August 31 , 2007

Little Havana Looks to Life After Castro

Yahoo! News. By Laura Wides-Munoz, Associated Press Writer. August 31, 2007.

MIAMI (AP) -- Travel guides list Little Havana as the heart of the Cuban exile community, the symbolic hub of opposition to Fidel Castro and a must-see neighborhood for its galleries, cigar shops and espresso stands.

But with so much of its identity steeped in anti-Castro activism, one question lingers: Can this Miami enclave survive the eventual death of the very man whose existence helped define it.

A handful of shopkeepers, artists and city officials are betting it can. Over the last eight years, they have slowly staged a renaissance in a neighborhood once awash in "Miami Vice" crime.

"I don't have a crystal ball of what will happen when Fidel and Raul Castro go, but I believe the exchange will only increase," said painter and former Cuban political prisoner Augustin Gainza, one of the first artists to return to the neighborhood in 2000. "After Fidel there will be Havana -- and Havana del Norte," or Northern Havana.

The neighborhood that became Little Havana wasn't always a slice of the Caribbean. It was a thriving Jewish community in the 1930s, until the Jews began moving to the suburbs and the beach. In 1959, Castro and his rebels ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and established a communist government. Cuban exiles poured in.

Pablo Canton was among them. His family settled in the area in 1961 when he was a teen. But like the Jews before them, Canton and other Cubans moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and '80s as their families and income grew.

Poorer immigrants from Cuba and Central America took their place, drawn by the neighborhood's central location, public transportation and cheap rentals.

Canton returned to Little Havana years later, taking a job in the 1980s with the city's code enforcement office that involved demolishing crack houses, one block at time.

"Everybody has a piece of their heart in Little Havana," said Canton, who is now the neighborhood's outreach coordinator, as he sipped cafe con leche at a local bakery.

Even when the region deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, one thing never went away: Domino Park, the corner lot where old Cuban men in guayabera shirts came to play their favorite game, smoke cigars and trade gossip. And it was this corner that continued to attract tourists, even as the rest of the neighborhood decayed.

Cuban native Jackie Sarracino discovered this phenomenon almost by accident.

Her family settled in New York but later moved to Miami to be closer to relatives who came during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to flee the island. One afternoon in 1999, she drove to Little Havana on a whim.

"I found absolutely nothing except for a tour bus in front of Domino Park, and there's all these German tourists with cameras hanging from their neck looking at the flies," she said. "They left. Another bus stopped. I'm going, 'What is the attraction here?' But in my New York capitalist mentality, I thought maybe I can make a dollar."

A week later, she signed a lease for her first store on Calle Ocho, the neighborhood's main drag. At first people thought she was crazy.

"It was probably one of the scariest places I'd ever been to: the prostitution, the drugs, the homeless, the streets were dirty," she recalled from her upscale Cuban memorabilia shop. "Across the street there was a store that sold funeral equipment with a funeral casket in the window."

But Sarracino, who soon lost her father, was determined to celebrate the history of his country. She sold nostalgia prints and later added items for her customers' grandchildren, such as the popular "Made in the U.S.A. with Cuban parts" T-shirts. Unlike some shopowners, she refuses to sell anything referencing Castro, even with anti-Castro slogans.

"Little Havana is not about him," she said.

Early on, Sarracino began hanging artwork of unknown artists in her windows, and to everyone's surprise, the pieces sold. A few galleries then began to open nearby. The community also organized monthly street fairs, and an annual festival drew larger crowds.

Eight years later, more than a dozen art galleries dot the street, and more cigar shops are moving in. Along with Cuban food, new eateries have opened offering Nicaraguan, Peruvian and Spanish cuisine.

"It has changed, but the history behind Little Havana will never go away," Canton said.

Still, Little Havana has a long way to go before it can compete with other up-and-coming Miami neighborhoods such as South Beach or the hip Design District. The current strip of galleries covers only a few blocks, and the area provides little nightlife. Many of the neighboring streets are zoned for low-rent apartments.

But Sarracino believes the neighborhood's future is bright with or without Castro.

On a recent day, a Russian cigar dealer came into her husband's art gallery looking as if he'd just stepped out of Havana circa 1940 in pleated pants, a guayabera and a black-banded fedora.

"Look how he's dressed," smiled Sarracino. "Everyone still wants a part of that Cuban mystery."


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