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As Little Haiti continues to change, its cultural center gets a new leader

C. Isaiah Smalls II, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI — The very first thing Qunyatta Warren did as the new executive director of the Little Haiti Cultural Complex was create a list.

He wanted to know the problems with the facility. He wanted to know the best programming for the community. He wanted to know the type of training his staff needed. Ultimately, he just wanted to know what he got himself into.

“Ultimately, my vision for the center is to be a place for the African diaspora to have events and programming, to be a place where we can just ...,” the 11-year U.S. Army Reservist said, his voice momentarily trailing off, “... be.”

Since late June, Warren has led the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, a bastion within the eponymous neighborhood that includes the Little Haiti Cultural Center and adjoining Caribbean Marketplace. The complex features an art gallery, theater, studios and classrooms where residents can engage in any number of activities ranging from dance classes to taekwondo to shopping. Warren’s aims are clear – “leading the facility, providing the best possible programming and getting this facility to the standard of every cultural and performing arts center in South Florida,” he said — yet the St. Petersburg, Florida, native has his work cut out for him.

Warren “really is fresh and he has a bunch of great ideas and he wants to get the place going,” said Fayola Nicaisse, former chair of the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust and the founder of natural beauty products line Ebene. “He’s doing everything he can to move things forward, but a lot of stuff that happened before he got here will make his job a challenge.”

Warren is taking the helm at a time when the gentrification that is creeping into Little Haiti is making even the center itself seem like prime real estate for redevelopment. Then there’s a perception in the area that the city wants the center closed that has been lingering for decades. It erupted again in the past year when the city gave the Caribbean Marketplace an “unsafe structure” notification. Finally, Warren says the lack of funding that the LHCC receives will make it a challenge to get the center on the right track.

 

‘The heartbeat of Little Haiti’

Built to resemble the famous bazaar in Port-au-Prince known as the “Iron Market,” the Caribbean Marketplace hoped to drive economic opportunity to the neighborhood’s Haitian community when it first opened in 1990. It represented hope in an area that received an influx Haitians fleeing the unrest of their homeland in the 1970s and 1980s. When the city took control of the marketplace in 2005, a year before the adjoining culture center opened, elected officials planned to demolish it until local activists voiced their opposition.

By the time Little Haiti officially established its boundaries in 2016, the neighborhood was already being bought up by developers who had been after the area’s cheap land and high elevation. As many younger Haitians moved away, the ones who stayed fielded incessant solicitation from investors. Prices began to rise, rents began to rise and residents began to voice their concerns as longtime small business owners and neighbors alike were pushed out.

Then the controversial $1 billion Magic City Innovation District plan passed in 2019. The 18-acre mixed-use development along Northeast 62nd Street allows buildings as tall as 25 stories in an immigrant enclave where many homes have only two. The project only further cemented locals’ fears their neighborhood was slipping out of their hands. Between 2000 and 2020, the percentage of Haitians inside the neighborhood dropped nearly a third, according to the latest census data. More land grabs would soon follow, most notably the December 2022 purchase of 20 properties along the Northeast Second Avenue, Little Haiti’s main commercial corridor.

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