For the residents of Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean, the cultural significance of their home neighborhood stretches far beyond physical landmarks. Deeply rooted in community traditions and memorable events, the history of the neighborhood has manifested through the palpable connections uniting multiple generations of the Caribbean-West Indies diaspora since Dutch colonizers invaded the land in 1651.
Now, with $16,000 in grant support from the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts, the city-wide Historic Districts Council (HDC) is partnering with community planner and documentarian Dr. Sophonie Milande Joseph and arts organization CaribBEING to conduct a cultural survey of the predominantly Afro-Latinx neighborhood over the next year. Beginning this fall, the survey will build on preexisting efforts such as those spearheaded by CaribBEING and the Flatbush African Burial Grounds Coalition that emerged to protect and commemorate the neighborhood’s influential historic sites in the face of gentrification, overdevelopment, and degradation.
The news about the cultural survey initiative was announced on August 1 alongside the other recipients of this year’s Preserve New York grant, which include historic sites around New York state such as Washington Irving’s riverside residence in Irvington, Fort Ticonderoga’s 18th-century star-shaped compound, and the Ann Oliver House in New Paltz. The announcement also follows recent initiatives to diversify preservation efforts in the National Register of Historic Places, a list of sites across the United States that in recent decades has come under scrutiny for its lack of diverse representation. In 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that “less than 8% of sites” included in the register’s list of more than 96,000 sites were associated with women, African-American people, Latinx people, and other historically marginalized groups.
Located Southeast of Prospect Park, Little Caribbean comprises the overlapping areas of Prospect Lefferts Gardens-Wingate, Erasmus, and Flatbush that span Church Avenue (also known as Bob Marley Boulevard), Flatbush Avenue, Rogers Avenue (otherwise known as Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard), and Nostrand Avenue. Throughout the mid- to late-20th century, the area evolved as a hub for generations of family-owned restaurants and stores, arts spaces, and religious centers, and simultaneously fostered numerous art forms, ideas, and community initiatives. In 2022, the Little Caribbean community was chosen by the HDC in 2022 for its Six to Celebrate program, which was launched in 2011 to help support local preservation initiatives.
The neighborhood is home to the long-running Black-owned Dorsey’s Fine Arts Gallery, the African Record Center music archive, and the recently identified ancestral burial grounds on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Church Avenue that can be tangibly traced through documents and records, among other important places.
But in many cases, Joseph explained that cultural significance may be found in intangible forms such as music, art, and festivities, and not solely based on architectural sites and structures.
“I know that my elders know the history much more than I know,” Joseph told Hyperallergic. “I could look at musical lyrics about something that happened here that has stuck with the community for a number of years.”
Joseph noted how many cultural and art movements emerged from social gatherings and parties, such as in the case of DJ Kool Herc, who has been widely credited as the founder of Hip-Hop when he introduced the musical genre during a 1973 house party in the South Bronx.
“Some of these sites, it’s not about the architecture,” HDC Executive Director Frampton Tolbert told Hyperallergic, emphasizing the importance of “holistic” documentation, especially when it comes to recognizing communities underrepresented in the National Register.
“We know some of the early sites associated with the community, but there’s also spaces like churches, schools, and the Drummer’s Grove in Prospect Park that are some of the original community anchors in the neighborhood and have a lot of significance,” Tolbert said.
He noted that while areas like the Boathouse, Litchfield Villa, and Grecian Shelter in Prospect Park are listed in the National Register, there are many significant spaces in the 526-acre park that have not received the same recognition, such as Drummer’s Grove, a green space located by the Parkside Entrance that has served as a weekly gathering place for local drumming circles since the Congo Square Drummers emerged in 1968.
“While this [cultural survey] is a New York City-specific project, we’re not the first to do this, and we can learn from other people,” Joseph said to Hyperallergic. Joseph pointed to examples such as Toronto’s Little Jamaica and the Notting Hill Carnival in London— an annual event that celebrates the traditions, resiliency, and diversity of the British Caribbean diaspora. “This is a specific example [in Brooklyn], but it’s also an opportunity to learn about global migration patterns and immigrant experiences.”