Making it in New York

Erline Andrews seeks out successful Caribbean entrepreneurs in New York

Curtis Nelson and the Sesame Flyers band on New York`s Eastern Parkway, Labour Day 2004. Photograph courtesy Curtis NelsonCurtis Nelson. Photograph courtesy Curtis NelsonPerformers at a steel pan jazz concert at the Lincoln Centre, New York organised by AEI. Photograph courtesy Ralph RamseyRalph Ramsey, President of Abstract Entertainment (AEI) Corporation. Photograph courtesy Ralph RamseyRamesh Kalicharran in India, with the Taj Mahal in the background. Photograph courtesy Ramesh KalicharranStylish clothes designed by Coskel University highlighting Trinidad and Tobago’s culture. Photograph courtesy Coskel UniversityStylish clothes designed by Coskel University highlighting Trinidad and Tobago’s culture. Photograph courtesy Coskel UniversityViburt Bernard of Sybil’s Bakery. Photograph courtesy Viburt BernardXolani Heylon along with his wife and fellow designer, Machiyo Kodaira-Heylon. Photograph courtesy Coskel University

It’s almost impossible to miss Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant on Liberty Avenue in Queens, New York.

Located on a triangular spot at the end of a block, it’s three storeys high—taller than surrounding businesses—and painted red, yellow and green, the predominant colours of the flags of Guyana (where founder Sybil Bernard was born) and three other West Indian nations. In the unprepossessing neighbourhood of Richmond Hill, a place dominated by rows of slender, box-like grey or white houses, Sybil’s stands out like a soca track in an easy-listening song set.

Inside the restaurant, harried-looking sales girls in yellow T-shirts serve a long line of West Indians hungry for a taste of home. Popular West Indian drinks line the huge glass-door refrigerator. Coconut water, sea moss, ginger beer, sorrel, mauby, something called tan pon it long, soursop, carrot-beet. They all come in Jamaican, Grenadian and Guyanese varieties.

An open kitchen produces coconut drops, currant rolls, cassava pone, Guyanese and Jamaican versions of beef and chicken patties, black pudding, souse, fried plantains, pholourie, bake and saltfish, and dhalpouries. Near the cashier, pre-packaged West Indian favourites are stacked high: salted peanuts, plantain chips, fried channa, fudge, caramel chocolate wafer bars.

A corner of the red formica counter is reserved for flyers advertising community events and services. There are stacks and stacks of them, their disorganisation an indication that many hands have shuffled through them. The glossy colourful cardboard ones tell you of parties and other entertainment: Pictureman Bandy is holding a “black and white party” on the 28th; Nmara’s Miss International Beauty Pageant is coming off on the 7th. Thin black and white paper flyers advertise homes for sale, driving lessons and insurance.

Free newspapers geared towards West Indian New Yorkers swamp the section of the bar near the self-serve coffee stand. Among them are copies of Kaieteur News, Caribbean Daylight, Courier Sun, Caribbean Life, The Guyana Post, The West Indian, and Ananda Weekly.

Sybil’s has four other branches. There’s one on Hillside Avenue in Queens, and one each in Brooklyn, Long Island, and Miami, all run by Bernard siblings even before the death of their mother in 2000.

Sybil’s is a household name among West Indian New Yorkers. Its success enabled Viburt Bernard, manager of the Liberty Avenue branch, to open a new chain, Veggie Castle. Already producing goods for wholesale, Sybil’s is about to enter the export market, announces Ken Bernard, who runs the Hillside Avenue branch, the first one the family established.

The enterprise started in the Bernards’ kitchen. Sybil Bernard, a desperately poor mother of nine, came to New York hoping to give her children a better future. She was part of the wave of West Indian migrants that followed the liberalisation of US immigration laws in 1965. And soon she was meeting the needs of a growing but under-served market.

