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New York: A Caribbean Capital

By Dr. Tyesha Maddox, Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies

The month of June marks National Caribbean-American Heritage Month in the United States. Established in 2005, Caribbean-American Heritage Month recognizes “the historic relationship between the people of the Caribbean and the people of the United States, as well as, …the many contributions of Caribbean immigrants and their descendants to the well-being of America.” Since the nineteenth century, Caribbean immigrants were counted among some of the most influential members of black American society, holding positions as religious leaders, educators, politicians, and entrepreneurs. In New York City, especially, they contributed their unique cultural experiences to help shape the state’s identity. From Caribbean real estate developers in the 1910s who helped sell Harlem as an enclave for black families, to settling and developing businesses in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Flatbush, Caribbean people have made strong contributions to the city of New York. These immigrants changed the political, economic, and social landscape of black life in the United States, and in doing so indelibly left their mark on American History.

Settlement Patterns

Between the years 1890 and 1940, just over 355,000 Caribbean immigrants came to the United States. They flooded into cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. New York served as a central port of entry for Caribbean immigrants, with steamships carrying both tourists and imports between New York and the West Indies. Caribbean immigrants lived in other regions of the United States such as the South and the West, but there was no location akin to the Northeast, and New York in particular, for Caribbean immigrants with respect to concentration. By 1950, over 79 percent of immigrants from the British West Indies lived in the Northeast and 70 percent in the state of New York.

The earliest Caribbean immigrants first established scattered communities in lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. After 1915, they, along with African Americans, began to move into the Harlem community of north Manhattan as it provided opportunities to purchase property at a more affordable rate than in other areas of Manhattan. This lasted until the late 1930s and 1940s, when Caribbean immigrants began to move out of Harlem and into Brooklyn. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s brought with it increased rent prices and overcrowded housing conditions in Harlem. The Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with greater opportunities for affordable homeownership, attracted new Caribbean immigrants. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Caribbean community again seeking increased opportunities for low cost black homeownership began to move from Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights into the surrounding neighborhoods of Flatbush and East Flatbush and even further into Brownsville and Canarsie. In the late 1960s, these areas were experiencing abandonment due to “white flight” to parts of the outer boroughs and the suburbs. It is after this period that we see the development of true Caribbean enclaves. Areas such as Flatbush, where more than half of the population is foreign-born and two-thirds of that foreign-born population is of Caribbean origins, become more prevalent. Caribbean immigrants with their growing numbers soon would make up the largest singular group of immigrants from one region in the city.

New York City’s immigrant population is just over 3 million, a number which would comprise the third largest city in the United States. Nations from the Caribbean make-up half of the top ten countries of origin of New York City’s immigrant population, with immigrants from the non-Hispanic Caribbean making up 20 percent of New York City’s foreign-born population. The largest immigrant group in New York City hails from the Dominican Republic, with 380,160 residents; Jamaicans with 169,235 residents are 4th, Guyanese (139,947) are 5th, Haitians (94,171) are 7th, and immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago (87,635) are 8th. These numbers do not even include the number of second and third generation children of Caribbean immigrants born in the United States, who would unquestionably triple those figures, as approximately six out of ten New Yorkers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Labor and Entrepreneurial Endeavors

In the early twentieth century, many Caribbean immigrants that came to the United States were skilled and professional workers. However due to racist hiring practices that would not allow blacks to break into certain fields, many were not able to secure positions in their trained professions. As a result, many Caribbean women took positions as domestics, caregivers, and in the garment and healthcare industries. For Caribbean men, the United States military also provided viable employment opportunities. Employment in the U.S. military was not only a secure source of income, but in many cases it allowed immigrants to obtain American citizenship. In addition, Caribbean immigrants experimented with various business ventures, including tailor shops, jewelry stores, fruit and vegetable stands, candy shops, millinery stores, and grocery stores in black neighborhoods.

