In the cavernous $18 million Flatbush Central in Brooklyn, Urbane Development CEO James Johnson-Piett watched construction workers lower lights for the grand opening and predicted that the venue would become the go-to for Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Guyanese, Haitians, Dominicans—all the Caribbean diaspora—buying food, fashion, art and personal care products and services. The ground floor market in a new glass-and-steel affordable housing complex featured two Caribbean-themed bars, a Caribbean food hall, several dozen immigrant Caribbean vendors offering an array of island goods, and an incubator for emerging entrepreneurs with elaborate community kitchens and maker labs.
Uptempo economic development like this has been slow to come to Little Caribbean, the area tucked south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Though it abuts fashionable Park Slope and its West Indian nightclubs attract A-listers, Little Caribbean remains the classic American melting pot of immigrants, hustle, dollar stores, gangs and shootings, underground housing, Mom and Pop outlets, schools and tidy apartment houses. An annual West Indian Day parade celebrates the largest Caribbean community in the nation. Caribbeans replaced the earlier German and Jewish immigrants in the 1970s and now, with African-Americans, East Asians and Hispanics, form the majority of residents. 43 percent of Flatbush’s population is foreign-born.
Urbane’s dilemma is how to attract a free-spending clientele to build wealth for Flatbush Central’s merchants and entrepreneurs without further opening the floodgates to gentrification and rising rents for the local people it aims to bolster. Predatory real estate developers are the enemy in working-class Flatbush, birthplace of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Bernie Sanders and actor Michael K. Williams: half its residents are rent-burdened and 22 percent are impoverished. Tenant organizations fight pitched battles against house flippers and speculators, as in all of gentrifying Brooklyn. How can Urbane build a “world-class retail destination” that anchors economic growth and prevents displacement, in line with its mission to create assets for people of color which stay in their communities?
Importantly, developers had obtained New York City's permission for the housing and market complex on the condition that they transfer Flatbush's longtime immigrant market selling inexpensive island goods to the new complex. Urbane had promised the city to train the struggling brown and Black former street peddlers in upscale merchandizing in Flatbush Central. If any did not scale and prosper and were asked to leave, how would Urbane deal with the community pushback?
Citation: Gwen Kinkead, Kate Cooney, and Jaan Elias, "A Market for Little Caribbean," Yale Case 21-013, September 16, 2021.