Riding over the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise ranks high on my list of New York favourites. And not just because of the stunning views. There’s something about leaving Manhattan behind and descending into Brooklyn that makes me feel like I’m coming home.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the hike from upper Manhattan to Brooklyn felt like a trip that ought to require a passport. I spent my first six years in New York infected with a strong case of Manhattan myopia, rarely leaving unless I was heading out of town. For the first three years, my entire life unfolded within five miles of the Columbia University campus where I went to school — only as far north as my apartment in Hamilton Heights, and only as far south as Century 21 (mecca for all design-conscious discount shoppers!). After school, a stint at a major consulting firm restricted my movement even further. Wasting my limited free time on mass transit to the outer boroughs was out of the question. The Bronx? Nope. Queens? Absolutely not. The islands — Long and Staten? Not exactly the kind of islands that interested me. Brooklyn was always harder to resist. But as one friend after another left the city for tony brownstones in Fort Greene and Park Slope, my list of excuses for never visiting lengthened. Brooklyn is too far. It’s not safe for me to ride the subway back late at night. It’s a $30 cab ride home. And what the hell is in Brooklyn, anyway?
Then I decided to leave consulting to write full-time. And as my work and my life became less American and more Caribbean, my trips on the No. 2 train from Harlem to Brooklyn rose in frequency. What the hell is in Brooklyn? A Caribbean state so large and dynamic, it ought to have a seat in Caricom.
Like all great love affairs, mine with Brooklyn started with an explosion of chemistry, and mellowed into a continuous stream of subtle comforts. My real baptism into Brooklyn — away from my friends’ dining tables and into the belly of the Caribbean beast — came in my last year in consulting. I was headed downtown to my office on Labour Day, glum and resentful at having to work on a public holiday. As the train headed south, I noticed more and more people getting on, clutching Caribbean flags of every stripe, carrying flag umbrellas, wearing flag bandanas. Spontaneously, I followed them, staying on the train well past the few stops I knew, all the way to Eastern Parkway and smack into the Labour Day Parade. I took my place on the sidewalk — one of nearly four million spectators that day — doe-eyed at the drama and the splendour, the magnitude of it all. I stuffed myself with roast corn and plantain, jerk chicken that would make Portland proud, and snapper that tasted like it belonged at Hellshire Beach. And I danced and danced, oblivious to the driving rain, as Machel Montano defied the laws of physics and biology, gyrating on top of a rain-slicked float.
That initial giddy crush deepened with each new visit to Brooklyn, and the celebration of all things Caribbean that seemed to take place every day, in every store, on every street corner. Few things rival my affection for Manhattan’s Central Park, but Brooklyn’s Prospect Park boasted the gorgeous green vistas I love and the guarantee of a football match boasting some of Intercol’s best alumni. Mention cricket in Manhattan and I’d get a blank stare, but mention it in Brooklyn and I’d get an invitation to a cold Carib and a trip to Marine Park to watch a match in play. Riding a dollar van down Flatbush Avenue was not just transportation; it was an entrée into a vibrant discussion of Caribbean arts, business, politics, with representation from every island and ethnicity of the region. Caribbean Chamber of Commerce and Industry meetings introduced me to a network of Caribbean business owners determined to leave their mark on the borough and the region. And a never-ending series of cocktail parties and receptions plugged me into a community of like minds — Caribbean people who love New York, but love the Caribbean more. From the Golden Krust patty shops that stand at each major intersection to the façade at the Taste of the Tropics Ice Cream Shop at the corner of Nostrand and Avenue D, where the display of Caribbean flags befits a Caricom Heads of Government meeting, to the mango martinis at Sugarcane, Brooklyn seemed to be all Caribbean, all the time; the perfect elixir to the occasional homesickness that plagued me.
I’m groaning over a plate of ackee and saltfish at Brawta, a Caribbean restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, when Una Clarke walks in. A fixture on the Brooklyn political scene for four decades, the diminutive Jamaica-born Clarke has been the staunchest and loudest advocate for the Caribbean community in Brooklyn, rivalled only by her daughter Yvette, who took over the mantle as city councilwoman in 2001. The closest thing to a Caribbean political dynasty in this country, the Clarkes are determined to extend their reach further, as Yvette prepares for a bid for re-election to the City Council later this year, and a potential second run for Congress in 2006. Today at Brawta, the senior Ms Clarke is concentrating on a bowl of Brawta’s famous chicken soup, before rushing off to yet another of her day’s appointments.
