By Ginelle G. Torres | Sun Sentinel
Alejandro and Lian Chamizo cite the deterioration of their Little Havana neighborhood as the reason behind their difficult decision to move north to Pembroke Pines.
The La Esquina de Tejas restaurant, owned by Alejandro Chamizo’s father, Wilfredo, was for 36 years a Little Havana landmark. Its big claim to fame was a 1983 visit by President Reagan.
But when Little Havana stopped being the magnet for Cubans that it once was, the Chamizos followed many of their former customers north, in 2000.
“We decided to open one in Broward because people commented there was a lack of Cuban food,” Lian Chamizo said. “We never realized there were so many Cubans in the area.”
Today Little Havana is a neighborhood in transition. A longtime haven for Cubans adjusting to life in the United States, the area is now home to many Central Americans. At the same time, the neighborhood is attracting young professionals, many of them returning Cuban-Americans eager to buy condominiums less pricey than those in the Brickell financial district.
For many, however, Little Havana will never lose its reputation as a home for Cuban arrivals.
“It was an entry point for Cubans to settle there because housing was affordable, and they could find people who had been through the same experience,” said Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College.
The largest influx came in 1980, when the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States. Several of the new arrivals included some who were criminals in Cuba, which caused many non-Cubans to flee the area.
“People assumed that they were violent prisoners that were released to the U.S.,” said artist Xavier Cortada, who grew up in the area and continues to work and live there. “That helped the area become mostly Cubans.”
Famous for its cafeterias, Little Havana flourished into the 1980s. The Tower Theater became the first movie house with Spanish subtitles in South Florida.
In the late 1980s, many Cubans began leaving for the suburbs to seek better schools and more economic opportunities.
“Cubans made it into the middle class and left Little Havana,” Cortada said.
Today, few of the symbolic locales remain and with the exception of the annual Calle Ocho street festival, Little Havana seldom draws the large crowds it once did.
But the area could soon appeal to new residents.
As Miami has opened the door to millions of dollars in new development, construction projects have spread from the downtown area into the old neighborhood, bringing sparkling high-rise condominiums that will reshape the area.
City officials hope new affordable housing projects will also arrive to ensure that Little Havana still offers a home to those on the way up—and entice former residents to return.
Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who represents the neighborhood, is excited about the prospect of making Little Havana an extension of downtown.
“People from my generation are moving back and buying property,” said Sanchez, 40. “They left a paradise lost but now there are many opportunities.”
Developers have invested $267 million in the area on more than 3,000 units, including several affordable housing projects.
But some residents worry they will be priced out.
Yvonne Bayona moved back to Little Havana about 10 years ago after bouncing from neighborhoods in Miami Beach and southwest Miami-Dade County.
Bayona bought a house and a duplex next door, which she rents to immigrants from countries such as Nicaragua, Uruguay and Honduras.
One of few homeowners in an area dominated by renters, Bayona is opposed to the latest condo craze and has refused offers of up to $500,000 to sell her property.
“I’m not going to, absolutely not,” she said. “I can barely afford to live here and I struggle to keep up. Where would I go?”
Many young professionals who cannot afford to buy condos in the Brickell area are jumping at the chance to own property in Little Havana, given its proximity to Brickell and Miami Beach.
Developers of Brickell Vista, a new condominium project in Little Havana that at 17 stories towers over most nearby buildings, have sold all but 10 units.
“We had some investor buy units, but it’s less than 10 percent,” said Alex Avedano, a sales associate for Brickell Vista. “This building is not going to be empty.”
Investors snatched up most units at Nordica, the Astor Group’s other project in the area. Avedano expects most of them to resell the units.
“There’s a lot of people that believe in that area and [that] the culture will bring everybody back,” Avedano said.