It's a steamy night in Miami's Little Haiti and hundreds of party-goers surround the courtyard stage of the Little Haiti Cultural Center to dance compas, a sexy merengue-offspring, and eat conch and steaming griot (spicy pork). Elderly women decked out in straw hats sit like queens in plastic folding chairs, gossiping while teenagers show off their dance moves. It's Big Night in Little Haiti, a monthly event that draws huge crowds to this under-the-radar neighbourhood.
The band eventually leaves the stage but the party continues. Revellers hit the streets for a rara, a celebratory procession that in Haiti, happens only during Carnival. The crowd parades to sounds of homemade metal horns, bells and ad hoc percussion instruments. "They practically jump off the roofs!" says local artist Edouard Duval-Carrié.
Little Haiti is part of North America's immigrant narrative. For decades, Haitian refugees fleeing everything from Papa Doc's Tonton Macoutes to natural disasters flocked to south Florida. In the two square kilometres just north of Miami's chic Design District and wildly popular Wynwood Art District, Creole is the lingua franca, voodoo is practised, art flourishes and locals dance to the latest tunes from Port-au-Prince. It's a chance for adventurous visitors to leave chi-chi Miami behind for a couple of hours and explore a different culture.
One thing it has in common with the rest of the city? Art. The neighbourhood is becoming "a mecca for young artists," says Duval-Carrié, a darling of the Art Basel crowd and a long-time resident. Up-and-comers are getting pushed out of the increasingly expensive Wynwood, so Little Haiti is in contention to become the next "gritty art scene," as one alt-weekly newspaper put it.
This past weekend saw the launch of the bimonthly Little Haiti Sunday Stroll, highlighting cultural spots, eateries and galleries such as Yo Miami Arts Studio (one of the organizing groups), hipster-run 7th Circuit Studios and Multitudes 54, a gallery featuring art of the Black Diaspora. Providing support was the Little Haiti Cultural Center; completed in 2009, the $26-million space features a 400-seat theatre and 2,475 square feet of gallery space. In December, it partnered with Art Basel for a show of contemporary Caribbean artists.
Street art is everywhere, much of it by Little Haiti artist Serge Toussaint, whose vibrant paintings of politicians, basketball players and Haitian celebrities adorn shop facades and walls. The neighbourhood radiates an energizing haphazard quality, with bags of rice stacked in front of a mechanic's garage, and clunky speakers blasting music outside a grocer. The bustling ambience and compas soundtrack in itself is worth a visit.
Little Haiti got its name from the late community activist Viter Juste. His son, Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste, grew up and still lives and works in the neighbourhood.
"Why would anyone leave here?" he asks as we pass pink, yellow, green houses where people lounge on porches and roosters wander freely. Despite all the talk of gentrification, this is still essentially an immigrant and working-class area.
We're off to his favourite haunt, the hole-in-the wall Chef Creole for an order of fried fish, rice, red beans, plantain and pikliz (hot sauce) – an addictive heart-attack-on-a-plate for less than $10. On the wall are photos of regulars and celebrities such as musicians Erykah Badu and Wyclef Jean who've also stopped by for a taste of Haiti.
The epicentre of the Haitian soul in North America is Notre Dame d'Haiti, a church with storied stained glass and murals; one features "boat people" escaping to Florida under the watchful eye of Virgin Mary. Juste recommends attending a service to hear the lively Creole hymns.
"Go to the church, a botanica and the bookstore and you'll know a lot about Haitians," seconds Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat.
"Bookstores are like churches," she adds. Her favourite spot for reading material here is Libreri Mapou, full of books, newspapers and magazines in Creole and French. Posters for dance performances and poetry readings cover the walls. It's a hub for writers and artists, and a hot spot for political debate.
And what about that botanica? In the back of Tipa Tipa Botanica you'll find Mammie Toyee in a blue headwrap and flowing skirt surrounded by jars of dried herbs, incense and candles. Her business card claims: "Mammie is from Haiti and very powerful!" Indeed, she has a kind of refined yet spooky charisma that leaves you wondering whether her prescriptions for love and money just might be more effective than what your shrink offers.
