There Goes the Neighborhood: Miami, Part 1
KAI WRIGHT: Hey everybody. This episode, we’re launching a three-part series and I’m really excited about it. It’s produced in partnership with WLRN -- which is the public radio station in Miami -- and it’s part of an ongoing effort here at The Stakes to work with other public media to tell super local stories for a national audience. And I’m also excited because in this series, we’re picking up where we left off in the very first podcast I ever made. That was a project called There Goes the Neighborhood, in which we tried to understand gentrification. You could go check it out: We first covered Brooklyn, and then Los Angeles. And now, we’re on to Miami. So hope you enjoy and, if so, I hope you’ll tell somebody about it, too. Thanks.
I’m Kai Wright and these are The Stakes… In this episode, Premium Elevation, LLC.
KAI: Nadege, hello.
NADEGE GREEN: Hi, Kai.
KAI: So you were a dancer?
NADEGE: I was. Once a dancer, always a dancer.
KAI: Nadege Green is, these days, a reporter -- one of some note. She covers race and justice for Miami’s public radio station, WLRN, and she’s one of those reporters who is just...of the place she’s covering. Miami is not just some assignment for her; this is her town. And we’re gonna be hanging out here with her over the next few episodes -- but, from the start, there’s something she wants us to understand about Miami… Something that came up when she started talking about her history as a dancer.
KAI: When did you start dancing?
NADEGE: From as early as I can remember I've always dance like Haitian folklore, dancing in Miami at church and community events. It's like roots dancing it's very much rooted in the culture of Vodou -- so if you think of like undulation and like arms it's rooted low into the ground, it's very earthy. A lot of bent knees…
KAI: In middle school, she decided to study formally.
NADEGE: Mostly because my dad said no. So I was like, Yes! This is what I'm doing.
KAI: This was serious stuff though. Nadege went on to train at the Dance Theatre of Harlem as a teenager. And even in high school, she was studying under some of the best dancers in the world. And that’s not because she went to some elite private school. It’s because of where she grew up.
NADEGE: I heard someone once describe Liberty City as, um, as an “arts desert.” Like, “Oh we need more arts cultural spaces, because you know there are neighborhoods that are art deserts.” And I'm like, what are you talking about?!
[Kai and Nadege laugh]
NADEGE: So Liberty City has always been a hub for the arts and culture. Robert Battle who is the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company -- he is from Liberty City. Terrel Alvin McCreney of Moonlight fame, Barry Jenkins…
CLIP OF MOONLIGHT: There are black people everywhere. You remember that, okay? No place you can go in the world ain't got no black people, we was the first on this planet.
NADEGE: I mean, the arts and black excellence has always been rooted in this community. And it's a community that has had its struggles as well. But you know we can we can exist and do different things at the same time.
KAI: Miami hugs the coast of South Florida, in a narrow strip of urbanity wedged between the Everglades and Biscayne Bay. If you’re swooping down North America’s eastern coast, it’s the last major metropolis you hit before you plunge into the Ocean. Liberty City sits north in Miami proper. It’s right next to another neighborhood, Little Haiti...and together, the pair of them are a big part of the heart of black Miami. It’s in these neighborhoods where Nadege learned to dance, and that’s where she learned this other thing, too...about the relationship between her city, and her community.
NADEGE: When I was in high school, I remember there was an incident where we, we performed, I think it was like a performing arts showcase.
KAI: It was kids from two of the more prestigious schools in Miami-Dade, and her group from Liberty City. And there was a woman there from the school district.
