Before there was a Little Havana there was a Riverside.
In fact, my first eight years on the planet were spent in an apartment at 1235 S.W. 4th Street, north of Calle Ocho, in a neighborhood we knew as Riverside. I walked this neighborhood as a boy with my father, and even today, I walk the same area, now known as East Little Havana, on a regular basis. It is cozy, shady, and it is packed with homes more than 90, and, in some cases, 100, years of age and older, ancient by the standards of a youthful Miami. Riverside, specifically the neighborhood bracketed by the Miami River on the east and north, Calle Ocho on the south and an undefined area west to at least 22nd Avenue, is the oldest element of today’s Little Havana, a robust quarter with a broad mix of ethnic groups.
Riverside began developing soon after the City of Miami was incorporated in July 1896. The eastern portions of the neighborhood were located within the new city’s limits, which extended west to S.W. 8th Avenue/Northwest 7th Avenue. The name “Riverside” is derived from a subdivision platted by Mary Brickell, matriarch of a family whose landholdings ranged throughout today’s Little Havana. However, the most important developers were the Tatum brothers: Bethel B., John R., J.H. and Smiley. These colorful developers and promoters arrived in Miami from Dawson, Georgia, in the 1890s.
Carved out of the piney woods and resting on an oolite limestone ridge, a considerable portion of Riverside was created by the Tatum brothers’ Lawrence Estate Land Company subdivision. The Tatums sold lots in Riverside in 1904 for $300 to $350. Their advertisements described the area as “The Beautiful Ridge” for its verdant, elevated terrain. In a 1906 advertisement, J.A. Tatum and company exhorted Miamians to “buy a lot in Riverside,” especially since “the electric trolley line will be completed through (Riverside) in 90 days and the price of all lots will be increased 50%.”
Riverside contained many elegant, two-story homes and other residences that were quite simple. As the second decade of the twentieth century unfolded, many of the newer homes were bungalows featuring different levels of roof, dormers, open porches, and Dade County pine cladding. Other homes featured white hollow cinder block or oolitic limestone facades.
The Riverside area was connected to nearby downtown by the 12th Street (later Flagler Street) Bridge. Broad Flagler Street, named for the city’s godfather, Henry M. Flagler, whose Florida East Coast Railway’s entry into Miami in April 1896, opened the area to development, was the most important thoroughfare. A Flagler Street trolley began operating in 1915, carrying passengers as far west as S.W. 12th Avenue. By the mid-1920s, amid the great real estate boom of that era, a new trolley line began operating, rambling from downtown across the S.W. 2nd Avenue Bridge and west along S.W. 6th Street to 16th Avenue, before turning north and eventually retracing its route back to downtown.
Businesses and splendid homes arose along both sides of Flagler Street, as well as parallel streets, in the early 1900s. Churches and professional offices also graced the street. Parades sometimes spilled over the Flagler Street Bridge west to S.W. 12th Avenue and beyond. Flagler Street was not only the city’s most important thoroughfare, but also its most active. In the next installment of this column, we will complete our historical examination of Little Havana before studying other important neighborhoods comprising today’s Little Havana.
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Paul S. George