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Flatbush Avenue: Little Haiti

Shana Ashby-Jobes, Valerie Buisson, and Nana Akua Nuamah

Introduction

     According to the 2000 census, there are about 200,000 Haitian/Haitian American inhabitants in Brooklyn, showing that it is home to the largest number of Haitian immigrants in New York City. Immigrant groups typically reconstruct some part of their homeland culture in their new environment. Language, religion, music and cuisine, along with homeland politics, are the standard staples of immigrants' reconstructed homeland cultures. These elements are prevalent throughout Flatbush Avenue, extending outwards to Nostrand Avenue and Church Avenue, two adjacent locations with a substantial amount of Haitian/Haitian Americans. The following analysis of the Haitian-American population along Flatbush Avenue will explore the above factors that distinguish this assemblage from other ethnic groups.

Presence of LOTEs

     The primary LOTE spoken in the Flatbush area is Creole. This language is spoken among Haitian/ Haitian Americans in almost every social setting. Whether Creole is used to discuss political issues or to ask the time, it is used widely among the individuals of this ethnic grouping. Although the presence of Haitian culture was evident in the Flatbush area, there was a multitude of evidence that other LOTEs existed. For example, there were "bodegas," signs of the Latin American community, where 'Spanglish' is often spoken to patrons. There were Korean grocery stores and Chinese fast food restaurants; at these establishments broken English is spoken to negotiate sales. In addition, Jamaican, Guyanese, and other West Indian establishments were present on almost every street. Within these shops many Caribbean dialects are audible. Due to the presence of these other cultures, the Haitian community has a variety of resources (different food, music, etc.) available within walking distance.

Church

     Religion forms the focal point in the lives of many Haitians. As Sophie Georges, a resident of Brooklyn puts it, "Haitian grandmothers live in church... everyday they're in church. And if they see you they want you to come to church too. " A friend of the teenage girl added, "Yeah, you'll think Church was a gossip hall or something because that's all they do in there- gossip and pray. Then when Granny comes home she can tell you who's married to who or what's going on in Haiti. Haitian grandmothers must go to church. They go on Monday, Tuesday... and twice on Sunday." As the two girls continued to poke fun at their grandparents, it became apparent that Church was a significant part of family life and that older members of the unit were responsible for instilling the importance of religious affiliation within the family line.

     By closely perusing the churches along Flatbush Ave. and carefully questioning pedestrians we learned that most Haitians are Catholic (Foner 141); but the evangelical Protestant churches, such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists, have their congregations along Flatbush as well. Therefore, it is quite common to see churches range from L'Eglise de Dieu to Mt. Zion Baptist Church all within a five minute walk. The Catholic church has responded to the influx of Haitian parishioners (about 10,000 annually) by offering services in French and Creole in several churches where Haitian priests are assigned.

     In addition to the more commonly followed religions, many Haitians in New York, not only Brooklyn, also continue to practice the less formally institutionalized Voodoo religion, "...through propitiation of the family deities and participation in rituals led by priests and priestesses, particularly on special occasions, such as the celebration on All Souls Day" (Foner 88-89). While some Haitian/ Haitian Americans deny claims of voodoo existence, passing it off as a stereotype contrived by moviemakers, many shops along the heavily [Haitian] populated avenue are designated to the sale of natural homemade formulas, magical ointments, spiritual dolls and blessed wooden carvings.

Government Agencies

     Like any other community, there are numerous services provided by the government that are multilingual, and if not available, they make provisions for people who do not speak English. One government agency in this area is the Flatbush Branch post office. In this environment, none of the clerks at the customer service windows spoke Creole. However, we were reassured by Lisandro Thomas, an employee at the post office, that there were some employees that worked in the mail room that spoke Creole and would assist any native speaker. We found it somewhat disappointing that the government, itself, did not appoint interpreters in a community that is so overwhelmingly Haitian concentrated. This is because the government, in our opinion, did not deem a post office in such a neighborhood worthy of interpreters for Creole speakers. It is such an important government agency that one would think that the government would provide assistance for Creole speakers.