Little Haiti isn't the easiest neighbourhood to navigate, so take a map or a tour (try miamiculturaltours.com), and be sure to give yourself enough time to feel its richness. For the best experience, visit on a weekend and plan your trip around Big Night. However you choose, just get there before the tacky postcards and Little Haiti key chains arrive.
"I came to Miami because there was a Little Haiti," artist Edward Duval Carrie responds with incredulity when I ask why he lives here and not a spiffier one more suited to an artist with shows around the world. "This is the only place in the world that has the name 'Haiti' in it other than … well, Haiti. That's pretty special."
WHERE TO STAY
The JW Marriott Marquis is only 8 kilometres away from Little Haiti and the concierge will help plan your excursion into the neighbourhood. Not your usual South Beach boutique hotel, but this place is a one-and-only with a NBA-approved basketball arena in a city obsessed with the Miami Heat. 255 Biscayne Boulevard Way; 888-717-8850; www.JWMarriottMarquisMiami.com
WHERE TO EAT
Chef Créole Here, Haitian comfort food comes in huge portions and don't miss the sought after goat's head stew on Sundays. Chef Ken Sejour presides over a multigenerational crowd for eat-in or take out. 7957 NE2nd Ave.; chefcreole.com
Leela's Restaurant Come here for an updated version of Chef Creole's old school take-out. The Kréyol Stew gets boffo reviews from Miami's adventurous foodie set. 5650 NE 2nd Ave.; leelarestaurant.wordpress.com
WHAT TO SEE
Statue of General Toussaint L'Ouverture: The father of Haitian independence stands at NE 2nd Avenue and 62nd Street.
Little Haiti Cultural Center: For dance performances and contemporary art exhibits by Caribbean painters and photographers. 212 NE 59th Terrace; miamigov.com/LHCulturalcenter
The Haitian Heritage Museum: This Design District venue is the only Haitian museum in the world outside of Haiti and a good place to start your tour. Curator, Eveline Pierre, shows off a small but significant collection of both historic artifacts and contemporary art. 4141 NE 2nd Ave.; haitianheritagemuseum.org
Notre Dame d'Haiti: The church is undergoing a renovation, but it's still possible to attend service and view Haitian history on its walls. 110 NE 62nd St.; notredamedhaiti.org
WHERE TO PARTY
Big Night in Little Haiti rocks the neighbourhood every third Friday. The April 19 show includes Montreal-based Haitian poet Jean Claude "Koralen" Martineau, award-winning novelist Edwige Danticat and singer Emeline Michel. BigNightLittleHaiti.com
MOCA Café: Just north of Little Haiti, upscale Haitian dishes and late night performances of compas and rara music. 738 NE 125th St.; facebook.com/MocaCafeLounge
WHERE TO SHOP
The best place for high end traditional Haitian craft is the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance. It's 21st century design sensibility includes jewellery collaborations with Donna Karan. You'll find museum-quality arts at museum-quality prices. 225 NE 59th St; haitianartsalliance.org
At Sonny's Sound and Record Shop you'll find CD's from hot Haitian groups like New Look and DJACOUT and from Nemour Jean-Baptiste, the reputed originator of compas. 5903 NE 2nd Ave.; 305-759-9518
Looking for something unusual? Tipa Tipa Botanica has plaster saints, candles to solve legal troubles, perfumes to win back lost love and the eerie advice of proprietor Mammie Toyee. 5857 NE 2nd Ave.; 786-326-0365
At Libreri Mapou, find the best collection of Creole books outside of Haiti and the best chance of meeting artists and intellectuals of the Haitian diaspora. 5919 NE 2nd Ave.; librerimapou.com
Miami Cultural Tours. Customized itineraries for individuals or groups (from $30 a person). 305-416-6868; miamiculturaltours.com