For years, the Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti, also known as Mache Ayisyen, sat empty and in disrepair.
After its renovation and a grand opening in 2014, the space--once a vibrant market reminiscent of the scenes in Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean--struggled even as the cultural center behind it with community classes and performances thrived.
Part of the problem was attracting both vendors and people to shop. That is starting to change.
The marketplace is now open every day except Sunday. A little cafe is tucked in the corner where the owner, Ti George makes strong black coffee imported from Haiti and sells flaky Haitian patties. A mini-golf station is set up right next to the cafe, each hole is named after a historical landmark in Haiti.
The space is at its busiest on Saturdays, where a weekly market attracts vendors selling conch salads, vegan Caribbean food or traditional fritay (fried pork and fried plantain). Fashion designers, visual artists and other makers set up shop here too.
A few steps away from the vendors, it’s not uncommon to find a Haitian-inspired yoga class taking place or a Haitian konpa dance lesson.
As businesses have struggled to stay open in brick and mortars in the area because of rising rent costs, some say the Little Haiti marketplace could be a creative option to bridge the divide for smaller Haitian and other black-owned business that can’t afford the expensive overhead costs of doing business in the neighborhood.
Below are some of the people who are trying to make the Little Haiti Marketplace a hub for commerce and culture:
Abraham Metellus, Little Haiti Cultural Complex Manager
About two years ago, there were some questions regarding what's happening with the marketplace and so with my background in project management, I wanted to tackle this task.
We decided that we wanted to figure out how could we galvanize the Caribbean Marketplace and keep it Caribbean. And literally just create a runway for local businesses to be able to thrive in Little Haiti.
We charged $25 [for the day] which was really attractive. They came in and we were able to pretty much get a marketplace started.
Six months into it, we realized that we got vendors in here and it's good, but it's not enough, like we need some kind of like crowd pleasers--music, yoga.
When people want to know about Little Haiti, they come here first so we realized that we need this tourism base, we need this tourism structure if you will, so that when people come in here we can give them a unique experience.
Right now, just full disclosure, on TripAdvisor we're rated at a 2. And if you look at the reviews it's like, “Nothing to see. There's nothing to see."
We started the free bus tours two months ago and it's been helpful because a lot of these major tour bus companies weren't interested in coming to Little Haiti. I called. I sent e-mails. “Hey, can you guys do tours in Little Haiti?” No response.
Haitians, we’re known for being resilient so I said, "Alright, let's do our own bus tours."
I will do whatever it takes to make this place work because I believe in it
Belen Rouzard, Madame Clement Bon Gout
Sells: Bouyon (Haitian stew), fritay (fried food ) with pikliz,
I sell fried pork, plantain and the rice. On some days I sell conch, bouyon, and stewed chicken. I think I sell the most here because I sell Haitian food and everyone loves Haitian food. Everyone loves my food. They even buy the pikliz by itself and eat it just like that.
The food business is something I know from when I lived in Haiti. I was 13 or 14 years old when my mom had a baby and I had to look over her streetfood vending business in Haiti. When I got out of school, I would cook the food--we would kill a few goats and pigs.
I left Haiti when I was 24 years old. I worked at dry cleaners for many years until I retired, but if someone needed a small bit of food for catering, I would do that on the side. I’ve lived in Little Haiti since I was 28 years old--40 years.
I remember when this marketplace was a real market. You could buy anything here, food, cloth by the roll, they sold sugar cane. Anything Haitian you could find it here. It was beautiful.
I’m happy to be here now to be with the community and feed the community.
Mimi Sanon-Jules, of Little Haiti Thrift and Gift Shop
Sells: African-print skirts, assorted wood jewelry, Haitian art, and cold coconuts to drink.
I used to have a store in Little Haiti for seven years. There’s a big change [happening]. The owner said I have to pay $1,800 more or I have to leave the place. This is what I do, I give her place back.
I cannot put everything I had in the store here. When you don’t own, they can come and take it anytime they want to and this is what happened in Little Haiti.
It makes me feel good to still be in Little Haiti. I see my people, people I can speak kreyol too, people who’ve known me for 10 years.
We want more for the marketplace, more marketing so we can survive here. I’m here every day, Monday through Saturday. They give us a good deal.
In our country, in Haiti, business is a way of life. We have a beautiful powerful culture. If we can present that here, arts, crafts this is what will attract people.
Emanuel Tafari, Via Vegan
Sells: plant-based food with a Haitian twist
We sell vegan plant-based foods, drinks, cakes and snacks. The purpose of us being in the Caribbean Marketplace is to connect with the community and to provide a place where one can pick up their lunch during the week. You know, as opposed to meeting only at the farmer’s markets.
Because of the rising cost of the rent, the only way I would be able to be here is if I was fortunate enough to own property in the neighborhood, which I don't.
The leases have gone up triple and quadruple.
Me personally as a Pan-African member of the Rastafari community, a part of my day-to-day life mission is to promote economic empowerment within the community.
There's an interesting dynamic that I've observed in Little Haiti, where you have older women who sell dresses, pots and other things on the side of the road. The patron parks on the side of the road and they make their small purchases. This cannot exist in a mall.
The Caribbean Marketplace is a nice place for them all to come and do business under one umbrella. I think that would work.
If You Go
212 NE 59th Terrace