When gentrification threatened to erase its rich marketplace history in Flatbush Brooklyn, its Caribbean community dug deeper roots to grow a strong collective of entrepreneurs like a mangrove.
“Welcome to Flatbush,” exclaimed Marie Montrose just before a group of 40-plus Philadelphian professionals entered into a 14-story, mixed-use complex on Flatbush and Caton Avenues in Brooklyn. Ensconced in the pocket of a long-standing Caribbean community, the market is the heart of a redevelopment project furnishing dozens of local entrepreneurs with resources to expand and remain in the gentrifying borough.
A combination of a shopping center, incubator food space, media lab and apartments, Flatbush Central Caribbean Marketplace x Mangrove FC (Flatbush Central) provides a template on how residents can hold onto tradition, all the while, maintain a presence as local economies change in the rapidly shifting urban landscape.
“We are building a more equitable economy that will help lift up all New Yorkers, in every neighborhood and every borough,” said NYC Mayor Eric Adams during the May 2023 opening ceremony of the 255 affordable housing units atop the 20,000 square foot community space of Flatbush Central.
Mayor Adams, who proclaimed himself as “the mayor of Brooklyn,” before his tenure as the boroughmaster of all of NYC, continued in his praise. “This project is a model for community-based development across the city, which is why I was proud to fight for it as borough president and even prouder to see it completed today as the mayor.”
It is Flatbush Central’s burgeoning commercial activity in some of the most culturally rich, yet economically vulnerable corridors of the city that captured the attention of the Economic League of Greater Philadelphia. Namely, its Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) nabbed the opportunity to learn Flatbush Central’s operational models.
“We seek a mix of cross-sector leaders who will be good networkers and take part in conversations that can help to inform projects and make improvements in the Philly region,” explained Kiersten Mailler, GPLEX’s director. The interest resulted in its programmers bringing several dozen of Philly’s influential people to the front door of a success story in BK.
| Read: Grandfathered in Philadelphia leaders trek to Brooklyn for a master class in economic growth, inclusivity
“Coming to Brooklyn made sense,” Diana Lu, Director of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund told Ark Republic. “There are so many takeaways that we can use in Philadelphia, but I was blown away at the programs catering to local entrepreneurs.”
Lu was one of the fellows taking part in the mini-trip. Like many of the GPLEX participants, the trip allowed them to compare and contrast how the borough has experienced much of the changes Philly is going through currently. In all fairness, the Pennsylvania city, just like Brooklyn, is living through another drastic shapeshifting. After being several centuries old, the transition is to be expected, but what it looks like, and how it’s done is up for questioning.
“When yuh neighbor house on fire, wet yours”
Brooklyn has been a battleground for gentrification. The latest started in the early 2000s. Districts once considered undesirable were upgraded to promising locales. In a matter of decades, they became coveted, often pricing out the regular Brooklynite from both residential and commercial markets.
“Gentrification . . . caused the housing prices to become unattainable for the upcoming Caribbeans and forced many out of the borough, as well as, [the] city,” explained Jason Bovell, managing partner at Bovell Financial. A 50-plus year old firm that started in Brooklyn, and operated for much of its life in the borough, is now located in Manhattan.
Bovell, who grew up in Brooklyn recalls seeing rows of Caribbean flags flying from storefronts and larger enterprises. That was the Brooklyn he knew. It was also that Brooklyn that gave him his entrepreneurial spirit. To add, the “ideology of doing for oneself and taking opportunities into your own hands” caused many businesses to come into “fruition [and] out of necessity, due to non-inclusion in the general market of NYC,” he said. That is why for many, Brooklyn is as much of an economic oasis as a cultural sanctuary.
When gentrification rolled into Brooklyn less than a decade after the Sept. 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center, a significant number of businesses formed to serve the “island-specific” enclave were forced to leave. Subsequently, it also weakened ”the support that the Caribbean businesses depend on from the community,” mentioned Bovell.
Moreover, as those left, “it also has created new competition.” Over time, the recent arrivals established stores often neglecting to serve the long-time residents in a section of Brooklyn that Flatbush Central’s director Lisa Thompson said was “centered in Caribbeaness.”
“We lost a lot of vendors, and those who were left needed to operate somewhere affordable to stay here … some of them have been selling for over 15 and 20 years,” explained Montrose. Adding to the challenges of longtime locals, according to Curbed, Brooklyn has been the most popular destination for those moving to New York post-pandemic.
Today, the efforts made by those working to preserve Brooklyn’s Caribbean districts show more than 20 years of advocacy work. Legacy vendors once housed their shops in an open-air facility called Flatbush Central Market (FCM) where Flatbush Central stands today. Started by Dr. Una Clark in 2001, the first Caribbean-born Brooklynite to serve on city council, partnered with the municipality to carve out a commercial space reflective of the Caribbean community she represented. By 2002, construction on an indoor space commenced.
“It’s about institution building,” said Dr. Clark who resettled from Jamaica. “Every community that [has] come to the United States [has] built institutions that reflect their culture [and] values.”
FCM remained until the advocacy of Dr. Clark and others turned to a massive purchase and redevelopment of the building in 2017. It took a number of years to complete the project, which ended this year. While many beam with pride when they walk past Flatbush Central, they clinch the history of an arduous climb to gaining economic parity—and a trek that is ongoing.
Dr. Clark remembers that she was the first of four Black families to move into that section of Flatbush. Similar to Bovell’s story, her championing for more Caribbean commercial spaces was a way to make residents like her more visible and viable in local economies.
