Ben Flambert sat wrapped in an apron at a barber shop on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, listening intently as Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte explained why she was leading an effort to get the city to designate the surrounding neighborhood the Little Haiti Business and Cultural District.
BEN FLAMBERT, 42, LEFT, AT A HAITIAN-OWNED BARBERSHOP IN BROOKLYN, SUPPORTS THE IDEA OF A LITTLE HAITI DISTRICT. “THE HAITIAN PRESENCE OUT HERE IS REAL STRONG,” HE SAID. “IT MAKES SENSE.”
Across the street from the barber shop are a Haitian bakery, a Haitian church and a Haitian restaurant, Ms. Bichotte, the first Haitian-American woman elected to office in New York City, explained. People of Haitian descent make up 20 percent of the Caribbean population in Flatbush and the local Haitian parade used to pass directly in front of the barber shop.
“Miami already has a Little Haiti,” Mr. Flambert, 42, a bus driver for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said as he sipped from a miniature bottle of Rhum Barbancourt. “But the Haitian presence out here is real strong. It makes sense.”
Not everyone in the central Brooklyn neighborhood agrees. Last year, an area bounded by Flatbush, Church and Nostrand Avenues was designated the Little Caribbean cultural district, making a separate Haitian district redundant, some local leaders say. Ms. Bichotte says there were plans to name the area Little Haiti dating back more than a decade.
Now, with momentum fueled by anger over recent slights by President Trump, prominent members of the Haitian community in Brooklyn and New York State are hoping the City Council will officially designate Little Haiti in May.
The designation, said members of the nonprofit group Little Haiti BK, is a recognition of the cultural role that Haitians have played in the city and the country, and a sign that the area’s Haitian community is coming-of-age. The resolution would also serve as a formal recognition by the City Council, which organizers hope will make it easier to work with tourism and business improvement officials.
“People are stepping all over us so we’ve got to empower ourselves,” Ms. Bichotte said during a meeting of the Little Haiti BK organizing committee at her district office on Flatbush Avenue.
But even as the push for a designation grows, the area’s Haitian character is already eroding, as gentrification and the movement of Haitians to the suburbs trigger changes. While the number of Haitian-Americans grew to 1.1 million in 2016, from 623,000 in 2000, New York’s place in the Haitian diaspora has been falling. In 2016, 20 percent of the country’s Haitians lived in New York, down from 30 percent in 2000. In contrast, the Haitian population in Georgia and Pennsylvania more than tripled to over 30,000 people each in 2016.
Still, Brooklyn now has more than 90,000 Haitian-Americans, giving it the third highest concentration in the country, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“This is Haitian territory, but it’s changing,” said Ricot Dupuy, director and station manager of Radio Soleil d’Haiti, New York’s first Haitian radio station.
The proposal calls for naming an area bounded by Avenue H, Brooklyn Avenue, Parkside Avenue and East 16th Street the Little Haiti Business and Cultural District to “foster a strong sense of belonging, security, and pride among residents, businesses, nonprofits and community groups in Flatbush,” the group wrote in a letter to members of the City Council seeking their support.
The district is designed to help promote Haitian-owned businesses, but also includes proposals to create a Haitian cultural center, rename streets and erect a monument. Members of the group backing the idea acknowledge that they can’t stop gentrification but want “to leave a legacy behind, something that says we were here and that our ancestors will be proud of,” said Jackson Rockingster, president of the Haitian-American Business Network
Ricot Dupuy, 64, is the manager at Radio Soeil d’Haiti. “This is Haitian territory but it’s changing,” he says.
Mr. Trump’s derisive remarks about Haiti and his decision to end the program that allowed Haitians to live and work in the United States after the devastating 2010 earthquake, remind many Haitians of their history of being disparaged in the United States. After they began arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, stereotypes about Haitians committing crime or spreading diseases such as HIV were commonplace.
“This designation is about redefining the narrative,” said Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, chairwoman and co-founder of the Haitian Roundtable, a civic group of Haitian-American professionals. “What has happened over the last couple of months makes it even more urgent.”
Some of those stereotypes about Haitians exist even among other Caribbeans. Last September, Ernest Skinner, a Brooklyn political operative who questioned the need for a Little Haiti, wrote to elected officials that “Sowing division may be why Haiti has never been able to reach its full potential and why it is considered a Fourth World country despite the noble start it gave to the Independence movement among people of color.”
Ms. Bichotte demanded an apology. In an email, Mr. Skinner said he has a “record of strong and unwavering support” for all in the Caribbean diaspora.
Mr. Skinner is a political mentor of Jumaane Williams, a city councilman, who denounced the remarks, is a sponsor of the Little Haiti effort and supports having both a Little Caribbean and a Little Haiti. Mr. Williams, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said that Haiti’s “unique culture” is often maligned.
As a child, Mr. Williams said, his best friend was Haitian and he felt a strong affinity because they were both Caribbean. Mr. Williams’s parents are from Grenada. But Mr. Williams said he soon noticed that his friend often didn’t mention that he was Haitian and used his Anglicized name even among other Caribbeans.
“I slowly realized there was a difference. Haiti is a part of the Caribbean but the hard truth is that it’s sometimes left out when people talk about the Caribbean,” Mr. Williams said.
John Mollenkopf, who directs the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and studies the political integration of immigrants, said, “There is this pecking order in the Caribbean with Anglophones thinking of themselves as superior to French-speaking Haitians.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, either. Shelley Vidia Worrell, founder and chief curator of CaribBEING, a group that promotes Caribbean art and culture and launched the Little Caribbean district, said Haitian culture and businesses are a vital part of the district.
“We see Haiti as very much being a part of the Caribbean. For us, there was never anything that needed to be separated,” Ms. Worrell said.
Jensen Desrosiers, the owner of Tonel Restaurant & Lounge, a well-known Flatbush Haitian night spot on Rogers Avenue, said he and his partners were hoping for a cultural district when they opened five years ago.
“If you have a friend in New York City and you want to give them a taste of Haitian culture, you’d bring them to this neighborhood,” Mr. Desrosiers said as he shared classic Haitian dishes such as pork griot and tassot with Ms. Bichotte, Mr. Rockingster and a local businessman, Fritz Masse Clairvil, after the Little Haiti BK planning meeting.
“Little Haiti is already happening around us,” Mr. Clairvil chimed in.