In 1925, Monserrat-born William H. Roach owned and operated the only black casino and moving picture theatre in Harlem, the Renaissance Theater and Casino. Located at the northeast corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, Roach bought the lot for the Renaissance complex in 1920. Together with fellow Montserratian Joseph H. Sweeney and Antiguan businessman Cleophus Charity, they built the 900-seat Renaissance Theater in 1921. The theater first featured silent films and stage performances, but soon premiered “talkies.” Nicknamed the “Renny,” the Renaissance became a hot spot in Harlem and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie all performed there. It also hosted fights with the legendary boxer Joe Louis. The Renaissance became home court to the Black Fives, also known as the Harlem Rens, an all-black professional basketball team established in 1923. The Renaissance hosted the Harlem Rens, at a time when black athletes were barred from the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Agricultural work was another major form of employment for Caribbean immigrants. In the 1940s, an influx of Caribbean immigrants came to the United States, largely due to a loosening of restrictive immigration laws, as well as the United States’ involvement in World War II. As millions of American troops were drafted overseas to fight in the war, they left behind vacant positions as farmers, factory workers, and laborers. In addition, the war stimulated the growth of thousands of war-related jobs including employment in aircraft manufacturing plants, munitions plants, and military uniform production factories. As a result, there was a tremendous need for laborers. Accordingly, the US government established the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, which recruited Caribbean migrants to work in agriculture and nondefense industries in 1942 in order to fill these new and vacant positions. Caribbean laborers worked in various sites around the United States. This recruitment of Caribbean workers of varying skill levels would continue into the 1960s, when we see the largest numbers of Caribbean immigrants coming to the United States.

With them, immigrants brought an entrepreneurial spirit and the traditions of home. In 1980, a mass transit strike halted all New York City buses and subways throughout the five boroughs. Caribbean residents, borrowing from a tradition of minivan style public transportation seen in many islands in the Caribbean (including Haitian camionnettes or tap-taps, guaguas in the Dominican Republic, ZR vans in Barbados, and maxi taxis in Trinidad & Tobago), started using their own cars and vans to drive passengers to their destinations. Eleven days after the strike ended the van service, which became wildly popular, remained in operation. The drivers eventually expanded their businesses, using passenger vans to create routes in places like Crown Heights, Flatbush, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, and downtown Brooklyn. Named the Dollar Van because they charged a competing $1 rate for service, this form of transportation became a big part of life in Caribbean sections of Brooklyn, where mass transit did not exist.

Cultural Influences

Caribbean immigrants in New York have greatly contributed to the cultural fabric of New York, through their music, food, dress, and religious traditions. One of the most significant examples is the West Indian Day Parade that occurs every Labor Day in Brooklyn. In 1947, Jessie Wardle, missing her native island of Trinidad, wanted to host a parade that would be similar to the masquerade carnivals held there annually. Due to the cold weather that typically characterizes the traditional Pre-Lenten season in New York, Wardle decided to move the carnival date to the Monday of Labor Day weekend in September in order to keep up with the tradition of hosting carnival as an outdoor festival and parade. Prior to this, Caribbean immigrants had been hosting carnival events indoors at ballrooms such as the Renaissance, Audobon, and Savoy as early as the 1920s. Wardle obtained a permit from the city in order to hold the cultural parade down Lenox Avenue in Manhattan. Subsequently, this New York City carnival grew larger and more elaborate each year, until the 1960s when a series of violent incidents lead to the revocation of the carnival’s permit in 1964 bringing the festivities to a temporary end. Three years later, Carlos Lezama (born in Venezuela, but migrated to Trinidad when he was a small child) spearheaded a project to reinstate the carnival and have it moved to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, where it is still presently held. With its move to Crown Heights, this small parade went on to become one of the largest Caribbean carnivals outside of the Caribbean, hosting over 3.5 million participants annually. The West Indian Day Parade brings together people from all over the Caribbean, including tourists from all over the world, to showcase traditional Caribbean costumes, food, music, and dance. Its success undoubtedly helped to inspire other Caribbean island specific parades, such as the National Puerto Rican Day Parade which was first held in 1957; the Dominican Day Parade, held annually in Washington Heights since 1982; and, the Haitian Day Parade which takes place every May during Haitian Heritage month since 2002.

Along with its music and dance, Caribbean food is a major attraction of carnival. At Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade, hundreds of vendors line Eastern Parkway selling everything from jerk chicken and roti to fresh sugar cane. The sounds, smells, and tastes of the Caribbean can be found in almost every corner of New York City and the proliferation of restaurants with names such as Islands, Negril, and Caribbean Social are another way in which we see the profound impact Caribbean culture has had on the landscape of mainstream America. The beef patty, a dish synonymous with Jamaica cuisine, has become exceedingly popular and ubiquitous in New York. Beef patties are sold not only in Caribbean bakeries and restaurants, but can also be found at local pizzerias, corner stores, and even on public school menus in New York. In fact, during the 2016 fiscal year, the New York City public school system served more than three million beef patties to its students.

