September 25, 2023

Preserving Historic Legacy Businesses in Miami’s Little Santo Domingo

Mileyka Burgos-Flores first visited Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood in the late 1990s while pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of Miami. Burgos-Flores, who was born in the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo and raised in Massachusetts, was feeling homesick when she approached the Dominican cafeteria workers at the university to inquire about finding a Dominican hair stylist and satisfying her craving for an authentic meal from her country.

That’s how Burgos-Flores made her first trip to Allapattah’s main commercial corridor, which since the 1980s has been home to a plethora of Dominican-owned enterprises—so many, in fact, that in 2003, the City of Miami officially named it “Little Santo Domingo.” In another nod to the neighborhood’s rich Dominican heritage, Allapattah’s local park and main thoroughfare bear the name of Juan Pablo Duarte, a national hero for his role in Dominican Republic’s independence movement.

Little Santo Domingo (Allapattah), Miami, Florida. Many commercial buildings in Little Santo Domingo feature hand-painted murals and colorful facades.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Like many of Miami’s older neighborhoods, Allapattah is a community where immigrants have found homes and spaces to open small businesses. Over 75 percent of Allapattah’s population is foreign-born.

Little Santo Domingo encompasses Miami’s NW 17th Avenue between 20th and 36th Street and is home to approximately 300 small businesses. There, Burgos-Flores not only found the services she sought; she also found a thriving and welcoming Dominican community. In her words, she was “adopted” by Allapattah. “It really saved me. It made me feel at home in Miami,” she recalled.

A Vital Cultural and Economic Hub in Miami

Today, Little Santo Domingo remains a vital cultural and economic hub for Miami’s Dominican and broader Latine communities. It’s where folks go to have a breakfast of mangú con tres golpes (a traditional comfort dish that consists of mashed plantains, fried cheese, fried salami and fried eggs), grab a slice of Dominican bizcocho (the country’s signature cake) and purchase Dominican consumer products that are hard to come by elsewhere in the city.

Little Santo Domingo (Allapattah), Miami, Florida. A new housing development adjacent to older, smaller commercial buildings in Little Santo Domingo.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

A new housing development adjacent to older, smaller commercial buildings in Little Santo Domingo.

However, its proximity to downtown Miami and the trendy Wynwood neighborhood has put Little Santo Domingo at imminent risk of cultural erasure and social displacement. Such is the threat that Little Santo Domingo was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2023.

“Gentrification, displacement, speculative real estate development, demolition of older structures, longtime business owners being priced out because rents are rising—those are some of the key factors why we wanted to include it,” said Jennifer Sandy, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust.

As for Burgos-Flores, she is now the chief executive officer of The Allapattah Collaborative, CDC (Allapattah CDC), a place-based nonprofit organization she helped found in 2019. The organization is dedicated to preserving Little Santo Domingo’s distinct Dominican character by strengthening legacy business owners so that they can continue to thrive in the community they helped to build in the first place.

Little Santo Domingo (Allapattah), Miami, Florida. The Plaza Seafood Market has operated at this location for 40 years along 17th Street Avenue in Little Santo Domingo.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Plaza Seafood Market has operated at this location for 40 years along 17th Street Avenue in Little Santo Domingo.

“It’s about providing them with the opportunity to stay in their storefronts and in their homes,” says Burgos-Flores. “We’re not trying to make this restrictive, but we want the families who want to remain to remain. The bottom line here is having agency—agency to leave and agency to stay—not being forced out of something you have built for decades.”

A Key Artery in a Historic Neighborhood

Allapattah, one of Miami’s oldest neighborhoods, is located on traditional Seminole lands; in fact, “Allapattah” translates to “alligator” in the Seminole language. The area was later occupied by white settlers. In the 1950s, the neighborhood became a destination for African Americans from the nearby town of Overtown who were displaced by the construction of Interstate 95. In the 1960s and 70s, immigrants from Cuba and other Caribbean and Central American countries, fleeing political turmoil, also moved to Allapattah. By 1975, 75% of the neighborhood’s residents were Hispanic.

In 1980, Miami police beat a Black motorist named Arthur McDuffie to death. The acquittal of the officers by an all-white jury led to what is known as the Miami Riot, and in the wake of the unrest many residents and business owners left Allapattah. It was Miami’s Dominican community that revitalized the area, opening hair salons, barber shops, stores, bakeries, and restaurants. “It’s about families coming in building their American dream. That's really what it means to all of us,” said Burgos-Flores.

It is because of that long history and its place in the immigrant experience of the United States that the National Trust supports the cultural preservation of Little Santo Domingo. “It's about the building fabric and the structures, certainly,” said Sandy, “but we also lose so much if we lose the community that has preserved and protected this place and built it into a vibrant neighborhood that people want to come and be part of.”

Little Santo Domingo_Allapattah_Miami

photo by: The Allapattah Collaborative, CDC

Numerous businesses are located in this corner commercial structure, built in the 1920s in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood.

Preventing Displacement Through Ownership

In 2021, The Allapattah Collaborative was designated a Main Street America (MSA) member organization. A subsidiary of the National Trust, MSA supports community-based efforts to revitalize historic commercial and downtown areas around the country. Little Santo Domingo is the first site with MSA recognition to be included in the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

Allapattah CDC offers various services for local businesses, including workshops and seminars and access to legal and marketing support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization also worked to connect businesses with resources to stay afloat. However, Allapattah CDC’s efforts to preserve Little Santo Domingo revolve primarily around making ownership possible for local businesses.

With that goal in mind, the organization launched an initiative called “Thrive in Place” that seeks to help small businesses stay in their storefronts through a community land trust model, under which a nonprofit maintains ownership of land on behalf of local business owners and residents. The nonprofit acts as steward of the land while ensuring the rents remain affordable long-term.

“We know that one of the best ways to prevent displacement is through ownership,” said Burgos-Flores.

In 2022, Allapattah Collaborative CDC was selected as a participant in the Where It Starts: Breaking Barriers to Business project, a $6.3 million, multi-year program to strengthen small businesses and open career pathways for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals in five cohort cities across the U.S. funded by the Truist Foundation and in partnership with Main Street America and Living Cities.

As Hannah White, managing director of Main Street America said, “the Allapattah Collaborative CDC is leading critical work to preserve the richness and character of Little Santo Domingo and support a vibrant local economy. Through centering community voices and perspective, advocating for local ownership, and providing hands-on support to local businesses, the CDC is a national example of how place-based organizations can help stem the tide of displacement and gentrification, and build community wealth.”

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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