by Atim Annette Oton
My friend Imari DuSuazay calls herself a Brooklyn Girl. I know how that feels, except I am more a Global African Woman living in Brooklyn. Last week, in talking to a reporter, I spoke of how I listen to or read the news, it sounded simple enough. I said that I start with the world and then end up in Brooklyn. It comes from living outside America where news across the world is set up that way. It’s a macro to micro approach. The US is the reverse.
I live in what is now called South Slope, it’s still Sunset Park to me. Always will be. I am on a street where we actually have a mayor of the block. He is a 60 year old Italian retired government worker who organizes all of us in one way or another. He signs and keeps my UPS packages and did it without me asking. He organized all the tree guards and planting for the entire street and if I am home and forget to move my car, he knocks or buzzes my bell to remind me. We have short chats and acknowledge each other. This is the old Brooklyn I know. We are an interesting street of Mexican restaurant workers, African American young and old workers, White Professionals and hipsters, Latino grandmothers looking after their grand children and just a few Chinese like my food business neighbor across from me. Each day, we live on this one block and have without fights. We are the global living people in Old Brooklyn.
I first lived in Prospect Heights in 1994 after graduate school. I came to it because I had lived across the British Museum in London for 2 years while doing graduate school, so alas, I came to live near culture – the Brooklyn Museum. I soon left the area after I saw I had spent $15,000 in rent over two years. Yes, at that time, it was manageable, but that one bedroom apartment today is $2200 a month. Nothing like the shock of “giving” away that amount of money will make one cringe…it took me to buy outside the neighborhood. So, 10 years later, I came back to set up Calabar Imports on Washington Avenue. And after a fire next door in 2011, left it and headed first to Dumbo then east to Franklin Avenue, Crown Heights. Prospect Heights was special then, it’s now Park Slope to me. Yes, I really mean it.
The adventure of rebuilding Calabar Imports took me to Dumbo and the neighborhood hoping to be the next Soho but it was away from the center of Brooklyn, thus it’s paradox. What still fascinates me about Dumbo is all the “buzz” about it. It’s expensive yet not much is really there but it has its moments. There are characters that legends could be made of. It’s the hold-out artists that really make it interesting. They struggle to survive in the midst of wealth. This is where the divide happens – in the midst of the expansion of Silicon Alley into Brooklyn. Before there was Dumbo, no one remembers the area’s name except maybe the Navy Yard. Dumbo was supposed to be a neighborhood but it is still forming – and then it became marketed to tourists as Soho; yikes, indeed. Art is missing, diversity is missing, you just can’t erase those things that shaped a neighborhood. It is indeed boring at times.
I take risk often in Brooklyn and across the globe and coming to Crown Heights was not one of them, it was business smart move to redefine and grow Calabar Imports. I entered it feeling success and possibilities and knew it intrinsically. It would be from this place that I would expand the company and take one day to get to know its diverging people. It is as one real estate salesperson told me: the vortex of Brooklyn real estate. Yes, that’s the word she used. My vortex is my business, it is my day to day of which after 10 years, I vowed to expand and grow smartly. There are moments when a place catches and holds you. Crown Heights does that, but it is rapidly shifting, the third wave is arriving. It is both good and bad. There are moments when you pause and reflect on this place. It will make you think. Thus, the beginning of an additional location that gave birth to Boerum Hill and Bed Stuy. And to think, I was looking deeper into Crown Heights. This place makes me smile as I talk to my young Jewish friend about African hip hop and my Yemeni neighbor about travelling in Morocco then politics of Brazil with an Argentinian or talk to a Japanese designer about making African print bags. Ah, this is the Brooklyn I enjoy. After all, I can still eat steak, jerk pork, and become vegetarian when I need to.
I used to call it Cobble Hill when I went through it – after all, I hung out occasionally on Atlantic Avenue window shopping at all the antique furniture shops that are no longer there, a time before Barclays and the Nets. That was the real Brooklyn, before the landlords on Atlantic became barons and drove the shops that made the street interesting out. My Boerum Hill was serendipity – a morning on Craigslist and a chance posting of an owner looking for a new tenant after the construction company finished the luxury rental apartments next door. Such a Brooklyn dichotomy – one side luxury, the other, the projects – and in between, tourists and renters trying to live in the city of change. I have been doing the third avenue shuffle for 16 years – I have biked it, walked it and driven it to see it evolve from that ignored back-end of Brooklyn between Park Slope and Gowanus to the arrival of Wholefood and 30 new businesses in less than 2 years. That Brooklyn change is here – neighborhood by neighborhood.
I should really call it by its real name – Bedford Stuyvesant, but I am still old school. I have a range of friends who live here – and most have for decades but the new place I see is still in transition, one block at a time. I remember when Monique Greenwood began Akwaaba and owned a restaurant where Peaches is located, I even ate there – how times has changed. Then, there was the African Festival at Boys and Girls High School. And when it left Bed Stuy to the Navy Yard area, Bed Stuy turned its back on it. That’s how folks rolled then. Today, as Calabar Imports begins its first three months in a PopUp space, I am reminded of how we started at street festivals – the adventure was new – but this time, the adventure is about shifting dynamics and building larger. Just this week Lisa Price sold Carol’s daughter, I was not stunned or shocked – I thought and still do – BRILLIANT BUSINESS MOVE – you either close a business, pass it on to the next generation or sell it to someone. It’s a business exit plan executed smartly. It reminded me of my future – and it sounds familiar. So, I go off to build Calabar Imports bigger and better. This week, I plan on expanding the business based a need that customers keep asking us about. All will be revealed soon, the Global Brooklyn way.