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Two Early East Little Havana Neighborhoods South of Today’s Calle Ocho
In previous installments of this column, we learned that part of today’s Little Havana lying north of Calle Ocho was known initially as Riverside. Now we will examine the rich history of Little Havana resting on the south side of the same street. The area stretching from I-95 to S.W. 12th Avenue is filled with a rich, unusual history, though it does not possess a “generic” name that identifies it. Take the area stretching from the northern edge of the Roads neighborhood at S. W. 11th Street to Calle Ocho, and ranging in an east-west direction from S.W. 4th Avenue to S.W. 8th Avenue. Who could imagine today that this quarter was once part of a large land grant awarded more than 200 years ago by the Spanish to a Bahamian family with the surname Eagan?
In the more recent past, this property, on land formally platted as the Hagan Donation, belonged to the Brickells who moved to the wilds of Miami from Ohio in 1871. The Brickells acquired thousands of acres of land south of the Miami River in today’s Miami during the course of the next thirty years, including the above area I delineated in the previous paragraph.
By the early 1900s, this area, stretching even as far north as S.W. 7th Street, was a black neighborhood called South Miami! Many of its residents worked for the Brickells; many were of Bahamian background. Engaged in maritime work, building construction, and even farming, they built simple wood frame homes called shotgun houses since their asymmetrically-located entranceways opened to a hallway running from front to back. And as the story goes, one could shoot a gun without hitting anything as the bullet exited the house. Little is left today of this black enclave carved out of a piney wilderness in a racially segregated city.
The neighborhood of South Miami contained a school, churches and a Sunday school, and, of course, many shotgun homes. Its lone commercial street, S.W. 8th Street, had a fruit packing business, a garage, an awning manufacturer, upholsterer, and the Magic City Roofing Company. (Magic City was Miami’s nickname from its beginnings in 1896). By the 1930s, the black population had almost disappeared from this neighborhood. Today it is a heavily Hispanic community.
Immediately west of South Miami and S.W. 8th Avenue and stretching west to S.W. 12th Avenue and south to S.W. 13th Street is the old Conch Hill neighborhood, so named because of the preponderance of white Bahamians, called Conchs in the Florida Keys, who settled there in the early decades of the twentieth century. This subdivision is part of the expansive Lawrence Estates Land Company sub. Conch Hill reaches its crest on S.W. 11th Avenue, peaking at 21 feet above sea level, a staggering height in a low-lying city. Its early residents bore traditional Bahamian/British names like Sands, Watkins, Thompson, Roberts, Sweeting, and Johnson. They spoke with heavy accents influenced by their British backgrounds since Great Britain controlled the islands for more than two centuries.
These residents also engaged in maritime-related work, among other professions. Early businesses on the Conch Hill portion of S.W. 8th Street included an upholstery shop, mattress company, auto repair, and a gasoline station. A music school stood nearby the gas station. Deep inside the community was a Pentecostal Church. On Friday nights, many of the Conch youths sold freshly-caught Lobster tails, two for $1!
The homes of Conch Hill residents were more grandiose than those of their neighbors to the east. Many are reminiscent of the wood frame homes in Key West with their sharply pitched roofs and dormers. Many have been lost in recent years while the neighborhood has also become heavily Hispanic. In the next installment of this column, we will examine the Shenandoah neighborhood west of S.W. 12th Avenue.
Written by: Paul S. George