MIAMI - I had lunch the other day at Leela's restaurant in Little Haiti and, boy, was it tasty. Crunchy-on the-outside, moist-on- the-inside fried grouper, fresh veggies and white rice. Simple and good. I'll be back for more.
That's precisely what the City of Miami's Community Development Department hoped for when it invested $430,000 in Community Development Block Grant money from Washington to upgrade the facades of Leela's and 14 other nearby businesses in Little Haiti. The goal was to improve the look of the neighborhood in order to attract more customers, including folks---frankly, white folks---who normally would never think of going to Little Haiti for anything, much less eating and shopping. These improvements may make some at least consider it. I'm among them.
"We hope that by improving these businesses with their appearances," said Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who represents the neighborhood, "it will begin to get more people to come into this particular corridor to shop, dine and explore."
That's a lofty goal that would have been inconceivable even a year or two ago. And it still remains to be seen if perceptions about Little Haiti will change just because its "downtown"---the stretch of NE 2nd Avenue between 54th and 62nd Streets---has been nicely spruced up.
But I'll be the first to say that downtown Little Haiti now has a fighting chance to attract new visitors what with Caribbean colors brightening a few blocks of contiguous shops that shine with new paint, awnings, windows and doors. It doesn't take an urban planner to see that because the refurbished businesses are mostly adjacent to each other there's a nice synergy. It's also reassuring that an impressive non-profit called NE2P (Northeast 2nd Avenue Partnership), which includes a cross-section of Little Haiti leaders, is behind the push for these and other improvements.
"I believe the facade project is just a taste of what is to come in Little Haiti," says NE2P staffer Joann Milord.
The early evidence indicates she may be right.
But what does the evidence say about similar facade refurbishments in Liberty City? I'm less optimistic. In fact, I'm downright skeptical, as I said in my last column.
Not since I wrote about the death of our dog Zoe have I received such an outpouring of reaction from readers.
More than 90 per cent were supportive, including several residents of Liberty City who see the NW 7th Avenue Rehabilitation Project as the latest in a string of political boondoggles. Certainly there were a few Liberty City residents who took umbrage at my "lipstick on a pig" analogy and the leader of the nonprofit that will oversee the NW 7th Ave. work, Leroy Jones of Neighbors and Neighbors Assn., which will be paid $62,482, blasted me for prejudging a project that hasn't even begun.
But Jones' ire was nothing compared to Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones who, after spying me in the audience at a recent Miami City Commission meeting, remarked on the "many calls" she was getting from constituents who thought my column and comments were "racist." She made it clear she agreed.
I asked her at the Little Haiti ribbon-cutting why they'd been able to rehab 15 storefronts there, but would do only four in Liberty City for the same amount of money. Her answer was that there might be more than four. Shouldn't she know? It's her district and she's taking credit for the project.
Last week, I took a second, closer look at the four business along NW 7th Avenue in Liberty City where $428,000 in CDBG money will be spent to refurbish facades. I came away even less convinced this project will achieve very much. None is adjacent to another. They all sit on a busy, gritty, crime-ridden street where as many stores seem to be closed as open. It's an area where a lot of people, black and white, would not be comfortable or safe at night.
Let's see what the finished product looks like, but this money----which has strict spending guidelines ---- could be better used for other programs in Liberty City, whose needs are legion. Putting $428,000 in taxpayers' dollars fixing up the facades of four or even half-a-dozen businesses on NW 7th Avenue will do nothing of lasting value for the benighted people of Liberty City.
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