A row of Merry-Go-Round horses once stood in the front yard of a Little Havana bungalow, cheering me every time I saw them in mid gallop. They’re gone now, however, perhaps part of some faraway circus or perhaps victims of code enforcement. Also gone, especially in the last decade, are many of our local buildings, torn down to become scrubby vacant land or a new condo or office building. It’s no wonder that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Little Havana one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the United States.
Little Havana has a hodge-podge of architectural styles. Some historic buildings date back to around 1914. We have more bungalows (most from the 1920s to 1940s) than any other neighborhood in South Florida. Other buildings represent styles ranging from Mediterranean to frame vernacular, classical revival to Mission style. And still other buildings are, well, just weird: a patchwork of styles and colors and decor.
Many older buildings retain the worn elegance of another era, with features like Spanish tile stairs, curved archways and spacious front porches. But these same buildings may suffer from failing plumbing systems, collapsing floors and leaking rooftops. Tenants may fear that their complaints about deteriorating buildings may lead to huge spikes in rent, or they may complain to no avail. Some homeowners just don’t have the money to make repairs. And too many slumlords seem not to care as long as they get their rents.
Many historic buildings have been bought and torn down, creating vacant lots, with owners waiting years for the highest bidder. Over the past two decades, a number of vacant bungalows — if in violation of enough codes — were systematically torn down by the city with the excuse that they had become shelters for vagrants who easily broke into them.
Lately, a lot of buildings have been bought by developers and real estate interests who are sitting in them in hopes of making a big profit with the sale of the property or land, and in hopes of gentrification and younger, richer (and often lighter skinned) residents.
What seems to be happening is a pattern of what is called “benign neglect” (read more) as preparation for gentrification.
As a result of local activist efforts, however, one small part of East Little Havana has been named a historic district (see Riverview Historic District), and activists are advocating for much broader protections. For years, the Dade Heritage Trust has already named bungalows — a popular architectural style from 1914 through 1930 — on its “Most Endangered Historic Sites List.”
Moreover, new activist groups have been forming in response to fears of gentrification and resident displacement.
Modest, functional and comfortable, most bungalows were built from mail-order house plans. They often used local, natural materials, such as oolitic limestone gathered directly from the building site. Oolitic limestone is a marine limestone indigenous to South Florida and used in buildings since the 1850s. It looks like coral, because the porous stone is in fact rich with fossils like mollusks and corals, and is formed from ooliths, small and rounded calcite grains that resemble fish eggs.
Little Havana bungalows are usually one story or one-and-one-half story wood frame houses with porch railing walls and prominent oolitic limestone chimneys. They are naturally energy efficient and self-cooling, with deep porches, large sash windows, dormer windows or louvered attic vents. Most are covered with wood shingles or wood siding and have broadly pitched gable roofs with wide, overhanding eaves and an off-center, gabled front porch.
Our most famous local bungalow is the Jacob Hubbard/Alvarez Bungalow, at 138 NW 16th Ave. (Miami, FL), near Marlins Park (see picture below). This home, built circa 1921, is considered the best example of a Belvedere Bungalow in the City of Miami. Fortunately, it was saved from the bulldozer by Dade Heritage Trust (DHT), which used its Preservation Revolving Fund to purchase the building in August, 2003. This Arts and Crafts bungalow has been well preserved, so visitors can still see its wood shingles, oolitic limestone piers, intersecting gabled roof planes, wide overhanging eaves, decorative timbers, Prairie style casement windows, built in cabinetry and a second-story belvedere.
Thanks to the efforts of the DHT, the building now serves as headquarters for local eco-education nonprofit Citizens for a Better South Florida. Read more about the saving of the bungalow!
What Are We Trying to Preserve?
In recent years, I’ve noticed the renovation of bungalows and other historic buildings, which is comforting.
If we preserve the buildings alone, however, do we truly preserve “neighborhood character” or “neighborhood soul”? I’d argue that our residents — currently an eclectic mix of working class folks, seniors, immigrants, artists, teachers and the like, give our buildings the uniqueness that truly brings them to life. How might we think of buildings in relationship to the people who actually live in them, work in them and make them meaningful?
I know that East Little Havana — and Little Havana as a whole — will change. Yesterday the city passed a change in zoning that lessens parking restrictions for developers. Many developers are also advocating for up zoning that would increase allowable building heights, as many of these developers would like to build new condominiums in the area and compress as many building units as possible within a square acre. Many local stakeholders are arguing for better code enforcement.
Building and zoning changes and enforcement can help bring buildings the improvements that save tenants from falling through their kitchen floors. They can enable people to live above the shops where they work. At the same time, how might they protect the spaces that encourage conversations among neighbors, and not perpetuate segregation? How might we retain enough affordable housing for our lower income residents, many who already hold down several jobs and are supporting families?
Will our new residents join us in fights against illegal tree cutting, dumping and drug dealing — but at the same time not profile every resident who stands on the corner as a drug dealer? Will they advocate for improvements to local schools and parks, and better crosswalks and street signage? Or will they reside in tall, impersonal, high-security condos, leaving through indoor garages and never interacting with residents? Will they trade mangos for avocados and help our elderly cross the road, or will they call the police the moment neighbors want to celebrate a birthday outside with some merengue or reggaeton, or with a drumming for a tambor?
Will they patronize the fruit trucks and knife sharpeners making their daily rounds, or complain on a daily basis about the neighbor who has Merry-Go-Round horses in his front yard?