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From behind the lens: Combating gentrification, creating a sense of community

From behind the lens: Combating gentrification, creating a sense of community

In a joint effort between CARTA, the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs and Miami-Dade College Wolfson, a group of students, faculty and alumni came together to work on 'Little Haiti: Confronting Gentrification'.

May 12, 2020 at 4:10pm

A main mission of FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) is integrating disciplines that resonate amongst themselves so they can nourish each other.

It’s no wonder, then, CARTA is leading the way when it comes to interdisciplinary approaches aimed at strengthening bonds with the community. Little Haiti: Confronting Gentrification is one of the college's latest research projects.

In a joint effort between CARTA, the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) and Miami-Dade College Wolfson (MDC), a group of students, faculty and alumni were commissioned with a grant from the Humanities Edge Program. The initiative—headed by FIU professors Richard Tardanico and Peggy Nolan, as well as MDC professor Joseph Tamargo—combines the community advocacy research of Tardanico with student photography, as it addresses the question: How do Little Haiti’s families, small businesses, and community at large attempt to cope with the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification, including dislocations and evictions?

A group of photography students from both institutions spent time in Little Haiti. With the camera as their instrument, they connected with its people and places. The goal was to better understand and document the cultural identity of the neighborhood.

“A lot of other parts of Miami, everyone’s driving,” says MDC student John Pierre Scholl, one of the photographers involved. “It’s one thing to see it in the photographs, but when you go out there and you see everyone in the streets talking to each other, walking around … it almost feels like you’re in another country.”

“The culture is just so rich and beautiful,” says FIU student Iman Kiffin. “Walking around Little Haiti, I could tell that there’s a sense of community, and I can’t imagine if things were to be destroyed or changed around, if it would still have that same impact that it does now on the people within it.”

A partnership with the Family Action Network Movement, led by Marleine Bastien, brings an extra dose of credibility to the exercise.

“The project combines art and social science,” says Tardanico. “It portrays the humanity of predominantly immigrant communities of color struggling to live with dignity and respect in the face of eviction by real estate speculators and government officials motivated by big money and power.”

In the process of documenting Little Haiti and its community, the group expanded its pool of resources. They ended up drawing not only from still photography and sociocultural research, but also from video production and filmmaking. Building on the multi-institutional, interdisciplinary approach of the project, Playard Studios, a production company co-founded by FIU alumni Carlos and Tanya Fueyo, was commissioned by FIU and MDC to create a short documentary piece to be added to the list of assets to come out of the project. Some of Fueyo’s notable film credits include visual effects work on movies like Super 8, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

“Carlos and his wife Tanya are wonderful examples of the flexibility of FIU alumni,” says John Stuart, associate dean for cultural and community engagement and executive director of Miami Beach Urban Studios, where Fueyo and the film production company he runs with his wife is based. “They have transferred their visual storytelling talents from their roots in architecture to their work in the Hollywood film industry and now to explorations with current students and faculty members about the human condition today,” added Stuart.


Initiatives like ‘Little Haiti: Confronting Gentrification” highlight FIU's commitment to the community.

“This project has allowed students to move beyond the boundaries of academic expectations,” says Nolan, who is also FIU's Photography Lab manager. “It has provoked their empathy and open-minded curiosity about a world, perhaps, less familiar and previously exotic to them.”

“I’m very thankful that they have provided these resources for us to kind of be creative and to see the world differently and to just try out on us,” says Kiffin. “I’m grateful that they’ve taken the time and the money to invest in us and believe in us, that we could develop something so great for an important issue.”

Nolan and Tardanico will submit a grant proposal for the production of two photo books for distribution to both the residents of Little Haiti’s mobile home parks and the residents of the wider Little Haiti area.

A preliminary photo exhibit took place at MDC-Wolfson in February, with a finale at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex waiting to be rescheduled due to Covid-19.

A virtual exhibit is in the works and, post Covid-19, there will be photo exhibits at both the Green Library and the Green School Gallery.