Reference is made to Oscar Ramjeet’s “Parts of streets in Queens will be renamed Little Guyana Avenue” (Stabroek News May 18). The greater Richmond Hill area is populated with Indian Guyanese. A handful of Guyanese, most notably Ashook Ramsaran and Richard David lobbied for it in 2020. People like myself and others made a case for it long before.
Mr. Ramjeet is right that the political persecution of Indian Guyanese and other ethnic groups by the Burnham dictatorship led to their emigration and settlement in America, Canada, UK, and later throughout the Caribbean and northeast-South America as they sought any location, doing practically any task, to eke out a basic living. This desperate migration and re-settlement, as well as interest and deep rooted connections to their former homeland, resulted in the emergence of the Guyanese diaspora.
Guyanese began coming to New York, mostly as students at technical schools and tourists in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and settled in low rental areas of lower and mid-Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens. They tried settling in Richmond Hill in the late 1970s, but there was strong resistance from the Irish and Italians who had populated the area for generations. As Dr Girdhari can attest, Caucasians instructed real estate and home owners not to sell to Indians and other non-Whites. It was not till the early 1980s that Indo-Caribbeans began clustering in Richmond Hill where the bulk of Guyanese have since lived in the US. Italians and Irish had dominated the area before Indo-Guyanese. Punjabis have began settling in the area in the late 1990s. The Punjabis are displacing the Guyanese and Indian Trinidadians.
As the Caucasian population in greater Richmond Hill aged and gradually moved out, the neighborhood was gradually absorbed by Guyanese and Trinis, and the demographics changed rapidly. Liberty Avenue became a magnet for Guyanese and Trini settlement and the fulcrum of economic activities. They felt at home as various legal, travel, medical, food, shopping, immigration, mandirs, masjids, churches, and ethnic Indian service became available. Around 1988, it was estimated by the Mayor’s office that some 105K Indo-Trinis lived in greater Richmond Hill as against 90K Guyanese. Guyanese population probably doubled since then and Trinis grew slowly as the latter became attracted to Long Island and Florida.
The term Little Guyana emerged in the late 1970s but the reference was not to Richmond Hill. Few Guyanese had moved to Richmond Hill at that time as most were in the Bronx and other sections of Queens, like Astoria and Jamaica. The term Little Guyana was coined by Vassan Ramracha to refer to the area where Guyanese (and Trinis) normally clustered — 14th Street as well as Lexington Ave between 30th Street and 21st streets. These were shopping areas – the former for cheaper garment, textile, and dry goods and the latter for Guyanese food and entertainment items – like hassa, banga, butter fish, gilbaka, spices, ghee, religious items, Indian music and movies, etc. Guyanese used to live nearby on the West side as well as on the lower East side. In Little India, Guyanese Tony Yassin and a partner had a halal shop that also sold fish, spices, etc. on 30th Street and then Yassin purchased an Indian owned business on 26th Street. Guyanese patronized his two stores. That entire Lexington Ave area was known as “Little India” because of the many shops and restaurants that sprang up and Indian cultural activities. I frequented the area almost every day during my university studies as I walked from the subway station at 28 Street to use the library at Baruch College on 24 Street; “Curry in a Hurry” was a regular stop because lunch was low cost (only $4) and belly filling as I economized on a student budget.
During the 1970s and 1980s, you were bound to meet people from all parts of Guyana if you visited those two locations. Those areas have changed since then attracting other ethnic communities as Guyanese have settled around Richmond Hill, Jamaica, Briarwood, Hollis, Cypress Hills, Grand Concourse, Parkchester, Flatbush, etc.
