If you live along Eastern Parkway, you know the West Indian Day Parade is fast approaching. For the past few months, a handful of costumers have set up shop along the main thoroughfares of Crown Heights to satisfy the annual demand for the elaborate, brightly colored, oft-feathered outfits that men and women proudly sport in the Labor Day Carnivale. Soon, along Nostrand, Utica, and Kingston Avenues, vendors with pop-up tables will proudly display bandannas, bracelets, and t-shirts emblazoned with flags from Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, and the other Caribbean nations represented in the annual to-do. If you’re staying in New York City over the long weekend, it’s a party worth checking out. In my five years as a resident of Crown Heights, I’ve been every year, and never been disappointed. (Once I saw Shaggy riding on a float shaped like a sneaker!) Here are a couple tips for enjoying the festivities that I’ve picked up.
Do check out J’ouvert. If you’re an early riser, night owl, or just down for a parade that happens in the middle of the night, J’ouvert is something that’s worth hauling yourself over to Eastern Parkway for. The name translates to “day break” but festivities really get going before that, something closer to 3 or 4 am on Monday morning. It’s not an officially sanctioned event so much as an annual tradition, in which folks gather at around 2 am at Grand Army Plaza and march east and south. There’s dancing and paint throwing and people dressed as celebrities and a great deal of baby powder thrown in the air for effect. It’s general good time revelry, and it has that extra frisson of being up and celebrating at an hour when not even the bodegas are open.
Don’t even think about driving. From about 10 pm on Sunday night onward, it becomes basically impossible to drive or take a cab or bicycle on the blocks immediately adjacent to Eastern Parkway. Also, parking? Not going to happen. Take the subway and walk.
If you have kids, your best bet is the Kiddie Carnivale on Saturday. There’s essentially an enormous Caribbean block party going on in Crown Heights all weekend, but the portion on Saturday is the part where children are the star. Boys and girls break out their stilts and lavish costumes and have a mini-parade all their own, starting at 9 am on Saturday and stretching into the afternoon, finishing at the Brooklyn Museum. It is highly adorable.
If you live on Eastern Parkway, you’re not going to sleep that weekend. Between the parties, the after-parties, the parades, the parade warm-ups, and the general revelry, quiet is just not a thing that’s going to happen. The parade runs from Schenectady Avenue to Flatbush Extension. Fair warning.
Do eat some Caribbean food. On Monday, all manner of food vendors line up along the Parkway to sell everything from jerk chicken to Trinidadian doubles to street food classics like funnel cake and corn on a stick. Skip the stuff you can find elsewhere and go for one of the local treats. My personal recommendation is finding a solid goat roti, which is sort of like a Caribbean burrito, and a sugar cane juice.
If you love steel drums, you’re in luck. There are several Steel Pan Band events, including an all-star round-up called Dimanche Gras near the Brooklyn Museum on Sunday. There’s also Caribbean Woodstock on Thursday night at the same place. For all the official events and tickets, head over to the official carnival website.
Do peruse the vendors. Sure, there are the standard balloons and Bob Marley t-shirts, but there are some real hidden gems along the parkway. Folks show up to sell handmade jewelry and clothing. Treasure I have found in the past include a handpainted portrait of TuPac, Biggie, and Nas; a gorgeous wax block printed A-line dress; and a pair of earrings made of reclaimed parts from an abandoned building.
Do bring earplugs. No, really. There are a lot of speakers happening, and the thump and hiss can get overwhelming. if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, it’s worth the investment.
Do follow general rules of festival etiquette and safety. It’s crowded; it’s loud; it’s hot. Situations can go awry pretty quickly. Stay alert, don’t be an idiot, and know that it’s always ok to head up or down one of the adjacent avenues to take a breather from the action.