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.”