Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Brooklyn—specifically Flatbush and Crown Heights—became the epicenter of Caribbean migration to New York City. If you were coming from one of the 27 island nations within the Caribbean Sea, the areas directly to the south and east of Prospect Park were your likely entry point into New York City.
In 2000, Councilwoman Dr. Una Clarke—the city’s first Caribbean-born elected official—leveraged city money to build the Flatbush Caton Market on the corner of Flatbush and Caton Avenues, a busy corner in the heart of a neighborhood that served as the epicenter for Brooklyn’s Caribbean community. For dozens of Caribbean immigrants vending goods from their native countries atop blankets on the sidewalk, the permanent indoor space was an opportunity not only to become established entrepreneurs, but also to provide a pipeline of products from home—clothing, décor, spices, music, toiletries, homewares not otherwise available in New York—to the large expat community. Within one building, it was Caribbean culture materialized; but it was also an eclectic community space that provided a golden opportunity for 40-some small businesses to blossom into established brands, and its vendors a chance to achieve financial security.
But just as the market opened, the first economic recession of the new century hit. Foot-traffic slowed; vendors struggled to make ends meet. The market chugged along, and moderate upswings returned, but then the economy tanked a second time. Rumors of redevelopment, and of selling the city-owned property spread. Vendors feared losing their community space and economic lifelines.
Then, late last year, an official redevelopment plan was released: The Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce, paired with BRP Development would build 166 units of affordable housing, while a second developer, Urbane Development, would prepare, train, and transition all 47 vendors into 30,000 square feet of new market, community, and commercial space, scheduled for 2020.
It is an immense opportunity for the vendors to bring their business to the next level, and for the community as a whole to strengthen from within; but given the market’s tumultuous history, these plans have been greeted with some anxiety. Vendors have never previously been able to trust in the permanence of their home. And so it will be up to Urbane Development, begun in 2008 by James Johnson-Piett, to take on the especially sensitive role of working one-on-one with vendors to discover what each requires individually to thrive in their future space.
“All of us are excited but also a little nervous, because it’s going to be a long process. We need to prove that we’re here for the long haul.”
A few weeks ago, I visited the market with Johnson-Piett. In just a few weeks time, he had become a familiar face there, and when we walked in early on a Saturday afternoon, market manager Anna Walker called out to him with a warm greeting; we said hello to a man who had been at the market for 17 years, even before it was housed in a building; then we met the market DJ, Karlene.
Her stall was filled with CDs from around the Caribbean, and she cranked reggae from large speakers; Bob Marley filled the whole market. Karlene is retired, a former HR manager at JP Morgan Chase. She wore a pretty red silk scarf around her neck and radiated calm positive energy. When I asked where she was from her response was, “Everything is good,” i.e., “I’m from Jamaica.”
Down the aisle, a vendor from Haiti spoke only French Creole. Her stand burst with shelf-stable staples and spices from home. I asked if new supplies arrived weekly—more like once a month, she responded. Despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon, foot traffic was sparse. She sat quietly on a chair outside her stall.
Next, Johnson-Piett introduced me to Barbara, an official Mary Kay woman, who also sells intricately assembled gift baskets. Valentine’s Day-themed varieties remained on the shelf from the week before. She also sold jewelry and designed T-shirts. “T-shirts on a whole new level,” she described them to me. Sitting next to her, an older woman Mary, from Jamaica, sat proudly next to gorgeous African ensembles, which she brought to the market from Manhattan.
Barbara began to tell me about the deep frustration felt from years of financial uncertainty at the market. To make matters worse, media outlets would come in—the Discovery Channel even showed up once—but nothing ever aired; moments of hope would lead to more disappointment, fewer customers, and dipping sales. I asked if that then meant she was excited for the brand new space she would move into, if it gave her renewed hope for the future of her business; she was not so certain.
“I understand the trepidation,” said Johnson-Piett, stepping in. “All of us are excited but also a little nervous, because it’s going to be a long process. We need to prove that we’re here for the long haul, and to promote you individually as well, so that people know what you are, and what you’re selling. That is what I really care about.”
Johnson-Piett founded Urbane Development nine years ago when he realized the asset that all underserved communities have in abundance is human capital, and that this is what can best serve those spaces he calls community anchors—the Flatbush-Caton markets of the world. “Those are the places that are economically resilient; they run their downturns and upswings,” says Johnson-Piett. “The difference is people aren’t thinking about how do I make it a rubric for success, and then move it forward?”
“When the opportunity came up to curate an arts and culture space at the market, in the community I’m a part of, I said great. There is nothing like this in this part of Flatbush—nothing at all.”
Johnson-Piett started a program called Bodega Bootcamp, wherein he worked with bodega owners across the country to help them figure out what infrastructure they’d need to provide better service for customers and grow their business. “Philanthropy is robust when paired with systems,” says Johnson-Piett. “It’s about getting in a system, and breaking it apart, and understanding how to help it.”
