A Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College Project

Category: 2000-Present

West Indians in Flatbush

The American Community Survey five-year estimate published in 2013 reveals that more than half of the population of Flatbush is foreign-born, Pie Graph 1and that two-thirds of the foreign-born population is of Caribbean origins.[1] This demographic information is important to acknowledge because just by sheer number, the West Indian population has largely affected the overall ethnic atmosphere of Flatbush.[2]

20150416_101012The integration of old lifestyles with new ones is key in the process of immigrant absorption into America. West Indian immigrants have been able to incorporate their culture and traditions into their lives here, be it in the organizations they run, such as the Haitian Family Resource Center or the businesses they open, such as the Dollar Van corporations.

“West Indian beauty parlors, restaurants, record deals, and bakeries dot the landscape, and Haitian Creole and West Indian scents fill the air.”

More than 20 percent of the foreign-born population in Flatbush is from Haiti, the largest group, followed by Trinidad and Tobago. According to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey,10.8 percent of all Haitians in New York City live in Flatbush, making it the most concentrated Haitian population in New York City.  This makes Flatbush a sort of cultural center for the Haitian community and most other West Indian groups, as they have greatly impacted the neighborhood’s cultural character. Nancy Foner, in her book One Out Of Three: Immigrant New York In The 21St Century,[3] explains that in Flatbush “West Indian beauty parlors, restaurants, record deals, and bakeries dot the landscape, and Haitian Creole and West Indian scents fill the air.”

An interesting thing to note about the Haitian population is that 76 percent of second-generation Haitians reported having both parents originally hail from Haiti.[4] This shows the strength of their cultural connections.  They are united in the stores they open, the neighborhoods they live in together, and the churches they go to.  Veteran television news commentator Gabe Pressman has noted that this pride and unity motivates them despite hardship and poverty.[5] They set up businesses to help their fellow countrymen and those who are able to support themselves do not forget their allegiance to their homeland and the relatives they left behind. They are estimated to remit as much as $600 million a year to family back “home.”

Haitian immigrants tend to have an education level lower than the national average plus a median income lower than the national one, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, since they come from a place where life is typically harder they readily accept the challenge of adjusting to their new lives here.

the 2010 earthquake in Haiti had a major effect on Flatbush’s Haitian community

Even with determination and hard work, the struggle to live here is not just an economic one. According to an article by the International Orthodox Christian Charities[6],the 2010 earthquake in Haiti had a major effect on Flatbush’s Haitian community, as many of the Haitians in Flatbush had to cope with the loss of family and friends in the disaster.

The charity illustrated that with the story of a man it identified as Doug, a resident of Flatbush, who wanted to bring his wife from Haiti to the United States and was very nervous after the catastrophe. He said, “I was reaching out to everyone – local, state and federal government – and nobody was helping me,” he said. “I almost began to despair when a friend of mine told me about the Haitian Family Resource Center, and then everything changed immediately.” The center had many resources to aid Haitians living in Flatbush who were displaced by disaster and were living in the New York area. It even helped those trying to locate family members. After immediate needs, the center focused and still works to provide social services and legal advice on immigration issues, and help to apply for a special immigration status offered by the U.S. government following the earthquake. The fact that a social service organization was created to cater to a specific foreign population in regard to a recent event that affected them is truly remarkable. It reflects the major influence immigrant groups have had in Flatbush.

Another major immigrant group from the West Indies is the Jamaicans. Like most immigrants, Jamaicans came to America mainly for economic reasons. In 2000, their labor force participation rate was 69 percent for women and 74 percent for men over age sixteen. Many hold multiple jobs to provide for their family adequately.

Jamaicans have had a unique economic effect on New York City since they tend to concentrate in distinct occupational niches. For example, a path for many Jamaican women is to start out as nursing home or hospital aides, move up to become licensed practical nurses, and then receive additional training to qualify to become registered nurses.

Jamaican men have created a niche in the jitney van industry, where they develop better and cheaper transportation to fill in the gaps in the public transportation system. Dollar vans are very common in Caribbean countries where mass transit systems are not in place. Thus, when immigrants from the Caribbean came to Brooklyn, they implemented this system, which takes passengers from point A to point B for a dollar or two. Around Brooklyn College, dollar vans travel up and down Flatbush Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, and Avenue H. Many people rely on dollar vans to help them get to work and school on time and use them to avoid waiting for buses or being stuck in traffic.

