Rediscovering Little Haiti
BY TOM AUSTIN
Ground zero of social Little Haiti is Chef Creole on Northwest 54th Street, the equivalent of Versailles on Southwest Eighth Street, where locals line up at the counter for conch salad and griot (fried pork); one wall is entirely covered with commemorative photos of famous griot fans who have dropped by over the years, a list that includes Wyclef Jean and Fat Joe. The street that defines the southern boundary of Little Haiti includes a string of shops catering to Vodou practitioners, chock-a-block with mystery: Offerings include herbs with rich and exotic odors, ritual bottles covered in sequins, and “money soap,” whose heavy scent is said to attract success. It’s all way real, with a primordial funk that’s straight out of the Mickey Rourke noir of Angel Heart.
Fantastic murals with the punch of street art, terrific stuff that announces the ordinary realm of life has been left behind, adorn the exterior walls of every establishment. Most of the work is bySerge Toussaint, who has transformed the “S” in his first name to a dollar sign. His portrait of Barack Obamadominates the corner of 54th Street and North Miami Avenue, and a nearby convenience store has a rendering of “Pepsi Serge” and exhortations such as CHRIST IS THE FOOD OF HOPE; an adjacent beauty-supply store is all dancing hair dryers and combs. Heading north,Bob Marley and Malcolm X turn up next to a Zopi supermarket effort with “Newpott” cigarettes. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. at Northwest 62nd Street and I-95 is accented by King’s dictum, HATE CANNOT DRIVE OUT HATE; ONLY LOVE CAN.
One of the true centers of the Haitian intelligentsia is the bookstore Libreri Mapou: The Haitian diaspora has produced its own literary stars in Miami, such as Edwidge Danticat, author ofBrother, I’m Dying and winner of the MacArthur Genius grant. Aside from Haitian books and magazines, owner Jan Mapou, a playwright, also sells kremasMapou, a blend of rum, coconut milk and assorted “secret Haitian ingredients.”
Next door is architect Charles Pawley’s Caribbean Marketplace, a modern replica of the famed Iron Market in Port-au-Prince: The market is currently shuttered, another bold Miami urban-revitalization project gone by the wayside. A block away is the gleaming new Little Haiti Cultural Center, equipped with an art gallery, theater space and dance studios. You can often find dance coordinator Anita Darbonne bouncing around the facility. In the galleries, artist Edouard Duval Carrié is entertaining a contingent of French culturati. Duval Carrié curated the exhibition “Global Caribbean” at the LHCC, which premiered during last year’s Art Basel with the assistance of Caraïbes en Créations and CulturesFrance, the French government agency for culture-exchange programs. The immensely talented Duval Carrié, who is curating “Global Caribbean II” at the Cultural Center for Art Basel 2010 with the support of Tigertail Productions, has his studios next door, featuring some of the same Vaudou Parthenum figurines that are in the permanent collection of the Miami Art Museum. He is also an integral part of the adjacent Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization involved in the promotion of Haitian culture. For years, Duval Carrié has remained smack-dab in the middle of one extraordinary Miami neighborhood, and takes a certain pride in the new age: “Look at Little Haiti now—it has become the center of Miami, the place where it’s all happening.”
photographs by marc richards tousignant