Originally published for Gothamist/WNYC on September 2nd, 2022.
The upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the first in-person West Indian Day parade in three years, and longtime residents of Little Caribbean in Flatbush and neighboring Crown Heights find themselves facing a drastically different Brooklyn than the one they have come to call home.
Rapid gentrification has shifted the natural rhythm of a bustling working-class community in Flatbush and its slow buildup into parade season. The parade is an export of Caribbean carnival culture that has been preserved by their multigenerational immigrant communities since the early 1900s, and ultimately integrated into an indelible part of Brooklyn’s Black infrastructure. What was once a universally anticipated culmination of a magical Brooklyn summer in the community is now the source of ongoing anxiety. Noise complaints have been on the rise in the last decade and violent incidents on Labor Day tend to lead stories about the weekend’s events, which residents say stigmatizes the long-standing celebrations and dampens excitement around one of the biggest parades in the city.
“We have so much work to do internally in our community, but the City of New York has taken these incidents and used these examples to change the overall feel of the experience,” he added, pointing out the increased police presence and barricades along Eastern Parkway on Labor Day. “As a Caribbean community and a cornerstone of New York’s culture, we deserve the same respect that all other communities receive during their cultural celebrations.”
According to 2020 census data reported by Patch, Crown Heights’ white population has doubled over the last decade; in that same amount of time, an analysis of 311 calls since 2010 by Gothamist shows that “quality of life” calls – such as complaints about noise, mass gatherings, disorderly youth, and loitering – have more than tripled, with the rate spiking during the pandemic.
Franklin Forbes — CEO of Blistey and an architect and urban planner who focuses on sustainability, gentrification, and city planning — said gentrification and the increase in 311 calls are directly related. “When different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial groups learn to coexist in the same space, it brings other problems outside their displacement,” he said, adding that Crown Heights has experienced a “tidal” form of gentrification, which happens in waves. “The power in numbers creates an environment where people feel comfortable making a complaint because it’s easier to think of that area as theirs.”
It’s a point of concern for the Caribbean community in Brooklyn: the West Indian American Day Carnival Association has worked since the 1960s to cultivate a parade environment on Eastern Parkway that, at its peak, attracts 2 million spectators and participants from across the globe, with related events like junior carnival (also known as kiddie carnival), steel band competitions, and various parties (known as fetes). The parade is more than a weekend of parties, it serves as an economic and social fulcrum for the neighborhood as the summer months wind down, with events as small as lounge parties and as big as soca superstar Machel Montano’s 40-year career celebration at the Barclays Center on Labor Day.
“There is this whole ecosystem, which includes some of the local small businesses, some of them being seasonal – like the ones who are carnival vendors, or the artisans who create and produce the costumes and the bands, the sound systems, the DJs – and it’s a great opportunity, a great moment for them to earn income,” said Shelley Worrell, founder and chief curator of caribBEING and a Flatbush native. “It’s a great moment for them to come and celebrate and be in community with their community, but also with other people who just want to celebrate with us.”
Worrell also recalled incidents such as Jumaane Williams’ arrest at the 2011 parade and leaks of alleged NYPD cops making bets on violence that marred the 2016 parade, noting that the overpolicing has become a significant turnoff for the community.
“As the son of Grenadian immigrants, I’m so excited – so many New Yorkers are eager – to get back on the Parkway this year,” Williams said in a statement to Gothamist. “To return to the celebration after years away is a statement of the resilience and importance of our community, our family, and of its impact on the entire city.”
Worrell stressed that the parades are not only for West Indians or people of Caribbean descent, they’re for everyone who wishes to experience Caribbean culture on full display, as New York is a focal point for “Caribpolitan” identity. “At a certain point at a time, [the] Labor Day parade was the largest parade in North America of any kind,” Worrell said. “If you think about the economic impact that that has, not only in central Brooklyn, but [all of] Brooklyn and New York City, I mean, that’s huge.”
However, that invitation comes with complexities; as a member of local residential Facebook groups such as Ditmas Park and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Worrell has seen firsthand how gentrification can take its toll on long-held traditions.
This not only includes the parade on Eastern Parkway, but J’ouvert – a celebration of the start of Carnival with Trinidadian origins where revelers are bringing in the daybreak, or dawn, originating from the French words “jour ouvert.” There is also Panorama – another Trinidadian export, where steel bands compete in a celebration of Trinidad & Tobago’s national instrument. The steel drum is commonly referred to as a ‘pan’ by Trinidadians, hence the competition’s name and the reason band rehearsal spaces are referred to as ‘pan yards.’ Mas camps are where mas bands (mas being short for masqueraders) show off their artisanal and creative labor, highlighting their costumes and building up excitement for their showcase on the road with the community while “liming” – socializing with plenty of food, drink, and conversation.
