Fields | A new place to play in Little Haiti

Miami | A cultural renaissance in Miami’s La Petite Haiti (Little Haiti), the most populous Haitian neighborhood outside the Caribbean nation, continues as a community complex and soccer park conceived 10 years ago come to fruition.

A series of soccer games on 3 May will conclude two days of inaugural events, including an art exhibition at the 15-acre site at Northeast Second Avenue and 59th Street (see Laura Morales, “Soccer Park, Cultural Center Near Opening,” Miami Herald, Feb 4). The Little Haiti Soccer Park offers a full-size pitch with covered grandstand, practice field and floodlights to begin compensating for the lack of open space in the zone of shops and restaurants that has been a focus for the Haitian diaspora since the late 1950s.

Architect, caricaturist and painter Alfred Bendiner‘s (1899–1964) main sporting interests were gridiron and baseball, according to niece Julie Pool. Yet Bendiner “also enjoyed the circus and any joyous event which came his way … as long as he had a pen or pencil and something to draw on whether it be paper, a linen napkin, a paper bag or whatever.” He also used a personalized memo pad, shown above, for a series of undated watercolors of Haitian footballers. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Alfred Bendiner Memorial Collection. Published with permission of the Alfred Bendiner Foundation.)

Bounded roughly by Interstate 95 and the Florida East Coast Railway and stretching more than 30 blocks along Northeast Second Avenue north of downtown, the neighborhood’s population is estimated at 33,000. Close to a quarter-million Haitians live in South Florida, the legacy of emigration that dates to the rule of François Duvalier and that continued, beginning in 1972, with first arrival of refugees by boat. As many as 100,000 made this harrowing passage without documentation.

Little Haiti, in a former agricultural area once known as Lemon City, offers a French and kreyòl blend—the city’s undisputed destination for gros savon (soap) and beurre chaud (bread) as well as slices of Haitian cultural life such as the bookstore Libreri Mapou, the workshops of artist Edouard Duval-Carrié and a 24-hour Haitian-owned radio station, Radio Méga 1020 AM.

During the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Haitian national team, given an ongoing rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, set up permanent base in the area. They practiced in a South Florida park.

The island nation’s cultural ties to football are fierce, a narrative encompassing the deeds of Joe Gaetjens, who scored for the United States versus England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the late Emmanuel Sanon, who scored twice when Haiti competed in 1974 as the first World Cup qualifier from the Caribbean. Haitians greeted the Brazilian national team as liberators when the Seleção bested the home side 6–0 in a Port-au-Prince friendly in 2004. Brazilian troops have taken a leading role in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that began that year.

The feeling in Little Haiti is that the park is long overdue and will struggle to accommodate pent-up demand. In fact, the facility that opens in May has been criticized for insufficient seating. Jan Mapou, owner of Libreri Mapou and co-chair of the cultural center committee, said community leaders have pushed for greater capacity. “When there is a game” featuring a local Haitian team, Mapou says, “Haitians come out by the thousands. Having a field for 750 is a joke.”

Seating has been added along an adjacent practice field to boost that number, but Mapou says that planners again may have underestimated the passion for Haiti’s national game. In addition to games in the Haitian amateur league and school competitions, the field could host sides visiting from Haiti itself.

One episode of the FIFA-commissioned series Football’s Hidden Story focuses on the development of Haiti’s U17 side.

The limited scope of the grandstand reflects the gradual retrenchment that has seen the project shrink from what would have been, at 60 acres, the most expensive taxpayer-funded park project in Miami history. The reduction has resulted from years of wrangling among politicians, businesses and activists that tested how much the city would push to claim patchwork parcels dotted with warehouses, trailers parks and empty lots. Business owners, in particular, objected to acquisition of land that would have forced them to relocate.

But grassroots leaders felt Little Haiti had been fighting long for political credibility, to little effect. “The overwhelming feeling in Little Haiti is that they want a park and they want it now,” Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. told the Miami Herald in 2002. “I will be damned if we will let Haitians be treated like manure in the city of Miami.”

