While driving along Flatbush Ave the other day, I noticed a banner stretched across the thoroughfare at one particular intersection. It read: “One Love Little Caribbean.”
What makes this sign even more eye-catching is that it’s hoisted slightly in front of the district office of Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn. It was a retaliatory move against allies of the legislator, who had put up their own “Little Haiti BK” sign during last Christmas holidays.
If this sounds silly or trivial, it is neither. There is a serious and visceral feud between some leaders of the Caribbean contingency and Haitians. Never mind that the average resident couldn’t care less about this duel. The battle rages on.
The issue over what to name the currently largely Caribbean neighborhood has been contentious for a few years now. Some Caribbean leaders say that “Caribbean” is a more reflective name and represents everyone. They argue that “Little Haiti” acknowledges one group, albeit a large one, is exclusive and a slap to the face of the other West Indians who are our next-door neighbors.
Bichotte-Hermelyn, on the other hand, sees the situation as a brass-knuckle political throwdown because Haitians make up the largest portion of Caribbean people in Flatbush. Hence, the area should be designated as Little Haiti BK. Using her position in the assembly, she codified the Little Haiti BK name into law. Soon, the Newkirk Ave subway stop will be co-named Little Haiti.
Community plans as solid as putty
Besides the legislative maneuvers, nothing much has been done for the area. As the Haitian Times reported earlier this week, Little BK is about as solid as putty. Not many resources have been earmarked and there are no concrete plans to bring the tourists into central Brooklyn to enjoy grio and lalo and to peruse the art galleries that will allegedly line the streets.
There is also the much-needed cultural center that will be the anchor of Little Haiti BK. This has become a top priority for community leaders who are determined to have a center like the one in Miami, if not better. They watch with envy as that center has become a sort of a shrine to politicians and other dignitaries to appeal to the community.
It was there that then-candidate Joe Biden campaigned and photos from that event — with a colorful mural in the background — left a lasting impact of the community to the outside world and its meaning to the community. As an aside, there are not too many Haitians left in Little Haiti in Miami these days. Rapid gentrification has forced them to the northern Dade and western Broward counties, for the most part.
In Brooklyn, there are many efforts underway to concretize those plans. I know that the Haitian American Alliance is exploring raising funds for a full plan, including architectural renderings of the building. In their plan, the center will provide space for stores, event rooms, a performing art center and exhibition space. There will be programs for the youth and the elderly. In short, a place to showcase and share our culture with our friends and neighbors in New York City.
On Tuesday, mayoral hopeful and one of the front runners Andrew Yang trekked to Flatbush to talk to members of the community and the media during a campaign stop. The cultural center took centerstage. Leaders pushed Yang for his pledge that he would help make the center a reality. He said absolutely.
Yang predicts in the post-pandemic world where there will be a hybrid in-person and in-office work culture, many old office buildings will no longer be needed and one or part of one can be converted as a center.
The same commitment has been made by other mayoral candidates as a stop in the community has become mandatory. We’ve come a long way baby since we were wondering whether to even invite candidates to speak to us. We were so afraid of engaging with politicians since many of us by then had lived under the brutal Duvalier dictatorship.
Clean up Flatbush already
But before plans are drawn and money disbursed, there is something that the elected officials can do to beautify the area: trash removal. Flatbush Ave, the main artery in the community, is simply dirty. Trash cans are overflowing and spilling into the streets.
I know that during the height of the pandemic last year, the city cut sanitation services for obvious reasons that we were all sheltering in place, except for essential workers. But sanitation trucks are out in full force but they just can’t keep up with the volume in the busy Flatbush area.
In other commercial hubs in the city, the Business Improvement District or BID, hire a cleaning staff to remove debris from the streets. Part of the Little Haiti plan calls for a BID, but there are no resources allocated. Frankly, the area’s representatives can pressure the sanitation department to do better in the short term.
It’s a better fight to wage than the civil war that is going on between Caribbean-Americans and Haitian-Americans.