ADELVA CALLED ADELA: NOTES ON FLATBUSH
They were shouting his name, Saheed, marching down Nostrand Avenue. I could hear them from my third-floor apartment, on the corner of Lenox Road: Saheed, Saheed, Saheed. Without thinking, I threw on the closest pants and sweater I could find, wrapped my hair in one motion, and burst out the door.
I remember nights like this over my three years in Providence. After yet another police officer would shoot yet another unarmed Black person, there would be a march, originating from a centrally located high school in my West Side neighborhood, through downtown, and up to the state capital building or down to the I95. Being such a small city, that walk always felt like a route that could successfully be completed, even if the mission—an end to state sanctioned murder—was far from any similar fate. I’d walk, I’d chant, and I’d eventually make my way back home feeling, if only for a moment, held by a combination of the dark of night and a community’s refusal to keep its eyes closed. That we could shout together in that small city at the absurdity of another slain person in this big country offered a solace, even if tenuous at best, that there was at least language to acknowledge this cruelty.
I moved back to Brooklyn in September of 2017 and have found myself in a wavering state of depression since then. Transitions are never easy, especially when they involve homecomings that are not as romantic as they are fraught with anxiety and stress. There are several reasons why I feel the way I do and I can clearly name every single one. It doesn’t stop the feeling. If anything, it increases my helplessness: having all the language of prognosis, but no vocabulary to cure.
I am grieving my city.
I am not referring to nostalgia that points to an idyllic time before “all the white people moved in,” before the people I took first-year seminars with at the small liberal arts college I graduated from followed me back to Brooklyn, never quite making it down to my side of Flatbush. I’ve spent nearly a decade hopping up and down the Northeastern seaboard, returning time after time with the geographical insurance that my family is still here and that I know what buildings are worth paying which rent for. But this time I moved back home to find colonizing eyes disembarking the 5 train with me at Church Avenue. This time there were high rises with patios looming above Albemarle Road.
What I love so much about Flatbush has nothing to do with its access to public transportation or proximity to Prospect Park. It’s the palpable atmosphere of relation, shared knowledges that refuse to remain foreign to each other, characterized by:
opacity in description
social and economic exchange
and rooted errantry.
I believe Flatbush to be a city of relation, where you can order a Jamaican beef patty stuffed with mozzarella cheese or pick up your herbal deodorant at the Islamic health store. There is a fluidity of language, flavor, colors, and time that stretches across this particular swath of the borough. You know exactly when you’re not in Flatbush anymore, by street signs, sure, but more acutely by the change in the quality of light, the shift.
Flatbush Avenue runs the entirety of Brooklyn, from its northern tip at the Manhattan Bridge down to its southern end at Jamaica Bay, near Kings Plaza. But when I say “Flatbush,” that’s obviously not what I’m referring to. Flatbush—the Little Caribbean I know and grew up in—specifically lands just south of Prospect Park down to Flatbush Junction, where Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues meet. I was raised right at Flatbush Junction, which I still believe to be one of the major crossroads of the borough, a literal X marking a major transfer point for transportation, as well as creating a geographical distinction between the more “city-like” geography of Brooklyn (buildings and brownstones) and the suburban feel of lawned homes stretching into Midwood, Mil Basin, and beyond. As more and more gentrifiers have been priced out of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, they’ve landed in Flatbush, specifically Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which they are quick to name as if the particularity provides some kind of clout.
Prospect Lefferts Gardens was named so in 1968 by the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA), some centuries after the Dutch settled in the area, having displaced the native Canarsee population to create the town of Flatbush. It would be a dangerous perpetuation of settler-colonial violence to pretend that the place I call home was carved out of the collective rib of some intrepid Dutch settlers and not through the violence of European aggression. To avoid a linear frame, I would describe the history of Flatbush as stretching (not long), existing prior to the arrival of the Dutch. The small dot in Flatbush’s matrix I am most connected to is the time and spirit when Flatbush turned into the Little Caribbean: a landing point for people from every island of the Antilles. That geographical and metaphorical archipelago, also born out of great violence and erasure, found some Chaotic way to repeat (and renew) itself along Flatbush Avenue. Landlocked, but not too far from bodies of water (the East River and Jamaica Bay on either end), people decided, with reasons spanning from exile to opportunity, to arrive in this neighborhood. It is a funnyhouse mirror image of the abysmal arrival Édouard Glissant names in Poetics of Relation:
…the third metamorphosis of the abyss thus projects a reverse image of all that had been left behind, not to be regained for generations except—more and more threadbare—in the blue savannas of memory or imagination.
