Who was first on Franklin Avenue?

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Local Organization and Panamanian Community Clash

By Becky Bratu

Years ago—some say about 10, others as few as seven—gun-toting drug dealers were among the few who preferred to do business on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. Most others weren’t brave enough. Today, Franklin is one of the neighborhood’s main commercial drags. Lined with trees, coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants and organic grocery stores it’s the neighborhood’s boulevard of choice.

“We planted trees. Franklin never had trees,” said Evangeline Porter, 77, a longtime resident and the president of Crow Hill Community Association, a 25-year-old organization whose mission is to revitalize Franklin Avenue and make it safer.

“Franklin was a street that no one wanted to be a part of,” she added. “Now everybody wants a little piece of Franklin Avenue.”

The latest group to claim its share are the Panamanians represented by the Alliance of Panamanian Organizations in the United States of America, which about a year ago proposed that Franklin Avenue be co-named Panama Walk or Panama Way to celebrate the area’s Panamanian heritage.

“Brooklyn still maintains the bulk of the Panamanian community in the entire United States,” said Guillermo Phillips, a member of the street-naming committee. “Franklin Avenue between Fulton Street and Empire Boulevard is the traditional and legendary cultural epicenter of the Panamanian-American community.”

But not everyone was pleased. Once Community Boards 3, 8 and 9 approved the Panamanian organization’s proposal, Porter decided she and her organization wouldn’t stand for it.

“It’s like taking an old car, and rebuilding it and making it pretty, and now everyone wants to buy it,” she said. “Now everyone wants to ride in the car, and I don’t like it.”

Phillips said the Panamanians were not about to back down in the face of public opposition to their plan. But then came a letter from the New York City Department of Transportation, which, according to Phillips, stated that a street cannot be named after a country. The letter, said Phillips, a former teacher who immigrated to Brooklyn as a teenager, came as a surprise.

“We don’t know when that regulation was passed,” he said. “You’re going to tell me one, two, three community boards didn’t know that? So what kind of community boards do you have?”

He could not understand how streets such as Korean Way, located on 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, and Little Brazil Street in midtown Manhattan can exist in spite of this regulation.

City Council Member Letitia James, who represents parts of Crown Heights, said the law governing street naming was recently changed, and community boards were still unaware of it.

“This is the first time we’ve received a request to co-name a street after a country,” Community Board 8 District Manager Michelle George said. “That’s why we didn’t know the law had changed.”

But Phillips said he believes “somebody or some group in this community” does not want to see the co-naming happen. He remembers a recent conversation with Crow Hill members, in which he was asked why the Panamanians had not gotten involved with the community earlier, when Franklin Avenue was a neglected crime-ridden, drug-infested area. Phillips cited the Panamanian Parade, which is in its 15th year, as an example of his community’s involvement.

“Nobody wanted anything to do with Franklin Avenue 15 years ago,” Phillips said. “The parade has been the catalyst for what you see here today.”

He said Porter and Crow Hill came in after the Panamanians had begun the cleanup of Franklin. “Where were you when we stood strong?” he said. “You weren’t here.”

“Our parade brings thousands of people to Crown Heights,” said Laura James, president of the Panamanian umbrella organization, “and the business stays on Franklin Avenue.”

On the day of the parade in early October the sun was out and so were hundreds of Panamanians, walking up and down Franklin in festive garb, catching up with one another on street corners or eating tamales in front of Kelso, the neighborhood’s last Panamanian restaurant. Many live in Crown Heights, but the bulk of those on the streets that day had come from East Flatbush, Queens, Long Island and even Panama. Music, Spanish chatter and the smoke that rose continuously from the many grills floated in the air.

A young woman wearing tight black pants and a white fitted shirt was walking down Franklin Avenue, carrying a Louis Vuitton bag in her right hand and a Republic of Panama flag in her left hand. A young man who appeared to know her watched her waving the small flag, as she approached him.

“You’re not Panamanian,” he said.

“Sure I am,” the girl replied. “What did you think I was, papi?”

The Spanish word for “daddy” rolled effortlessly from her lips.

Apart from the one day a year they organize or participate in the Panamanian Pre-Independence Day Parade, Crown Heights Panamanians seem to be what author, playwright and former United Nations ambassador for Panama Carlos Russell calls “visibly invisible.” Most of the Panamanians living in New York—foreign and U.S.-born—are of Caribbean ancestry. The influx of Afro-Caribbeans to Panama started in the late 19th century to work in digging the Panama Canal. In a neighborhood such as Crown Heights, where a large chunk of the population is of Caribbean descent, there is no way of telling by appearances alone if someone’s ancestors came from Panama or Jamaica.

