Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fighting For Franklin

The first 95% of Tuesday's CHCA meeting was everything one would expect, a State-of-Crow-Hill, complete with frequent and well-deserved applause. The CHCA has, by all measures, had a good summer in their 25th year: after a great event celebrating the Crown Heights Oral History Project in June, they created a lovely new community garden, helped sponsor the Franklin Avenue Kids Day in July, and just completed the spectacular mural project on Franklin and Eastern Parkway (update on that construction project: Eli Mazon, the discount store maven who owns the lot, has offers on the table from Walgreen's, CVS, and Medgar Evers College, but the financing isn't there right now for completion and none of them are offering enough to buy the lot outright - so it sounds like the mural will be up for awhile). Councilwoman Tish James, who co-sponsored the mural project, showed up to thank everyone for their hard work, and a few announcements were made:

- Tonight is the LAST night of Jazz at Ronald McNair Park (Classon and Eastern) from 6-9pm
- On Saturday, there will be a vigil for Jasmine Herron, the young woman who was killed biking at Washington and Atlantic on the 15th. The vigil will last from 8-9pm.
- Habitat for Humanity is building 100 affordable homes for purchase in Bed-Stuy, and are hoping to sell them to local Brooklyn residents (2% fixed mortgages).

The meeting ran an hour, they took a few questions, and things were about to wrap up, when an older man rose to introduce himself and invite everyone to attend the Panamanian Independence celebrations on October 9th, which will include their traditional parade up Franklin and finish with a street festival on Lincoln Place. Heads nodded in approval, and then he added that the Panamanian community is currently trying to get Franklin Avenue co-named "Panama Way," and asked for our support.

Now, I've always lauded the Crow Hill crowd for their openness and welcoming attitude, particularly to those of us who are relatively new to the neighborhood and could be dismissed as self-interested gentrifyers, but suffice to say that many of the folks in the meeting were distinctly and uniquely displeased by this co-naming suggestion. Much muttering ensued, and after one Crow Hill leader expressed concern that the name would be changed entirely and added "after all the work we've done for the past 25 years, I would not like to see that name changed," another woman rose to ask (well, to demand, really) why the Avenue should be co-named in the first place. The Panamanian man replied with a well-rehearsed history: Panamanians began coming to Brooklyn during the building of the Panama canal (as a result, he said, "we were always bilingual"), and New York remains the largest concentration of Panamanians outside of Panama in the world. They had settled on Franklin by 1930 - "before the Jamaicans, before the Guyanese" - and by the 1960s, they owned a wide variety of local businesses and were the majority on the Avenue. Many have left for the suburbs in recent years, he added, but "if you talk to someone in Panama about the United States, they say they want to come to Franklin Avenue." Panamanian businesses, social clubs, and churches persist on Franklin, particularly north of Park Place, and even those who have moved away come back on the weekends to see friends and attend services. As for the co-naming of the NYC street, he said that all three Community Boards had approved the proposal (Boards 3, 8, and 9) and that the City Department of Transportation was holding up the final approval on the grounds that streets cannot be named after other countries (if this was the reason they gave, it is patently false: Mulberry Street in Manhattan is also "Little Italy Way" or something to that effect, and west 46th near Times Square is "Little Brazil").

The meeting broke up without resolution, but the genuine frustration that both sides felt lingered. At the root of this issue are the well-worn questions of neighborhood ownership and entitlement that typically crop up on Franklin in the context of gentrification (earlier in the night, a local historian and high school teacher had expressed concern that the mural project did not celebrate local history, particularly because "our neighborhood is under attack from gentrification"). Claims to public space are rooted in shared, performed histories, and both the Panamanians and the self-identified Crow Hill Community, which is predominantly African-American and West Indian, can make compelling cases. For those unfamiliar with the term, "Crow Hill" has a murky history as a name for the area, but one commonly-cited explanation is that it arose because Crown Heights, and specifically Weeksville, was an antebellum settlement of free blacks. I'm sure, though they've never talked about it in a meeting, that the residents who consider themselves part of this community would much prefer to see Franklin Avenue co-named or re-named Crow Hill Avenue.

How do we, as a whole community, navigate these competing claims? Localities celebrate local history all the time with plaques, landmark signs (13 homes on Park Place will likely be landmarked this fall thanks to the efforts of the CHCA), and the like, but when it comes to street names, solutions are less obvious. Chicago solves this problem with as many "honorary" renamings as residents ask for, which can lead to fairly ridiculous signage (one stretch of Devon Avenue in Chicago goes from Golda Meir Way to Jawaharlal Nehru Way to Muhammed Iqbal Way in three blocks), but in NYC, from what I understand, only one honorary co-name is posted per street. It would be easy for me to just say "hey, let's leave it Franklin and celebrate our history in other ways," but that would ignore the fact that the name Franklin itself reflects a very traditional, white, male, political history that is stamped across our street grid (and many other places) without apology or reflection. To some extent, "Franklin" has been appropriated by those who live there now - the Pana Store sells red-and-white "Franklin Ave" shirts and I've heard teens holler "Franklin Crew" at others leaving Jackie Robinson Middle School - which suggests that origins and history aren't everything, even if they lend significant power to groups making claims to space.

