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Little Haiti is about to get a whole lot whiter.
That’s if you believe dozens of Little Haiti business owners and community activists who are claiming that a real estate developer is forcing Haitians out of two commercial strips in a fast gentrifying area of Miami, while giving white owners better treatment.
The business strips are on the East and West side of NE 2nd Ave near the 82nd St intersection.
The buildings were recently purchased by Thomas Conway, a young real estate entrepreneur who has been active in the northern section of Little Haiti.
The buildings are full of dozens of business, ranging from a travel agency, to a bakery and a Metro PCS.
Most of the businesses are run by Haitians.
Over the past two months, local shop owners say that Conway has been trying to force them out.
Multiple owners claim that Conway has refused to accept their rent checks so he can get rid of them and court records obtained by the Miami Herald show that the new landlord has already started eviction proceedings on 13 of the 15 businesses at 8200 NE Second Ave. and 201 NE 82nd St.
Most of the businesses are on month to month leases and Florida law allows for landlords to end leases with only 15 days notice.
The situation has become so untenable that many of the business owners called a press conference on Thursday with the Haitian rights group Family Action Network Movement (FANM).
To add to to their misery, an ongoing construction project has ripped up parts of NE 2nd Ave for nearly a year and dramatically hurt business in the area.
The iconic Miami restaurant, Football Sandwich Shop has been closed for multiple months due to the same construction.
Marleine Bastien, the leader of FANM said that many business owners were angry that local authorities have not offered financial assistance to their struggling businesses.
“Some of them wonder, is this a way to get them out?,” Bastien asked during the press conference. “Because usually when businesses are impacted, they get some type of relief. But not these Haitian businesses.”
Bastien also said that Haitian businesses are facing discrimination because they were the only ones asked to leave by Conway.
Ramon Alvarez owns a barbershop on the strip of the westside of NE 2nd Ave.
Alvarez said that Conway lied to his face about what his intentions were about the future of the building and that the decision to force out his barbershop was racially motivated because of the Haitian staff he has.
“They see this as a black business,” Alvarez told RISE NEWS. “Everybody out. I don’t know, it’s scary.”
Alvarez said that Conway seemed very reasonable when the new landlord first approached him a few months ago after buying the property.
Alvarez said that Conway told him the plan was to fix up the building and put on a new roof.
Alvarez also said that Conway told him that the rent would gradually go up from the current $1,400 a month to $3,500 a month.
Alvarez said that he was ok with this new arrangement.
“I can manage it and If I can’t afford it one day I’m going to say, ‘Mr. Thomas, I got to go.'”
But Alvarez said that Conway changed his tune and even refused to accept a rent check.
Now, Alvarez said that he’s been told he is going to be evicted.
He’s not the only one.
“I’ve been eight years here,” Pierre Richard Maximillien, the owner of a travel agency said. “The guy next door to me who sells tuxedos and marriage dresses has been there 32 years. It’s a lifetime.”
A few doors down from Alvarez’s barber shop, Lucia Garcia runs The Furtnitue Store.
Garcia attended the press conference in support of the Haitian owners and said that she felt like Conway was treating her business differently than the others.
Garcia is Hispanic.
“We have not received any threats,” Garcia told RISE NEWS. “We have not received any eviction notices. We have been given until June to leave, supposedly due to construction. But we have received very different treatment.”
Lina Hargrett, the owner of the Empty Apartment said that she just recently signed a year lease to stay in the same building where Alvarez and Garcia have their businesses.
Hargrett said that she had not been asked to leave the building and seemed unaware of the controversy that was swirling.
Hargrett has a light complexion.
Hargrett’s store and the Metro PCS are the only two businesses that seem unaffected by the moves.
Both have two year leases.
Conway refused to speak to a reporter from RISE NEWS when reached via phone on Thursday, and hung up.
“Unfortunately, I can’t take this call at the moment,” Conway said before hanging up. “I appreciate it.”
In 2015, Conway opened MADE At The Citadel, a well-known co-working space on NE 2nd Ave and 83rd St.
It was reported in 2017 that he intends to turn the building across the street from MADE At The Citadel into a food hall.
A rendering for that building, which is called The Citadel, is available online.
Gary Louis has worked as a barber for over 15 years at the shop that Alvarez now owns.
He has to pay to keep his chair there and has stayed despite losing 60% of his business due to the road construction.
Louis said that he’s stayed because he was excited about the changes in the neighborhood and thought that he would prosper from them.
“The city hasn’t done anything for the Haitian community at all,” Louis said. “So now, something is brought to life where we’ve seen the city has finally taken care of the community. But now as I’m seeing it, it’s not being cleaned up for primarily the Haitian community. It’s just mainly for a new form of business that does not include the Haitian community at all.”
In the aftermath of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland on Feb. 14, many wondered whether this time would be different.
It seems like it is.
Nearly two months on from that tragedy, the Never Again movement shows no signs of stopping, especially in South Florida.
A event planned for Saturday hopes to take the energy and anger seen throughout the country and turn it into real political power.
An all day “Young Leaders Summit” will be held at Miami-Dade College’s Kendall campus and at Atlantic Technical College in Coconut Creek.
The identical events are meant to be a crash course for young people who want to get engaged in political activism and will feature representatives from prominent local political organizing groups and others like Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Young people everywhere want to do something about the pervasiveness of gun violence and our culture of gun use but do not know where to begin,” event organizer Lina Fernandez said in an interview with RISE NEWS. “The Summit acts as an education in movement building, an opportunity to learn about the difficult, important work that happens behind the scenes and empower students to create spaces and events of their own.”
The organizers think that at least 500 young people will attend.
Only high school and college students can go.
Representatives from various political groups and candidates for political office will also be there so young people can sign up to volunteer for campaigns.
Helping support the summit are groups like: Defeat the NRA, The Resistance School, Harvard Kennedy School, Students Demand Action, Women’s March Miami, League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade, Dream Defenders, Indivisible, the Giffords Center, Moms Demand Action, and the Center for American Progress.
While the motivating factor behind the conference is gun control, the skills that students will learn there can be applied to other struggles.
“We want more than anything else for the students to spend the day Saturday learning about how to get engaged, how to use their voice, how to organize, and take those skills and apply them to whatever movement they are passionate about, not just today’s gun reform battle,” Will Breslin, an organizer for the event said.
According to the organizers, the summit will feature various breakout sessions led by famed political organizer “Marshall Ganz from the Harvard Kennedy School, Indivisible southern regional organizer Whitney Roberts, Maggie Thompson from Generation Progress Action, Katherine Philips and Chase Hardin from Giffords, MJ Wright from Moms Demand Action, Ricky Junquera from Sierra Club, Philip Agnew from Dream Defenders, and more.”
While the event only lasts one day, the hope from the young people putting it together that it will create something long lasting.
“I hope the conference helps create a culture of activism and civic engagement in Miami and in Miami-Dade Schools,” Fernandez said. “I want the students who planned walkouts all across Miami-Dade county last month, and the thousands that attended these events, to continue in their work. I hope the Summit provides a clear next step for student leaders who participated in the national walkout and March For Our Lives but don’t know where to go from there.”
Cover Photo Credit: Nikita Leus, Coral Gables Senior High.