By Aisha Powell
After months of negotiations, the controversial Little Haiti is officially a reality. However, while local leaders and elected officials celebrate the political win, those on the ground are asking “now what?”
BROOKLYN – As you walk out of the Newkirk Plaza Subway Station in Brooklyn, you enter a Black enclave, where you’re confronted with sights, smells, and sounds that just may make you feel like you’re in the Caribbean.
A plethora of vendors line both sides of the street selling food, oils, and shirts. The air is filled with Haitian Creole as conversations become ambience over the area. As Konpa music pours out from stores and cars, various Caribbean flags hang in almost every window; there is pride for one’s own country here.
After long talks between local officials and community groups, the area around the Newkirk Plaza Subway Station in Brooklyn was officially designated “Little Haiti Cultural and Business District” on May 18. Little Haiti — an area near Avenue H, Parkside Avenue, East 16th Street, and Brooklyn Avenue — is a political victory for Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte. The assemblywoman, who represents Flatbush and Ditmas Park since 2015, has been one of the main advocates for the designation.
While the announcement was received with praise from many in the community, there are those who are looking past the symbolic victory, questioning what comes next and asking about the impact this designation could have on the community.
For Elsie Saint-Louis, executive director of The Haitian Americans United for Progress, Inc. (HAUP), part of the planning for developing Little Haiti should include ways to safeguard the community from rising costs that comes into play when a neighborhood becomes more developed.
“As Brooklyn becomes more attractive to newcomers and others, Haitians may be uprooted from the neighborhoods they now call home because rents and other costs become too high,” Saint-Louis said in a statement. “As a result, small businesses such as restaurants and barber shops disappear.”
Saint-Louis is calling for Bichotte and other elected officials to form strong partnerships with community organizations like hers to develop a framework that “fulfills the promise of a Little Haiti Cultural and Business District” while maintaining a place that sports affordable housing, high-performing public schools, decent neighborhoods, police community relations, and cultural meccas.
“In short, Little Haiti should reflect and celebrate the diversity and richness of New York City,” she said.
However, for Haitian residents and local business owners in the area, the new promises of what the district will bring bates the following: besides a political victory, what does this really mean for the community?
Gentrification in Brooklyn is a big issue for locals, especially over the past decade. From 2010 to 2017, rent increased by 3.8 percent. According to StreetEasy, average rent in Brooklyn today is $2,788.
Former Flatbush resident Ludwick Renoit, who now lives in Miami-Dade county, remembers growing up and watching the gentrification of Bushwick, a district away from Brooklyn. “At least if we have an area that we call our own, we can make sure that we represent the future of Brooklyn,” said Renoit.
Hassan Bakiriddin, a local area resident and chair of Community Board 17’s commerce committee, is delighted to hear about Little Haiti. For him, it’s a step to preserving the culture in the area.
“It’s something that should have happened a long time ago,” said Bakiriddin.His committee is in charge of businesses, empowerment of business owners, and handling business community relations.
Among their goals for the new cultural and business district is to make sure local business owners will have access to resources.
“We developed a small subcommittee, which specifically looks at how we can best help bring resources to business, in addition to furthering the culture in Little Haiti,” said Bakiriddin. The committee found that local residents want to shop and patronize locally.
Little Haiti, however, isn’t the only cultural district in the area. The announcement comes on the heels of the creation of Little Caribbean, which is in the same community. For some Caribbean leaders in the community, the decision to carve out a designation for Little Haiti was a divisive one.
Although his committee works on both Little Haiti and Little Caribbean, Bakiriddin says that he has a special gratitude to Haiti for being the first independent black nation and that it is a “shining beacon” for people of color.
Flatbush is known for its dense foreign population—46 percent of whom are from the Caribbean, according to data from the 2013 American Community Survey. Haitians comprise the majority of its Caribbean residence at 19 percent.
When Kristia Beaubrun first heard of the proposal for Little Haiti last year, she was ecstatic. The Haitian American and creator of HT Communique—an online resource that connects Haitians to academic, economic, and professional opportunities—has always worn her Haitian identity proudly.
She was always aware of the challenges past generations of Haitians felt when it “wasn’t cool” to identify as Haitian.
“Given the prevalence of Haitian small businesses within that commercial corridor,” she said, “I think it’s a great start and would definitely help in our legislator’s efforts to increase tourism and economic development.”
Beaubrun has always heard about the accomplishments of other Caribbeans but never felt that Haitians were included in the conversation.
“We often hear about the success of Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Dominicans,” she said. “Where do Haitians fit in?”
In September 2017, Brooklyn made history by announcing New York City’s first “Little Caribbean” neighborhood around Flatbush, Church, and Nostrand Avenues.
Little Caribbean’s creation was led by Shelley Worrell, creator of an initiative that uses culture, art, and film to illuminate Caribbean culture called CaribBeing. Worrell, along with Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams and local businesses, advocated and pressed until local politicians finally designated the area Little Caribbean—with good reason.
In 2013, nearly one of every two people in Flatbush were born in another country. Of that population, nearly half were from the Caribbean—the second-highest concentration of Caribbean people outside of the Caribbean following Florida.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, from 2012 to 2016, Brooklyn had the highest population of Caribbeans in New York (Figure 2).
In a letter sent to New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio last September, Bichotte writes that while she wasn’t opposed to the idea of a Little Caribbean, she wanted to remind the mayor that “there were also conversations about a designation for ‘Little Haiti’ long before,” that were temporarily put on hold due to the establishment of the Haitian Studies Institute.
“The decision to move forward with the ‘Little Caribbean’ designation was done largely without having any conversations and/or meetings with many elected officials of Caribbean descent,” Bichotte wrote.
The letter ends with her asking the mayor to put the designation on hold.he next day, it was announced that the area was deemed Little Caribbean.
Within Flatbush’s foreign community, one of over 100,000 people, Haitians top the scale accounting for the biggest percentage of foreigners, at eight percent. (Figure 3)
While a significant number of Haitians, Jamaicans, and Trinidadians call Flatbush home, cultural tensions rooted in decades of history have added another dimension to the conversations around Little Haiti and Little Caribbean.
According to Black Past, an organization that details the history of black countries, following the end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, many Caribbean countries still controlled by European powers were distanced from Haiti for fear of revolt.
The distance grew into disdain as other Caribbean countries “shunned” Haiti for its confusing political structure that unraveled throughout the 20th century, as detailed in Matthew Smith’s “An Island Among Islands: Haiti’s Strange Relationship with the Caribbean Community.”
When other Caribbean countries gained their freedom from oppressors, they remained closed off to Haiti, still stumbling to find political and economic stability.
Bichotte recognizes that the disconnect is still present in today’s relations but believes the distinction between the two cultural districts needs to be present.
“Haiti has had a unique position within the Caribbean—it is in the Caribbean, but not of the Caribbean,” Bichotte said in a September 2017 email. “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.”