BrownMill x Halsey Street Fest fosters community with block party on June 8, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/ Ark Republic

A Newark atelier and a campaign highlighting local businesses finds common ground in an annual block party

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BrownMill Atelier and Newark Street Fest bring community members out to celebrate an old tradition of a block party in a part of downtown Newark still working to find its feet in a changing economy.

Five years ago, Halsey Street in downtown Newark after 7 p.m. resembled a quaint Italian village—quiet except for a few pubs reaching most of the corridor’s nightlife. On the weekends, Halsey became a ghost town after residents grabbed a morning coffee or shoppers and Instant Cart drivers picked up their groceries at the city’s Whole Foods.

This weekend, Halsey Street was a vibe. A daylong block party brought to life a thoroughfare that once teemed with bustling brick-and-mortars in its 18th, 19th and and early 20th Century heydays. Yet, the energy of this early June urban fête came with a twist of melanin and Jersey house music. “This is a gorgeous event. Everybody’s here to have a good time,” says Tehsuan Glover to Ark Republic. Glover is the publisher of The Newark Times, an online outlet focusing on the perspectives and narratives of Newark from a lens of “dignity, honesty, and candor.”

For three blocks, the popular corridor jumps with a femme-fantastic deejay spinning the score on a stage installed at the intersection where the “All Black Lives Matter” ground mural was restored the week before. Attendees weave through dozens of food stands conjuring dishes from Philly to the Caribbean; and a mish-mesh of vibrant wearables. Occasionally, a niche vendor surprises you with an innovative setup, like a gaming truck or a stall focusing on salient historical Black figures and history to elevate Black representation in the media.

Adrian Wright, a barber who works in West Orange, echoes Glover’s sentiments. “Everybody is supporting each other.” At that moment, Wright, who is giving out discounted haircuts, etches out a fresh line-up on a client who said one time the stylist gave him a free shapeup after he was robbed in the Bricks. Wright chuckles and nods,  “I live a life of service, so I feel like a haircut makes you feel better and if you feel better than you do better. Like today, it’s been beautiful out here and it lets you know that Black is beautiful. ”

From 8-years-old to 80, there were activities for the range of generations there. From the children’s section where you could paint and draw, to the glass blowing and ad-hoc roller skating rink—the block party served as a signature event ushering in Newark’s summer events that bring folks from as far away as Trenton, and even across the state border, from Pennsylvania—to party in the unapologetically Black space. Artist, Bisa Omifunke, reminisced on the days she performed African dance routines on these very same streets in the 1960s with Black Arts creator and fellow Newarker, Amiri Baraka. Baraka’s son, Ras Baraka, is now in his second term as mayor, and has geared up to run for governor. “I come to events like these to check out what the young folk are doing and catch up with the elders who are still in the area” reflects Omifunke.

While, majority of the crowd dances and rocks to another mix from the spin-mistress, many are unaware of the legends and bricklayers who made it possible that fold into the crowd with them: that is both the power and the danger of the masses—to be one and no one at the same time. Alas, that is the allure of the block party.

Tehsuan Glover, founder of The Newark Times enjoys the BrownMill x Halsey Street Fest on June 8, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

Dark pasts, brighter futures: Halsey Street

Block parties in the city are common summer staples in the northeast urban centers of the U.S. Sometimes, ensconced in the illest of neighborhoods, on a warm day, the smell of grilled meat and the sound of music soothes the soul of any city dweller. What made the recent Newark event a signature gathering was the history behind Halsey Street, and the collaboration between new entrepreneurial blood, BrownMill Atelier—and a slightly older initiative to highlight a re-emerging commercial district in the midst of gentrification—the Halsey Street Fest.

Spanning centuries, downtown Newark was an unsafe space for blacks and Native folks. The Lenni Lenape, who carved out the original paths, were pushed into nearby hills and forced to hide when Christians like Robert Treat and Giovanni Verrazzano resettled in Newark. Many of the main streets, unbeknownst to most, are footpaths carved out by indigenous people who today live in the Ramapo mountains. Indigenous people were slaughtered, while other were forced into servitude then folded into America’s chattel slavery system with Africans transported from the continent.