“All through this system and this city, Panamanians are to be found,” Russell said, “and you will never know that they’re Panamanians unless you ask them.”

Russell, who immigrated to the United States in 1955, said that while Panamanians may be regarded as part of the Latin American community, the Panamanians seen on the streets of Brooklyn are mostly black. This dichotomy leads to a case of mistaken identity.

“The key element is the concept of race,” Russell said. “If one looks at a person who is black, one rarely sees them as speaking Spanish.”

Twentieth-century Panamanian immigrants with English last names, who were mostly black, moved to Brooklyn, while those with Hispanic last names settled in Queens or the Bronx, Russell said. The Panamanian community is not contiguous. In Crown Heights, he said, a Panamanian will likely be linked with either African Americans or Caribbeans. Russell, whose grandparents immigrated from Jamaica and Barbados, said his own identity transcends the place where he was born.

“My prime identity is with Africa,” he said. “Yes, I’m Panamanian. However I am primarily an African man whose ancestors grew up in the Caribbean.”

Russell said he would have chosen a different name for the Franklin Avenue co-naming proposal, such as “Avenue of the Canal Diggers,” in honor of those who worked on the Panama Canal and “came running” to the United States, fleeing racism.

“Calling it Panama, in my judgment, is the expression of those who long to be perceived as Panamanians,” Russell said. “Calling it Panama is an aspiration.”

Laura James said the Panamanian committee in charge of the co-naming is now working on a new proposal, with a new name.

“We have not given up, we are moving forward,” James said. “It’s not over.”

Meanwhile, Porter and the Crow Hill Community Association are ready to rally against any other co-naming proposal. Porter said the Panamanian community has never supported or shown interest in her organization’s efforts.

“The minute it becomes Panama Walk, then we’ll have an influx of Panamanian culture,” Porter said, “which is fine, but not on Franklin Avenue.”

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7 Responses to “Who was first on Franklin Avenue?”

  1. We appreciate the attention to Franklin Avenue but we would like to correct an inaccurate comment that was attributed to myself.

    Not only does the statement below not reflect the feelings of myself or the Association, I never made it.
    “The minute it becomes Panama Walk, then we’ll have an influx of Panamanian culture, which is fine, but not on Franklin Avenue.”

    Having such a divisive statement attributed to our organization is not only hurtful but undermines the good work Crow Hill Community Association does to unite our community. We respect our Panamanian neighbors and look forward to working with them in the future.

  2. Karen Maxwell
    November 2, 2010 at 12:14 PM #

    As a born Panamanian raised in Crown Heights (1195 Union St. at the corner of Rogers) it saddens me to know that we have to struggle over something so simple as the name of a street.

    I am 40 years old and have been a part of Franklin Ave for more than three quarters of my life. As a stranger to this country it was the one place I could find the likes of me. A black face with a strong West Indian accent and the ability to roll my rrrr’s in spanish like no other. It was and still is the one place i can say “Hola coma! (comadre)or Wappen compa! (compadre)” and be understood without explaining the lingo.

    Yes! the parade has been ongoing for 15 years but Panamanians lined the streets of Franklin long before. I now reside upstate NY, but my family and i travel the 3 hours on a yearly basis to be a part of this event because where else will my children learn their heritage other than the beautiful country of Panama? It sure wouldn’t be in this school system and the farther you go upstate the less culture you will encounter(it does exist but not like it does in NYC). The parade is so much more than a parade its a “COUNTRY REUNION”.

    I agree that Franklin was looked upon as the bad seed where neighborhoods were concerned. However just as our country as risen to stand out so has Franklin Avenue and the Panamanians were there when Franklin laid and we are still there as it rises to stand tall. As Panamanians we left our country but we stood strong in the fight. As American citizens and residents some of us might have left the neighborhood but we are still a part of the fight.

    There are many things we can dispute the name of a street shouldn’t be one of them. Red, white and blue aren’t only the American flag colors, its ours also. If we can share the colors we can share a street. Join us don’t fight us.

    A Proud Panamanian

  3. Michael
    February 5, 2011 at 11:48 PM #

    i think Russel is afro-centrist and disconnected from panama. for one he claims his identity is African, but i’m sure he doesn’t have a clue about African culture (not the one you c on tv but the one the real Africans have 2day) 2ndly Panamanians didn’t flee to the US because of racism. Anyone who has been to panama will know there is little racism compared to up here, btw all the segregation they had in the canal zone days were set by the US not panama, the US controlled that area and issued the same seperate but equal rule down there, look it up. and any afro Antillean Panamanian is as Panamanian as a mestizo. panama wasn’t panama until 1903, and the west indianians came in 1904 to build the canal soooo they were there from the beginning.