I think of the Caribbean wave of immigration to Flatbush as a kind of “reorientation of arrival,” its connection to that originating abysmal encounter on the shores of the Atlantic breaking open a portal for even more arrivals for immigrants from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and more. It’s not that Caribbeans made Flatbush, it’s that our living here continues to regenerate possibilities of making Flatbush. So, when I say “opacity in description,” I mean the movement between referring to space and spirit. I mean Rogers and Bedford and Nostrand, but also Haiti and Trinidad and Pakistan. Borders cannot hold Flatbush, which is why I never tell people I live in Prospect Lefferts Gardens or that my mom lives in Midwood. These are finite, bordered spaces, whereas Flatbush is an ethos, a spirit. I live where and how I am: open, sun drenched, out late, with the quickness, here to stay.
The social and economic exchanges of Flatbush recall the Haitian lakou, the Jamaican yard, and most marketplaces of the Caribbean. Encounters and interactions happen out in the open. You haggle, you pout, you laugh, you yell for everyone to see. You buy your maxi pads with your gallon of milk and your lightbulbs. Everyone knows you are living.
The lakou is a communal living system in rural Haiti, originally established by formerly enslaved people facing the new reality of building free lives after the Revolution. Having survived catastrophe, they commenced a new kind of work assembling lives constantly moving between survival and living. The lakou, which literally translates to yard, embodies a philosophy that neighbors are extended family, sharing physical and spiritual spaces that create paths between persistence and existence. You work with the people around you so that you can rest, sit in the sun, and enjoy the day. Jamaica finds its twin in this concept with the yard, similarly set up as a communal space of social encounter and exchange. And while I’ve never been to Jamaica, I walk up and down Nostrand every day and can confirm that the yard is very much alive: loud and fragrant with the smell of grilled corn and jerk chicken.
All around Flatbush are Korean grocers, adjacent to bodegas, who sell everything from fresh fruit to root teas to cured fish. Most of them are open twenty-four hours, just in case you need parsley at 3am. Fruit and vegetables populate bins on the street while a small ramp creates a threshold to even more produce, canned goods, bottled liquids, boxed products, and more inside. This is another mirror image of the Caribbean, as Asian presence and life on the islands has always been a fact. In Flatbush, they become vendors of relation, participating in a Chaotic and imperfect peace: selling produce from the islands making it possible for people to cook up home. On the last day of every year, my mom makes anywhere between three to six trips to a few of the Korean grocers on Flatbush in preparation for soup joumou, the national dish of Haiti, celebrating the country’s independence and bestowing good luck. Joumou (pumpkin), banan (plantains), yum (yucca), and thyme are all on the annual list of things to pick up from what she unfortunately refers to as the Chinese. It’s a strange collapse/conflation of language, identity, and function. The Haitian Kreyol word for Chinese is Chinwa, which is how one would refer to a Chinese person. But the name for the place of business where you buy produce is the Chinese, like the supermarket is the market, like evaporated milk is Carnation milk. There are, of course, real problems with the way the term generalizes by way of intentional misidentification and how that misidentification is based on visual assumption. Everyone knows that Asia, like Africa, is a continent and that not all Asian people come from China. The racial dynamics between Asian and Black people become even more complicated when you think about any of the readily available examples of conflict involving the two groups in recent history, the notorious L.A. Riots in the early 90s being one or the most current Chinese development boom in Haiti. In this very neighborhood, during the summer of 2018, an Asian owned nail salon on Nostrand Avenue and Martense Street was forced to close after protests stemming from an incident involving workers assaulting two Black patrons with a broom. The incident sparked outrage, but also much needed conversations about the reality of social and economic dynamics between different groups of people inhabiting a shared space.
The peace is nowhere near perfect. The peace is hardly peace. But the spirit of the exchange in all its complexity still rings true: that you can conjure home by stirring a spoon in a pot. All you have to do is stop by the Koreans on your way back from work.