In 1804, an abolition act gradually banishing slavery in New Jersey led to the passage of a law definitively ending the chattel system in 1808. However, New Jersey was the last state in the north to eliminate it in 1866 because New Jersey public officials were pro-slavery. Plus, much of the private industries in the state serviced slaveholding enterprises in the south, even when the Union banned it during the Civil War, New Jersey was a major importer of its goods to the Confederate. 

By the time slavery ended, the anti-black undertone was already set. In the early 1800s, the small black Newark population had to report to the main

square upon the ringing of a bell. In 1817, black Newark citizens voiced opposition in newspapers toward local white organizations that were under the leadership of then Mayor Theodore Frelinghuysen who attempted to expel blacks in efforts to send them to Africa, Haiti or Latin America. In 1838, William Halsey, Newark’s mayor, headed a revival of the same organization, the New Jersey chapter of the American Colonization Society to forcibly relocate blacks. His leadership was vicious, but his efforts largely failed. Only 24 Black New Jerseyans left for Liberia.

When blacks remained, local ordinances restricted their movement and opportunities to achieve upward mobility. For instance, it was until 1959 that Blacks had to carry a pass when in downtown Newark to explain their presence.

The struggle to be Black in Newark crescendoed in 1967 when residents resisted the city’s white, violent administration that was protected by an equally vile police force. Known as the 1967 Newark Riots, the city burned for five days after Black city-goers created civil unrest when a cabbie was severely beaten by local cops. Although a Black leadership ascended, the refusal to completely include Black citizens into Newark’s development spiked at different points of its becoming. Like when developers dug up a historical burial ground when building the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 1993. However, decision makers said that the Trinity Church Cemetery was not an African burial ground, or significant enough to save.

Deejay spinning house music at the BrownMill x Halsey Street Fest on June 8, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

How a block party created community

The irony of the block party on Halsey Street shows the resilience of Blacks and the push to preserve power for the people through simple acts of gathering. The BrownMill Atelier x Halsey Street Fest was a combination of two street fairs working to bring more eyes and community to a section of downtown Newark that almost came to a screeching halt for three decades. 

Fifteen or so years ago, Tamara Remedios fell in love with Newark. So much so, she planted her life there and began to use her marketing savvy to create events that featured the local owners of back-and-mortars along Halsey Street. It was during Cory Booker’s mayoral administration, who managed the city with the promise of reform in a blighted urban landscape, that Remedios determinedly created strategic promotions to bring more business to the handful of proprietors who lived and worked along Halsey Street.

Idea after idea, Remedios gradually corralled the hodgepodge of business owners one shop at a time. From a coupon discount booklet to digital features, she eventually launched the Halsey Street Fest. It started out as a handful of booths and a deejay. Some years the elements took over. Either buckets of rain or an intense summer sun bore no mercy on the modest event. Yet, it slowly expanded. But gentrification was a motherfucker. Then came that damn COVID.

Soon, massive redevelopments like the Hahne & Co’s Building and the erection of the North Star Academy charter school, congested districts in downtown. By the way, the old Hahne’s was so segregated back in the day that Blacks had to enter through its back doors. Let’s get back to this story. 

Around 2011, littered on small roads like Halsey were construction equipment and its workers taking all of the parking and the limited public space to walk. With Rutgers University also competing in its purchase of buildings, business hours, and especially the rush hour to get in and out of a section that was still built to accommodate horses and buggies, was maddening. 

Consequently, much of the business that the mom-and-pop’s depended on—the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. crowd—began to dwindle due to the unwelcoming and unmanaged chaos caused by the multiple projects in the area. One by one, those owners who took risks during the Booker Administration, silently and permanently, pulled down the security gates of their shops. They could not compete with box chain shops dropping experimental retail spaces, or the big real estate firms purchasing several buildings where the smaller shops operated from. As well, long-time apartment renters could not afford the jacked up housing prices.