“We were one of the first Caribbean restaurants in Queens,” says Viburt Bernard, a no-nonsense man of few words. He is so busy he can only spare time for a quick interview late one night during a trip in his car. “It’s a little harder now [to run a successful West Indian restaurant] because goods are so much more expensive, but there are so many more people here now from the Caribbean that you can still do it. [The Jamaican restaurant chain] Golden Krust came after us; they did it. You have to have the drive. You have to want to do it.”

Nourishing the hearts and stomachs of West Indians, Sybil’s grew and survived partly because of the growth and success of the West Indian population. West Indians are the largest immigrant group in the famously diverse New York City, making up one in five of its foreign-born population, according to the 2000 census report.

But for a large part of their history in the metropolis, West Indians as a group were invisible. That’s the word sociologist Roy Bryce-Laporte used in a 1972 essay. West Indians were subsumed, in the public mind, within the larger black American population.

All that is changing.

“West Indian Americans have become a good deal more visible in the last quarter century,” Philip Kasinitz, another sociologist, wrote in 2001, “both in the social scientific literature and in the popular imagination.” In a variety of ways, West Indians are making their presence felt.

TAKING CHANCES

“I was doing something that I knew and something that I loved, and I think success always comes when you do that,” says designer and businessman Xolani Heylon, a big young man with a wide, friendly face.It’s an unusually cold night for fall, and we’ve taken refuge in Tropical Paradise Restaurant in East Flatbush, a short distance from Heylon’s apartment.

Heylon is fashionably dressed in a brown lambskin flat cap, grey T-shirt, khaki sweater, and khaki jacket with brown patches. He boasts that, with the exception of the hat, the whole outfit was designed by him and his business partner Machiyo Kodaira as part of their Coskel University clothing line. Heylon has had other incarnations, as a rapper and an actor. “I hate selling stuff,” he says. But since 2004 he has been successfully marketing to the world casual tops adorned with the images of Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural icons.

He has found that there’s a market for West Indian branding. “New York is very welcoming to different [ideas],” he says. “It is a lot more liberal; New Yorkers are more susceptible to accepting things that other people may not.”

Coskel was born, as many great ideas are, out of frustration. “I was in Lounge [a boutique] and I wanted a T-shirt, and they only had Bob Marley T-shirts. I was pissed.” Kodaira, a children’s book illustrator whom Heylon met during one of her exhibitions, suggested that they print their own T-shirts. They bought screen-printing paraphernalia and got to work in their living room.

“We physically made every single T-shirt up until the end of last year,” says Heylon. The designs featured Trinidadian and Tobagonian iconography – the faces of Kitchener, Roaring Lion, Sparrow and Shadow, Carnival characters, the steelpan, birds and flowers – within artful collages made from recycled fabric. Heylon describes Coskel art work as “kinda rough, kinda distressed, kinda unfinished.” A few months later, at Coskel’s launch in Williamsburg, with mainly Trinidadians in attendance, all the T-shirts on hand were sold.

“In a certain way I think West Indians up here support their own more than West Indians back home,” he says. “I think the reason for that is because when you’re up here you’re so removed from the culture that you gravitate towards anything that’s reminiscent of home. It’s really interesting. There’s a saying that people come to New York to find culture. I discovered my love for calypso in New York.”

Xolani Heylon was born in Belmont, Port of Spain, and migrated fourteen years ago to study business and accounting in Florida. He moved on to New York to escape a “dead end”. His clientele is now mainly non-West Indian. The biggest market for their Coskel clothing, which now includes hoodies, vests, shirts and jeans, is Japan.

“When we first started marketing Coskel, we never targeted the West Indian community. Never,” says Heylon. “We targeted American, European, Japanese clientele, because we knew that if they bought the product it will eventually catch on in the West Indies.”

And there is no customer more enthusiastic than one recently turned on to something. “By educating somebody you have a customer for life,” says Heylon. “If you can explain to somebody why Kitch [the late calypsonian Lord Kitchener] is important and give them that information to rediscover Kitch, they’re going to keep coming back. The reason Bob Marley is so popular is because multiple generations keep rediscovering Bob Marley.”

