By Paul S. George
Stretching from Coral Way to the Miami River in a north-south trajectory, and from that same river and I-95 to S.W./N.W. 37th Avenue, in an east-west axis stands Little Havana, one of Miami’s most famous neighborhoods. At its heart is the area on both sides of Southwest Eighth Street, the famed Calle Ocho, between S.W. 13th and 17th Avenues, that draws millions of visitors annually to its restaurants, bars, nightclubs, souvenir shops, festivals, and monuments along Cuban Memorial Boulevard.
Before there was a Little Havana, there was the Riverside neighborhood on the north side of Calle Ocho, which is also part of Federal Highway 41, as well as Shenandoah on the south side. Tracing its beginnings to the early 1900s, Riverside hosted a wide array of residents from working class to business owners. By the 1930s, an increasing number of Jewish residents took their places in homes and apartment buildings looking out over tree-shaded streets. By the early post-World War II years, Cubans and Puerto Ricans had migrated there in increasing numbers. With the coming of the Castro dictatorship in 1959, the numbers of Cubans rose dramatically, as W. Flagler Street became the main retail venue for these new residents. In the past thirty to forty years, Cubans have been joined by a large Central American population.
Shenandoah is the product of a later time. The name conjures the image of Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley and was also the name for the neighborhood’s early subdivisions. Much of Shenandoah was developed in the Boom-era of the 1920s and beyond. Many of its homes exhibit the beautiful Mediterranean style of architecture and have undergone stunning restorations in recent years as the neighborhood has attracted many young persons who find its location and offerings ideal.
Like Riverside, Shenandoah’s large Southern and Jewish presence gave way, by the 1960s and beyond, to a robust Cuban presence, with “Little Havana” becoming the place name for both neighborhoods. This process was helped along by “Calle Ocho’s” ascendancy as the most important thoroughfare in the quarter as Cuban entrepreneurs resuscitated a street suffering from the flight elsewhere of earlier businesses. Little Havana’s vitality remains one of the Miami’s most alluring elements.