This article concludes NPQ’s series Owning the Economy: Stories from Latinx Communities. Coproduced with the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, a national network of Latinx community development groups, this series highlights community preservation, land ownership, and business development efforts in Latinx and immigrant communities across the country.
A falta de pan, casabe. It is a famous saying where my family is from, in the Dominican Republic. It means don’t dwell on what you lack, and instead use and enjoy what you have—a sentiment that surely resonates with many low-income immigrants across the United States.
This is especially true in Allapattah, a bright and bustling neighborhood in northwest Miami where generations of Dominicans have laid down roots, creating a vibrant community for themselves. Yet, like so many immigrant enclaves across the nation, the families and businesses that made Allapattah what it is today are at risk of becoming extinct, as big developers—and even bigger money—threaten to wipe away homes, livelihoods, and dreams.
But the community is not taking these developments as a given. Instead, it is fighting back—engaging in direct advocacy and community-building work to preserve our home. This is our story.
Linking People and Place
I grew up in Massachusetts, and I moved to Miami for college. By the middle of my first semester, I was painfully homesick. I confessed this to a group of ladies who worked in the school cafeteria—dominicanas themselves!—and they knew exactly how to cure what ailed me.
The community finds itself in the crosshairs of real estate developers and speculative investors.They took me on a short drive to Allapattah, otherwise known as el barrio dominicano. The afternoon started with an appointment at a hair salon owned by Dominican women. If you’ve ever seen the musical In the Heights, you know that for us, hair salons (and barber shops) are the beating hearts of our communities. They are sacred places where people come together, offload stress and anxiety, hear about big news and juicy chisme (gossip), and more. Our next stop was a café across the street, where we ordered mangú con tres golpes, the Dominican national comfort dish, which combines boiled plantains with the “three hits” of fried cheese, fried salami, and fried eggs.
As comforting as the day was, it proved to be so much more. Strolling down the commercial corridor officially known as Little Santo Domingo, dotted with bodegas, restaurants, bakeries, and clothing stores, I saw a string of locally owned businesses that were deeply integrated into this community. Thriving enterprises providing jobs, services, and livelihoods—all while preserving the heritage of Allapattah.
It made me think of that eternal debate in economic development: should we pursue “people-based” or “place-based” approaches? That was totally irrelevant here. People and place were inextricably linked. It also reminded me of just how strong the entrepreneurial spirit is in the hearts of immigrants.
A Community Movement is Born
As strong as that spirit is, powerful, threatening forces are swirling around Allapattah. Like so many traditional, working-class immigrant neighborhoods across the country, the community finds itself in the crosshairs of real estate developers and speculative investors, arguably at the very epicenter of the nation’s housing affordability crisis. Allapattah has become a neighborhood of choice for investors and speculators in Miami, already regarded as America’s least affordable, most cost-burdened city.
Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Little Santo Domingo for its 2023 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. According to the National Trust, the annual list “spotlights important examples of our nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that, without applied action and immediate advocacy, will be lost or face irreparable damage.”
Only a few years ago, Allapattah remained somewhat affordable, at least in comparison to other well-known areas like the Design District, Midtown, and Wynwood, where rents, both residential and commercial, have skyrocketed. But by the mid-2010s, investors hunting for better deals and bigger upsides started taking aim at Allapattah, which had been disinvested for decades and was ripe for the picking.
Our group recognized that the first and most important task was to document what was happening and to develop a plan the community could get behind.
Such speculation led to the neighborhood experiencing one of the highest increases in rents citywide during the pandemic, displacing droves of residents. And those small businesses leasing commercial spaces along the corridor I saw on my first visit? Many have already closed, buckling under tripling rents. Those who’ve managed to scratch out a way to stay are at risk every day of being erased.
Of course, those of us in Allapattah had already seen the danger.
In 2018, I gathered a group of nine people from the community—small business owners; residents; nonprofit, school, and university leaders—to discuss how to preserve our beloved neighborhood. That day, we collectively decided we were not going to take things lying down. That simple act—considering the notion that we might actually influence the circumstances around us—was defiant and significant. Previous community efforts to engage policymakers had all failed. In the past, even getting a permit for a block party was impossible, a fact that seemed lodged in the community’s memory and had become a source of tremendous apathy.
Our group recognized that the first and most important task was to document what was happening and to develop a plan the community could get behind. We secured funding from the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders to commission an economic development study. The study, which surveyed more than 200 local business owners and residents, confirmed what we knew already: that many of them had profound concerns about their ability to make a living and stay in our community.
However, the process of developing the report had unforeseen benefits. Through our relationships with NALCAB and funders from outside Miami, our cause caught the attention of national organizations with resources, expertise, and connections. We no longer felt we were confronting the situation alone.
Our study, fully shaped by the voices of those we had surveyed, identified thirty separate action items. It also laid out the building blocks to achieving three key goals:
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- Establish the infrastructure and processes to drive inclusive equitable community development.