“What makes Brooklyn’s Caribe network so unique is its organic nature,” said Bovell. “A lot of business networks are built intentionally and tend to have initiatives that create it, [but] the Brooklyn Caribe’s network has been created . . . out of a physical community that . . . fed its growth.”
In the same vein, it was some of those same vendors who for generations, furnished foods, body care and even clothes from back home, were hit hardest in the pandemic. Thankfully, Flatbush Central gave them a brick-and-mortar that also included community and some stability.
“We Likkle But Wi Tallawah (We are little, but we are mighty)”
Walking into the statuesque Flatbush Central building, the smell of new construction tickled the nose, but hundreds of years of tradition warmed visitors’ senses and ancestral memories. With a grand opening in June, the marketplace is home to about 40 retailers selling anything from custom clothes to plantain sandwiches—all owned by first and second generation Caribbean business persons.
While Montrose detailed the layout of Flatbush Central, the Philadelphia GPLEX group slowly took in the spaciousness of the street level bazaar. In some ways, it was designed like the roads of a quaint village. To the right was a corridor of merchants hawking vibrant textiles, flags, music, castor oil and other ethnic bric-a-brac signifying island nations such as the Bahamas, Haiti, Trinidad and Jamaica. There was even representation from the Latin American archipelago, Panama.
The back left of the first floor held a winding pathway of eateries serving a variety of culinary foodways. Around lunchtime, the aromas of curry stews and Grenadine plant-based delights danced in the air. Then at the catty-corner was a lounge where both visitors and sellers could wind down.
Indeed, the flags of the Caribbean diaspora flew proudly at every shop. Similar to Bovell’s childhood memories, the Caribbean culture encouraged support from one’s home, while celebrating the way shopkeepers represented their heritage.
Of more importance, the sculpting of entrepreneurial programs, training and technical assistance kept that same cultural awareness in mind. One practice discovered in the GPLEX stopover was how cultural understanding wove into the ways the initiatives offered courses and support.
“We have business incubators in Philly, but I’ve never seen one like this,” said Eleanor Sharp, a GPLEX participant who is part of Philadelphia’s city planning office.
Sharp mentioned that she loved the emphasis on Black women vendors, and the range in age of all the entrepreneurs she noticed. The community borrowed heavily from multi-generational model like a marketplace you’d see in the Caribbean.
“It just seemed like there was this intention to recognize and see the entrepreneur and the culture they bring,” commented Sharp. “Not only do they accept [entrepreneurs] for who they are and what type of business they want to run; they [also] inform them of classes, and resources, and how to set up a business and how to run a business and the pitfalls to learn in how to maneuver.”
“Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li (Little by little, the bird builds its nest—Haitian Proverb)”
As she pointed to every detail of the indoor market, Montrose laid thick her sugar-cane charm during the tour. However, behind her eyes was that of an economic general who had gone to battle to maintain the vibrancy of the neighborhood.
Flatbush Central is an extension of old world customs where commercial hubs are more than a place to purchase wares. In fact, it is the center of activity where both diasporic consumers and vendors also exchange information as currency, along with their purchases. This is one of the reasons why Montrose and others have been fierce in maintaining its purpose to boost the local economy by prioritizing community members’ businesses.
Abdullah Elias, the interim director of the Mangrove Incubator showed Philadelphia guests the incubator space. Laid out as a multi-functioning section, it operates a kitchen, multimedia design studio, and even sewing area. Plus on any given night, the activities of the entrepreneurs gets bolstered by events such as bake-ins, deejays and live cooking shows.
One of the main thrusts is that the program lasts three years, as opposed to the standard one or two. Part of joining is participants must take a business academy course. For that, it caters to rising and established entrepreneurs boosting businesses in media, food and retail.
Another key focus for the early stage training initiative is its commitment to providing an “open workspace, learning annex, and cultural development center that supports local Black, Indigenous, and People of Color creative producers, makers, workers, and entrepreneurs.” To carry this idea, the concept is to produce a strong collective of businesses, standing on their own, like that of a mangrove, from “seed to stone.”
One of the ways Flatbush Central incentivizes entrepreneurs to thrive is through a profit-sharing model. The structure is designed to take a percentage of their revenue rather than charge them for renting out a booth or restaurant stall in the building. Theoretically, it should push participants to be market ready by the end of their participation in the program, or sooner.
So far, two of the businesses have reached their goals in the small amount of time the incubator has opened. They also have a cafe featuring local chefs, a Bronx-Ghanaian butcher, and even a Black farmer, Triple J Farm, who supplies their maple syrup.
“That profit-sharing model is very innovative and out-of-the-box,” Alain Joinville, Strategic Director of Philadelphia’s Immigration Affairs chimed in. “It shows how they work together, and also represent all of the Caribbean, even Haitians. For me that made me proud as a person of Haitian descent.”
What is in store for Flatbush Central is as fresh as the paint still drying on its walls. Elias mentioned to Ark Republic of possible plans to tweak the business academy to be more flexible in both cultural awareness and the level in which the participants enter the program. For now, operations are at full speed and his hands are full.
If you look at the calendar of events and entrepreneur programs, the list reflects the excitement to maintain Caribbean visibility with Caribbean people. More pointedly, Flatbush Central offers a blueprint for what is to come in a changing America—a shift of economies and the challenges that come with it.
This is the third story of a four-part series of shadowing a group of Philadelphia leaders who traversed to Brooklyn to see what they could learn then bring back. Currently, the City of brotherly love is in a moment of expansion and redevelopment. We have a front seat on the sculpting of a post-pandemic urban America. This series is sponsored by The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund.