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Black-owned Restaurants Thrive in Weeksville

NICOLE MCNULTY, HOST: The odds are stacked against Black-owned businesses from the beginning. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says they’re almost twice as likely to fail than others. They face hurdles like increasing gentrification, which causes higher rents, and a lack of access to financing.

The pandemic made the situation even worse. But now, as the city reopens, a group of Black-owned businesses in Crown Heights is bucking that trend. And as Leyla Doss reports, this isn’t just about economics. It’s about the social and cultural fabric of a neighborhood.

LEYLA DOSS, BYLINE : Hi Cassandre!

DOSS: Cassandre Davilmar owns Lakou Cafe - a Haitian-American restaurant. Before she opened in 2018 she painted the restaurant’s name on its windows in bright yellow and lime green. There was only a McDonalds down the block. The neighborhood was almost entirely a food dessert.

CASSANDRE DAVILMAR: The neighbourhood just felt a bit depressed. It didn't make sense why it was neglected, and that there just needed to be somebody to, you know, invest. And I just felt like I was a good person to do that at the time, at that moment.

DOSS: Davilmar opened Lakou in a closed 99 cents store after she saw a for rent sign go up. Even though she was an investment banker, it wasn’t easy. Renovating would cost more than $300,000. But she says loan after loan application was rejected. There was no plumbing. No kitchen. She maxed out her credit cards. Even before the pandemic, opening a business was a struggle. But Davilmar was dedicated to making it happen.

DAVILMAR : It was literally like, you hear: like paycheck to paycheck, like, it was

exactly enough money, if anything went wrong, if the equipment broke, then you know, we might, we won't have enough money. So like, if anything bad happened, like, that was it.

DOSS: Then the pandemic hit. Sales dropped by half. It looked like the end was near.

DAVILMAR: We closed for about a month and a half in 2020, like in April or whatnot. And at that point, I didn't really know what we were going to do. But you know, we got grants and that helped us out.

DOSS: Including a grant from Google and the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Grants and loans were one of the ways Black-owned businesses like hers survived the pandemic. But before that, she says she was discriminated against. According to the Federal Reserve Black business owners like Davilmar are denied loans at twice the rate of white owners. But the pandemic changed that.

JESSICA GORDON NEMBHARD: People went into the streets and said, right, we've got to do something. Black people have to be helped more and paid more attention to.

DOSS: That’s Jessica Gordon Nembhard. She teaches political economy and Black history at CUNY. She says public pressure in the wake of the pandemic led to state and federal governments offering forgivable loans for minority-owned businesses. But companies and communities also provided support.

NEMBHARD: For Black businesses, it really has been about loyal customers. The more the community sees them as an important part of the community. The stronger, longer they last, the better, they weather crises, that kind of thing.

DOSS: Nembhard says this kind of community support has a history going back far beyond the pandemic: landlords forgiving rent. Community members investing in or crowdfunding to support small businesses. Lakou Cafe also gave back. Davilmar gave out free beef patties during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Her restaurant donated meals to healthcare workers at Brookdale hospital. And that paid off. When the pandemic forced Lakou to shut down last year, the community fundraised $5000 within days.

OBDEN MONDESIR: Restaurants really exist as more than places where you get to buy food, but it's places where you get to share in culture with other folks.

DOSS: That’s Obden Mondesir. He’s a local resident and also an oral historian at the Weeksville Heritage Center, where Lakou Cafe now stands, used to be known as Weeksville. It is the country’s first free Black community - founded in 1838. Mondesir spent a year interviewing local business owners like Davilmar. He says powerful historic themes from the time of the community’s founding are still present today.

MONDESIR: Some of those themes are like refuge, entrepreneurship, celebration.

DOSS: Mondesir says eventually Weeksville was almost erased. But despite the challenges that many of today's black owned businesses are facing, many are surviving. Despite a backdrop of luxury buildings going up, he still sees colorful signs for restaurants with Greens. Yellows. Purples. He still hears Creyol, or one of many West African languages. He still smells aromas like jackfruit. Soul food. Or jerk chicken.

And that’s why he continues to support businesses like Lakou Cafe.

MONDESIR: Every time I come here, I try to get one of the patties. Oh and the chicken sandwiches: the Creole chicken sandwich. That's my favorite thing to order.

DOSS: Tonya Hopkins, a food historian, says Black Americans brought many dishes and ingredients to American cuisine - West African dishes like black eyed peas. okra. gumbo. Southern soul food like Barbeque. And Bourbon. And when Caribbean communities moved to Crown Heights in the 1960s, they also brought plantain, curries, squash and soups like pepper pot.

TONYA HOPKINS: Much of American culinary heritage is a disguised Black culinary heritage. Like a gift from Black people. Like you're welcome, America. You know, you're welcome.

DOSS: Hopkins says The list is endless - and it’s constantly transforming. She says many Black-owned restaurants are surviving by innovating and diversifying their cuisines.

HOPKINS: Survival. Not just survival, but thrival - if that’s a word. There's like a new Black Renaissance that's happening.

DOSS: Back at Lakou Cafe, Davilmar says she’s happy to see Black-owned businesses in her neighborhood are reopening their doors. This week, she plans to extend her cafe's hours to 9:00 PM. She’s setting up more chairs - yellow wooden ones. And adding new dishes to her menu. Like Spicy Haitian Peanut Butter cookies. A new twist on a historic dish.

DOSS: Leyla Doss, Columbia Radio News.


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