By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
Liberty Avenue has experienced its fair share of stress since we were last there. It buckled under the weight of Covid-19, and became a ghost town at the height of the pandemic. The Avenue that has come to define the aspirations of the immigrant, lost its glamor. It was a strip that was dressed to the hilt, but there was no celebration, no party to attend. Fear stalked the Avenue, and people fell sick, victims of a disease that continues to mutate and take lives.
At one time, Queens was the epicenter of the pandemic, with the Indo-Caribbean community being hit the hardest. Who can forget the dark days when many got sick and the nurses used Skype to allow the sick to wave goodbye to their loved ones? There were no funerals, and no proper last rites were given. But there were prayers and hope.
In the Spring of 2021, the clouds parted. The masks were adjusted ever so carefully. Liberty Avenue was washed and dusted. The flags and banners waved in triumph. The Mayor of New York City, and other dignitaries, walked to the beat of the tassa, and the procession applauded, to co-name Liberty as ‘Little Guyana Avenue.’ Councilwoman, and now Speaker Adrienne Adams, lauded the contributions of the Guyanese community and said it was most fitting that Liberty Avenue should be co-named Little Guyana Avenue. There were songs, poems, and speeches and then Mayor Bill de Blasio arrived. He said that for too long the Guyanese community was on the margins and people had a right to feel excluded. But that was no longer the case as recognition had come to the community through the co-naming event.
Mayor de Blasio saw Sybil’s Bakery as a ‘beacon’ and brought the house down when he said that there is talk in City Hall that ‘if you want to get anything done, hire a Guyanese!’ We left with a new sense of worth. We were proud of the fact that the Mayor’s Senior Liaison Officer for South Asian Affairs, Rohan Narine, was the one to escort Mayor de Blasio to this historic event. Summer came and Liberty Avenue opened its arms and welcomed the visitors. The Little Guyana sign attracted Guyanese from the mother land in their diverse numbers. This prepared us for another co-naming ceremony, Pandit Ramlall Way.
There is general agreement that Pandit Ramlall was a founding father of the Indo-Caribbean community in New York. He was a freedom fighter in Guyana that was jailed by the British, along with Cheddi Jagan, and others. When he migrated to New York, Pandit Ramlall helped to set up the Arya Spiritual Center. The crowning achievement was the purchase of the building in Briarwood, New York. The support of the community was overwhelming. Ronnie Harpaul and his family, along with so many others, made the Center a reality. The contribution of Dr. Satish Prakash, Missionary of the Arya Samaj, was also critical in the realization of this dream. The co-naming was made possible through the hard work of Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, Ashook Ramsaran, Naro Balli, Sagar Rajpal, Prakash Persaud, Pat Jordan-Longford, Roy Dhanraj Singh, Herman Singh, Anup Ramnauth, and others. It was great to see many priests there as well, including Pandit Chunelall Narine, Acharya Arun Gossai, Pandit Ganeshwar Ramsahai, Pandit Bharat Singh, and others.
One of the legacies of Pandit Ramlall was the International Ramayana Conference that was held at York College, City University of New York. It attracted scholars from all over the world. Its founder Dr. Lallan Prashad Vyas hailed Pandit Ramlall as a noble soul. It was fitting that for his many contributions 133 Street and Liberty Avenue was co-named ‘Pandit Ramlall Way.’ The co-naming was a collective effort that was spearheaded by Ashook Ramsaran and Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, and hundreds turned out for this historic occasion. The program was inclusive and it was a delight to have the late Mohamed Salim gave the prayer on behalf of the Muslim community.
In September 2021, Liberty Avenue was again the venue for the start of the 9/11 observances. It marked the 20th anniversary of that unforgettable day. On a clear, cloudless day, the children read poems and speeches that were dedicated to the victims. The organizers proceeded down Liberty Avenue to the firehouse where two fire fighters perished on 9/11. They were Ronnie Geis and Terrance McKnight. The community was pleased to have with it once more Mohamed Salim to offer prayers and to bring a message of peace to the families. A month later, Liberty Avenue was transformed into an Indo-Caribbean village for the Diwali celebrations. The Divya Jyoti Association, under the leadership of Lakshmee Singh, took over a busy block on Liberty Avenue, and literally stopped the traffic. Diwali was celebrated in all its splendor with the ‘Happy Diwali’ sign splashed in neon across the street, as a backdrop. The new Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, has promised to make Diwali a school holiday. The community looks forward to history in the making.
As the middle of December 2021 approached, people were back to what took place at the beginning of the year. It was the dreaded pandemic. Omicron, a variant of Covid-19, was beginning to hit the community hard.
The numbers showed a marked increase in cases. Liberty Avenue had long lines for the tests and vaccines, and at such high infection rates, Queens could well become the epicenter again.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.