Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Camilo José Vergara takes his camera to Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
West Indian, African, African American, and Latino cultures converge at the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn’s zip code 11216. This part of the borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is 86 percent black, making it New York City’s largest non-white community and the cultural center of Brooklyn’s African American population.
In spite of a wave of gentrification in recent years, Caribbean culture continues to dominate; Fulton Cultural sells special soaps and candles believed to ensure protection, prosperity, successful court cases, and love; Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery, whose motto is “Be Jamaican, Buy Jamaican,” displays the Jamaican flag above its entrance.
Within a block of the intersection along Fulton Street, a ten story residential building is nearing completion, and a vacant lot where the famous Slave 1 Theater (demolished in 2014) once stood is awaiting construction. Also on the intersection are two empty storefronts. One of them, Zim Entertainment Outlet sold African Movies and phone calling cards, the other Futa Toro, a gift shop named after a region around the Senegal River, sold clothing and bags. They were recently sold and will likely be upgraded to higher end retail stores.
A former Trini Roti is now a Jamaican jerk chicken restaurant. No pork products are sold at Abir Halal a popular Bangladeshi restaurant. Chung Market sells American and French products to a West Indian and Senegalese clientele. Le Paris Dakar, a French coffee shop known for its crepes, quiches, and omelettes, could be mistaken for a sign of gentrification but the proprietor is Senegalese. The six-year-old business is listed in BKLYNER as one of 37 Black owned coffee shops in the borough.
On the sidewalk, men in fancy attire sell small vials of skin products that they carry in bandolier belts across the chest. A street vendor sells baby turtles, Latina women sell ice cream, various men pass leaflets advertising tax preparation services. A t-shirt on a street preacher proclaims “Allah Is The Creator.” Another one states “The Black Man Is God,” as first claimed in the 1960s by Clarence 13 X, founder of the Five Percent Nation. NYPD and store video cameras record the street activity.
Much to my surprise, I encountered two Korean owned stores on Fulton Street which sell church suits and hats to black women. One of the stores, Dylan Lingerie and Jewelry, has a decal of the iconic Lion of Judah on its entrance. For a decade, these colorful stores have been selling clothes that help define Black culture.
Black dandies are easily spotted wearing extraordinary fashions and hairstyles. One tall man wears bright yellow African robes and a Kunte Kinte cap, another wears a complete Chicago Bulls outfit that matches his dyed red beard. A serious-looking man, wearing all black attire with a silver cross on his chest and long dreadlocks, resembles a minister of a long disappeared religion. More than a few men are seen with long braids. Among adult women, burkas are popular, but I did not see men wearing Islamic attire.
I saw a young white man who stood out but appeared to feel at home as he crossed Fulton Street carrying his small blonde daughter on his shoulders and two Whole Foods shopping bags in his hands. His partner walking behind them carried three more Whole Foods bags. Through their presence, the young family seemed to be announcing a new era for the neighborhood.