Dollar vans became an avenue for immigrant entrepreneurs such as Winston Williams, whose company is called Blackstreet Van Lines. For years, police cracked down on the unregulated vans. It was through great effort of Una Clarke, a Jamaica-born member of the City Council, that the dollar vans were able to become legal under 1996 legislation.[7]


[1]“ACS 2013 5-Year Estimates.

[2] Karen D. Lincoln, Linda M. Chatters, Robert Joseph Taylor, and James S. Jackson,

“Profiles of Depressive Symptoms among African Americans and Caribbean Blacks,” Social Science & Medicine 65.2 (2007): 200-13.

[3] Nancy Foner, One out of Three : Immigrant New York in the Twenty-first Century (City: Publisher, 2013), page number.

[4] “Select Diaspora Populations in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute.

http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/ select-diaspora-populations-united-states

[5] Haitian Flatbush. Interview by Gabe Pressman. 4 New York. NBC New York, August

6, 2010. http://www.nbcnewyork.com.

[6] “Effect of Haiti Earthquake Ripple Through US Community,” International Orthodox

Christian Charities News and Needs 13, no. 2 (2010). http://www.iocc.org/nwsltr/fall2010/fall2010_pg5.aspx

[7] Eric Larson, “Dollar Vans: Inside NYC’s Huge, Hidden Transit Network,” Mashable.com, April 10, 2014., accessed at http://mashable.com/2014/04/10/dollar-vans-new-york/


South Asians in Flatbush

There is a large number of South Asians present in or near Flatbush. For example, there is a community of Bangladeshis near Church and McDonald Avenues. A Bangladeshi immigrant, Ansar A. Lovlu, describes the change in the area from when he immigrated in 1995 to now. At first, he recalled, there was a handful of Bangladeshis beginning to settle in. Now, the entire area has become dominantly Bangladeshi. Everyone speaks the native language. More than 74,000 Bangladeshi immigrants live in New York City, according to the latest figures from the Census Bureau, a 20 percent increase since 2009, making them the 11th-largest foreign-born population in the city. Bangladeshi activists have even tried to rename a stretch of McDonald Avenue after Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh, and to anoint the intersection Bangla Town.[1]

There has also been a large community of Pakistanis growing on Coney Island Avenue in a section now referred to as “Little Pakistan,” home to the largest Pakistani community in New York City. Before this community developed, the area was primarily Jewish. However, by the 1990s, a wave of Pakistani immigrants had moved into the area and in the last decade, Pakistani-owned businesses started to multiply. Pakistanis, as well as Bangladeshis, are better educated than the average U.S. population. They also have median incomes that were greater than the U.S. median.[2]

After the World Trade Center attack in 2001, this little area experienced turmoil as its residents faced suspicion and prejudice. Pakistan-born residents came under increased scrutiny, causing many to leave New York for good. Federal and local agencies came into many South Asian and Muslim communities looking for suspicious people, which sparked fear among residents. “Before 9/11, you used to see hundreds of people walking on the streets,” said Nadeem, a local resident of “Little Pakistan.” “The FBI came knocking on people’s doors and asking questions. People were scared. Business dropped more than 50 percent.”[3] In September 2002, the Department of Homeland Security launched a special registration system, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System or NSEER, requiring male citizens over 16 years of age from 25 countries (mostly Muslims from countries in Africa and Asia) to register with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Although the system was terminated in April 2011, many law-abiding Pakistani citizens fell victim to it. “All of a sudden there was a sweep of almost 500 people in the community,” said Mohammad Razvi, the founder of the Council of People Organization or COPOUSA, a non-profit community organization based on Coney Island Avenue that supports South Asian communities. “It was basically based on names. Just having a certain name led these people to become victims of brutal treatment. Persons with names like Mohammad or Amid. Many people were swept up under suspicion.”

Razvi’s COPO had a mission to promote understanding and help community members integrate into the mainstream society. It has worked with other community groups, such as the Jewish Community Relations Council, through the We Are All Brooklyn to encourage better relations among the area’s religious and ethnic groups.

Among the organization’s many services, English as a second language has topped the list. Citizenship classes, healthcare education and legal services are also popular. In order to advocate on behalf of the Pakistani community, Razvi built a relationship with the FBI and immigration officials. He advises both these agencies on how to be culturally sensitive towards his community. He also went through an FBI citizens’ academy, where he was able build contacts that could help him at times of crisis in his community. Despite the hardships faced by the community, many people have begun to move back into “Little Pakistan,” and today it is flourishing as businesses are expanding.[4]

[1] Kirk Semple, “Take the A Train to Little Guyana,” New York Times, June 8, 2013.

