Opinion: Little Haiti Project Could Define Rodneyse Bichotte’s Legacy

God is Great: A variety store on Nostrand Avenue catering to a Haitian clientele. (Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre via The Haitian Times)

After months of controversy over Little Haiti, the designation is a reality due to the leadership of Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte. While the designation is a political win for the rising official, the real test of victory will be determined by what’s to follow.

In his latest column, Garry Pierre-Pierre examines whether the political star is underestimating what it will take to turn the current unkempt business district that is now officially “Little Haiti” into a treasured tourist attraction and Haitian cultural mecca.

When I used to imagine the next generation of Haitian elected officials, Rodneyse Bichotte was my prototype. The early candidates were unaware of the issues, didn’t reach out outside the Haitian community and had no political experience.

About five years ago, Bichotte emerged as a new kind of leader. Unlike her predecessors, she is highly educated, was able to come up through the political ranks, and made allies with other groups who live in the Brooklyn stronghold. She understands the needs of the Haitian community.

She cut her teeth in the political electoral process by running unsuccessfully against Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs. Two years later, she was able to win the 49th Assembly District when Jacobs retired. Along the way she made history as the first Haitian American elected to the New York State Assembly for the city of New York.

Bichotte has set the bar high for herself and her political legacy may be at play if she is unable to deliver on her latest ambitious plans.

Lately, Bichotte has been making some inroads by creating the “Little Haiti” district in Central Brooklyn. This issue has not sat well with many in the Caribbean community who want to name the area “Little Caribbean” which they say best reflect the demographics of the area. They argue that segmenting the area is divisive.

People of Caribbean ancestry make up almost 50 percent of the residents, with Haitians being the majority with 19 percent of the residents.

I spoke with Bichotte recently about her plans. She envisions Little Haiti as an area attractive enough to lure tourists. Under her plan, the neighborhood would be peppered with sit-down Haitian restaurants, lounges and a cultural center.

“We have a stronghold,” she told me. “We need to make something big out of it. We need to reclaim our neighborhood, our culture… We’re a big contributor not only to our community but to the U.S. We want people to know that.”

So far, Bichotte has been able to get the designation of Little Haiti. But the heavy lifting and the real test remain as implementation will be hard to do. While Bichotte is right that Haitians make up a significant number of residents, Haitian-owned businesses are not ready for the sprucing up that will make the zone a tourist attraction.

Outside a handful of takeout restaurants and barbershops, there are few vibrant Haitian businesses that one can turn into an attraction. There are no art galleries, no specialty boutiques.

What is lacking in Bichotte’s plan is the most important element: money. She is quite aware of this glaring omission and acknowledges the challenge in bringing this area from an unkept business district to an alluring one.

“No one is going to see this overnight,” She said. “It takes time.”

While it is understandable that such an ambitious plan will not yield results in the short term, I would like for Bichotte to focus her energy on getting the necessary resources to make this a reality.

Miami’s Little Haiti for instance received funding from the Ford Foundation and others in the early 1980s. Officials built a replica of Haiti’s Iron Market and that prototype became the nexus of the community. Thirty years later, another cultural center was built and has become the hub of social activity in South Florida.

Bichotte ought to reach out to people in Miami and learned what steps they took in achieving a vibrant Little Haiti and how they’re coping with the gentrification underway that threatens to overtake a once Haitian stronghold.

So far, many Haitian leaders remain skeptical that Bichotte would be able to put the energy behind this project. A few see this move as a calculated political play to increase her profile and move on to bigger and better things.

I’m not among the latter group, but count me among those skeptics. During our conversation, Bichotte was underestimating the challenge in raising the funds and seems to think that designation alone is a major step. It is by no means trivial, but the ultimate result will be to make this a reality. She seems to suggest that part of the job will be someone else’s to fulfill. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Bichotte needs to create a working group whose members will be culled from various disciplines like urban planning, finance, communications, technology, architecture and others.

This group will be tasked with providing a blueprint and a budget necessary to push this project forward. Until I see this taking place, I will remain a skeptic.

If she is truly genuine, and I don’t doubt her sincerity, she needs to do her homework. Bichotte would be wise to enlist the help of Patrick Gaspard, the president of the Open Society Foundations. Gaspard, who ran Barack Obama’s campaigns and worked in Obama’s administration as political director, can help. From his current perch as head of the OSF, he can either fund this project or recruit other foundations that would be open to funding such a project.

Right now, I would say that Bichotte is at bat and she needs to get to home plate. She has the right education. The right connection. Let’s see if she can hit a home run, or blast a single to get us into the game. The Haitian community is counting on it. I know I am.

This column was originally published in The Haitian Times.

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