On a Saturday morning around 10a.m. last month, Alain McGuffie found himself on the corner of Northeast Third Ave and NE 58th Terrace in Little Haiti in Miami, Florida, picking up trash with the City of Miami’s Solid Waste Department. They’ve been there for at least an hour, throwing out big black garbage bags, debris and random pieces of abandoned furniture. But this partnership isn’t an organic one; it is part of a promise the city made with McGuffie, a Haitian entrepreneur, to essentially begin paying extra attention to the area and dispose of the garbage that often populates the streets of Little Haiti, home to thousands of Haitian and Carribbean immigrants.
The corner they’re cleaning is identical to several streets in Little Haiti, and it’s a daily eyesore that McGuffie noticed the moment he stepped foot in Miami.
“I always come to Little Haiti but we always drive through the main streets, where we see the cultural center and the church, but I never drive through the inner city and see what is going on,” says McGuffie, owner of Wish In A Bottle, a business that brings resources like backpacks filled with school supplies to Haitian children. “Recently, I said let me take a ride before I move here and see what I am about to get myself into. That’s when I started noticing piles of garbage on every street that I turned.”
He saw what is always on the streets: large garbage bags tied up, or ripped with its strewn rotting contents on the streets, dirty mattresses and broken furniture decorating the curbs or patches of unkempt grass.
Dismayed at the state of a beloved neighborhood filled with vibrant culture and community, he brought his complaint to anyone who would listen. The residents in the area told him people often come from outside of Little Haiti, even from one or two neighborhoods away, to drop off garbage on the street, believing that the large trash bags will be picked up there quicker than where they live. But when he spoke to Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who oversees Little Haiti, he gave a different theory. He told McGuffie on the phone, and later repeated this at a commission meeting, that the trash is put there by residents, those he believes, don’t value their own neighborhood, and opt to throw their trash anywhere on the curbs, rather than the designated pickup zones.
On Oct. 10, McGuffie spoke at the weekly commission meeting, noting there is debris and garbage peppering the neighborhood, in ways McGuffie doesn’t see when he drives around other parts of Miami. Ken Russell, District 2 commissioner of Miami immediately admitted there was an issue. “The illegal dumping is not everywhere but it is in a lot of parts of the city,” said Russell. “We do have illegal dumping issues and we are addressing it as best we can.”
The conversation ended on a half resolution: McGuffie would team up with solid waste and do a ride along with them to ensure they are not missing any areas when they go out to pick up garbage. They also mentioned installing cameras to see who is dumping trash in the area.
But McGuffie does not agree with this tactic. “It seems like it’s spying, or a lack of privacy for residents,” he said.
And it does seem like the cameras won’t solve the problem of the illegal dumping. Each board member that spoke on the issue essentially blamed it on a lack of education from residents when it comes to street clean up and maintenance. Commissioner Joe Carollo mentions it’s just a language barrier issue and waste managers neglecting these poorer areas, while Russell and Commissioner Manolo Reyes say enforcement and fines are ultimately the answer. At the same meeting Hardemon reiterated that residents are the ones dumping the trash, devaluing their own neighborhood and are unaware of where to dump the garbage. However they admit there are parts of Miami that are inexplicably cleaner than others, yet members of the board at the meeting blanketly agreed that the solid waste department is doing a good enough job picking up waste in all neighborhoods. At the time of this writing, Hardemon could not be reached for comment.
Nearly 30,000 people live in Little Haiti and, like plenty of other neighborhoods in the United States, is in the middle of a new, gentrified reality. Railroad construction and other development projects are pushing into the neighborhood, leaving people to deal with displacement and rising rent costs. McGuffie is not sure if gentrification is the root cause of the trash negligence in the neighborhood; neither of the commissioners used that as an excuse. But he says if gentrification is indeed changing the area, and if the residents are actually the ones leaving trash on the streets, it’s not helping their plight.
“The people there feel like they are being neglected, so I said, why are you making it easy for them?” McGuffie said. “It brings down the property value when the area is dirty. If the place is well taken care of, then developers will pay top dollar for it.”
Many of the people there are hurting and unsure of the future as talks of developmental projects start and restart. But can Little Haiti residents count on their local officials to clean the area at the very least? It seems to be moving in that direction. Two days after McGuffie’s speech at the commission meeting, the Twitter account for Miami Solid Waste posted a photo of a small group in Little Haiti picking up trash with McGuffie that Saturday morning. “Small groups can make a big impact,” the tweet reads. “Thanks to our volunteers for helping us #KeepMiamiBeautiful. Join us next month for our next cleanup.”
As for, McGuffie, he doesn’t plan on waiting for officials to maintain cleanliness in his neck of the woods.
“The main thing that I am going to do is keep monitoring it, making sure they continue to clean the place,” said McGuffie. “I notice people here don’t want to come talk to the commissioners, so I want to bring other people to these meetings to raise their voice and be heard.”