By Bianca Silva
When Haitian-American photographer Richard Louissaint lived in the Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant sections of Brooklyn several years ago, he began to notice the rapid gentrification taking place.
From 2011 to 2012, he photographed the businesses he frequented along the strip from Nostrand to Franklin Avenues and interviewed Caribbean business owners who were seeing the changes unfolding before their eyes. Mom-and-pop shops where the owners spoke Haitian Creole were either vacant or had transformed into trendy eateries.
Now, Louissaint, 42, has the opportunity to further document these changes through the Haitian Cultural Exchange (HCX), a nonprofit organization supporting the Haitian arts and culture community in New York City. His project, Istwa Nan Je Yo, Haitian Creole for “history in their eyes,” focuses on Haitian immigrants in East Flatbush whose businesses are responding to the effects of gentrification.
“For me, this is really addressing things like gentrification and the rise in cost of living in a city like New York because the housing market is so crazy and just understanding what has happened” Louissaint said. “ You can see that through businesses that are still around, businesses and organizations that have been around and may not be around and the ones that are still around because there are stories to tell.”
Louissaint was one of four artists of Haitian descent to be selected for the Lakou NOU program meaning “our yard” in Haitian Creole. The other participating artists selected this year – Madjeen Issac, Stefani Saintonge and Sirene Dantor Sainvil- are assigned one of four traditionally Haitian neighborhoods including: Flatbush, East Flatbush, Canarsie and Crown Heights where they’re responsible for producing a body of work that deeply resonates with their assigned community.
Regine M. Roumain, the executive director of HCX, explains the importance of having an outlet where Haitian artists can produce a body of work that matches their passion for the culture.
“As Haitians living in the Diaspora,” she says “whether we’re Haitian American or born in Haiti we continue to bring that energy wherever we go.”
HCX was founded in 2009 to help preserve the Haitian cultural landscape in New York City. Since then, the organization has developed school programs, artist talks and a film festival promoting Haitian arts and culture.
When it comes to the Lakou Nou, Roumain mentions that dancers, writers and singers have been accepted in the past. As for Louissaint’s project, she mentions how unique his work is.
“This is not anything that has been done before in particular to documenting via video in this way,” she says. “Businesses in Flatbush have been there for quite a long time. The community mostly resides in Flatbush and East Flatbush. It’s the world’s largest population of Haitians and documenting these businesses as a way to showcase what they’ve been doing, their importance in the community as anchors of our community I think is very important and interesting.”
Louissaint’s website contains vivid imagery of the business owners of East Flatbush. From the local radio host who presents news on the diaspora and has residents swing by his shop to give their thoughts on the news to a vendor who sells his merchandise in front of where his store used to be, each of Louissaint’s subjects had to be persuaded to tell their story.
“You have to convince people to get on board especially when you’re dealing with older business owners and people who aren’t used to projects with artists,” he says. “It’s this whole dance you have to play. It was also a matter of me connecting with people whose names kind of ring bells already so I had to figure out who those people were and that’s been helpful. I’m still working on getting more people. I definitely want to get some women business owners.”
For Louissaint, Istwa focuses on bringing up a seemingly insignificant memory of something you didn’t realize was there until change occurs. Documenting it however has proven to be trickier than expected.
“One of the questions I always ask people is: ‘How is your space used as a social space?’, he says. “That’s the one way I was trying to approach that memory question.”
Louissaint realized that to get to the “memory” aspect, he had to get them to their roots.
“I want to make sure that these pieces have some personal aspects to them,” says Louissaint, a former music journalist before focusing on photography. “That’s why I ask everybody which parts of Haiti they came from and what actually brought them to the states and to start the business that they started.”
Growing up in Queens, while he was interested in Haitian culture, he wasn’t exposed to certain aspects of it until adulthood.
“If I hadn’t gotten to know a lot of Haitian artists I’ve met over the past eight years,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been aware of other aspects of haitian culture like haitian folklore and those things I didn’t grow up with because I came from a conservative family. There’s certain things I didn’t know about haitian culture that were only seen in a negative light that I’ve gotten to learn about.”
For Roumain, the evolution of arts and culture in the community continues to shine partly because of organizations like the Haiti Cultural exchange that give creative outlets to people like Louissaint.
“The artist community has always been here and vibrant,” she says. “I do think there are a lot of young people now kind of continuing to do that work and there has been a renewal if you will of that activity and it’s been a beautiful thing to see.”