haitian variety store
L'Eternal est Grand Haitian Variety Store on Nostrand Avenue, in Brooklyn's Little Haiti district. Photo by Sam Bojarski

In May 2018, Haitian Heritage Month came with much fanfare for many community leaders in Brooklyn. The month saw the co-naming of two Flatbush streets after Haitian independence heroes and the official designation by the New York City Council of a Little Haiti business and cultural district. 

Three years later, May arrived with news that the Newkirk Avenue subway station will be co-named after the Little Haiti neighborhood. The co-naming was included in the state budget on the initiative of District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn and community leaders. 

However, community leaders and merchants say, there needs to be more progress, for the Little Haiti initiative to have an impact on the lives of everyday people. 

“You cannot just have street names, that’s great, but I think we have to go to the second phase,” said Porez Luxama, executive director of the Life of Hope Center, a nonprofit serving Haitian immigrants in Flatbush. He stressed the importance of having strong small businesses, schools and even health centers.

“What’s going to make the community well-respected and people come visit Little Haiti is institutions [where] services are provided,” Luxama said. “Without services, without those kinds of institutions, I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for failure.” 

When asked about plans for the zone, one of Little Haiti’s main supporters said a major next step is to clean up Nostrand Avenue, the Flatbush thoroughfare within the district, with support from merchants and property owners.  

“We are planning on creating [a] business improvement district,” said Jackson Rockingster, president of the HABNET Chamber of Commerce, which helped create the nonprofit Little Haiti BK, to increase support for residents and businesses, in partnership with elected officials like Bichotte-Hermelyn. 

“I have to promise you that in four years, Nostrand Avenue will be completely transformed,” Rockingster said.

Little Haiti lies within East 16th Street to the west, Parkside Avenue to the north, Brooklyn Avenue to the east and Avenue H to the south. The area contains at least 9,900 Haitians, the largest single ethnic group in the census tracts that comprise the region, per U.S. Census data

BID idea news to community

Creating a formal business improvement district (BID) in an urban corridor requires buy-in from property owners and ideally their business tenants, according to Rachel Meltzer, an associate professor of urban policy at The New School. The process involves a tax that can fund various services, including sanitation, street signage and themed decorations. 

Little Haiti’s formation three years ago was partially designed to facilitate funding and support for cultural and business activities in the district, the Observer newspaper reported. The New York Times also reported that the Little Haiti designation was designed to make it easier to work with tourism and business development officials. 

But some Nostrand Avenue business owners and workers said they are unaware of any progress on a plan to form a BID. 

buffet kreol haitian restaurant
Vendors gather outside Buffet Kreol, a restaurant on Nostrand Avenue. Photo by Sam Bojarski

“We’ve been here in Little Haiti for going on 20-some years now, and no one has come or talked to us about anything,” said Reginald Francois, a technician for Radyo Panou, which has a storefront at Nostrand Avenue and Beverly Road. “We would love to have input.” 

The Nostrand Avenue business corridor involves a diverse collection of chain supermarkets, small businesses and ethnic stores, many owned primarily by immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America. 

Samuel Williams, co-owner of Ethlyn’s Caribbean Bakery on Nostrand and Tilden avenues, said that a BID could add value, in cleaning up the neighborhood. 

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Williams said, about a BID. “[But] I’m pretty sure that it is necessary to have clean sidewalks.” 

Rockingster said he envisions a BID stretching along Nostrand Avenue, north to south from Church Avenue to Glenwood Road. But when asked for a written plan that lays out the specific goals, activities and funding needed to create and sustain a BID, he said he did not have one yet.

“It’s not written down but we know it though, it’s still informal,” Rockingster said. 

Forming a BID

Since the early 1980s, property owners have formed BIDs to improve sanitation and lighting, produce restaurant guides and more, according to media reports

Now, as the city recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, BIDs can serve as a model for reinvigorating business in previously neglected areas, said Meltzer, the urban policy professor. Forming a BID involves developing a proposal or map of the area. 

Gaining support from key stakeholders before public approval is also key, said Meltzer. A clear majority of property owners must agree to the plan. Support from business tenants is also crucial to moving the process forward, she said. 

“At some point, they have to put a proposal in for what the boundaries are going to be, and what’s the budget, and what are the services,” Meltzer said. “That’s the guiding document for the BID, because it’s a legal designation. You’re giving this entity pretty big powers, they’re akin to taxing powers.” 

vendors little haiti
Street vendors near the corner of Nostrand and Newkirk avenues. Photo by Sam Bojarski

The city’s Small Business Services (SBS) department can guide individuals seeking to form a BID. In the planning stage, the department recommends the formation of a steering committee, building a database of tenants and property owners and a written plan for the BID district. BIDs must eventually be approved by the city council, according to SBS.

So far, grant funding for Little Haiti BK has only come from one source, the office of District 45 City Council Member Farah Louis. The funds have not been enough to hire multiple full-time staff members, at $40,000 each per year, he said. Those staffers would be tasked with reaching out to property and business owners and building support for the BID. 

Louis allocated $20,000 to the Little Haiti BK initiative in two consecutive fiscal years, 2020 and 2021, city council records show. Rockingster said the money has allowed Little Haiti BK to fund events like free soup joumou on New Year’s Day, salary for a part-time staff member and rent at its 1401 Flatbush Ave. office. 

But more money is needed to get the BID project off the ground. 

“What we need right now is the money to pay the salaries of the people who are doing the outreach, who are reaching [out to] the landlords,” Rockingster said. 

BIDs and uplifting communities

Although some property owners may see the extra tax as another government regulation, building support for a BID should involve clear education on its benefits, Meltzer said. In addition to improved sanitation that can attract customers, BIDs can also serve an advocacy role. 

“It’s a platform for advocacy for that community,” Meltzer said. “It’s a way to organize those voices and interests that often are not organized.” 

To build support among Haitian business owners, boots-on-the-ground educational work is a must, Francois said. 

“Haitian businesses don’t know anything unless someone comes inside and tells us,” Francois said. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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