Outside Labay Market, with its awning decked in the red, gold, and green colors of Grenada’s flag, people line up to get fresh coconut water and soursop. The scent of jerk chicken grilling in oil drums fills the air, while Caribbean accents mix with reggae, konpa, and soca music in a pulsating soundtrack.
For more than half a century this corner of the city has been a major Caribbean cultural and commercial hub in America. But while it’s home to the largest and most diverse community of people of Caribbean ancestry outside the West Indies, it wasn’t officially designated as the world’s first (and only Little Caribbean) until 2017.
Now residents are seeking national historic status for the neighborhood—a vital cultural connection that was hit hard during the pandemic and is increasingly being threatened by development.
“This area is like a one-stop shop for all things Caribbean,” says McDonald “Big Mac” Romain, owner of Labay Market, which sells island favorites from cassava to callaloo, sea moss to spices—much of it imported from Romain’s 60-acre family farm in Grenada.
“[People] come from all over to get this stuff here because that’s how much value they put in this area,” adds Romain. “It’s very important to us that this [neighborhood] stays and continues to be true because it’s authentic.”
Little Caribbean’s deep roots
In the early half of the 20th century, the first wave of large-scale voluntary migration from the Caribbean to the United States began. These mostly Afro-Caribbean immigrants from English-speaking countries in the region, such as Jamaica and Barbados, sought greater economic stability and found work in America mainly as laborers.
New York City was the most significant point of entry. By the 1940s, Caribbean immigrants filled labor shortages that rose during World War II and continued into the postwar period.
In subsequent decades, New York City’s West Indian community grew to new levels, partly due to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Also known as The Hart-Celler Act, it repealed over 40 years of restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies that favored people from western Europe, while curtailing immigration from other countries. The act lifted national-origin country quotas and replaced them with a system based on family reunification and employment.
Over the ensuing years, most Caribbean immigrants in New York City settled in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Canarsie, and Flatbush neighborhoods, where they worked in high-demand sectors, such as healthcare, education, and domestic care. In the process, they stitched together networks and communities with a distinct Caribbean flavor.
Today, some 20 percent of New York City’s population of 8.8 million people can trace roots to the Caribbean. Many live in Little Caribbean, whose footprint encompasses parts of Flatbush, East Flatbush, and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, with a commercial corridor that stretches across Flatbush, Church, Nostrand, and Utica Avenues.
“We came into this community, and we made it home,” says Norma Williams, who has lived in Little Caribbean since immigrating from Jamaica in 1976. “We brought with us our influences, and our influences have, in many ways, affected the community. We have come in as teachers, we have come in as nurses and as entrepreneurs, and we have contributed.”
Sights and sounds of the islands
Some of the contributions are visible on a stroll through the neighborhood.
Street signs bear the names of influential Caribbean people, including musical icon Bob Marley (Church Avenue); Haitian independence leaders François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines (Nostrand and Rogers Avenues); Grenadian diplomat and West Indian Day Parade founder Lamuel A Stanislaus (Rutland Road); and community advocate Roy A. Hastick Sr. (Flatbush and Caton Avenues), who founded the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Throughout the neighborhood, murals depicting carnival celebrations and markets adorn buildings and some subway stations.
In Drummer’s Grove, in Prospect Park, the Congo Square Drummers celebrate a tradition dating back to the 17th century, when Africans brought their music to the West Indies. These days, people of all backgrounds come to watch, dance, or join in every Sunday from April through October.
“There [are] very few places beyond the Caribbean itself where you can see so many people that come from the same background that you come from and create such an impact,” says Christian Smith, manager at Allan’s Bakery.
One of over 50 locally owned businesses in the neighborhood, Allan’s Bakery has been feeding people with currants rolls and other specialties since Smith’s grandparents first fired up the oven in 1961.
“What makes Little Caribbean feel like the Caribbean is the vibrance [and] the personality of the people, the Caribbean personality. It’s in every aspect of the culture. It’s a living culture,” adds Roger Francis, who, together with his three brothers, owns African Record Centre, which has been specializing in Afrobeat, Zouk, and Calypso records since 1969.
Community pride was key in helping many get through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At one time, parts of Little Caribbean reported some of the highest infection rates in the country, likely due to the many residents working in frontline jobs.
“Certainly, we do know from the data that Black and brown communities were disproportionately affected [by the pandemic] and that of course included Caribbean American communities,” says Shelley Worrell, founder and CEO of I Am CaribBeing, a community advocacy organization. “But I also saw a moment where this community really doubled down to support each other in ways that I hadn’t seen before.”
As the pandemic spread through the neighborhood, residents leaned on each other. Restaurant owners bought ingredients from Labay Market and helped promote new places like Hibiscus Brew and Aunts et Uncles. I Am CaribBeing built an online shopping hub and worked with rideshare companies to encourage customers to support Little Caribbean’s Black-owned businesses.
Despite the community’s deep Caribbean roots, it took decades to earn recognition for the neighborhood. In 2016, I Am CaribBeing launched a campaign with support from the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President and the Caribbean Tourism Organization to get the neighborhood officially designated.
“I thought if there could be three Chinatowns in New York and two Little Italys, then why can’t we have a Little Caribbean,” says Worrell, a Brooklyn native whose parents immigrated from Trinidad.
Her efforts paid off in 2017 when Little Caribbean was formally designated a cultural district. But in recent years, there has been a new threat: overdevelopment in the form of large-scale apartment buildings encroaching on cultural hubs.
In 2020, then-mayor Bill DeBlasio and council member Matthieu Eugene introduced an affordable housing project on the site of the Flatbush African Burial Ground. That plan has since been scrapped after residents pushed back.
Projects like these have spurred a new movement to protect Little Caribbean through historic preservation designation. Locals are hopeful; recently, sites including the burial ground, Labay Market, and Flatbush Central (formerly Caton Market), were accepted into the Historic Districts Council’s Six To Celebrate program. The citywide registry of culturally significant landmarks is a key stepping stone for getting the neighborhood as a whole onto New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission’s list.
It’s one way to preserve Little Caribbean’s history and culture for future generations.
“The neighborhood is shifting very quickly. It makes it even more important to have an official designation and to have us on the map,” says Worrell. “I don’t want our culture or community to be erased.”