Growing up in North Philly’s infamously dangerous Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, Johnson-Piett learned firsthand what the lack of money and support means for a community. His local public high school was called the worst in the country by Diane Sawyer, and has been shut down several times. But, with the encouragement of a middle school guidance counselor, Johnson-Piett took the entrance exam to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. And the unthinkable happened: He got in.
Using a mild descriptor, Johnson-Piett called his first year there “nuts.” He saw his classmates’ families go on vacation to the Bahamas on a whim. Meanwhile, “I go home and I’m like, wait, that crack house just burned down. So there was always that rubbing, you know?” But while school placed high expectations on him, he welcomed that kind of pressure. “My home life was stressful, so while being away added stresses it also alleviated some.” His biggest challenge was not understanding the material, but learning how to study. “It’s about going through the process, reading the whole book. My middle school didn’t teach me that.”
At a very young age, Johnson-Piett had an understanding that his life would look different from his peers in Strawberry Mansion. “I knew I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class,” he said, compared to the kids he grew up with. “It was really a matter of opportunity,” he said, and, almost more importantly, it was hearing a different idea about what his future could look like. “They said, ‘You are the leaders of the country,’ and they’re not lying. So for me it was like, yeah, why the hell can’t we be the leaders of America in North Philly? The only difference is we don’t have friends and family capital for that first big investment.”
Back in the market, Johnson-Piett introduces me to a Panamanian vendor. She and her partner sew traditional Panamanian clothing from within a cramped stall, and offer bath products and other Panamanian goods not available anywhere else in the city. Johnson-Piett tells her he will get her more space, and that she has the opportunity to be the Panamanian counterpart to Duane Reade.
Outside on the plaza, the market’s newest edition is CaribBEING: a lifestyle and event brand, that curates exhibitions and film screenings, inspired by and based on Caribbean culture. It lives in a retro-fitted, solar-powered shipping container. Inside, CaribBEING founder Shelley Worrell stands behind a small desk; a neon sign hangs on the wall behind her and reads, “I AM CARIB BEING,” casting a glow throughout.
“I’m excited to be here,” says Worrell. “I’m from the neighborhood, and can just walk over. When the opportunity came up to curate an arts and culture space at the market, in the community I’m a part of, I said great. There is nothing like this in this part of Flatbush—nothing at all.” A couple of weeks earlier, the CaribBEING container had a soft-opening sponsored by AirBnB. The event was jam-packed.
Finally, Johnson-Piett took me to talk to market manager Anna Walker, known to all the vendors simply as Mrs. Anna. She’s been at the market for more than a decade. “Shelley’s soft-opening caused a lot of excitement, it brought a lot of young people in with curiosity to the market,” says Walker, and she anticipates more with the arrival of Johnson-Piett, and his company on the scene. “Hearing this and hearing that makes the vendors edgy, but now James walks in and you see him take it more seriously,” says Walker. “They are working with him and listening. We give them all the options, and then we say, ‘We’ll help you.’”
Walker moved us out to an arrangement of cafe tables, near the market entrance. She set out plates and platters of fresh fruit and savory salt fish, provided by on site food vendors. Shelley Worrell from CaribBEING joined us, as we feasted and talked shop about the next phase of the development. Much of that work is what Johnson calls the “not sexy” part of the development: helping vendors take credit cards, making them mobile, training them in social media and customer service, and introducing them to e-commerce: in short, extending their brands, and the products they offer. The market will also almost double in size, so Johnson-Piett will be looking for new vendors, as well as helping the current ones thrive.
As always, however, Johnson-Piett emphasizes that this is only the beginning of a very long road: after the existing market is bulldozed, all the current vendors will live in a temporary space for two to three years while the new building is constructed, and as they work through the long municipal process of getting all zoning changes approved. But in that time, Johnson will do what he does best, running an “audit” with each vendor to understand exactly what they need and want, so that they are prepared for their brand new space come 2020.
“We got involved here because it was clear (the vendors) were here for a long time, and had resonance in a way that, if we could strengthen them, they should be able to strengthen the community around them,” says Johnson-Piett. In the café, Mrs. Anna continued to wait on us like the queen mother of the market, welcoming a student group from CUNY, who stopped to take a picture with her. She introduced us all to a teenager who grew up with the market, and helped her family run their stand. Karlene’s reggae pumped on, filling the space with a relaxing Saturday levity. Everyone was calm on a sunny day, surrounded by community. “Little booths might not seem like anything, but to them it’s a big deal,” Walker explains. “Vendors ask me, ‘Is James going to help us make it bigger and better, Mrs. Anna? And I say, ‘Yes. and there is hope.’”