- Prevent displacement of existing small businesses.
- Boost cultural economic development with commercial district revitalization strategies.
The first goal was achieved in 2019 when I took a leap of faith. I left my job at a local nonprofit and, with the support of our nine original stakeholders and the small business owners and residents with whom we had engaged, founded The Allapattah Collaborative Community Development Corporation (TAC).
Then the pandemic hit.
Facing the Pandemic
Within weeks of the shutdown of March 2020, the neighborhood’s economy had collapsed. Small businesses, already stretched by rising rents, saw sales plummet. Residents lost jobs and were at risk of losing their homes.
The study’s second goal had given us a clear mandate—prevent the displacement of existing small businesses—so we had to move fast. Our small team at TAC transformed itself into navigators and technical assistance providers, offering more than 1,200 hours of support to more than 50 small businesses to secure over $700,000 in grants and capital through the Paycheck Protection Program, among other sources.
That period of intensive triage demonstrated our organization’s immediate value and, just as important, the value of community organizing. “I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel,” said Fidel Aquino, a tailor who’s operated his shop in Allapattah for more than 15 years. He survived the pandemic thanks to the relief funds we helped him access. “But it was TAC that helped me reach the light. Without them, my business would simply not be here.”
Every year since, we have steadily increased the number of businesses to whom we provide support. By the end of 2022, we had helped more than 300 access almost $4 million in loans and grants. And as time passes, the apathy that was once pervasive is replaced by a new resolve to thrive in the face of towering challenges.
We now also have community engagement programs, including youth fellowships that have trained dozens of young people to be our next generation of advocates, boot camps that help entrepreneurs formalize their micro-businesses, and advocacy workshops that teach our residents the fundamentals of organizing. These efforts all reflect our core belief that no single group or person can speak for an entire neighborhood and that the community has a collective responsibility to show up for itself. That way, when the moment calls for it, as many community members as possible feel empowered and informed enough to raise their voices together.
Voices Raised, Voices Heard
Indeed, advocacy is at the heart of our work. Early on, when TAC was just forming, the city of Miami in 2019 called for the redevelopment of 18 acres of public land in the very heart of our neighborhood. Any development on a parcel this size would have profound long-term implications for Allapattah, yet residents had not even been notified of the city’s intention and had to learn about it in the local press.
The community mobilized. Just a few months earlier, TAC had helped to lead the formation of a coalition of more than 30 community groups from across Miami with what turned out to be a serendipitous purpose: to advocate for publicly owned land to be used for the public good. And for neighbors to have a say over how such land is stewarded.
Because our newly formed coalition represented so many voices from every corner of our county, City Hall paid attention to us. Our coalition met with the assistant city manager and the mayor, who supported our concept of community engagement around the use of public land. He even suggested that we survey Allapattah community members about what they needed and wanted for the lot in question. Not surprisingly, surveyed residents identified affordable housing and more green spaces as their top priorities, insights we shared with the mayor and other elected leaders.
It is one thing to fight back, but the community needs a long-term plan to thrive. It also needs to be able to own land.
As everyone knows, things can move slowly in municipal government. It wasn’t until the summer of 2022 that the city commission considered a proposal submitted by a local developer. The developer’s plan had not considered the priorities identified by the community—and it had not included any effort to engage our residents and small business owners. So, we held a press conference in front of the lot and called on our folks to use their voices in front of the television cameras that had assembled.
Since then, the effort to develop the lot has been stalled—and I like to think that community organizing has something to do with that. While advocacy may have bought us time, we’re not naive. We know we can’t stop all development. We simply want our community members to channel investment so that everyone wins. We want our small businesses to continue to contribute to our economy. And, in the most fundamentally human way possible, we want to belong.
Building for the Future
It is one thing to fight back, but the community needs a long-term plan to thrive. It also needs to be able to own land. For this reason, our organization launched our Thrive In-Place fund last year to finance community acquisition of a portfolio of buildings and storefronts. The money raised for the fund will provide TAC the ability to buy buildings quickly, which is key in South Florida’s hot real estate market.
Once properties are acquired by the fund, our intention is to place them in a land trust to preserve their affordability forever. This would provide affordable commercial spaces for businesses for the long term, preserving our community. A few months ago, we secured our first seed investment for the fund: $500,000 from the Miami Foundation— and we are now actively raising capital to make our first purchase this year.
If you’re not from Miami, it might be difficult to understand the herculean nature of this work. While our city is known for its ethnic and cultural diversity, the truth is just about every one of our ethnic enclaves has faced a similar battle—and lost. Little Haiti has seen an exodus of its Haitian residents. In West Grove, the Bahamian people who founded the area have all but been erased. And no tourist would ever imagine that Wynwood, famous for its art walls, was first a Puerto Rican community.
Our mission in Allapattah is to change history; to prove that revitalization and development can and must coexist with community.