Touring Little Havana With Dr. Paul George (Video)
ABOVE: Handmade Cuban coffee cups for sale in Little Havana.
I remember going to Little Havana when I was a little girl. My family and I would watch American films with Spanish subtitles at the Tower Theater and have dinner afterwards at El Exquisito next door. Well into my teens, though, my days of hanging out on Calle Ocho were long over. The area became “dangerous” and “uncool” over the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s a different story today. A slow, but consistent revitalization has made it possible for jaded locals like myself to rediscover and enjoy this historic section of 8th street.
Last month, I went to Viernes Culturales (“Cultural Fridays”), with my friend Steve Roitstein, musical director and keyboard artist with PALO! a local Afro-Cuban funk band. Viernes Culturales takes place the last Friday of every month and showcases the best that Little Havana has to offer in a street fair setting: singers, bands and dancers perform on an outdoor stage; art galleries and cigar shops open their doors; arts and crafts vendors sell their wares on the streets; and famous Domino park stays open past its usual 6pm closing time. The scent of whatever is cooking outdoors permeates the air – in February it was grilled sausages and arepas (cornbread patties). I’m sure I also caught a whiff of the occasional cigar and fresh-brewed Cuban coffee.
The outdoor stage, set up in the plaza between the Tower Theater and Domino Park.
Our evening started out at 6:30, when we met in front of the iconic art deco Tower Theater for a free tour with Miami’s premier historian, Dr. Paul George. There’s so much history in this area of Miami that Dr. George splits his coverage of Little Havana and adjacent neighborhoods into eight different sections. “We always meet at the Tower Theater, but you can go eight months in a row and never repeat any information,” explained Dr. George. “I give many tours, but I love this particular one because it’s sociable and festive.” (Scroll to the end of this article for video.)
Last month’s tour focused on Shenandoah, the residential subdivision just south of 8th street between 15th and 19th avenue. During the 1920s real estate boom, developers named the area after the scenic Virginia valley because homes were cropping up among piney woods and farmland.
The tour lasted about an hour and half, during which time we learned about the architectural details and history of many homes and lo-rise apartment buildings built mainly after 1920s. I’ve driven past these streets many times, but never bothered to notice so many interesting facades – art deco, Mediterranean revival, masonry vernacular and bungalow styles abound. Some homes boast oolitic limestone, which had been quarried in the area.
Unfortunately, we weren’t yet in daylight savings time, so I wasn’t able to get any good photographs of these homes, but I’m definitely planning a leisurely afternoon stroll with my camera in the future. Some of the homes have seen better days, yet other are gems, perfectly preserved by forward-thinking homeowners who appreciate the historic value of their properties.
The history of folks who first dwelled in these homes is just as interesting as the architecture. Miami’s first Jewish settler, Isidor Cohen, lived at 1876 SW 10th street with his wife Isadora. A successful businessman, Cohen was greatly devoted to civic affairs. Isadora helped found the Lighthouse for the Blind and the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged. Shenadoah was also home to Max Orovitz, another prominent Jewish leader.
The list of homes goes on and on and there’s an interesting story of lives lived behind each door.
When we reached 18th avenue, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library. The institution, housed in a relatively modern 1980s clubhouse, is dedicated to the 2506 Brigade that invaded Cuba in 1961. A library and conference room display documents, photos, books, newspaper clippings, maps, flags, uniforms and other memorabilia – all tell the story of this failed attempt to topple Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.
Inside the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana.
After the tour, Steve and I wandered about 8th street and explored the street fair. February was big on carnival and 8th street was not to be left behind, thanks to some local folks who organized a comparsa (dancing parade). Revelers lined the street and cheered the performers, who danced mainly to Columbian music. It wasn’t exactly Rio or Mardi Gras, but the energy on the street was vibrantly buzzing! (See video below.)
We also stopped at CubaOcho, an art gallery that features numerous and very beautiful paintings about Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, as well as a library, courtyard, private bar and small stage area for musical performers. The history of how the gallery owner acquired each painting is fascinating. It’s really more like a museum of Cuban-inspired art.
This vendor was selling Cubama and other t-shirts.
Steve from PALO! poses with one of the regular street performers who dances with a loosed-hip mannequin.
There are over a dozen art galleries to visit during any given Viernes Culturales, but Steve and I were hungry, so we completed our evening with dinner at El Exquisito. This hole-in-the-wall place has been serving customers for as long as I can remember. When my parents and I moved to Venezuela for a three-year stint back in the 1970s, my dad set up a tab with the owner so my brother, then a student at Biscayne Fine Arts College, could eat some home-cooked type meals. The restaurant is still run by the same family, the food is still as good and the portions just as generous. This is the real deal Cuban grub—nothing pretentious or expensive about it.
Over dinner, Steve and I conversed about how much we had learned on the tour in less than two hours. I’m Cuban American and Steve is a gringo originally from the northeast. He has lived in Miami for a long time and is greatly inspired by Cuban culture and music. (I say he’s an honorary Cuban!) It all just goes to show: there’s always more to learn even when a topic is deeply familiar. And for a Miami native like me, it’s refreshing to see Little Havana come back to life with so much authentic, local flavor for all to enjoy.
Snippets from Viernes Culturales: a “comparsa” took place on the streets with some Columbian cultural groups.
Viernes Culturales in Little Havana
Start your exploration of Little Havana at a Viernes Culturales event and take it from there! Remember: the tour, entertainment and parking is all free! Just bring your wallet for eats, drinks and shopping.
If you’re not able to make the tour on any given last Friday, pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure at the Viernes Culturales office, 742 SW 16th Avenue, between 1:30 – 6:30 PM. The folded brochure opens up like a large map with very easy to follow points of interest.
El Exquisito Restaurant
Bay of Pigs Museum
Dr. George also offers longer, more comprehensive tours through the Historical Museum of South Florida. Check the calendar for tours focused on the area. As well, check out Dr. George’s wonderful pictorial history of Little Havana from Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. The book is available online or at the museum.
For the ultimate Miami history experience, check out Dr. George’s class at Miami Dade College, which I’m taking this semester and can’t stop recommending! The class meets once a week during the evening, so 9-to-5 workers can still attend. Anyone can take this class—you don’t have to be a traditional, degree-seeking student to enroll.
This semester, we’re mostly working professionals or retired folk in the class, which consists of lectures and tours. It’s a continuing education experience worth every penny – total tuition is about $230, with proof of residency. (Regular tours at the museum average $40 each for non-members, so do the math!) Also, Dr. George’s students can take any museum-sponsored tour for just $10 – a real bargain. Downtown’s Wolfson campus is easily accessible by Metrorail, but there’s also free parking for students with proof of registration.
There are handouts to read, and a couple of optional books to buy, but it’s simply a great pleasure to sit back, listen and absorb it all. Dr. George’s passion for the city’s history makes for informative and entertaining lectures.
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