MIAMI - From his corner convenience store in Little Haiti, Ashraf Mashni sees a thriving Caribbean village.
It's a short drive inland from Miami's trendy South Beach, and it lacks the glassy newness of the city's condo canyons downtown. The shabby neighborhood can be tough, populated by "your good, your bad and your don't-know-no-better," he says. But Little Haiti has something the rest of Miami is often accused of lacking: authenticity.
"Come here and visit and you'll feel like you've got two vacations in one," Mashni says as a steady stream of Haitian Creole-speaking customers stroll past the red and blue Haitian flag painted on the outside of his store, Jenin's.
"You've got South Beach, and you've got a Caribbean island - the neighborhood in the Caribbean island, not the tourist area in the Caribbean island," Mashni says.
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There's no passport required to find Haitian culture in Miami - just the desire to forego the tourist carnival on the beach and try out the locals' everyday rhythms.
The obvious place to start exploring Haitian culture in Miami is the Little Haiti neighborhood, just north of the city's art districts. While many Haitian-Americans have moved their homes and businesses north of the city, Little Haiti remains the community's cultural heart.
Red flags proclaim "Welcome to Little Haiti" in both English and Haitian Creole. But those aren't the only signs to look for.
If South Beach is known for its neon, Little Haiti is known for the colorful storefront murals painted by Serge Toussaint. Look for his signature flourish - "$erge" - in the soda cans he paints into murals outside small grocery stores, and in the portraits he does of saints watching over botanicas, Haitian music stars outside clubs, and well-coifed ladies smiling above beauty supply shops.
Many of these shops and restaurants along Little Haiti's main crossroads recently got fresh coats of pastel-colored paint. So has the shuttered Caribbean Marketplace, a re-creation of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince; yearslong efforts to revive arts and business activity at the corner attraction remain in progress.
Behind it gleams the newly opened Little Haiti Cultural Center, which linked an exhibit of contemporary art by Caribbean artists to the annual Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. The experimental Dance Now! Ensemble calls the center home, and weekend showings of Haitian movies are scheduled to begin in January.
ART AND CULTURE
Haitian botanicas lure customers with fresh herbs by the door. Inside, rows of colored candles and matching scarves, vaguely labeled bottles of perfumes and oils, and small saintly figurines are ready for Christian and Haitian Voodoo practices.
To take home a sample of Haiti, though, it's better to stop at an art gallery specializing in Haitian art, such as the Jakmel Gallery or the Haitian Art Factory; both are a little north of Little Haiti. The newest "it" bag in Miami is a VeVe, from a Voodoo-inspired collection of handmade handbags found at a new Little Haiti boutique, Made in Haiti.
The Haitian Heritage Museum, in the Design District, attempts to put Haiti's mix of cultures and beliefs in historical context. The Church of Notre Dame d'Haiti has a stained glass window illustrating the life of Pierre Toussaint, who was born a slave in Haiti, became a society hairdresser and philanthropist in New York, and has been declared venerable by the Catholic Church, a stage in the process toward sainthood. A mural in the church shows important figures in modern Haitian history: migrants, leaving the Caribbean country by boat and by plane, under the watchful gaze of Haiti's patroness, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Haitian news, histories, folk tales and dictionaries to help decipher them all can be found at the bookstore Libreri Mapou. The owner, playwright Jan Mapou, also sells his homemade Kremas Mapou, a syrupy blend of milk, coconut and rum.
Compas - popular, jazzy Haitian dance music - often blares through the open doors of shops selling Haitian, Caribbean and African music and movies. Sometimes the sound of tin horns and conga drums comes from musicians jamming at a Little Haiti car wash - the home of Rara Lakay, a rara band that hosts a Voodoo celebration of the dead around Halloween.
An annual compas festival has drawn thousands to a downtown Miami park in recent springs, while on weekends popular Haitian singers fill clubs and restaurants well beyond the traditional boundaries of Little Haiti.
Maybe the best way to experience Haiti in Miami is to taste it in dishes like savory "griot," or fried pork. In Haitian cuisine, beef, chicken and fish come fried, grilled or broiled in light sauces and spices, with slices of lime and helpings of rice and beans or plantains on the side.
In Little Haiti, join the locals meeting up for conch, shrimp, crab and oxtail at Chef Creole's outdoor counter. At Lakay Tropical Ice Cream, sample flavors such as passion fruit, coconut and sour sap, along with breads, pastries and milkshakes - most for less than $3.
Moca Cafe, in North Miami, serves up Haitian seafood dishes in a more formal restaurant with a sky-blue ceiling. After dinner on many nights, the tables get put away so dancers can groove to live compas, zouk and twoubadou acts.
Tap Tap offers some of the best values on South Beach, especially on mojitos. The minty drinks here are made with Barbancourt, Haiti's own dark rum. Haitian protest singer and one-time Port-au-Prince mayor Manno Charlemagne and a band provide the casual restaurant's folk-jazz-with-a-dash-of-politics soundtrack twice a week.
IF YOU GO
A guided tour of Little Haiti and its businesses can be arranged at www.MiamiCulturalTours.com. It's easy to self-explore the neighborhood's main intersection, though. Head to NE Second Avenue and NE 54th Street; Chef Creole to the west, Notre Dame d'Haiti church to the north and an English pub/punk rock venue called Churchill's to the south roughly mark the boundaries of Little Haiti's main district. Little Haiti is considered impoverished compared with South Beach, but 24-hour security at the cultural center, an increased police presence and the city's improvements to its main streets are making the area more visitor-friendly.
Serge Toussaint's murals: www.sergesigns.vpweb.com
Libreri Mapou: 5919 NE Second Ave., www.librerimapou.com
Haitian Heritage Museum: 3940 N. Miami Ave., www.haitianheritagemuseum.org
Jakmel Art Gallery: 7646 Biscayne Blvd., www.jakmelartgallery.com
Haitian Art Factory: 835 NE 79th St., www.haitianartfactory.com
Made in Haiti boutique: 4600 NE Second Ave., www.madeinhaiti.net
Little Haiti Cultural Center: 260 NE 59th Terrace
Notre Dame d'Haiti Mission: 110 NE 62nd St.
Chef Creole: 200 NW 54th St., http://www.chefcreole.com
Tap Tap: 819 Fifth St., www.taptaprestaurant.com
Lakay Tropical Ice Cream: 91 NE 54th St.
Moca Cafe: 738 NE 125th St.
Haitian concert and entertainment news is updated on www.sakapfet.com/ and www.kompamagazine.com
Annual Haitian Compas Festival in May: www.compasfestival.net