“What makes Brooklyn special as a leader of the Caribbean diaspora,” says Clarke, “is the variety and the strength of the community here, the educational standards, the business development. We’re talking about a city the same size as Jamaica, with a population roughly the same as Jamaica’s — 2.6 million — and nearly a third of that is Caribbean. There are more Caribbean elected officials in Brooklyn than in any other borough, and probably in any other state. We’re found in every institution in Brooklyn in significant numbers, in significant positions. Healthcare, education, the corporate sector, and, of course, in entrepreneurship — the Caribbean community holds sway.”
It’s an accomplishment perhaps possible only in Brooklyn. If it weren’t a borough of New York, Brooklyn would be the fourth largest city in the United States; home to nearly a million immigrants. “The Caribbean community is so strong in Brooklyn because we’re comfortable here,” says Clarke. “It’s a borough of multiple immigrant communities. Immigrants are comfortable with other immigrants even when we don’t speak the same language. Our values and aspirations are usually the same. We share the experience of sometimes having to live the difference between what America is and what it should be, what it purports itself to be — a land of opportunity and prosperity.”
But for me, more striking than the Caribbean prosperity evident in Brooklyn is the acceptance of Caribbean identity. While living in Manhattan means trying to insert my identity as a Jamaican into an often binary discourse that recognises only black and white, in Brooklyn I found a place where my Jamaican identity is not only understood but celebrated. And, better yet, there is a cohesive Caribbean identity, the kind that rarely exists in the region beyond the idealised speeches of politicians or days when the West Indies cricket team is winning. Brooklyn is a borough of people who are just as likely to define themselves as Caribbean as by their specific country of origin; a borough full of Caribbean nationals with a regional mindset and Caribbean hybrids of every permutation and combination: “My mom’s Jamaican and my dad’s Antiguan”; “I was born in Trinidad, but my mother is Guyanese and my father is from St Lucia”.
At a private elementary school attended mostly by Caribbean and African-American children, I ask the students if any of them are Caribbean. Hands shoot up and voices pipe up, calling out the national origin of their parents. Some call out one country, some call out two or three. One little boy, one of the last to answer, finally puts up his hand.
“I’m Caribbean too,” he says shyly.
“And what island are you from?” I ask.
A crowd of students in royal blue caps and gowns blocks the sidewalk in front of Erasmus Hall High School. Young voices with twangy, urban American accents mingle with older voices with lilts straight from home. “Erasmus is more than 80 per cent Caribbean,” says Anthony Joseph, a Trinidadian teacher. “The students here are from every Caribbean island — Trinidad, Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, Barbados —– you name it, they’re here.” It’s a scene replicated across the borough at countless high schools, and colleges like Brooklyn College and Medgar Evers: a generation of Caribbean and Caribbean-American students creating lasting intraregional bonds that only the University of the West Indies allows at home.
“We’re a united front here,” says Una Clarke. “When we say Caribbean, we mean it. We know each other in a way that we don’t know each other at home.
“There’s a respect for the differences within the Caribbean community, and between the Caribbean community and all the other ethnic groups that live here. That’s one of the reasons I love Brooklyn. There’s no other place I’d want to live. Brooklyn has a special energy all its own. If you want to learn how to appreciate different people, their customs and traditions, there’s no better place to learn than Brooklyn.”
At the Food Market on Flatbush there’s a dizzying array of West Indian foods and spices. A lively debate is brewing at the cash register about the origins of a certain set of mangos.
“Lord, is must a Trini mango that.”
“No, sir. That mango come from Jamaica.”
The proprietor settles it — the mango arrived last Thursday from Haiti. The debaters are calmed, the mangos purchased. As I snatch up bags of my favourite Jamaican brand of tamarind balls, I think to myself, “this is just like home.” But then my eye wanders. I see a brand of Trinidadian peppered tamarind balls I’m tempted to try. I pick up a bottle of Barbadian hot sauce — one of seven Caribbean versions on sale. I’m eager to sample the sauces, soups, candies from every island in the region. I realise I’ve never seen a supermarket in Jamaica with this great a variety of Caribbean products.
This is better than home, I think.
This is Brooklyn.