Yet Remedios’ hard work engraved a salient point in the resurgence of Newark—a local economy had to have local business. Refreshingly, BrownMill set up shop at the right time. In 2021, after the world slowly came out of a global quarantine, Justin Pitt-Goodson, Taha Shimou and Kwaku Agyepang moved into a storefront at 49 Halsey, nestled between Bleeker and New Street. They planted a red, black and green flag with their signature letter “B” by its entry, signifying that a piece of territory had been reclaimed without the creepy colonizing Christopher Columbus backdrop. 

For years, butcher block paper in the window was the decor of the half-completed boutique at 49 Halsey. A reminder of dreams deferred somewhere between dried up funding and a failed business plan, it seemed as if the silent disappointment magnified during the COVID quarantine. Like many cities, Newark shut down; thus forcing the little businesses left in the area to shutter as well. Most didn’t make it in the reopening.

Kwaku Agyepang, CFO and cofounder of BrownMill Atelier and Taha Shimou behind him at their Newark location during the BrownMill x Halsey Street Fest block party on June 8, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

The silver lining for younger entrepreneurs was the uptick of the online world. When the new kids on the block arrived, BrownMill Atelier finished the renovations at the vacant storefront then launched a series of crowdfunding campaigns, pop ups, and digital subscription sales. 

Pitt-Goodson, who is the brainchild of the store, is a serial entrepreneur who began making bow ties with repurposed fabrics. Hence, upcycling is at the center of the store that connects addressing environmental issues and in the African American cultural history of using bits of fabrics to weave together clothes, tapestries and quilts with discarded textiles. 

With all that was going on, the trio decided to throw a small party for their one-year anniversary. The celebration—which was a huge milestone to open a storefront during COVID and remain in operation—spilled out of their cozy shop onto the streets. Because COVID regulations mandated social distancing, being outside was a healthy alternative. Sort of. “The city authorities contacted us and said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to have a block party then you need permits,’” explained Agyepang. So, the next year, they did it again with all of their paperwork.

Although Agyepang admits that the block party was an accidental success, Glover emphasizes that when the triad opened its doors it was “intentional in creating community.” In those intentions, they struck up a collaboration with Newark Halsey Fest, which is now a project presented by the Newark Alliance, a non-profit composed of corporate members in Newark; albeit, a predominantly white organization that is far from the representation of the city.

It also didn’t hurt that shortly after BrownMill opened, Newark was becoming a filming destination for production projects such as The Equalizer or Wu-Tang an American Saga. Stylists from the sets would come to the BrownMill Atelier and stock up on clothes. Good thing the three high-school friends-turned-business-partners created a lifestyle brand that “changed the narrative of Black men in America [to show] that they are hard-working and educated,” says Agyepang. Eventually, their clothes and philosophies imprinted on tees and hats, caught the eye of former NBA champion and All-Star player, Dwayne Wade who began to wear their goods along with other notables such as Carmelo Anthony. 

Then in 2023, Jrue Holiday and his wife, Lauren, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, chose BrownMill Atelier as a JLH Grantee through their Social Impact Fund. The Holiday’s pledged to match up to $35,000 in sales to support a Black-owned company. Then Newark Alliance joined the campaign, announcing a match of up to $40,000. The support catapulted BrownMill’s operations, but also caught the attention of news that featured their business that made $327,000 in sales within the five years of their opening.

Forward motion

For BrownMill Atelier, the block party is an extension of their gratitude and respect for the Newarker who shops local and walks the same corridors as Italian, Irish, German and Spanish immigrants once did. “Newark is a powerful crossroads of history, culture and heritage,” says Agyepang. 

During the block party, the shop is buzzing. People are walking into the shop with 10% OFF coupons and out of the business with bags. Sewing machines sit in the back as props today, but when the tailor is present, they are showing how they stitch the company’s treasured socks or upcycled bucket hats. The hubbub with the rhythm of street chatter leaking into the shop magnifies there is a change on the horizon. BrownMill is working to ensure that they are still here to reap the benefits of their work. For the future, the group looks to open up other retail stores in other cities while keeping Newark as its hub.

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