NADEGE: And she stopped and she talked to the New World kids and she was like, “Oh you guys were wonderful. What a great performance. It was awesome.” She stopped and she talked to like, the North Dade students and same thing, “You guys are so wonderful. That was a great performance, we're so proud of you.” And then when she stopped to talk to us, the kids from Liberty City -- also artists, ballerinas, on pointe shoes, and the like -- she said, “You guys were awesome, you were great,” and, “Oh my god, you guys speak so well and look how well behaved you are.” We were just like, Thank you ma'am. And you know moved on about our business, got on our buses. And on that bus ride, I remember one of the teachers telling us, I hope you guys don't think that was a compliment. Notice she did not tell the other students, ‘You guys speak so well and you're so well behaved.’” She named it for us, right. She was like, “Because you guys are from Liberty City, it does not matter that some of you are training at Dance Theater of Harlem or Alvin Ailey, or that you’re getting scholarships to these wonderful places. The fact we were a predominantly inner city, poor black school, the perception of us was, you know, that maybe they wouldn't know how to stand still backstage, right?
KAI: Which is to say, there’s a very big difference between how Liberty City sees itself, and how the rest of Miami understands that neighborhood. And that’s important, because it’s also begs questions about value -- what’s a place worth? And to whom? These are really the core questions we’re asking when we talk about gentrification. So, we’re gonna spend the next three episodes hanging out with Nadege in Northern Miami, where she says the equation for whose community is valuable, will soon include a totally new factor -- one that long time residents have been talking about for while, actually.
VALENCIA GUNDER: They didn't know the science. They just knew and understood that when flooding happens everywhere else, it don't flood over here. And they knew that that was going to be one of the triggers for them to come take our communities.
KAI: The relationship between our changing climate, and America’s increasingly unaffordable cities. We begin this series in Little Haiti.
KAI: Nadege is showing me around Little Haiti. We meet some of the neighborhood’s characters, we do a little shopping.
NADEGE: See, you’re not gonna find Haitian peanut butter at any other corner store except for in Little Haiti
KAI: I didn’t know there was a distinction.
NADEGE: So Haitian peanut butter is savory, it’s spicy.
Kai: Architecturally, Little Haiti feels like an entirely different city from what you see further south and along the coast. There are no luxury high rises. No art deco hotels. The houses and buildings, they sit low; more like bungalows than mansions. And there’s space.
KAI: So Little Haiti isn’t super dense, is what I'm gathering already right?
NADEGE: No, no it isn't. But it's about to be. You see that big sign right there? Magic City. That is going to be the beginning of the density of Little Haiti.
KAI: If there’s one big, visible manifestation of Miami’s uncertain future -- and of the anxieties and fears people in some parts of black Miami feel about that future -- this Magic City development is it.
NEWS ANCHOR: …In a strong show of opposition to a project that aims to transform a big chunk of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.
PROTESTOR: Little Haiti’s not for sale!
CROWD: Little Haiti’s not for sale!
PROTESTOR: Tragic City has got to fail!
CROWD: Tragic City has got to fail!
KAI: In a neighborhood where most people earn less than $30,000 a year, this is a billion dollar development. It’s gonna bring luxury condos, high end rentals, new shops, hotels.
NADEGE: All of this has been bought out.
KAI: All of this swath here?
NADEGE: Right. And there's more further east. You can't see it where we're standing, but it goes further east and it totals to about 17 acres. So it's one of the largest development projects coming to Little Haiti. And I mean it has been described as -- it's going to change the landscape of what is considered downtown Little Haiti substantially.
KAI: What was there?
NADEGE: This used to be Magic City mobile home park. And that's something we're seeing all over Miami where mobile home parks are like the next frontier, and across the country, for development. Because it's like this -- two, three, four, five acres, and if you’re able to buy it, you have a substantial amount of space. About a few blocks north of here, in the village of El Portal, that mobile home park was also bought out, and that's about to be another big development project as well. So this is going to not look like anything you see here.
MAGIC CITY VIDEO AUDIO: Miami is culture. An amalgamation of the Caribbean and Latin America….
NADEGE: This is a promotional video reel that the Magic City developers produced. What do you notice? What do you see?
KAI: Well, there's a lot of Haitian stuff happening here -- flags and b-roll of bands and that kind of thing.