     Another governmental organization in this area is the 67th Police Precinct. At the station there was a combination of Caucasian, African-American, Hispanics and Asians that worked the day shift. In comparison to other stations, the 67th Precinct seemed more ethnically diverse. Officer Dwayne Martin gave us a rough ethnic breakdown of his shift. He said that it was about twenty-one percent African-American and the rest were Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic. We asked him if there were any Haitian/ Haitian Americans that patrolled the streets and he told us that there were ten out of about twelve auxiliary officers that were Haitian. Auxiliary officers are civilians that assist the police department in ways such as traffic directing- basically with jobs that are more hands-on within the community. We thought that this was important since the Haitian population in this area might feel more connected to officers of the same ethnicity.

     Within the police station there were minute things we recognized. Flyers written in Creole posted on walls warned people against the usage of fireworks for the fourth of July. They warned civilians not to buy, sell, or use fireworks because it could cause physical harm. In addition, they also provided a phone number where people could report firework usage.

Medical Services

     Located at 1312 Flatbush Avenue, the heart of the Haitian Diaspora, Dr. Amrish Parikh's medical office caters to a heavy Haitian/Haitian-American population, in fact 80% of its patients classify themselves as being the ethnicity previously described. The receptionist that we talked to told us that of this high percentage of Haitian/Haitian-American patrons, only fifty percent are insured (over half of which is covered by Medicaid), the remaining fifty percent pay for services in cash.

     If this information seems shocking, one would be even more surprised to learn Dr. Parikh's establishment, with a predominantly Haitian clientele, offers services in only one language, English- not Creole, the native language of Haiti. Two true, very real revelations- could it be that they are interrelated?

         On the ninth floor of an office tower just two doors down from the New York Stock Exchange, brokers at a sprawling telephone dispatch center field a steady stream of calls from jittery clients, handling the requests in 18 different languages. The conversations have nothing to do with the ups and downs of the financial market next door. Instead, staff members at this Broad Street dispatch center- speaking in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Urdo, Russian, and Chinese, among other tongues- are at the forefront of a revolution under way in New York city that, at least in theory, is fundamentally changing the way health care is delivered to the poor. (Lipton 2000)

     The brokers mentioned above are enrollment brokers who are employed to help poor city residents, many of whom rely on the emergency room for basic health care, to sign up with their own family doctors. These brokers provide no direct medical care. Instead by working on the phone, through mailings and at hundreds of community meetings a month, they answer questions and urge the poor to pick their doctors and one of many health insurance programs. Critics contend that some of the one million health care recipients in New York City gradually being moved into health care plans have been misinformed about their choices, repeatedly sent enrolment forms in languages they do not understand and, in some cases, encountered mistakes that have forced delays in needed medical care (Lipton 2000).

     The above predicament clearly explains the surprisingly high number of people on Medicaid- enrollment in programs that provide a means for people to escape public assistance and join selected health insurance plans cause unnecessary grief. Not only does the ailment described justify the high number of Medicaid recipients, it also explains why so many patients pay in cash. As a result of faulty handling of critical insurance information, policies have been canceled forcing patients to dig deep into their pockets.

     Due to the unreliable nature of enrollment brokers and their lack of proficiency concerning health care for the poor, staff training has intensified. Although more effective training of brokers will eventually pay off in years to come, certain steps must be taken now. As we traveled through the Flatbush area steps toward a more medically equipped community were readily noticeable. Signs that displayed names such as Dr. Brisson Pierre and Claudette Montreuil, M.D. confirmed that Haitian/ Haitian American health professionals saw the need to service communities where adequate medical care was lacking. Unfortunately, these particular offices were closed during our visit to the neighborhood, however signs outside the office fronts indicated that services were rendered in Creole, French, and English. Although we did catch sight of quite a few offices that accommodated the Haitian/Haitian American community, there were just as many offices that staffed employees that spoke only English and in some cases Spanish (languages that not all Haitian Americans understand).