“One year some of the newcomers to the neighborhood were complaining about noise during J’ouvert itself,” she recalled, noting that the waves of new residents came into the Flatbush area with no knowledge of its decades-long cultural rhythms such as J’ouvert, which originally began at 2 a.m. to keep with Caribbean tradition, but has now moved to 6 a.m., with multiple checkpoints along the route.. “Not only will you have J’ouvert passing through at 3, 4 a.m., 5 a.m. back then, but you also have groups who have their pan yards here – and they may practice well into the night till 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, because they’re getting ready for a culminating event, Panorama, where there’s a competition and they get to put our culture on full display.” This year, there will not be a Panorama, but there will still be live steel band concerts and participation at J’ouvert requiring their rehearsal.
Worrell emphasized that the celebrations are a way for communities to protect their cultural legacy and heritage for the future generations. “When you have people calling and saying, ‘well, my baby is sleeping’ or ‘my dog can’t sleep,’ and then the police are coming to interrupt, or saying that you can’t play anymore, what does that do?” She said, adding that people are already being priced out of the neighborhood.
According to a Brooklyn Rental Market Report from MNS, the average rent has increased 25% from July 2021 to 2022 in Flatbush and Crown Heights. “So it’s harder to have a mas camp, it’s harder to have a pan yard, it’s harder to have some kind of backyard lime,” Worrell said. As a result, events, parties, and rehearsals are increasingly held further out in Brooklyn in warehouses to avoid noise complaints.
The cultural and economic network surrounding the parade is delicate but powerful, and has reached well beyond Brooklyn, and even New York’s borders. “New York Carnival is where the entire Caribbean meets,” said Teddysohn John, a Soca artist from St. Lucia. “Some of the biggest stages in Carnival are in Labor Day, and as an artist, when you push out your songs in New York, people get familiar with your music for the entire year and then it travels to the different spaces like Miami, Notting Hill and all of the island Carnivals throughout the year.” John has performed in Labor Day-related events for 15 years and is looking forward to the big return to Eastern Parkway. “As a soca artist, New York is where it begins, it represents the pulse of the people, and as a St. Lucian it’s a privilege for me to be a part of that energy and those vibes in the East Coast.”
Sesame Flyers, New York’s Longest running mas band, is only doing two costume sections this year opposed to their standard of doing six or more. Their aim is to keep their return to the road manageable yet memorable, as each section requires a unique costume design that fits in line with the established theme of their band. Sesame’s theme this year is “Tao: The Journey”, which they see as an acknowledgement of their band’s perseverance and capacity to find their way through the twists and turns of the last 39 years. They are also sponsoring 12 other mas bands’ return to Eastern Parkway.
“Sesame runs all year round because we’re a nonprofit, but other mas camps, you know, that’s their business; to be out of business for two years is a lot, so we really wanted to make sure that we were able to support in any way that we can,” said Michelle Mathison, development director of Sesame Flyers International. “This year will be our 40th year, so right now Sesame is focusing on expansion, and enhancing the legacy that we already have – and we really want to ensure the economic development of our Caribbean culture in New York and abroad.” Mathison has received a range of responses from the community in the lead up to the carnival, from excitement, to worry, to a lack of awareness that Labor Day Carnival was making its physical return this year – which Mathison said needs to be addressed with buy-in and public support from the city.
“A lot of us event planners try our best to maintain the spirit of the Caribbean culture, but the buzz and essence of the experience is definitely not the same as when I initially stepped into the game,” said Natalie Lamming-Alexander, the owner of D’Savannah Bar and Lounge who has been curating Caribbean-centered event experiences for over 15 years. ”The culture of Labor Day carnival is a great plus for the community and small businesses from an economical standpoint, however, the culture is being stifled – and this really impacts the financial bottom-line for many of us and the community as a whole.”
This year, Lamming-Alexander is throwing one event for Labor Day weekend – a breakfast party on Monday morning – as opposed to her standard three. “Sometimes I ask myself ‘why bother with the risk?’” she said, noting that revelers have prioritized Carnivals in other cities after sensing a lack of support from the city in recent years and its impact on the festivities. This potential decrease in attendance factors into her business calculations. “As someone who is proud of her Trinidad and Tobago heritage, I continue to represent and show up for our culture and I have not lost hope — not yet.”
Mathison remains optimistic about the return of the parade, despite work still needing to be done to bridge the gap between spectators and participants. “Once the trucks pull up, you’re in your costume, you’re in the streets, it’s great. You kind of can’t mess that up,” she said. “We’ve had rain, we’ve had super heat — it’s the music, and it brings you back to the culture. You can’t go wrong with that.”
For Worrell, even that experience is tinged with a splash of bittersweet memories, as she recalls how the procession of trucks and sound systems from the parades has changed over the years. “When you turn off Eastern Parkway, and you came down Flatbush to Empire, all the trucks would line up on Empire and we would be out partying in the street on Empire until midnight with the trucks. Now, once you cross Grand Army Plaza, it’s music off.”