[2] “Select Diaspora Populations in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/ select-diaspora-populations-united-states

[3] Larry Tung, “A Decade after 9/11, Little Pakistan Bounces Back,” Gotham Gazette.com, , September 9, 2011.

[4] Cindy Rodriguez, “From Businessman to Community Activist., NPR.com, September 8, 2006.



Gentrification has become an increasingly prevalent and controversial aspect of Flatbush’s development. Anger over gentrification in largely black communities such as Flatbush was crystallized by film director Spike Lee, who expressed anger over the changes that swept through the Brooklyn neighborhoods of his boyhood, Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant. He described it as a racist process in which wealthy whites displace lower-income blacks by driving up rents, and then show disregard for the neighborhood’s culture. “Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” “Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” he asked. “Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now?”

“Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” he asked. “Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now?”

There is much debate over gentrification but, given the pattern seen in neighborhoods north of Flatbush such as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, it is clear that the process poses a threat to many of the current residents of Flatbush. More often than not, less economically privileged renters, who are perfectly happy living in their current residence, are forced out of their neighborhoods by rising prices. As gentrification spreads across Brooklyn, those displaced have often (but not always) been African American or Latino. Like Spike Lee, many see it in racial terms.

The people of Flatbush have responded to gentrification in a variety of ways. Anti-white gentrification graffiti can be seen on various Flatbush subway platforms. For example, messages such as  “Fight white gentrification of FBush” and “Keep Flatbush black” are written on pillars in subway stations along the B and Q line in Flatbush. A neighborhood anti-gentrification activist says he that he does not agree with the racial elements involved in these messages, but understands why people are writing such messages. “I think it’s where people are at because we have a history of racism,” said Imani Henry, a 12-year neighborhood resident and organizer of the group Equality for Flatbush. “We live in a society that is already divided by race.”[1]

Equality for Flatbush is undertaking a campaign called “Before it’s gone/Take it back.” This campaign seeks to document life in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York and elsewhere through selfie photos people post online. The group is also working to develop various resources for poor residents and agitating against the growing gentrification. In addition, there is a coalition of tenant associations working together to build tenant power in Flatbush, East Flatbush, and South Crown Heights called Flatbush Tenant Coalition. They are working collectively to build power in the tenant community. It is also noteworthy that social media has helped people in Flatbush–as well as other parts of Brooklyn–form support systems. Jed Lipinsky wrote in The New York Times:[2]:

New York City neighborhoods have always been in nonstop flux, but many are now being frozen in time on Facebook, where current and former residents have banded together to post photographs, documents and other memorabilia of their neighborhoods as they used to be. These virtual sections of the city have drawn thousands of contributors, particularly in parts of Brooklyn like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Flatbush and Carroll Gardens, where zoning laws, gentrification and shifting demographics have rapidly transformed the streets.

Gentrification can’t always be viewed in strictly racial terms. Interestingly enough, members of the black middle-class can also technically be gentrifiers as well. They move into lower-income neighborhoods because they want to live with their culture and history, with an aim to keep the ethnic culture strong.[3]

The question is, what are the parameters of gentrification and how can they be applied in determining the strength of the issue and how to deal with it? The issue is currently being discussed and debated so no conclusive solution is evident at the moment.

Flatbush is a place that is open to change and constantly changing. This quality allows for a diverse and influential immigrant population there; people feel comfortable in an environment where there is room for them to grow and express their unique backgrounds. However, the downside of an ever-changing setting is that transformations, such as the gentrification of neighborhoods, are sometimes detrimental to populations in the area. Overall, a balance must be maintained between keeping the cultural characteristics of the neighborhood and adapting to modern practices.

[1] Noah Hurowitz, “White Fight! Vandal Wages One-person Battle against Flatbush Gentrification,” The Brooklyn Paper, September 24, 2014.

[2] Jed Lipinski, “On Facebook, Neighborhoods as They Once Were,” New York Times, October 2, 2011.

[3] Rahel Gebreyes. “Grappling With Gentrification As A Middle Class Black American,” Huffington Post, January 20, 2015, accessed at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/20/black-gentrification_n_6502104.html