During Haitian Heritage Month, The Haitian Times is running these mini-profiles that look at how different people experience being Haitian in America. Have a story to share? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The walls and tables are adorned with houseplants meant to recreate the “backyard” feeling of the lakou, the Creole word for yard. Holding the light bulbs are sconces modeled after pearls, a nod to Haiti’s “pearl of the Antilles” moniker. And abutting the doorway is a shelf holding more than 40 books ‒ free for the taking to anyone who swaps with a book of their own.
This is Lakou Cafe, a neighborhood cafe in Crown Heights, Brooklyn that opened three years ago this month.
Owner Cassandre Davilmar chose the name with intention. As a resident of Crown Heights’ Weeksville section, one of the first free Black communities in New York City, she wanted her business to reflect that history.
“There’s a history of self-determination here, where free Blacks started their own businesses and whatnot,” said Davilmar, 33. “They were searching for self-governance, they wanted to create an environment or a community that was meant to benefit them. I feel like Lakou is there to remind people of that.”
In Haiti, the lakou system of communal family living grew into a tool against oppression after the revolution, historians have said. Popular especially in rural parts, the lakous served as a bulwark against a return to the plantation system. The word itself means “yard.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami by Haitian parents, Davilmar said she is constantly learning more about the significance of the lakou system. She drew parallels between the stoops in Brooklyn ‒ the small front porches where people often gather in warmer months ‒ and the lakou.
A few years ago, the NYU Law grad was working at an investment bank when she realized the need for a gathering place in Weeksville.
“I was just like, ‘You know, there should be a place in the neighborhood to get lighter food, like salads and smoothies,’” Davilmar recalled thinking. “But more importantly, I wanted there to also be a place where people can get to know each other.”
She opened Lakou Cafe in May 2018. Inspired by Haitian culture, the menu comprises brunch items such as a Haitian breakfast platter featuring sauteed herring, several dinner plates, salads, dessert crepes, smoothies, coffee and more.
For customer Jessy Dorismond, the decor and authentic spices set it apart from other food spots.
“They have the spicy peanut butter, that’s my favorite,” said Dorismond, of Mill Basin. “I’m from Haiti, I like my peanut butter spicy.”
Uplifting the community through advocacy
Beyond the food, uplifting the community is a major part of Davilmar’s enterprise. Pre-pandemic, Lakou Cafe hosted book launches and “self-care Mondays” with guided meditation and journaling. When COVID-19 hit, Davilmar’s business partnered with Grandchamps Restaurant in Bed-Stuy to donate meals for health care workers.
Just this month, Davilmar has stepped up her advocacy for cleaner streets nearby on Utica Avenue and Saint Johns Avenue. After complaining to her Community Board 8 to no avail, Davilmar posted a Change.org petition to bring more than 30 trash cans to the sidewalks. To date, the petition has received more than 1,600 signatures.
“Right now, it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone advocating for our neighborhood,” Davilmar said.
For her, that commitment to advocacy is rooted in her identity as a Haitian-American, and Davilmar hopes to make Lakou Cafe a central hub of community advocacy.
“My ancestors were the vanguard of a movement that changed the world,” she said. “A lot of people view being Haitian or Haitian-American as the language, the food, and all of that’s great. But I think at the core, it’s carrying yourself with dignity and helping other people get that same dignity they deserve.”