“Brooklyn is the Caribbean capital of the world”
Kellie Magnus talks to three leaders of the Brooklyn Caribbean community
Roy Hastick, President of the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce:
“The Caribbean American community is vital to Caribbean development, and the business community here in Brooklyn is a huge part of that. There are thousands of Caribbean businesses in Brooklyn. Nationally, the Caribbean community contributes nearly $10 billion to the US economy, and the community here in Brooklyn alone accounts for more than $1 billion of that. Brooklyn is the Caribbean capital of the world. Conservative estimates [like that recently quoted in the New York Times] put the Caribbean population in Brooklyn at 300,000, but the real figure is closer to 500,000. The economic renaissance in Brooklyn is bringing unprecedented opportunities to Caribbean business owners here, and that will have a significant trickle-down effect to the Caribbean region.”
Una Clarke, Director, Brooklyn Community Network Office, Empire State Development Corporation, and former city councilwoman:
“Brooklyn has the largest concentration of Caribbean people outside of the region. The Caribbean community now understands that there’s strength in our numbers. There’s a greater effort for unity now among our people. Regardless of what island we’re from, we all want to see the Caribbean grow. Although each island has its own historical identity, our common experience, especially among the Caricom nations, is special. As the Caribbean tries to develop its own single market, the Caribbean American community here realises it has a role and wants to help. There’s a greater sense of opportunity among our nationals at home and abroad. The governments don’t see expatriates as traitors, but as a complement. All of the right moves are being made to incorporate our experience to be helpful to the region.”
Rhea Smith, Public Relations and Marketing Manager, Brooklyn Centre for the Performing Arts:
“Brooklyn is a hub for Caribbean cultural expression. And not just for the Caribbean community to enjoy. It’s a gateway to the rest of the American community. Anybody [Caribbean] who wants to break into the American market needs to come through Brooklyn.
“BPCA’s mission is to be the cultural hub of the Caribbean community in Brooklyn. We’re in the centre of East Flatbush, which is predominantly Caribbean, and we’re a community-based organisation, so we have to reflect that culture. Our Caribbean Celebration Series takes the best of the region — Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, signature artists like Freddie McGregor, the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Nelson — and rising stars from the local Caribbean American community, and showcases them to an audience that crosses racial, national, and ethnic boundaries.
“I love living in Brooklyn, because it reminds me of the Caribbean. I feel like I’m home in St James [Trinidad]; like I’m right across the street from Smokey and Bunty! And the Labour Day Parade is as close to Carnival in Trinidad as you’re gonna get.”
Best of the borough
A sample of Brooklyn’s Caribbean delights
Brawta, 347 Atlantic Avenue
The crowded tables and long lines should be clue enough that this is the best Caribbean food in Brooklyn. The stellar Zagat’s rating on the wall? Well, that’s just brawta.
Sugarcane, 238 Flatbush Avenue
Home to Caribbean hipsters, this great date spot serves Caribbean fare with an upscale twist, and creative Caribbean cocktails.
MoBay Restaurant, 112 Dekalb Avenue
The Harlem spinoff is a hit, but purists say the Brooklyn original is worth the trip. Excellent vegetarian options.
Gloria’s West Indian Restaurant
With three locations in Brooklyn, Gloria’s serves up unpretentious but authentic Caribbean food, and the best roti from here to Port of Spain.
Brooklyn Centre for the Performing Arts, 2900 Campus Road at Hillel Place
Home to the Caribbean Celebrations Series, BCPA offers up a year-long roster of the best of Caribbean culture. Highlights include the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, Luciano, the Mighty Sparrow, and local Brooklyn steelband troupe Casym. www.brooklyncenter.com
Caribbean Cultural Theatre, 138 South Oxford Street
Guyana’s E. Wayne McDonald leads an all-Caribbean troupe through must-see performances of Caribbean poetry and drama. T: 718-783-8345
Celebrate Brooklyn Series, Prospect Park Bandshell
Not surprisingly, this annual tribute to the borough always includes performances by the Caribbean’s finest. On tap this year: the Mighty Shadow, Trinidadian poets Roger Bonair-Agard and Cheryl Boyce Taylor, and Morgan Heritage. www.celebratebrooklyn.org
Elite Ark, 900 Sheffield Avenue
The hottest names in Caribbean music make regular stops at this Brooklyn nightspot. Stop in to catch Beenie Man, Vybz Cartel, and Machel Montano and Xtatik.
New York Perks, 193 Smith Street
A combo coffee shop and wine bar, Perks boasts one of Brooklyn’s best Caribbean parties — a weekly Sunday night jam with great wines at the bar and on the dance floor.
JRG Restaurant and Fashion Café, 177 Flatbush Avenue
Go for dinner (how about mango and sorrel roasted salmon and pineapple-raisin bread pudding?) but stay for the great music, the networking at the bar, and the fashion show of Caribbean and New York designers.