MIAMI — In late May, the City of Miami Commission voted unanimously to designate Little Haiti as “Little Haiti.” Though it felt like life imitating a sarcastic joke, Little Haiti had never officially been named Little Haiti — but for anyone who’s lived in the area or visited it, it would feel inaccurate to call it anything else.
Some critics, like preservationist Enid Pinkney, felt the change was insensitive to the area’s other recognized name, Lemon City, a moniker dating back to the mid 19th century, when the area was populated primarily by Bahamians and African Americans. Developers, for their part, seem poised to market Little Haiti as an extension of Little River, which borders and partly overlaps with the neighborhood.
In the end, city commission chairman Keon Hardemon — the commissioner for Miami’s fifth district, which includes Little Haiti — argued that the onset of gentrification and impending threat of a neighborhood-wide whitewashing were serious enough to warrant renaming the neighborhood. The fate of Little Haiti, like all of Miami, remains undetermined. Developers have already bought land, forcing residents to relocate, and most locals can’t afford to own homes in the first place. A recent migration of galleries and artists to the area has been met with equal parts excitement and unease; some feel the current situation is beginning to mirror the transformation of Wynwood, located 30 blocks south, which was transformed from a predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood into a mural-festooned “arts-district.”
Serge Toussaint, a Haitian-born muralist and artist, has lived in Little Haiti for over two decades. Most of the murals in the neighborhood are his, and they’re immediately recognizable — bright and colorful, they include advertisements, signs, and inspirational visions. He’s been painting them since he arrived in the area, and many of his more recent works feature the phrase “Welcome to Little Haiti,” part of a long-term effort to help affirm the neighborhood’s existence and identity.
Toussaint is the very recent recipient of the 2016 Folk Heritage Award. In June, he headed to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in northern Florida to discuss Haitian mural painting; he was surprised to find “Serge fans drinking Surge sodas.” Several weeks prior, I spent an afternoon with him, visiting a new mural along NE 2nd Avenue, Little Haiti’s main thoroughfare. The as-yet-unfinished piece is titled “Anpil Min Chay pa Lou,” a play on the Creole proverb “Min anpil, chay pa lou” (or “many hands make the load lighter”). It features neighborhood fixtures, including local dancer Ajhanou Uneek and Ray Bell, the first woman in Little Haiti to receive a black belt in karate. Though the mural was threatened with removal (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear), as of this writing it remains.
Over the course of our interview, several friends and acquaintances stopped by to greet Toussaint. We talked about his early paintings as a child in Haiti, his eventual arrival in Little Haiti, and his concerns about the neighborhood’s future.
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Monica Uszerowicz: When did you start making art, and when did you move to Miami?
Serge Toussaint: I was born and raised in Haiti. Nobody in my family knows how to paint or draw; nobody can draw a straight line. In Haiti, your family wouldn’t want you to be an artist, for the simple fact that artists always seem to die broke or end up on drugs. After you die, that’s when you get recognized, when your work becomes worth millions of dollars. So your Haitian parents feel it’s best for you to be a doctor or an engineer. But I feel I was born to be an artist.
My mother was working at her sister’s restaurant, which was by the beach, and people were selling artwork to the tourists in front of the restaurant. As a kid, I looked at the work and said to myself, “I think I can make some extra money, too.” Then one day, I painted something on a hat and a tourist gave me $10 for it. This became my hustle. When boats would come in to the shore, I’d take a piece of paper and sketch the boats. I really fell in love with art.
When I was 12, my father sent for us; I moved to New York and that was the first time I met him. I saw the graffiti and murals and realized I wanted to draw huge works. Later, I attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and was working as a professional artist. But in New York, it’s cold. It’s hard to paint murals. You can’t hold a brush.
I was given a week off work, and my father and sister wanted to go to Miami. They said it was just like Haiti: people walking around with no shoes. This is what I really wanted to paint. I’d left Haiti when I was 12, and I wanted to get that culture back. It was winter; the snow was piled up so big. By the time we got to Jacksonville on the bus, I had to take my jacket off. I thought, “Wow, this is a good place for me to jumpstart my career. With this weather, I can work year-round.” In Fort Myers, I saw coconut trees, palm trees.
MU: What happened when you got to Miami?
ST: My uncle had a place on 54th Street in Little Haiti called Button Fabrics. As I walked around the neighborhood, I noticed everybody was speaking Creole, but all the signage was in English. I thought, “If I stayed in Miami, where that says ‘grocery store,’ I could probably paint a soda bottle, a hot dog, sandwiches — something to let people know that’s a grocery store.” When I saw a botanica, I thought, “I could paint a picture of a saint.” I saw a barbershop and thought, “I could paint a dude with a nice fade.” That way, people wouldn’t have to try to read it in English.