MAGIC CITY VIDEO AUDIO: A celebration of Haitian and Caribbean culture. Presented to the world. Inspiring others. Immersive…
NADEGE: So Magic City, for their part, they’re saying we’re here to work with you, we’re going to be a part of the community, it’s why we have Haitian flags in our promotional video, it’s why we’ve had meetings in the Haitian community. And they’ve done the type of outreach that you’re supposed to do. But that has not helped with the fear of displacement, what this big project is going to mean for the neighborhood.
NADEGE: And while there are some supporters, there are a lot more visible critics.
KAI: And what does that look like? Like, where do these critics show up?
NADEGE: So I went to one of those meetings on a weekday – it was like the early evening hours. And it happened in Little Haiti where Magic City developers were talking to people about the benefits of the project. The church was packed. Easily 200 people were there.
KAI: Oh wow.
NADEGE: And this meeting was held at Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church. There’s a good chance if you’re from Miami and you’re of Haitian descent you’ve been to this church even if you’re not Catholic -- for a wedding, an immigration rights protest…
KAI: It’s like a community town hall.
NADEGE: Exactly. And one of the spokesmen for Magic City was standing on a stage, and he was talking to a Haitian homeowner who raised concerns about the project
MAGIC CITY SPOKESPERSON: It will also create job opportunities and training for your children and others in your family.
NADEGE: People weren’t buying it. They called them colonizers, they said they were coming into the community to take over. Magic City did say, look, we’re coming in to make this neighborhood better, we’re going to improve what’s already here. The sidewalks will be better, there’ll be more parks. But people still had a lot of concerns.
MICHEL BIEN-AIME: Nou pwal jwen youn manti nan moun sa yo ki di ya; ede nou an. Moun sa yo kid li pwal ede nou an yap dil lontan…
NADEGE: Michel Bienaime is a homeowner in Little Haiti. He spoke in Kreyol. Bien-aime accused Magic City of pushing Haitians out and said he doesn’t believe any of the changes will benefit the current residents of Little Haiti. But other people say something’s gotta change.
MIMI SANON-JULES: There's no money here.
NADEGE: Mimi Sanon-Jules has had her own business here for about 10 years.
MIMI: The neighborhood is dead. There's nothing going on. Most of the building close.
NADEGE: She now has a small booth at the Caribbean marketplace the city created to support local vendors, where she is a designer and reseller of vintage finds.
MIMI: I am a vintage lady. I love old, authentic -- I like stuff that represent me as a black woman. And we have a lot of nice piece here from Haiti.
NADEGE: And Mimi has her own vision for the next step. She loves to cook vegetarian dishes with a Haitian flair, but she can’t cook at the marketplace.
MIMI: I'm going to open Mimi's Vegan Bite. I don’t know if it’s going to be one year or two, but for sure soon. We’re going to show you the flavor, the style, the love. You will enjoy it. Is going to be my hand [laughs]. Made by me [laughs].
NADEGE: This is where gentrification is complicated. Mimi used to have a 2500 square foot storefront--you can still see it—it’s sitting empty across the street from the marketplace.
MIMI: Everybody loved it. When we served people we served them with love it’s not all about money.
NADEGE: But she got priced out
MIMI: I miss my store.
NADEGE: Two years ago, her landlord nearly doubled her rent. A few blocks north a dozen Haitian-owned businesses also had to relocate. They couldn’t afford the new rents and left the neighborhood altogether. That’s the displacement many fear with Magic City. But Mimi hopes the new development will offer another chance to make it.
MIMI: A lot of Haitian people used to have money -- they don't invest in the community. And this is the problem we have. If it's yours, nobody can come take it from you. But if it’s not yours, they can come here anytime and say when it's time for you to move, and you move. And the way Magic City going to build... I would like to have a spot there. I can have my juice and vegan food there. But I don't know yet. But I would like to, because I love Little Haiti. Little Haiti, it's me. I'm Haitian. You know, I would like to have a spot in Little Haiti. But I don't see the light.
KAI: So, there’s clearly a tension here, right? Between the need to really invest in Little Haiti, so Mimi has people to buy her vegan bites, and the displacement that investment sets in motion. Which is of course familiar when we talk about gentrification. So what’s Miami’s approach to managing this tension? I mean, is there a plan?
