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Early Riverside took a great leap forward in the 1920s amid Greater Miami’s real estate boom, which transformed a frontier town into an emerging metropolitan area. In that expansive era, Riverside steadily progressed west beyond 8th, 12th and 17th avenues. (The area between 12th and 17th avenues had earlier hosted General Samuel Lawrence’s citrus groves.). New thoroughfares, like S.W. 8th Street, which represents the easternmost portion of the Tamiami Trail, joined the aforementioned streets as major commercial arteries.
By the 1930’s, Riverside’s population was changing. Increasing numbers of Jews had moved into the area. Their businesses, professional offices and institutions accompanied them. The Jewish presence continued to grow, and remained a major element of the population until the 1950’s, when an era of postwar prosperity, underway since the late 1940’s, brought another housing boom to Greater Miami, one characterized by the rapid development of suburban areas, heretofore undeveloped land or farmland, into affordable single family homes. The boom prompted the migration of many Riverside residents to these developments throughout those areas of Dade County.
This movement opened the way for the increasing Hispanic growth of Riverside highlighted by a vast Cuban influx into the neighborhood in the 1960’s and beyond, and followed by the appearance there of many other Spanish speaking groups. The earliest Cubans in Miami, for which we have information, was the family of Eduardo Luis Gonzalez, who were here in 1896, the city’s birth year, living on the northern perimeter of the neophyte city. Later, in the 1920’s, the Encinosa family lived on S.W. 8th Street. In 1922, for instance, their home was located at 120 S.W. 8th Street. By the 1940’s and 1950’s, amid political turmoil in Cuba, many Cubans fled to Miami, with downtown their most important destination. Their numbers grew quickly in the 1950’s after Fulgencio Batista seized power in Cuba in 1952. Soon after, the A. W. Gort family moved to Miami and established a photography business in the 1600 block of S.W. 8th Street. In her seminal work, Havana USA, historian Maria Cristina Garcia has estimated that more than 30,000 Cubans lived in Greater Miami at the time Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Many were residents of Riverside and nearby Shenandoah.
As noted, the 1960’s saw a torrent of Cuban refugees enter the city and county, with Riverside hosting a sizable number of them. Many of these newcomers brought their skills and professions with them. They and others of their ethnicity energized the old Riverside neighborhood, which had experienced a sharp decline in its fortunes with the migration of many of its residents to the suburbs. Initially, the most important commercial street for this surging population was W. Flagler Street. By decade’s end, however, S.W. 8th Street, by then called Calle Ocho, had eclipsed Flagler Street in importance. Further, Riverside was increasingly known as Little Havana or East Little Havana while the Tamiami Trail or S.W. 8th Street embraced the name Calle Ocho.
Increasingly, the old Riverside neighborhood has become a modern day Ellis Island, as new arrivals, seeking freedom and economic opportunity, embraced it for its old modestly-priced housing stock. Even that phase of transformation has weakened, however, as the explosive expansion of the Brickell Avenue neighborhood and, to a lesser degree downtown, have rendered this area increasingly more attractive to developers, who are building large apartment complexes north of W. Flagler Street on tracts that formerly hosted one and two story homes and apartments. In other parts of Riverside/East Little Havana, a standoff continues between those advocating preservation of the neighborhood with its affordable housing and other amenities and the forces of development who see its location as ideal for redevelopment on a grand scale.
The next edition of this column will examine the Little Havana neighborhoods south of Calle Ocho.
For more information on the longest running local history tour straight out of Little Havana please visit [email protected].
Paul S. George