Miami's "Calle Ocho" always sounded more exotic than it actually was. Officially known as SW Eighth Street, the main thoroughfare running east-west through the heart of Little Havana, the city's Cuban-American district, never had much to offer visitors apart from some cheap restaurants serving rice and beans and sweet Cuban coffee, and old men in hats chewing cigars and playing dominoes. In fact, its neglected streets, low-income housing and rising crime led many Cuban-Americans to pack up and leave. The district could have been renamed Little Central America after an influx of immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua in the 1980s. But 50 years after the first Cuban exiles fled the Castro Revolution, Calle Ocho is getting a makeover, fueled in part by the arrival of 300,000 new Cuban immigrants during the past 15 years. Today the streets are clean, the sidewalks are new, and Cuban culture is springing up everywhere, from art galleries and cigar stores to Cuban theater, salsa dancing and nightclubs. "Little by little you can see the transformation," said Elena Freyre, a 1960s exile who opened an art gallery two years ago.
Freyre considered other trendy areas of Miami, such as Wynwood and Design District, but opted for her roots instead. "Calle Ocho is in my blood. It's part of my history growing up," she said.
Freyre and others hope that one day Calle Ocho could be to Miami what the French Quarter is to New Orleans or Little Italy to New York.
Others say the model is Ybor City in Tampa, which also underwent a recent transformation.
Calle Ocho still has a long way to go, and it has yet to win much recognition locally in a city that pays more attention to star sightings at South Beach clubs.
But the signs of change are already there.
"I really honestly think that this is the future, not South Beach. This is where people will come to get a taste of the culture of the city," Freyre said.
Freyre travels to Cuba often and has exhibited works by artists still in Cuba, once a no-no for the Cuban exile establishment.
"I had a couple of people get a bit out of hand. One gentleman was asked to leave. But it didn't go beyond that," she said, remembering the old days when galleries were picketed and firebombed for showing "communist" art.
There's already an ample amount of culture here, and surprises at every turn.
Take the Cuban exiles classic car club that meets on Fridays at the Calle Ocho Home Depot parking lot. "We are far from home, but we remember our roots," said Alfredo Martín, who founded the club five years ago and drives a 1946 Plymouth, one of 16 antiques in his collection. "Nostalgia is all we have."
Antique stores offer everything from the 1959 Havana phone book to G-strings imprinted with "Linda Cubana" (Pretty Cuban Woman).
Calle Ocho is fast becoming a mecca for cigar aficionados, too. Several cigar stores have opened recently.
The newest, Padilla Cigars, is owned by Ernesto Padilla, the 36-year-old son of one of Cuba's greatest poets. Old black and white photos of his father with 1950s literary figures, including Ernest Hemingway, decorate one wall.
"My family were growers in Cuba," said Padilla, who opened the store in October in a renovated 1920s building.
Padilla used to have a warehouse in Hialeah where he displayed his Nicaraguan-made line of cigars. "Clients used to ask me 'Can we go to Calle Ocho and have lunch?' and I would say, 'You don't want to do that. There's nothing there.' "
Now tourists drop in on tour buses from the port of Miami, fresh off Caribbean cruises.
"We are trying to get the word out," said Padilla, sucking on one of his own "Padilla Miami" stogies. "There's places to eat, things to do and see. It's turning around."
Roberto Ramos, 44, is typical of the new breed of Cuban exile. A former karate champion and special-forces trainer in Cuba, Ramos fled Cuba in 1992 on a boat stuffed with valuable works of Cuban art. Like many more recently arrived Cuban exiles, he clings to his Cuban culture and has traveled back to Cuba frequently.
In December he opened Cuba Ocho, a Cuban cultural and research center housed on the spacious ground floor of a new building opposite Máximo Gómez park, the famous spot where older Cubans congregate and play dominoes.
The center is partly furnished with engraved wood panels salvaged from Frank Sinatra's former nightclub on Miami Beach. The walls of Cuba Ocho are covered with Ramos' personal collection of paintings and books from Cuba's prerevolutionary era, overlooked and even censored by the Castro government.
"Calle Ocho is Miami's Cuban corner. I had to be here," he said. "My goal is to recover the epoch of glamor in Cuba. I want my collection to be where people can see it."
Ramos has dedicated years to putting his collection together, hunting down old masters in Cuba, as well as in Miami. The pride of his collection in currently housed at the Daytona Beach Museum of Art and Science. Among the pieces is an early 20th century work depicting Jóse Márti addressing Tampa cigar workers in Ybor City (Márti and the Tampa Cigar Owners, by Antonio Sánchez Araujo).
"The revolution tried to erase that whole period of our culture. They banned the artists, as well as writing and research about their work," Ramos said.
He stumbled into his passion accidentally, after accepting an old painting as payment for a house moving job. Told it was worthless, he discovered that the artist, Carlos Sobrino, was a forgotten master. Before he left Cuba, Ramos acquired as many prerevolutionary works as he could. "I discovered there were lot of works here that were undervalued," he said. He has amassed more works since leaving Cuba.
Ramos is typical of Miami's new breed of exile. The newer arrivals are giving Miami's Cuban community a cultural makeover. Unlike the white, aristocratic business elite that left Cuba in the 1960s, the new generation exiles are working-class Cubans, with a closer bond to the island and its popular culture.
"We still have relatives there and part of us is still there," said Pedro Jaime, 52, an industrial engineer who came with nothing in 1996 and now owns El Nuevo Siglo, a busy supermarket on Calle Ocho that he recently remodeled.
Across the street at Kimbara Cumbara, theater owner Fabio Díaz, 35, has created a popular nightspot for Cuban comedy shows. Saturday nights is headlined by Mujeres, a Latin-style Vagina Monologues, featuring six women in different states of female angst.
The evening continues with Los Dan, a popular 1970s Cuban pop band (think the Beatles in Spanish) that was banned by Fidel Castro for "ideological diversionism." Lead singer Orlando Jardines, 57, moved to Miami in 1995 and reformed the band, reconnecting with many of its transposed fans in the process.
An airline mechanic, Jardines can't wait to strip off his greasy overhauls and take the stage, banging out the old hits. The crowd loves it. "Some of these people are my old fans from the '70s. People who arrive (from Cuba) yesterday, they know our songs," he says.
Díaz, the owner, arrived in Miami in 1993 and worked as a waiter at Gloria Estefan's South Beach restaurant, Larios on the Beach. His father, a famous nighttime radio DJ, stayed behind. In 2000, Díaz opened Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday), a lively Cuban music club on Calle Ocho featuring jazz/fusion. It was an instant hit.
"Cubans are entrepreneurs and optimists by nature, despite all the history of the last 50 years," said Díaz. "Our culture is what saves and unites us."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.