  4. OpenMinded1
    March 24, 2011 at 2:00 AM #

    I notice that people seem to think that Panamanians are West Indians and let alone that blacks in Panama are West Indians. But that is TOTALLY NOT TRUE.

    Panama already had a significant population of people of African descent whose ancestors had came to Panama and Colombia as slaves, servants, or from Spanish speaking mainland Colombia. These people of African descent or mixed Afrodescent are known as Afro Colonials.

    So there are plenty of real true Hispanic or TRADITIONALLY Spanish speaking BLACK/Afro Panamanians

    Panama was an integral part of Colombia well until the early 1900s. The USA finally and officially compensated Colombia for the loss of Panama in 1921 and 1922

    Also even today the majority of Panama’s Afrodescendants come from the Afro Colonials, rather than from those of Antillean descent like many sources have tried to say!

  5. OpenMinded1
    May 23, 2013 at 12:12 AM #

    I always find it amusing how people overlook Panama’s overall cultural, linguistic, historical, racial, ethnic, political, and even gastronomical diversities among others. Panama as a nation is multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural. It’s genetics in addition continue to show that Panama is mostly tri ancestral with West African and Central African, Spaniard/Spanish Europeans, and Native American descent primarily, and occasional contributions from Asia and the Middle East. Panama historically, culturally, and geographically was part of South America and Colombia until the 20th century. Also Panama’s independence from Colombia was NOT of it’s own making. The U.S.A decided to seperate the isthmus of Panama from Colombia in order to perpetuate imperialism and satisfy U.S. worldwide supremacy and U.S. Interests. With that said, Panama’s identity was somewhat incomplete and dramatically altered and transformed over the course of the 20th century and continues to transform in the present.

    Next the Caribbean islands and Caribbean region in general is not even monoracial or pure either. Most people in the West Indies, Caribbean, and Antilles are of mixed origins deriving from every corner of the world.

    Also, Afrocentrism is NOT fact and it’s simply rabid ignorance and false sense of pride being spread worldwide and often worse than it’s predecessor ideology of Eurocentrism. This need to call oneself African is NOT only ridiculous but also is rooted from Eurocentric mindsets and imposition of viewing lenses and contexts of identity from Eurocentric views only to perpetuate hypocritical and bigoted views. Focusing on real life issues are things that matter.

    Lastly only a minority of so called “black” Panamanians are of Caribbean/Antillean/West Indian descent.

  6. OpenMinded1
    May 23, 2013 at 12:39 AM #

    Also it should be realized that MOST “black” Panamanians are actually the descendants of colonial era slaves brought in during the Spanish colonial period and also from Colombia. The biased a$$ ignorance of articles like these not only is annoying but at times, ethnocentric, flawed, and disrespectful. Many sources and sites falsely state that “black” Panamanians don’t exist when in fact they do. Panama has always had a numerous black enslaved population from and since colonial times and many have been influential and were present and had high ranking positions in government, Supreme Court of Panama etc. Some examples are Juan Materno Vasquez de Léon, Sara Sotillo Guillen, among many others

    People also seem to forget that black Panamanians, Panamanians of African descent, or Afro-Panamanians are widespread throughout the Republic of Panama. Even in the interior there exists some populations that are of African descent from and since colonial times. They are monolingual fluent Spanish speakers and no different than any other Panamanians. Panamanians are Panamanian period. Tons of colonial blacks who seem to be overlooked or not often talked about can be found in Panama province, in places like Chepo, Pacora, Chiman, Bermejal, Chame, Bejuco, Curundu, San Miguel among many other places including the capital of Panama City itself. All throughout Colon province colonial blacks can be found and all throughout Darién province. Even in provinces like Coclé and the central interior provinces colonial blacks can be found or are intermixed into or with the general overall population. In addition colonial blacks can be found in the Pearl Islands. All of these areas have been settled by African servants and freed and escaped slaves. In fact the first and oldest palenques and cimarrones in the Western Hemisphere were established and occured in what is now the Republic of Panama. In fact Spain recognized these various communities formed by palenques founders and cimarrones as early as 1501.

    As long as people continue to overlook the diverse Afro colonial or colonial black population of Panama which actually makes up the majority of Panama’s overall “black” and Afrodescendant population(s) ignorance will prevail and the platform and opportunity to PROPERLY educate people will be severely missed as well as the risk of overlooking other ethnic group in Panama’s needs and respect for one’s own story and history.

    In addition one droppism and ethnocentric Afrocentrism will only continue to make things worse. It’s really no different from the Eurocentrism and other forms of bigotry from the past.

  7. OpenMinded1
    May 23, 2013 at 1:44 AM #

    Much of the populations of West Indian/Antillean/Caribbean descent have re-located to to New York and other parts of the USA.

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