identity,” Rivera said.

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