OFFERING EXPERTISE

The hallways of Cisco Systems’ offices in midtown Manhattan are pristine, preternaturally quiet. A group of men—all of them white—stands in hushed discussion near a wall. As he passes them, Ralph Ramsey comments mischievously, “You might notice: I’m the only black person here. That has its advantages and disadvantages.”

Ramsey is an engineer with Cisco, a company that designs computer networks. It’s so progressive it doesn’t even have offices, just quiet rooms with armchairs where you can bring clients or journalists for quick interviews.

Ramsey is a second-generation West Indian American. His Trinidadian parents migrated here and settled in East Flatbush before he and his brother Darryl were born. But he visits the islands regularly, and has never lost touch with the values and culture of the land where his parents were born. As immigrants they instilled certain traits in their children. “Both my mother and father were hardworking people. They were always going the extra mile,” says Ramsey. “They were never satisfied, never content. You felt like there was always something else you could accomplish.”

Ramsey feels West Indian nations aren’t making enough use of emigrant connections, skills, talent and passion. “I would love to get involved with some of the technology that’s going on in Trinidad and Tobago, as a consultant. I can go look at what Fortune 500 companies are trying to sell to the government and say, ‘Listen, you don’t want to go that route, you want to go this route.’ I think that expertise is needed, because I can talk the language here and I can talk the language at home. That exchange is missing.”

Ramsey has a second professional occupation: promoting West Indian entertainment. He runs a company, Abstract Entertainment, with Darryl, and is president of Hawks International, a Caribbean cultural organisation that produces a mas’ band and gives awards to outstanding members of the community.

Abstract’s aim is to move West Indian performances from small venues in the city’s outer boroughs to larger, pricier locations in Manhattan. “What I specialise in doing is upscale Caribbean entertainment,” says Ramsey. They’ve held a steelpan-jazz concert at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center for the past three years, featuring Andy Narell, Robert Greenidge, and Arturo Tappin, among others.

Why is all this so important to a second-generation West Indian? Culture, he answers simply, “keeps us grounded.”

KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE

Ramesh Kalicharran was a primary school teacher before he migrated from Guyana to New York City in 1970. Now he runs a real estate/travel agency/driving school in Jamaica, Queens. But he hasn’t lost the compulsion to instruct.

“Somebody from Trinidad or Guyana or Suriname who just migrate to America, and they come to me to rent a room or an apartment, I counsel them. My thing is not just to make money. If I get them an apartment I will tell them, ‘Don’t come back to me for an apartment. When you come back to me come and buy a house.

’”We’re sitting in the real estate section of his business, a long narrow office with rows of maroon swivel chairs behind desks covered in wood-grain contact paper.

One long wall has huge paintings with East Indian themes. One of them depicts the Taj Mahal viewed from across a shimmering lake. Kalicharran, a portly man with a full head and a beard of salt-and-pepper hair, shows off pictures of himself and a group of about 60 people in front of the monument. The photos were taken last November, during one of the package tours he organises to India. He calls it Bharat Yatra, which means India Journey. Two to four times a year, he or an assistant leads West Indians on the pilgrimage.

Kalicharran is a community leader in Richmond Hill and Jamaica, areas with high concentrations of Indian-descended West Indians. He founded the USA Pandits’ Parishad (Council) and another Hindu organisation called Gyan Bhakti Satsang (Knowledge Devotion Society).

But his “pride and joy” is the annual Phagwah parade he helped establish over 16 years ago. The colourful procession of people and floats starts from Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant on Liberty Avenue and ends with a concert at Smokey Oval Park. It has become a highly popular event, attracting tens of thousands of people.