Since 1977, when I was active in the struggle against the Burnham dictatorship, it was Vassan, a key mentor and leader of the NY freedom movement, would remind a group of us to meet in Little Guyana — reference to 14th Street. We would meet every Saturday morning and some Sunday mornings without fail, rain, sun, snow to distribute hand outs (that we prepared) on politico-socio matters pertaining to Guyana. Arjune Karshan and his two nephews and Chuck Mohan, and a few other activists, would also distribute ACG (PPP affiliated org) literature. We would have friendly banter and confrontations over ideology – they supported the East and we supported America. From 14th Street, our group would travel to Guyanese oriented activities in other parts of the city. Liberty Avenue attracted our activism in the mid-1980s when Guyanese stores started appearing in the area. We hopped onto the A train (there were three) to last stop Lefferts Blvd. It was Vassan who coined Liberty Ave the new Little Guyana since the mid-1980s. The ACG also descended on new Little Guyana to distribute literature. My encounters in parts of Richmond Hill were not very pleasant. The Whites had a disdain for non-Whites particularly walking through their neighborhood as well as traveling on the trains and buses. You could sense an unwelcome feeling. All of that has changed now with Whites socializing very closely with Indians and even attending their religious activities and marriages and participating in festivals like Phagwah and Diwali and eating roti and curry at Guyanese restaurants.
NYC Mayor Ed Koch was approached to formally rename the Indian commercial area around Lexington Ave as Little India and greater Liberty Ave as “Little Guyana”. He responded there was no need to do so and that it would take a long time to get it done. Koch explained that Little Italy, Little Ireland, Little Greece, Little Cyprus, China Town, and other ethnic neighborhoods were not officially named as such but were given their monikers, and the new names stuck until official renaming came much later. Koch, a friend of Indian Americans, advised that the neighborhoods renaming requested be so referred to by their communities. Indian and Guyanese businesses moved out of Lexington Ave and stopped attracting nationals. Jackson Heights came to be known as the new Little India since the late 1980s.
It was Chuck Mohan who proposed the formal renaming of Liberty Ave as Cheddi Jagan Ave and the area as Little Guyana. Meetings were held with Chuck Mohan, Mel Carpen, Ramesh Khellawan, Ron Sukhram and others towards that goal. The idea did not get much traction. The elected representatives of the area were not enthused with renaming any street or the area. Black American Councilor Tom White, in particular, refused to entertain the thought. Jagan had no connection with Liberty Ave but it was Pt. Ramlall who coined the area around 133 Street and Liberty as Dr. Jagan Square.
The issue was laid to rest until it was resurrected in conversation between myself and Ashook Ramsaran. For the last three decades, Ramsaran and I spoke regularly almost daily on varied issues impacting the Guyanese, Indo-Caribbean and Indian diasporas. He was successful in leading an initiative to get a portion of a street of Hillside Ave, Jamaica, named after Ramesh Kalicharran, an icon in the Guyanese, Caribbean, and South Asian communities. Ramsaran and I talked of getting Liberty Ave co-named Little Guyana.
After Pandit Ramlall passed away two years ago, Ramsaran undertook the task to co-name 133rd Street & Liberty Avenue after Pt Ramall. I asked him to spearhead Liberty Ave as Little Guyana. He suggested that District Leaders Richard David and Dr. Taj Rajkumar and other community leaders like Romeo Hitlall and Dr. Dhanpaul Narine as the persons to undertake the task. Taj was low-keyed.
Ramsaran subsequently told me he discussed the idea with Richard David who then approached Adrienne Adams to get it done. After portions of Richmond Hill were co-named Little Punjab and Gurudwara Street last year, Guyanese galvanized into action. Councilwoman Adams expedited the process together with the Pandit Ramlall Way proposal; she is seeking re-election and faces stiff competition. Ramsaran and Adams go back when she first ran for the vacant NYC Council seat assisting her campaign and I kept following up with him on the issue. Richard David was key to the co-naming and very instrumental in getting it done.
We must applaud the work of everyone who is responsible for the formal co-naming of a portion of Liberty Ave and Lefferts Blvd as Little Guyana Way. The Trinis are not very pleased with their exclusion of the co-naming and rightly so. They have settled there before the Guyanese. The area has a huge Trini imprint with tens of thousands residing there along with countless Trini businesses and several Trini mandirs. I suggested to Ramsaran that Lefferts Blvd subway station be co-named Little Guyana as well similar to what I observed at subway stations in Paris, Frankfurt, NY to honor the presence of Arabs, Turks, and Orientals respectively.