Helping Mom and Pop Businesses Survive Gentrification

Adams Morgan Main Street

In the early 2000s, I was walking through my Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC when I saw neighbors cleaning up a local park. I found out they were part of a new organization called Adams Morgan Main Street; I joined as a volunteer.

I participated in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street trainings and served as Chair of the organization’s Economic Diversification committee, eager to ensure that local independent businesses would not be displaced as the area struggled through gentrification.

In this role, I launched the business district’s first resource-sharing mixers for small business owners, as well as workshops on how to obtain long-term leases. Our committee also developed a business directory and a lunch campaign.

Little Havana Merchant Alliance

In 2011, after I’d moved to Miami, Florida’s Little Havana neighborhood, I met a developer (Bill Fuller) with a shared passion for Little Havana and a concern about an influx of chain stores. We discussed launching a business called the Little Havana Merchant Alliance (LHMA), with me as its president.

Soon, however, both Bill and I realized that LHMA was better suited as a non-profit. Our key issues were improving neighborhood walkability and public safety, expanding our tree canopy, free education for local merchants, promoting the neighborhood online and providing wayfinding signage, preserving the neighborhood’s character and building relationships and connections among local stakeholders.

In this painting of the Futurama 1637 building on Calle Ocho, local artist Kati Penner incorporates pictures of Little Havana’s community leaders, including members of LHMA. Longtime Viernes Culturales director Pati Vargas is on the far left, I’m standing near the entrance, and Bill Fuller is opening the door.

We formed a board of directors, with Little Havana-raised Alvaro Alvarez as president, Bill Fuller as Vice Chair, myself as Secretary and Jose Touzet as Treasurer. In 2012 alone, by which time I was serving as Vice Chair, LHMA had sponsored a networking event, planted street trees, and held free workshops for local merchants. We formed a partnership with Miami Dade College InterAmerican Campus’s School of Continuing Education to offer some of these free workshops.


We spoke at City Hall on behalf of historic preservation in the area and met regularly with city planning staff and historic preservation organizations to share and discuss our concerns about maintaining the area’s local character and its mom and pop businesses. Our activism helped convince an auto parts chain from locating a store directly across from Cuban Memorial Park.

We convinced the owner of a local McDonald’s, who was replacing his original building with a new design, to install artwork by local artists on the building’s outside walls and to plant and care for street trees in front of his building. You can see the works by artists Xavier Cortada and the Curras brothers (both of whom I recommended) on the sides of the current restaurant.

We also convinced a prominent local organization, the Kiwanis of Little Havana, to work on making its famous Calle Ocho Festival more beneficial to local businesses and not just outside vendors and sponsors.

I gave walking tours to Fellows in the Miami Foundation’s civic leadership program and delivered presentations about the neighborhood to numerous local groups. LHMA sponsored a Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremony for Domino Plaza and holiday lighting for the area.

The Open House

The Little Havana Open House. On a wall not visible in this photo, we projected the presentation linked to below.

I also played the lead role in planning the neighborhood’s first Open House in September 2013, which brought together more than 100 community leaders, merchants and residents, as well as representatives from local organizations, to learn about various nonprofits and community-oriented projects in the neighborhood. You can see the presentation (pdf) that was looped and projected onto a wall throughout the event; it lists different local organizations and how they serve community needs.

I was grateful to the LHMA board members who assisted, including Raissa Fernandez and Anneliese Morales.

Weekly Breakfasts

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LHMA’s community breakfast series.

During my time with LHMA, I also proposed and launched a popular community weekly breakfast series for informal discussion about local issues and concerns, which became a tradition continued long after I went to graduate school and had to leave LHMA.