Businesses

     "The United States is not the heaven you thought you'll find." Marie Pierre-Paul, owner of La Belle Femme Boutique immigrated to the U.S, and settled in Brooklyn more than a decade ago. She is the owner of a beauty/apparel shop and described the transformation from Haitian native to Haitian immigrant as hard and sometimes unbearable. The opening quote is her reaction to the reality she faced when arriving in this country. Ms. Pierre-Paul thought that it would be challenging, but relatively doable to open a shop and create a highly successful business for herself and her family. However, she discovered that customers were hard to come by and that her own people, meaning other Haitians, rarely supported her- not to mention Americans refused to do business with someone they considered a foreigner. While her story is similar to many immigrants in New York, Ms Pierre-Paul had an advantage- she spoke English moderately well before her entrance into the States, nonetheless adversity was still a major issue.

     According to a Franklin Etienne, owner of Paradise Connection (a store that sells English/French media publications), the majority of Haitians, especially new arrivals, work at unskilled or semiskilled jobs in factories, service industries, and domestic service. He continued to state that a small but growing percentage of earlier immigrants hold professional, technical, or managerial positions, or own small businesses, often in Haitian communities. When we asked Mr. Etienne the reason more Haitians aren't trying to establish businesses or seek higher positions in existing fields he paused. Eventually, after probing for a few minutes he insinuated that lack of documentation places many Haitians in a vulnerable legal position that affects their employment opportunities-and also precludes return visits home.

     In addition to businesses with storefronts, it is quite common to see vendors set up shop on corners. These vendors make up what is called the djon-djon market. Named after the principle item sold, black mushrooms, the djon-djon market sells many native foods that are shipped directly from Haiti. These stands can be found on some of the principle streets in Brooklyn, such as Nostrand and Church Avenue Items bought at these stands cost much less than store brand items. About 60% of the stores were restaurants and the remaining percentage were a miscellaneous of record stores, insurance brokers, beauty salons and travel agencies, among other things. Most of these stores were owned by Haitians and those that were not had Haitians as employees to assist Creole speakers.

Schools

     At Walt Whitman Middle School, there is a large population of Haitian Creole speaking students. About 75% of the student body, consisting of approximately 1,200 students, are of Haitian descent. The school accommodates for these children by having bilingual education. Out of the six bilingual classes, there are four taught in Haitian Creole. The other two bilingual classes are Spanish. These classes each had approximately twenty students. This school does not have an ESL program, but there will be one created in the near future. ESL differs from bilingual education in that ESL focuses mainly on teaching English, whereas bilingual education utilizes both English and the native language to educate.

     Mark Augustine, a Haitian immigrant, is a teacher of one of the bilingual classes at Walt Whitman Middle School. He says that the class consists of students that have immigrated into the United States as well as children that are native born. Many of the students that are born in the US, have parents who are Haitian immigrants that speak little or no English. Also, there are children who speak minimal English, and they are placed in bilingual classes. Some of the students that were born in Haiti have learned some English in their schools in Haiti, but they are placed in the bilingual classes to help them adjust to using English on a more regular basis.

     The idea of bilingual education is to educate the students in their native language as well as teaching them English. The children learn science, math, and other subjects in their language and learn to translate what they have learned into English. This is an effective way of learning, because the children learn English without sacrificing their education in the other subjects. Mr. Augustine believes that bilingual education is better for these students rather than ESL programs because the ESL programs focus mainly on teaching English. He continues to state, "The students' education in the other subjects is not as extensive as compared to a bilingual or regular class."

     After completing the bilingual program at Walt Whitman Middle School, many of the students continue on to high school in regular programs. They no longer need bilingual education and they can keep up, and sometimes do better than their classmates. Mr. Augustine believes that many of these children excel in reading and writing due to their bilingual education. They have spent large amounts of time, maybe more than other students, learning how to read, write and speak English, therefore enhancing their abilities with English.

Literature

     In a Haitian music/bookstore we visited, Paradise Connection, most of the books were written in French. French is the official written language of Haiti, and Creole is the spoken language. It is only within the past few years that people have developed Creole into a written language and as a result, there are more French publications that Creole publications for Haitians. However, there has been a great rise in Haitian Creole writings and publications in recent years.