NADEGE: Kind of. The city is developing a plan. But when you go out into the community and talk to people, the solutions are just not coming fast enough. Because what you have to understand, Kai, is Miami has an urgent housing affordability crisis overall. This is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and most of the new housing being built is luxury and high-end. As a result the city consistently ranks and one of the least affordable places to live in the country.
KAI: And projects like Magic City will intensify that trend, right?
NADEGE: Magic City is something called Special Area Plan. In Miami -- that means if a developer can get at least 9 contiguous acres in an area -- they can build denser and higher than allowed in the zoning codes. In exchange, they provide public amenities like parks. But what they’re building typicaly in these Special Area Plans are, again, high-end and luxury housing. Initially, Magic City did say that they would include affordable and workforce housing in this plan, but that was scrapped before it was voted on, and instead they’re now contributing $31 million into a community trust. And look, the developers? They hear the pushback. I caught up briefly with one of Magic City’s developers after the townhall, Max Sklar.
MAX SKLAR: We understand not everyone’s always gonna be happy. There’s gonna be pros and cons to everything, but it’s always great to hear the response from the community and we take that to heart.
KAI: But here’s what Max and Magic City aren’t really talking about in community meetings: sea level rise. And Nadege discovered that was very much on their minds as they looked at Little Haiti. That’s next.
KAI: So Nadege, climate change. I gather you have figured out that this is something very much on the minds of Magic City developers.
NADEGE: Right. I’m going to take you through some of the documents they submitted to the City of Miami.
NADEGE: So page 3, they lead with a topographic map of the Miami area.
[Sound of paper shuffling]
KAI: Mm hm.
NADEGE: And, a few pages in, it shows that the low lying areas are coded in blue and high elevation lands are in darker browns.
KAI: Mm hm.
NADEGE: And on this map there are pink arrows that circle where Magic City will be built. In Little Haiti. On high land.
KAI: Right, I see, and it’s all brown in Little Haiti.
NADEGE: Right. This area of town -- Little Haiti, and if we go a little west, Liberty City -- these predominantly black neighborhoods in the Northern part of the City of Miami -- sit up on a limestone ridge, which runs north-south through the area. It’s also where the railroad was built and as a result, they’re 9 to 10 feet above sea level. That’s a big deal in Miami.
KAI: Right. Because of sea level rise! Right? Because of climate change. And flooding from these stronger and stronger hurricanes, like the one you guys almost just got hit by.
NEWS REPORTER: With hurricane Dorian looming and no one absolutely sure where it will land the southeast coast, Miami Dade elected officials saying -- be prepared anyway. We’re at the height for hurricane season.
NADEGE: And the thing is, of the “Special Area Plans” submitted to the city, Magic City is the only one to mention “topography resiliency.” I spoke with someone who’s been watching the connection between Miami real estate, elevation and climate change.
NADEGE: I see you're everywhere. I see your name everywhere-- you're kind of famous now.
JESSE KEENAN: Yeah. You know for every laudatory aspect of one's work, there's an equal number of death threats and hate mail, so… [laughs]
NADEGE: Jesse Keenan is a researcher at Harvard’s Design School, and his work is very well known in Miami’s government and local climate advocacy circles. He’s the one credited for really putting into focus the idea of what he calls “climate gentrification.”
NADEGE: So the study that you co-authored -- it has really gotten a lot of attention here in South Florida. Talk to me a little bit about first like, what led you on this journey of exploring climate gentrification in Miami-Dade County?
JESSE: Well a number of years ago, really almost seven years ago, I started to think about different manifestations IN Gentrification that I attributed in part to climate stresses. And as well as people's response to that. And my original thinking and work was actually overseas. But all along the way, doing work really around the world, I kept coming back to Miami. And I started to think about these conversations I was having. And there were people that were telling me that they were moving from the Beach -- Miami Beach -- and they were moving to the mainland because they thought in the long term that the high elevation on the mainland was something that was a superior economic investment.
