Why this historic Dominican neighborhood in Miami may disappear
Miami's Little Santo Domingo district only runs eight blocks — but its cultural and historical footprint is anything but small.
The area was brought to life by Dominicans and other immigrants who took a chance on a downtrodden commercial corridor. Today, walk along the vibrant stretch of NW 17th Avenue in Allapattah and you’ll spot murals with Latin American flags, restaurants serving Central American and Caribbean cuisine, street vendors selling fruits and vegetables.
But what's one of the oldest neighborhoods in Miami is now also considered one of the most endangered historic places in the country. The Little Santo Domingo district made an annual list released this month by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The historic neighborhood’s proximity to other attractive areas of Miami threatens Little Santo Domingo with overdevelopment, displacement, and cultural erasure,” said the organization in its description for the listing.
Julio Diaz owns the clothing store The Sixth Borough on 17th Avenue, and has been on the Little Santo Domingo strip since 2005. He has already seen the area change throughout the years — and he is worried.
"If you're an outsider, you will think it's something good because, why not make the area prettier as far as, you know, beautiful buildings?" said Diaz. "But for somebody that makes a living here or that lives here, it's very scary."
The Trust said that not only could longtime businesses be impacted, but that the community could lose its predominantly Dominican cultural identity — which dates back to the 1980s.
The official settlement of the Allapattah neighborhood was in the mid-1800s, and was home to many different groups over the decades, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The name means "alligator" in the Indian Seminole language.
Miami's Black residents who were displaced by the construction of I-95 in Overtown moved in during the 1950s. An influx of Cuban immigrants also settled in during the 1960s after the Cuban Revolution. Immigrants from countries in Central America and the Caribbean followed.
"We bring a lot of flavor. There's a lot of characters ... a lot of beautiful people, a lot of sounds and colors and music and food. You get a taste of the different countries that live here."Julio Diaz, owner of The Sixth Borough in Little Santo Domingo
After four Miami-Dade County officers were acquitted for the police killing of Black insurance salesman and U.S Marine Arthur McDuffie, civil unrest in the early 1980s heavily impacted the 17th Avenue commercial area. This brought on the beginning of Little Santo Domingo.
“It was Dominican immigrants that had recently come that were willing to take the risk of taking on storefronts without insurance,” said Mileyka Burgos-Flores, founder and CEO of the Allapattah Collaborative CDC, an organization focused on preserving Dominican culture and preventing the displacement of legacy businesses in the area.
What became of the abandoned storefronts was a bustling local economy that served people in and outside of the neighborhood. Little Santo Domingo was officially designated in 2003 by the city of Miami.
"We bring a lot of flavor. There's a lot of characters, a lot of funny characters, a lot of beautiful people, a lot of sounds and colors and music and food," said Diaz, owner of The Sixth Borough. "You get a taste of the different countries that live here. That's what I love about this area."
Locals from all over Miami visit for a variety of reasons: For an appointment with their barber or hair stylist. To buy supplies, food, clothing and groceries. To check on their friends and family.
But just like the neighboring communities of Wynwood and Downtown Miami, the rising price of real-estate and rent, along with development, have Allapattah residents and business owners worried.
“I'm in the process of renewing my lease, and prior, they would give me five years. Now, this time around, they're giving me three,” said Diaz. “It's a lot of instability for us. If you have a business, you have to think long term. Right now, my long term thinking is … I'm scared because I don't know what's going to happen here.”
Responding to concerns
The Allapattah Collaborative is trying to respond to concerns like Diaz’s. For example, the organization is working to buy commercial property in the area so that space for small businesses could remain accessible and affordable.
It recently launched the Thrive in Place fund to help raise money so that it can make that type of purchase. The Miami Foundation also recently invested $500,000 to the organization through its Open for Business program.
“We're not against development. We want to work with the freshness that’s coming into Allapattah. We want to make sure that this is a win for everyone,” said Burgos-Flores. “We want the community to be involved and we want these developments to be equitable.”
As for Little Santo Domingo’s new designation as one of the most endangered places in the country, some community leaders and residents say it is a call to action to protect the area while there is still a chance.
“Preserving our cultural neighborhoods, it's one of the best things that the city of Miami can do, and the county can do to preserve that uniqueness that makes Miami what it is today,” said Burgos-Flores.