Little River’s Lively Past Shapes A Bright Future
By Susan Cumins
In the late 1890s Miami’s Little River was a farming and fruit growing community. Named for a waterway that flows along its northern edge and into Biscayne Bay, it was annexed by the booming City of Miami in 1925. Mid-20th century postcards proudly depict Little River’s main street lined with practical businesses that served the community.
As the 20th century unfolded, housing tracts and shopping malls lured families to the suburbs. The construction of I-95 fractured and reshaped Little River, just as it did other Miami neighborhoods. The once-overlooked area’s close-in location and relatively high elevation make it ripe for infill development and reinvention. A demographic shift that has residents again prizing pedestrian-scaled areas designed for a mix of ages, careers, and income levels bodes well for its resurgence.
Over the decades, an ever-changing array of occupants (some less than law-abiding) shaped Little River’s compact topography. Its human-made landscape of railroad tracks lined with blocky warehouses, street corners with gas stations and bodegas, and tree-shaded older homes all reflect local history. Artists and creative entrepreneurs now moving in are happy to coexist with motors or machinery, cars or motorcycles—appreciative of the craftsmanship involved.
Just as the transition from agricultural area to light industry to today’s emergence from neglect was gradual, likewise the revitalization process will take time. Much remains to be respected and preserved. In 1958, McArthur Dairy built a Miami Modern-style plant in Little River. By then the cows had moved out, but the processing of dairy products continues inside the handsome building. An emblem of continuity and adaptation is the Cathedral of St. Mary, where Sunday masses in English, Spanish, and Kreyòl serve today’s congregation. Non-denominational programming, such as a Cathedral Arts Series, confirms Little River’s evolving creative spirit.
Earth N Us Farm (ENUF), a two-acre garden and eco-village founded by in 1977, welcomes adults and children to experience a sprawling vegetable garden and farm animals in a laidback, hippie setting. A hand-painted sign urges visitors “to respect and care for the Earth, animals, and each other.” Decades ago, before Miami was an international destination, it was a way-cool hot spot for fashion models and film producers. A Little River business still focuses on photo shoots for commercials and catalogues. “Crews come here to shoot spring fashion lines when New York is snowed in,” says Alvaro Simonian, who operates Little River Studios in a manicured compound where beach cottages figure among the varied backgrounds. A Lemon City train station and general store offer an air-conditioned daylight production space that Mr. Simonian books for social events as well as photography.
Over a period of years Matthew Vander Werff and his wife, Ashley Melisse Abess, principals of MVW Partners, assembled a critical mass of mostly-contiguous Little River real estate. With holdings of about 20 acres, the couple’s Miami-based real estate firm concentrates on adaptive-reuse and infill development designed to create a sustainable, culturally attuned neighborhood. “We’re in it for the long haul,” says Ms. Abess, a fourth generation Miamian. “We control the pace of growth and the mix of tenants in-house for Little River // Miami. We’re leaving some of the old because, without layers of the past, you can’t understand the history and its relationship to the present.”
MVW Partners’ plan is to attract tenants who will create a neighborhood where children and families find both practical and entertaining elements–such as ecofriendly drycleaners, shoe repair shops, health care, fresh produce–as well as food and beverage options. Artists’ studios, art galleries, and related businesses occupy many of MVW’s properties, but ultimately will simply be vigorous components of a broad mix. The vision is to give residents the luxury of not going far from their home base unless they want to. “We want Little River to be a real neighborhood,” Ms. Abess emphasizes, “not an Instagram destination.”
Counter Culture photos.
On the right is James DiGioia, Regional Manager for Counter Culture Coffee, and On the left is Sandra Walimaki, Regional Educator for Counter Culture. They are shown in Counter Culture’s Miami Training Center, which offers professional development, education, and free public Tastings at Ten on Fridays. Image courtesy of Counter Culture Coffee, 7450 North Miami Avenue.
SKN image courtesy of SKN, 7295 NW 2nd Avenue
The McArthur Dairy Headquarters at 6851 NE 2nd Avenue as designed by architect Robert Fitch Smith. Image by
Little River Studios at 300 NE 71st Street
Photo shoot at the Studios
Images courtesy of Little River Studios, 300 NE 71st Street
Earth N Us Farm
Treehouse at Earth N us Farm
Earth N us Farm encourages exploration
Cathedral of St. Mary courtesy of Little River Miami