NADEGE: So Jesse realized that Miami could solve his research problem. He didn’t have enough data to really test his theory. But in the Miami area, he had a region where climate change is apparent and a lot of property is bought and sold. So Jesse decided this was the place to ask: is there a relationship between climate change and gentrification?
JESSE: We found a couple of things. I mean one, the theory of climate gentrification is different from classic models of gentrification in the sense that in a classic model of gentrification it's about supply. But climate justification, as I had begun to theorize it over the years, was really also more fundamentally about a shift in not supply, but demand. And a change in consumer preferences.
NADEGE: Jesse and his team divided Miami-Dade County into parcels and sorted them by elevation -- high elevation parcels over here, low elevation parcels over there. Then they tracked how much each parcel was worth over time… and they found low elevation properties were underperforming while high elevation properties were increasing in value.
JESSE: And they started to separate from the pack, if you will, that is, all other properties -- around the year 2000.
NADEGE: And why is that year, 2000, significant?
JESSE: That's effectively when the observational studies in climate science started to tell us that in Miami-Dade County, the nuisance flooding started to just become out of control.
NADEGE: It's interesting because as I have been doing reporting around this, developers are very hesitant to say that they are taking seriously the concept of climate gentrification or even the impact of climate.
JESSE: Well I think that that's par for the course for any discourse in climate change that there's some measure of denialism. We provided evidence of the existence of changing consumer preferences. So you know time will tell. But as a matter of a let's say precautionary principle let's go ahead and take this seriously. Climate gentrification is going to affect a lot of people in a lot of places.
NADEGE: The topography analysis in the plans that Magic City submitted to the city are telling. But you can also see it if you scroll through the names of LLCs that have been buying up property in Little Haiti -- One of them is called Premium Elevation LLC. I mentioned this to Jesse.
JESSE: What?! Are you serious?
NADEGE: Not kidding you.
JESSE: Oh my God.
NADEGE: When I found that I was just like -- it speaks to your point, that even if you're not saying for sure this is a thing, that people are thinking about this. People are thinking about this.
JK: That’s the most real thing I've heard in a long time.
KAI: And that’s one thing climate change and gentrification share. They’re both these wooly ideas that, for some people, are hard to make real -- you can’t always clearly define it -- point to it and say, “That. There. That thing is climate change. That thing is gentrification.” And still you know it’s happening, all around you.
KAI: As Nadege walked me around Little Haiti, we passed this really striking mural. It was just across the street from the Magic City site, painted up high on the building. And it depicted a man, standing with a video camera, and as you look at it, the camera is pointed right at you. It’s ominous, honestly -- you feel kind of exposed as you stare into its lens.
NADEGE: It's almost like a protest sign. Like, we know development is coming, but Little Haiti is watching. So in Kreyol, it's called vey ey yo, “Watch them.” That, that is that sign. And it was very intentional because little by little you've been seeing Little Haiti signs disappear where they used to be, like “Welcome to Little Haiti” or “This is Little Haiti.” So that was in direct response to that. That this is Little Haiti, like, don't--don't be mistaken.
KAI: Coming up, we go to a neighborhood where climate gentrification is not at all a new idea.
VALENCIA GUNDER: So my grandfather -- he always would talk to us and like, they gonna come steal our communities because it don't flood. I remember him saying it as a young child. Like that was common knowledge in Liberty City for MANY years.
KAI: That’s next, on The Stakes.
The Stakes is production of WNYC Studios and the newsroom of WNYC.
This episode was produced in partnership with WLRN in Miami. It was reported and produced by Nadege Green, Christopher Johnson, and myself.
It was edited by Karen Frillmann, who is also our executive producer, and Alicia Zuckermen, who is Editorial Director for WLRN.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
The Stakes team also includes… Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Jonna McKone, Jessica Miller, Kaari Pitkin, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams…
With help from…
Hannis Brown, Michelle Harris, Kim Nowacki, and Jared Paul.
Stay in touch: You can hit me up on twitter, @kai_wright.
Thanks for listening.