A myriad of Caribbean dishes can be found throughout the city, especially in Brooklyn, where jerk pits can be seen smoking on the sidewalks of Utica Avenue in Crown Heights; Caribbean bakeries sell coconut drops and currant rolls; and juice shops, markets, bars, and even ice cream parlors, specializing in Caribbean flavors, abound. Although Caribbean food in New York has been a staple since the earliest immigrants brought recipes and spices with them to New York, in the past few years, there has been an explosion in Caribbean restaurants around the city. Everything from casual mom and pop style take out restaurants to more upscale dining that offer both traditional and modern takes on Caribbean cuisine can be found. These new establishments put a decidedly New York spin on traditional Caribbean cuisine, highlighting the way Caribbean culture has in many ways become New York culture.

Hip-hop is another great example of the influence Caribbean immigrants have had on New York and larger American society. The origins of the music genre have been linked to Jamaican dub music and several of the pioneering founders of hip-hop have Caribbean roots. DJ Kool Herc, born Clive Campbell, is often considered the founder of hip-hop. He immigrated to New York from Jamaica at the age of twelve and has regularly acknowledged that his Jamaican roots greatly influenced the early development of his breakbeat DJ-ing style that would provide the foundation for later hip-hop beats. Frederick Crute, popularly known as Kool DJ Red Alert’s mother is from Antigua and his father is from the French West Indies. Afrika Bambaataa was born Lance Taylor in the Bronx to Jamaican and Barbadian immigrant parents. Grand Master Flash, born Joseph Saddler in the Bronx, is the descendent of Barbadian immigrant parents. Saddler and his group the Furious Five were the first hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. More recent hip-hop artists based in New York, such as Nicki Minaj, Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes, Heavy D., Foxy Brown, Tekashi69, and Joey Badass also have ties to the Caribbean.

Politics and Caribbean Radicalism

Caribbean immigrants have had a long history of radicalism and involvement with politics in New York. During the Jim Crow era, West Indian immigrants established groups such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in New York in 1917 by Jamaican Marcus Garvey. The UNIA was one of the largest black organizations of its type with a membership of six million and almost nine hundred branches worldwide. Its goals were the repatriation of all people of African ancestry to Africa, black pride, and the liberation of the African continent. Other Caribbean leaders such Hubert Harrison of St. Croix founded the Liberty League in 1917, while Cyril Briggs of Nevis formed the African Blood Brotherhood in 1919. Through these organizations, Caribbean immigrant leaders advocated for black self-determination and political equality for all blacks.

Incidents such as the Crown Heights riot of 1991 also helped to politicize Caribbean leaders. In August 1991, the death of seven-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn set off three days of rioting. Tensions between the community’s black and Jewish residents came to ahead when a Hasidic Jewish driver hit two children, killing Cato. Many erroneously believed the driver was drunk and was given preferential treatment by a private Jewish ambulance service. Black Crown Heights residents were frustrated because they saw this incident as another example of the Jewish community receiving special treatment from law enforcement. Anger erupted and rioting persisted for three days. The NYPD tried to suppress the riot, but in the ensuing violence many were injured including rioters and police officers. Sadly, one Jewish man was killed by a young black rioter. Cars, homes, and businesses were also destroyed. Following the riots, black and Jewish community leaders worked to ease tensions between the two groups even forming the Crown Heights Coalition to promote dialogue between the communities.

Caribbean people saw participation in New York politics at both the local and state levels as essential to fighting for the values of their communities. Prominent examples include U.S. Congresswoman Yvette Diane Clarke, daughter of Jamaican immigrant and New York City Councilwoman Una S. T. Clarke; Roxanne Jacqueline Persaud, a Guyanese immigrant who became the first woman to serve in the State Assembly from the 59th Assembly District in 2014; Puerto Rican born Melissa Mark-Viverito, the city's first Latina City Council president; and Council member Jumaane D. Williams of Grenadian descent who represents the 45th Council District in Brooklyn. One of the most celebrated politicians of Caribbean descent is Shirley Anita St. Hill (Chisholm). Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York to Barbadian immigrant parents. She became the first black congresswoman and went on to make history again by becoming the first black person and only the second woman to make a bid for the United States presidency with a major party when she ran for the Democratic Party nomination in 1972.

Caribbean immigrants from all over the Caribbean basin have established a place for themselves in New York by developing their own communities and socio-cultural infrastructure, becoming involved in politics and, sharing their culture. Without their contributions, New York would not be the city that it is today.

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