By Vania Andre
BROOKLYN, NY — An effort to name parts of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn “Little Haiti” plunged into controversy last week when a local political operative blasted the idea as divisive and misguided.
Haitian community members and leaders called on support from the mayor for the establishment of “Little Haiti” in the same area that was designated “Little Caribbean” last week.
Little Caribbean would begin at Brooklyn College and run along Flatbush Avenue to Empire Boulevard.
“The Haitian community supports the designation of both ‘Little Haiti’ and ‘Little Caribbean,’” said Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, the first Haitian-American to be elected to the State Legislature from New York City. Bichotte represents the 42nd Assembly District which encompasses the communities of Ditmas Park, Flatbush, East Flatbush and Midwood.
While the proposal has garnered support from some in the community including the Haitian American Caucus, Haitian American Business Network Chamber of Commerce and Haiti Cultural Exchange, the proposed “Little Haiti” has also been met with criticism.
In an email to Bichotte and a host of other elected officials, including Council Member Mathieu Eugene and Rep. Yvette D. Clark, Ernest Skinner, a local community organizer and activist, condemned Bichotte’s efforts to co-name the Flatbush area “Little Haiti.” He called the move “misguided” and one of “division.”
“When did Haiti stop being part of the Caribbean? This is the same insularity which sunk the fledgling Caribbean Federation,” he said in the email. “Sowing division may be why Haiti has never been able to reach its full potential and why it is considered a Fourth World country despite the noble start it gave to the Independence movement among people of color.”
Bichotte has since sent a letter to Skinner calling for a public apology.
“We support the Caribbean community. We are part of the Caribbean community,” the letter reads. “Although you have supported Haitian Americans and Haitian initiatives in the past, your statement clearly shows that your heart was not in it and thus erases any and all efforts.”
The letter, which was signed by 11 Haitian community leaders and groups, including the Haitian Roundtable and Assemblymembers Michaelle Solages and Kimberly Jean-Pierre, emphasizes the various Haitian-related initiatives that highlight the history and culture of Haiti. She lists the street co-naming of Nostrand Avenue with Toussaint L’Ouverture Boulevard, the annual Haitian parades on Nostrand Avenue and the establishment of the Haitian Studies Institute (HSI) housed at Brooklyn College.
“We were taken aback by the lack of engagement that has been shown to many of the elected officials and key stakeholders within the Haitian community throughout the overall process,” Bichotte said.
The designation for “Little Caribbean” was initiated by Flatbush native Shelley Worrell, founder of CaribBEING, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to showcasing Caribbean culture. She has been working on the designation for roughly two years and saw it as an opportunity to support the existing businesses in the area, as well as, position the area as a tourist attraction.
Councilman Jumaane D. Williams is the designating councilman for the initiative and is encouraging “more fruitful dialogue” to mitigate tensions.
“My office is looking forward on working to pursue both an official ‘Little Caribbean’ and a ‘Little Haiti,’” said Williams. “The words in the letter were hurtful; I understand the community’s concern and I certainly hope an apology is forthcoming, and deservedly so.”
There were conversations about a “Little Haiti” long before there was one for a “Little Caribbean,” Bichotte said in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The idea for a “Little Haiti” emerged several years ago. Bichotte and Williams, whose districts encompasses one of the largest Haitian constituencies in New York, discussed the matter but temporarily tabled talks on the designation to focus on advocacy for HSI.
The plan was to revisit the idea after HSI was off the ground.
According to Bichotte, the decision to name Flatbush Avenue “Little Caribbean” was done without community support or involvement.
There were no meetings held with any of the local officials, nor are the local Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) “entirely on board including the Flatbush and Church Avenue BIDs as well as Crown Heights merchants for similar reasons,” she said.
“The support of the idea for the designation is welcome, but it has to be discussed with local community members, especially those that have the power to make the designation.”
New York, particularly Flatbush, Brooklyn, has one of the largest populations of Haitians and Haitian-Americans outside of South Florida. There are an estimated 165,000 Haitian-born immigrants living in New York, according to 2017 data. However, community leaders believe the true number is upwards to 300,000 when taking into account the undocumented population and first and second-generation Haitian Americans who closely identify with the culture of their parents’ homeland.
“Haiti has had a unique position within the Caribbean — it is in the Caribbean, but not of the Caribbean,” said Bichotte. “Although Haiti is geographically part of the Caribbean, the Haitian community has historically been singled out and excluded as a member of the greater Caribbean community, which is why Haitians have had to build separate communities and organizations in order to survive.”
When Haitians migrated to Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, many faced discrimination from Black and Caribbean Americans who lived in the area. Cultural tensions between the French-Creole speaking immigrants and their English-speaking counterparts spurred division within the greater West Indian community.
“Old wounds have been opened as the voices of the community and elected officials have not been engaged throughout the designation process,” Bichotte said. “Although, the journey to unity has come a long way between island politics and differences, having both designations would be ideal to acknowledge the Haitian people’s struggle. If all goes well, the designation of ‘Little Haiti’ would be established first in order to be encapsulated within the designated area of the ‘Little Caribbean.’”