Kalicharran believes it’s important for immigrants and their descendants to maintain the religious and cultural traditions of their foreparents. “They say in Rome you have to do as the Romans do, but I disagree with that,” he says. “If you forget your language, you forget your culture, you get lost in corporate America. New immigrants, they should be themselves and try not to be anybody else.”

COMMUNITY ACTIVISM

Curtis Nelson wants to see more West Indians involved in politics.

“One of the biggest obstacles that we’re facing is political empowerment,” he says. He’s seated in his small but well-kept office in the small but well-kept headquarters of a community organisation, Sesame Flyers International Inc., on Church Avenue in East Flatbush. Nelson is Sesame’s executive director: a tall, slender, well-spoken man, he looks like an ideal political candidate.

At the main building on Church Avenue and at two other community centres under its jurisdiction, Sesame provides counselling and academic, athletic and artistic training for teens and adults. The organisation is probably best known for its steel orchestra and its adult and children’s carnival bands. The adult band has won the West Indian Labour Day Parade for six years straight.

“We are not as politically active as we can be, and we don’t recognise how politics affects our lives,” he says of New York’s West Indian community. “Get out and vote, become a citizen, help support elected officials that have an interest in what you’re interested in.”

Nelson migrated from Trinidad to Jamaica, Queens, when he was seven. His mother, a nurse, came here to study and decided to make the city her home. In the early 1990s, he took a long, tough journey from highly-paid computer engineer in Boston to community activist in New York. The timing was bad: recession made it difficult to get an engineering job. He worked for a while, at minimum wage, on a production line at a pasta factory, temporarily moving back in with his parents.

But that experience, says Nelson, “was a real turning point in my life. I became humble again.” He managed to carve out a niche for himself as a self-employed computer consultant. But now there was something else. His mother and aunt were members of Sesame Flyers, an organisation founded by Trinidadians to support community programmes, especially among the young. They encouraged him to join.

After a year he was elected vice president. “I saw potential,” he says. “I saw a diamond in the rough.” In fourteen years he turned Sesame from a struggling organisation into an entity that runs government-sponsored programmes worth US$1.8 million.

Nelson talks of the difficulty of maintaining West Indian cultural practices in the city. Time and decibel-level restrictions curtail steelband rehearsals. The Carnival mas camp has to stop operating at ten o’clock, limiting fund-raising through the sale of food and drinks.

“There’s a whole lot of city bureaucracy that doesn’t support how we view our culture,” says Nelson, “and what would help is if the elected officials would be able to go to the city, go to the police and say you need to allow for this type of celebration.”

UNITING WOMEN

Renée Cummings bristles at the description of Miss T&T New York—the event she started and has nurtured for the past decade—as a beauty pageant.

“This is an anti-pageant. The focus is culture—which is the Carnival costumes—and talent. Any time you have talent in a show, beauty becomes almost non-existent, because talent always has to be scored higher. I always say, there’s nothing more beautiful than an intelligent woman.”

Cummings is as flamboyant as her shock of blond curls. She doesn’t mince words, and sharply returns any conversational volley sent her way.

We sit in a crowded Italian fast food restaurant across the street from the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, where last September 24 a dozen young women used song, dance, smiles, and speeches to persuade a group of judges that they were worthy of being Miss T&T New York. Nineteen-year-old Miss Port of Spain, Khadija Nicholas, succeeded. She won cash and other prizes.

But the event is supposed to give participants more than just prizes. “I realise one of the things to make it in this country is to be like a network,” says Cummings, discussing the motivation for starting Miss T&T New York. “Women have to come together as a group. When you come to this country you need focus, you need support, you need to know how to play the game, how to network, how to manoeuvre, and how to get what you want from this country. And I, because I’ve had that experience, and mainly because maybe I have the confidence and the savvy to go after what I want, would like to impart a little bit of that knowledge.”

One Miss T&T New York contestant has gone on to an MBA, and another to law school. “Every time we get a successful woman,” Cummings says, “I am hoping that they give back just a little bit of that. That’s how you build your community.”