The scaled-back park concept still has not satisfied some businesses. At the most recent community meeting on the project, a sportswear manufacturer whose warehouse abuts the park worried that the site would become a “dog, vagrant and prostitute haven” and asked for a dedicated police mini-station.

Urban anthropologist David Brown, who leads cultural tours of Miami neighborhoods and has written a Little Haiti history, said the soccer park would serve an immediate purpose as a place of socialization. “There hasn’t been a gathering spot,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s over soccer or over culture. Both are important social gathering places for Haitian people. They will gather and they will socialize.”

One of the community pioneers whom Brown profiles in his work is Claire Nassar, the “mother” of Little Haiti who arrived in 1965. At that time, she recalls postal workers asking if the “Haiti” on her envelopes should be spelled “Tahiti,” indicating locals’ lack of familiarity with Caribbean geography and the newcomers in their midst.

Little Haiti Soccer Park (Zyscovich Architects)

Often entering the American news stream in a negative light—as the result of political instability and violence in the homeland or via the offensive appellation of earlier times, “boat people”—Haitians have succeeded in making a cultural imprint through such positive exemplars. Watching over part of the new park, near the Charles Harrison Pawley–designed Caribbean Marketplace that recalls the market buildings of Port-au-Prince, will be a replica of the iconic Albert Mangones statue depicting Neg Mawon, Creole for “Black Maroon.” The original, commissioned in recognition of the 13-year slave rebellion against France that in 1804 constituted the world’s first free black republic, gleams in Port-au-Prince—a striking figure, legs apart, machete in right hand, ankle chain broken, blowing heavenward on a conch shell to call an assembly.

The park plan also encompasses a theater, exhibition space and—another holdover from Haitian life—three dominoes shelters.

But, through the resizing and seemingly never-ending negotiations, the soccer field has remained a centerpiece.

“Just as in the United States you have football, we in Haiti have soccer,” says Mapou. “Everywhere, in every street, there are people playing soccer. It is our national game.”


  • A side visiting from Haiti will inaugurate the new soccer park at 1 p.m. on May 3, when it will be christened Manno Sanon Park, according to Marleine Bastien, a community leader and executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. The adjoining community center likely will bear the name of former city commissioner Teele, integral to pushing for the facility before his suicide in 2005 (Michael Vasquez, “Teele’s Name Likely to Grace Center,” Miami Herald, Apr 25). He “always identified himself with with the people on the bottom,” said City Commissioner Angel Gonzalez at a meeting on Apr 24. The park opening corresponds with the city’s Haitian Roots Parade and Festival, part of Haitian Heritage Month.
  • Sanon, known as “Manno,” died from pancreatic cancer Feb 21 in Orlando. He was 56. His goals at the 1974 World Cup—including one past Italian legend Dino Zoff, momentarily to give Haiti a 1–0 lead in the 46th minute—lent pride to expatriate Haitians. “When Manno scored that goal, there was an eruption of joy,” Herntz Phanord, who watched the game at a New York cinema, told the Miami Herald. Sanon’s strike ended Zoff’s record run of 1,143 minutes without conceding. Sanon also scored against Argentina in Haiti’s final group-stage match.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Marvellous! I am so excited to read such wonderful news, not only for the sport of soccer itself, but also for Haitians. The last five decades have certainly not been what one would call nice to Haiti or its people. No need to specify all the atrocities, killings, political purges, disappearances, brain drain, exiles, refugees, boat people, dictators, Marines, Coast Guard, etc.

    This is definitely a piece of good news, rare as it may be! No doubt that this luxurious complex will be appreciated and used by all. Thank you for all the effort put into making such a dream become reality.

    My most recent sports mission in Haiti, December of 2007, I worked with 40 coaches from all over the island, using the national Coast Guard soccer field, in Bizoton. Perhaps, one day, such complexes will be available in parts of Haiti, itself, along with equipment for the Haitians to use and play safely.

    I have dozens of new shoes piled up in my carport, waiting to be donated to the people of Big or Little Haiti. Perhaps, I’ll take a day or two off and come down, with some of those shoes, and give them away during the inauguration of this God-sent “new place to play in Little Haiti.” Merci!

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