So I don't know how to answer this, and I certainly don't blame anyone for being frustrated about it. Street names might seem trivial, but when neighborhood boundaries and ownership are contested, as they are in northwest Crown Heights, these things matter. Should we back the Panamanian community in seeking a co-name? Should an alternative be proposed? Should we leave it Franklin and continue to celebrate this guy (who once worried about the "darkening" of "superior" Americans . . . and he was referring to Germans, though he had little love for any other race)? This isn't rhetorical - let's hear it.


  1. This was a great blog post Nick! Thank you for being apart of this community!

  2. I missed Tuesday's meeting because of Parent Orientation at the elementary school, but this was a great post - thank you.

    I am really torn about the whole renaming of streets thing -- because while I totally understand the emotional want to do so -- I honestly with all streets were simply numbered or lettered and left at that. I think that getting lost in Brooklyn is scary while getting lost in midtown is easily fixed. Our streets are on grids, yet are named roads. These names reflect SOMETHING but besides a few exceptions, most street name origins aren't commonly known by most in the community. Personally, I would leave it at Franklin and come up with other ways to celebrate. Street names - in my opinion - should be easy to navigate and make sense. Having it change names or be conamed just messes up people visiting or trying to find someplace. In a recent visit to South Korea I learned that they don't technically have street names. It was very very weird.

  3. HAHAHA! This is a solid post but once you hit Devon Avenue (my childhood neighborhood) you really made my day!


  4. Whhhaat? The murals don't reflect enough local history? alright, I suppose I understand...but I am just happy a bunch of people got together and painted something beautiful on them!

  5. Excellent post! Unless there is a way to be inclusive, and respectful, of all who currently reside on Franklin Ave, it's better left as is. I'm a proud African American, living on Franklin Ave for 16 years, I don't need the street name to reflect that.
    As for the mural, I Love It. I passed by when it was being created, made me wish I was creative like that.

  6. Would make more sense if Franklin Ave was currently a big Panamanian neighborhood rather than historically. As he said, many of the Panamanians have moved away. While a few may be left I don't think that it is considered a "little Panama"

    Better to find another way to recognize the history of the area.

  7. I think Franklin should be left as Franklin Ave, for the very same reasons as posted above. Also, my own (white Irish/Polish) grandparents live on Franklin and President from the late 1940's to the late 1950's, actual hipsters to use the term. Before them the area was home to a larger Jewish population north of Eastern, before that it was primarily Italian, and by turn of the century this area was the suburbs for up and coming middle class folks. History is myopic and relative, so unless Franklin wants to get changed to "Gilded-Italian Lubavitch-Jazz- Musicians-Puerto-Ricans-Panamanian-Free Blacks-and also Guyanese and Jamaican immigrant plus some young poor white folks and some richer white folks-WAY" it should stay how it is. Signs in my opinion are an empty pat on the back. A better idea, would be to have children from local schools be invited to a place, say Launchpad, as a school trip and listen to a Panamanian cultural representative talk about the area. Reaching out to kids and adults in an active way will make people appreciate and understand local history and context. Renaming a sign is just.....I mean honestly the only people who will care are the people who want the sign up.

  8. The woman who got up at the meeting and complained that the murals didn't reflect the local history was totally out of line. Um, excuse me, miss, did you anything? Did you offer to help? Have you ever helped with anything having to do with the neighborhood? Seems like she's really good at complaining about beautiful work done by long time AND short time residents of the neighborhood. Which brings me to my next point,

    Because of her tone, at first I thought she said Nazis, which made me very nervous. When I thought a little more, I realized that she was probably talking about myself, and many other people at the meeting who were there to make the neighborhood a better place and have selflessly volunteered their time. Since the early 80s, most of New York has undergone a general economic improvement as the city recovered from its bankruptcy in the late 70s. Everybody, whites , blacks, asians, etc, have benefitted from this by having a city with the lowest crime since statistics have been gathered. I moved to crown heights because I liked the vibe; while over the past two years I've notice an influx of white people, I've also noticed white people and black people working together for the benefit of everybody in the neighborhood. Prices might be rising, but that's been happening around NYC for 30 years. Also, there's a ton of affordable housing going up locally. Lady, shut your mouth.

    Also, props to Eric. Changing Franklin Avenue for the Panamanians is absurd, especially when most of them have left. Brooklyn is in a constant state of flux; it is a mixture of peoples and cultures and ideas and THAT is what makes it great. Lets not get nostalgic over one immigrant group, because they we'll have to get nostalgic over them all.

  9. @Adam Love how you claim "there's a ton of affordable housing going up locally." Not true, but hey, when you're defending the indefensible, you rationalize pushing people out of their neighborhoods as "improvement."