I asked my uncle if I could paint a woman on the wall for his fabric store, just to leave my mark. By the time I’d sketched it, people were watching. They gave me their cards, asked me to paint their stores. This is what I’d wanted. I was going to be an artist, help people, paint murals; the weather and the environment were good. When we were ready to leave Miami, we packed everything up, and as we boarded the bus, I told the driver, “Someone is using the bathroom in the back. Can I use the bathroom in the gas station?” He told me, “We’re leaving in seven minutes.” My dad told me not to; I told him it would be quick. I left everything on the bus and thought, “Take everything. I can start from nothing in Miami.” My cousin was waiting for me in his car. I’ve been painting murals ever since.
MU: Did living in Little Haiti feel like returning home?
ST: Yes, and it was real cool. When I first got here, in 1994, I started making Haitian artwork left and right. I helped change the culture. Back in that day, everyone was united. Nowadays, if you look around, you’ll notice they’re bringing Wynwood up to Little Haiti. They’ve started taking over Little Haiti.
MU: Have you noticed artists moving to Little Haiti?
ST: Galleries and artists have both started moving here, and it feels like they’re trying to take it over. I don’t mind them being here — I’m an artist myself. But I wish they’d leave the culture here alone, or bring something in that can appropriate with the environment. If you go to Little Havana, once you get to Calle Ocho, you’ll get the sense that you’re in a Cuban town; you’ll see the roosters, the artwork. Why would you come to Little Haiti and change our environment? It doesn’t feel fair to the Haitian people. There are new murals here that have nothing to do with Little Haiti. Why don’t you paint something that goes with the culture? Why destroy my culture for what you want?
MU: How has life here changed?
ST: Most of the houses here are under foreclosure. They let you stay there for five, six years, not paying rent or mortgage. You think it’s cool. But that’s a game — once they want to sell the property, they just put you out and sell it. Most of the people in Little Haiti right now aren’t paying rent. They’re on foreclosure, staying there until developers are ready to sell it. Once the developers buy property, they can do what they want to do with it. That’s how we’re losing Little Haiti.
Ten years ago, Haitian people owned almost every business in Little Haiti. Almost nothing is Haitian-owned now. It’s all developers: studios, art galleries, warehouses that you can’t even go into. It’s totally different. They even tried to change the name of Little Haiti to Little River. I think they figured that, if people were going to come buy property, and they saw the property was located in Little Haiti, they wouldn’t want to buy it. “Little River” feels like it’s worth more money.
MU: It didn’t end up happening, luckily.
ST: No, we fought for it. Thank god we have a good commissioner — Keon Hardemon. He’s down with Little Haiti.
MU: Has it become more difficult to paint murals?
ST: I always add details in my murals that are related to Little Haiti. I started adding “Welcome to Little Haiti” to some of these murals. That became a problem. Recently, on 62nd Street, I’d painted a mural with people fishing, a hut — a very Haitian scene. If you come from other states and visit Little Haiti, you want to know you’re here, take something back with you. That’s why there are a lot of Haitian monuments in my murals. It’s for people to ask questions, to keep our history present. Two weeks later, the owner of that property on 62nd painted over it. The new scene on there has nothing to do with Little Haiti. We used to never have to ask permission to paint walls here; because many of the buildings are no longer owned by Haitians, the owners are more likely to get rid of the murals.
MU: What about your current mural, “Anpil Min Chay pa Lou”?
ST: I’m actually almost finished with it. Somebody recently said to me, “I don’t think you should finish it. The City of Miami was there, taking measurements of the wall, and they’re going to paint over it.” Apparently it was inappropriate. I stopped painting it, and posted the image of the mural on Facebook. My friends told me I should finish the mural, since there’s another mural across the street — not mine — that’s not being removed.
MU: Is there a better way for people coming into the neighborhood to integrate?
ST: We don’t have too many Haitian artists, which is a problem. I’d opened up a school to teach art, but I had to stop because there was no funding. We actually need more Haitian artists, and more programming to help that happen. Wynwood graffiti is taking over, and it’s not going to look right. I think new businesses need to find out about our culture and learn about it — and at least paint something that’s related to us.
Correction: A previous version of this article claimed that it was the Miami-Dade County Commission that had voted to officially christen the neighborhood “Little Haiti,” but it was in fact the City of Miami Commission. This error has been fixed.
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