The City Line area of East New York, Brooklyn, is fast becoming an enclave of the burgeoning Bangladeshi community, reports Jarrett Murphy in the Brooklyn Bureau. The area has undergone a rapid demographic change over the last decade.
The influx of Bangladeshis is replacing Latino and Italian businesses with halal groceries and vendors of South Asian women’s wear. The Bangladeshi immigrant population here has reached 2,000. New York City has witnessed brisk growth of the Bangladeshi population, increasing from 19,000 in 2000 to 53,000 in 2010, making it the fastest-growing Asian community in the city. Murphy says this growth is best reflected by City Line’s predominantly Muslim Bangladeshi residents, especially during important holidays of the Islamic calendar.
On a Thursday morning this August, East New Yorkers on their way to work goggled at an unexpected site: 3,000 Muslim men gathered for prayer in a parking lot.
That Thursday was Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. From all directions poured men wearing embroidered tunics and white caps, slipping off their sandals to join the tightly packed rows of kneeling believers. The gatherers bowed, their backs forming a colorful tapestry that masked the concrete. They asked Allah for purity, the strength to control bad habits, and prosperity for all people. 59-year-old Burhan Uddin, a community leader who immigrated from Bangladesh as a 26-year-old man, could not have been prouder of the sight.
“Like my country. Really, like my motherland. This environment, we grew up with it,” he said as the throng departed for home with exclamations of “Eid Mubarak” – ”Blessed Eid!” – and embraced one another on each side of the shoulder.
The changing demographics and increasing presence of the Bangladeshi community in City Line has ushered more social and political activism. Community leaders are stepping beyond community lines to confront the neighborhood’s age-old problems such as crime, education and racial tensions. Halal Sheikh, a Bangladeshi schoolteacher, is one such leader who is running for the City Council from District 37.
An overwhelming 65 percent of Bangladeshi immigrants living in the neighborhood trace their roots to Bangladesh’s northeastern tea-growing region of Sylhet. Their stories are no different than other communities – coming to the U.S. to escape corruption in their country of origin, in search of better opportunities and to pursue their “American dream.”
Misba Abdin, founder of the Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services Organization (BACDYS), says his father was the first Bangladeshi to move to City Line, then a middle-income Italian neighborhood, in 1949. When Abdin’s father became prosperous enough, he and others bought adjacent houses on Forbell Street, one by one, until they had enough property to construct a mosque. That mosque and six smaller ones now draw new Bangladeshi immigrants to the neighborhood.
“When people come to the United States first they think: where they can find a community, where they can find a mosque,” says Muhammad Abdullah, who says he lived in Manhattan for eight years before deciding to move to City Line so that his son could grow up around Bangladeshi culture.
Abdin says Bangladeshis face problems identical to those of other communities: education, crime, accessing public support, and mastering the English language. The Asian American Federation says the Bangladeshi community is one of the poorest in New York City with every third Bangladeshi living below the poverty line. Poor quality of education in local schools is driving Bangladeshis to better school districts. Abdin says more than 10 Bangladeshis have lost their lives in City Line, mostly in robbery-related shootings, since he came to the U.S. in 1982. In the post-9/11 era, incidents of racial violence have also shaken the neighborhood. A Bangladeshi photojournalist, Mizanur Rahman, was killed in one such incident in 2002. The incident lead to more inter-community interaction and understanding.
Community residents and local officials launched a successful campaign to rename Forbell Street above Liberty Avenue “Mizanur Rahman Way.” Darma Diaz, who worked for Assemblyman Darryl Towns at the time, says the incident caused her to become more involved in the Bangladeshi community. She eventually helped Abdin start BACDYS and is one of the many non-Bangladeshis in the organization.
Diaz says ethnic relations have improved ever since and that today there is better understanding of the Bangladeshi culture in the neighborhood. Christy Loutre, an organizer at BACDYS of Puerto Rican descent, adds that Bangladeshis have also become better acquainted with other cultures.
“Twenty plus years ago they wouldn’t allow another race, another culture getting into their mix,” says Loutre. She says that when she was a child and encountered some Bangladeshi elders, she would feel as if they “didn’t approve and didn’t see you as their equals,” she says, adding that in traditional Bangladeshi culture, older males possess a higher status.
Today’s Bangladeshis, she says, welcome leaders in their community of all types – including young, female Latinas. “Times have changed,” she says. “Communities have changed.”
BACDYS, founded in 2011 and funded mostly by the community, has received support from Assemblyman Michael Miller and Councilman Eric Ulrich.
The organization is applying to open a charter school focused on science and technology that will provide a Halal lunch option. The organization also offers support services and tutoring to local residents, helps residents access government resources and is working to improve the neighborhood’s streetscaping. BACDYS recently launched a community garden with the help of 596 Acres, a group dedicated to opening vacant city land to community use. It is also working with city agencies to create a public plaza on Liberty Avenue.
BACDYS is keen to promote cross-cultural interaction and holds an annual five-day multicultural festival, which includes a Gospel Night, Latino Night, Caribbean Indo Night, Asian Night and Bangladeshi Night.
“I see Latinos are isolated. Bangladeshi are isolated. African-Americans are isolated. They are not interacting, because they [aren’t] … crossing bridges. That’s why I came up with this multicultural festival. I’ll bring everyone to one event with different cultural venders and food,” says Abdin.