The last bookstore in Little Haiti faces gentrification

On April 6, 1969, Jean Mapou and several friends went live on the radio in their hometown of Port Au Prince, Haiti to talk about the corruption-riddled regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and the island’s declining literacy rates.

“Upon hearing our radio broadcasts, the government didn’t like the movement,” Mapou said. “They felt like we were trying to open the eyes of the people.” 

Soon after, authorities showed up at Mapou’s house and arrested him. He spent the next four months behind bars.

“My family felt it was time for me to leave the country,” he recalled. “I was the one lucky enough to be freed after four months.” 

Following his family’s advice, Mapou relocated to New York City in 1971, where he secured a job as an accountant, and then to Miami, where he worked at Miami International Airport as a general manager. 

“I was in charge of a diverse team composed of Haitians, Cubans and many other nationalities,” he said. “The team was as large as 125 staff members and had a $42 million dollar budget.”

A mural of Jean Mapou, 82, celebrates his impact on the Little Haiti community. (Photo courtesy of Stanley Beaubrun / Caplin News)

Now 82 years old, Mapou is an icon in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He is the owner of the area’s oldest bookstore, Libreri Mapou Creole and French, and has long advocated for the preservation of Haitian heritage and fought against gentrification in the community.

Mapou’s passion for literacy awareness began in Port-au-Prince after securing one of his first jobs at the national bank. While working as an accountant, he noticed that only a small percentage of Haitians knew how to read because local schools taught French rather than the widely spoken Creole language.

“You’re creating a society that’s run by the French minority rather than Haitians,” he said. 

In response, he created a group named the Creole Movement to ensure the native dialect would be taught in schools.

When Mapou relocated to Miami in 1985, the neighborhood was called Lemon City. On Oct. 8, 1980, the Carter Administration signed Executive Order 12246, which made accommodations for the influx of Cuban and Haitian immigrants.

“It was President Carter that gave Haitians the chance to settle in the area,” Mapou said. “The Whites were exiting the area and heading south.”

As a result, the area from NE 36th Street to 87th Street along Second Avenue was set aside for the new migrant population. Though no longer predominantly white, the area was mostly occupied by other Black Caribbeans instead of Haitians.

Jean Dondy Cidelca, 29, relocated to Miami from Haiti when he was 11 years old and now rents a room alongside other tenants in a shared home. 

“Little Haiti is our home away from home,” he said. “It’s the closest I can be to my homeland.”

(Photo courtesy of Stanley Beaubrun / Caplin News)

Libreri Mapou Creole & French was founded on April 6, 1990. It provides educational resources for Miami-Dade County Public Schools and local university students, allowing them a space to do their homework, study or learn English. 

“Despite years of progress since the arrival of first-generation Haitians to South Florida, one would have to ask why Little Haiti is getting worse and worse,” commented Mapou on the community’s decline.

He notes the different contributions and values of each generation as part of the issue. First-generation migrants from the 1970s are getting older, retiring, and becoming grandparents, unable to chip in to the social and economic development of the area as much as in earlier decades. Meanwhile, the younger Generation X and Millennial residents are opting to leave the neighborhood altogether after obtaining careers in their field of study.

Mapou points to his own son, who recently graduated from Northwestern University, married his college sweetheart, and now resides in Illinois, as an example.

“Many young people want to leave the household once they turn 18 years old,” he said. “I was still living at grandma and grandpa’s house at 30 years old.”

He also attributes the neighborhood’s deteriorating economy to a lack of good jobs. “Ma and Pa” shops are not as lucrative as they once were. Mapou’s own bookstore is struggling to turn a profit in the digital age, only receiving 13% of all sales. These problems make it easier for developers to buy properties in the area, feeding the ongoing gentrification of the community.

“The exact plans the city laid out nearly 30 years ago have materialized today,” said Mapou, reflecting on the city hall meetings he’d attend where council members would address the past, present, and future of the neighborhood.

The city makes it increasingly difficult for black businesses to receive loans or request important documents such as property deeds or insurance paperwork. Developers are abandoning once prominent real estate havens such as Miami Beach for the inner cities of Little Havana, Liberty City, and Little Haiti as the areas are considered virtually floodproof.

“When developers move in, they completely shut out the residents, pricing them out,” said Mapou.  “Just taking a walk around the neighborhood you see more empty buildings. Many shops don’t own the buildings they operate in, so it’s easier for the real estate moguls to chase the shopkeepers out. Tenants are given one month to pack up and clear out despite being in business for nearly three decades.” 

Libreri Mapou Creole & French bookstore. (Photo courtesy of Stanley Beaubrun / Caplin News)

Mapou himself struggles to hold on to his bookstore while city officials oppose his efforts to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.

He recalls an afternoon when a Caucasian developer smugly strolled into the store and offered to buy it from him for a million dollars as a formative memory in cementing his mission. He proudly declined the offer and walked the developer out, asserting that he had no intention to ever sell.

“I want to keep this for the community,” said Mapou. “This is my legacy. I even told my children ‘If anything happens to me, do your best to conserve this.”

Stanley Beaubrun is a senior whose interests include traveling, going to the beach, and reading books. After graduation he  hopes to work in television and radio.