“This is Newkirk Avenue-Little Haiti,” the announcement blared aboard the 5 subway train as it arrived at the station in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. Upstairs from the platform, street vendors were selling spices and clothing in front of Buffet Kreyol, a Haitian restaurant. In the morning sun on a recent Thursday, pedestrians moved to the rhythm of Caribbean music playing from a speaker.
The neighborhood in Central Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the U.S., was designated by the city as Little Haiti in 2018. Several streets were co-named in honor of the Caribbean nation and its revolutionary leaders. In renaming the subway station in 2021, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority noted that Haitians were the largest immigrant group in Flatbush, making up more than 20% of the neighborhood’s foreign-born population, based on the latest U.S. Census data.
“People are embracing it that they have a place to call their own,” said Charee Billups, 31, an employee in a local bakery who grew up in Flatbush and is married to a Haitian-American. “It’s nice to have a designated spot where they can talk in their own language and refer each other to opportunities to make an honest income.”
Haitians have faced a more difficult path in New York than some other immigrant groups.
“Almost all immigrant communities to NYC over the last several centuries have experienced some degree of discrimination, including Italians, Jewish central Europeans, down to the most recent arrivals,” John Mollenkopf, who directs the Center for Urban Research at City University of New York, said in an email. “People from poorer and darker skinned home countries probably experience the worst discrimination.”
Haiti, the first country in the Americas to end slavery, is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. The republic was formed in 1804 following a revolt by the enslaved against France.
That revolutionary spirit has made rulers of other Caribbean countries wary of Haitians, according to Nyya Toussaint, assistant director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. “There was great fear of the Haitian people across the Americas after Haiti’s successful revolution,” he said. “If word spread throughout the region, there was the potential for more slave rebellions and, consequently, disruption to the lucrative economies of the time.”
Haitian migrants have been stigmatized in response to the fear and questioning of Black sovereignty, Toussaint said. When Haitians began immigrating to the U.S. in larger numbers in the 1980s, they were the only ethnic group labeled by federal authorities as at risk for carrying HIV. “Stigmas we continue to face are deeply connected to the fear inflicted on the world after the Haitians dared to be free,” Toussaint said.
The Haitian diaspora in the U.S. has more than tripled in the past three decades. The population’s growth is reflected in its increased political influence in New York City. It was a coalition of political associations and civic institutions who campaigned for the official designation of Little Haiti in Flatbush.
Little Haiti was preceded by “Little Caribbean.” Janluk Stanislas, a filmmaker and immigrant from Guadeloupe who works to explore Caribbean identities beyond the divisions that different histories have created, is the co-founder of CaribBEING, a non-profit that in 2017 helped bring about the neighbourhood named after the whole region. “It’s about understanding who we are,” he said in an interview. A panel in the loft-like headquarters of his organization displays the words “I am” in various languages of the Caribbean region.
Tanika Williams, a performance artist of Jamaican origin, said Caribbean identities have traditionally been fluid in the neighborhood she grew up in. “You have that crossover in Brooklyn,” she said. The annual West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn is one event that brings together the entire Caribbean community in the borough. “You are Black, I am Black, we celebrate each other and keep on moving,” Williams said. “In Flatbush there has always been this mixing.”
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to clarify Nyya Toussaint’s statements.