     Another form of literature, The Haiti Progrès, is a newspaper written primarily in French that is intended for Haitians/ Haitian Americans. This newspaper is sold in some of the larger cities, with high Haitian populations like the US, as well as in Canada, Haiti and France. This newspaper, in addition to being written in French, has sections written in English and Creole. The articles within this paper focus mostly on the issues affecting the homeland. It also includes American news and news in other areas with high concentrations of Haitians.

     The weekly newspaper, Haitian Times, is written in English. It is interesting that this newspaper has chosen English as the language used in publication. This demonstrates how the Haitian American community does not rely only on French or Creole to communicate. This English written paper also allows readers of other ethnicities to read and learn about the events occurring the Haitian American community. Some of the headlines included in the most recent issue were, "Face Off: Ferrer, Green in Dead Heat" and "Helping Haitians Adjust to this New Land". Approximately 75% of the readers of Haitian Times reside in NYC. The other 25% consists of people in Haiti, Boston, Florida and Chicago (a href="http://www.HaitianTimes.com">www.HaitianTimes.com).

Haitian Organizations

     One particular organization in the Flatbush area that caters to the needs of Haitian/ Haitian Americans is La Communaute Hatienne de New York (the Haitian community in New York). This group alerts the Haitian/ Haitian American community about political situations in the homeland through the use of various forms of media (TV shows, radio programs, and newspapers). This is definitely an efficient way for the Haitian community to remain informed and in tuned with issues affecting their homeland.

     The Haitian Centers Council is another organization that aids the Haitian population in New York City. This non-profit organization hosts activities and sponsors development efforts in the New York Metropolitan Area. They provide services such as immigration/refugee assistance, housing, domestic violence prevention, health education and parenting skills to Haitians (www.haalliance.org). A third association, the Haitian American Alliance of New York, is a private non-profit volunteer organization that was established to empower Haitian Americans. They achieve this goal by increasing participation in areas of social, political and economic issues.

Conclusion

     The Haitian presence in Brooklyn has affected many existing institutions, and in some cases created new ones. The Haitian impact in these neighborhoods is marked by the introduction of Haitian community centers, Creole religious services in Catholic churches, Haitian-owned stores, bilingual programs for Haitian students, and simply by the sounds of Haitian Creole on the streets. According to the 1980 census there were approximately 52,600 Haitians in NY, with an average annual influx of 15,000 to the city of NY. The Haitian impact on the wider city will be increasingly felt as Haitians become more involved in community and city politics, as more Haitians become residents and American citizens, and as the Haitian immigrant population grows in number.

About Us

     "Are you Haitian?" As social scientists, one will think this is a question we will ask our subjects, however throughout our investigation this was a question that was often asked of us. It appeared as if Haitian-Americans were shocked that anyone outside of their ethnic group would show interest in their culture. Question after question, tale after tale we emerged ourselves into the Haitian-American frame of mind and in doing so not only learned about them, but also a lot about ourselves. The members of our group, all of different ethnic roots, experienced various feelings about the discoveries made in our municipality, Flatbush Avenue, located in the borough of Brooklyn . Valerie Buisson, the only Haitian-American in the group, found the project fascinating; she states, "this opportunity allowed me the chance to learn more about the people I identify with." Nana Akua Nuamah, with roots in Ghana, and Shana Ashby-Jobes, deeply rooted in both Trinidadian and Bajan culture, felt a different sensation when investigating the Haitian-American community. "As outsiders looking in, we feel as if we had more to gain than Valerie. A lot of the stories she has heard all her life about the struggles of Haitian immigrants weren't completely new to us, however this experience gave us a chance to hear some of these tales straight from the "horses' mouths". The difference between reading something in a newspaper and actually coming in contact with someone who has experienced these tales is unbelievable. This project has definitely made us more culturally aware."

Works Cited

Lipton, Eric. "Company Enrolling Poor in Health Care Plans is Criticized," New York Times, June 30, 2000.
Foner, Nancy. New Immigrants in New York. Columbia Press: New York, 1987.
www.haalliance.com
www.HaitianTimes.com

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