Big Night in Little Haiti. Photo by Neil de la Flor.
On opening night at Laundromat Art Space, a new artist-run collective on the corner of Northeast Second Avenue and 59th Street in Little Haiti, artist Andres Martinez unfurled a giant sign over the front of the building. “Sorry we're open,” it read.
The words are an obvious nod to gentrification and its potential impact on a community, as both the sign and the opening of Laundromat herald a new phase of arts-fueled gentrification in Little Haiti–one that may have unintended consequences for the close-knit neighborhood.
The 'Sorry we're open' sign at Laundromat Art Space. Photo by Neil de la Flor.
David McCauley is the executive director of Rise Up Gallery, the nonprofit group behind Laundromat. (Rise Up was a finalist for a 2015 Knight Arts Challenge grant.) He sees the collective as a center that will enrich and strengthen the community, not overrun it.
“I believe Laundromat will be a catalyst to jump-start an arts scene in Little Haiti the way the ArtCenter/South Florida did for Lincoln Road and Wynwood Walls did for Wynwood,” he said. “In addition, the community programming we will offer will enrich the local culture through the art programs that we teach.”
The So Clean, So Fresh opening event at Laundromat Art Space. Photo by Lilly Art.
Enriching culture through art, while simultaneously allowing that culture to maintain its unique characteristics (including its art), can sometimes be a challenge. The story of nearby neighborhood Wynwood is a case in point. Initially born as a neighborhood for working-class families in 1917, Wynwood became a haven for local artists in the early 2000s. As a result of the Art Basel effect, Wynwood is now a must-see destination for urban-minded visitors hunting for the latest murals by famous graffiti artists. On any given day, one can see double-decker buses crammed with tourists cruising down its side streets, as the dwindling number of working-class residents that remain in the neighborhood relax on sidewalks or work on their cars in front of their single-family homes, duplexes and apartment complexes. Wynwood is no longer a sleepy area with cheap rent for working-class families and artists. It's the epicenter of the new Miami—a Miami built on a symbiotic relationship between art and commerce, where luxury boutiques, restaurants, galleries and multimillion dollar mid-rises are pushing out locals and artists. Many of these locals and artists have migrated to Little Haiti and other more affordable locations throughout Miami Dade County.
Sweat Records, an independent music store that has won two Knight Arts Challenge grants, has long been based in Little Haiti. Founder Lauren Reskin said she hopes the neighborhood retains its unique character and does not become the next Wywnood.
“I have heard much talk of new projects in the area that are aiming to promote the arts while maintaining, honoring and incorporating the local culture, which is positive,” she said. “I hope that all the planners, developers and investors in the area make good on all of this. We’ve been in Little Haiti now for nine years, and it would be nice to have it stay a relaxed neighborhood, as opposed to being on a fast-track to full gentrification.”
Arts and crafts workshop for children at Big Night in Little Haiti. Photo by Neil de la Flor.
Also active in the neighborhood is the Rhythm Foundation, which produces Big Night in Little Haiti. Unlike the international music festivals and art fairs that flood Wynwood, this monthly festival features Caribbean-centric music, performances and art exhibitions created by and for the local community.
Big Night in Little Haiti was launched and subsequently expanded through two Knight Arts Challenge grants totaling $245,000. As its second grant period comes to a close, the Rhythm Foundation is crowdfunding to keep the series going, aiming to raise $60,000 by September to fund its 2016 season. To contribute, visit their fundraising page on YouCaring. While the implications of a “Sorry we're open” sign are cause for legitimate debate, no one wants to see Big Night in Little Haiti put up a “Sorry we're closed” sign.