the west indian carnival you don't know about
Rolling down Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway, NYC’s West Indian American Day Parade on Labor Day weekend rivals Notting Hill for good times.
When it comes to New York City's most underrated (albeit largest) parade, if you're in the know about it, then you're really in the know. If you're not, then what's taken you so long? The West Indian American Day Parade & Carnival aka Labor Day Carnival aka "Brooklyn Carnival" is one of those parties you need to experience to understand. The event runs the length of Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway, starting in the morning and ending in the early evening, though the turn-up carries into the small hours of the next morning.
This year marks the carnival's 48th year in Brooklyn, yet the history is so much deeper than that. The carnival actually originated in the 20s, in Harlem, where, like in post-war West London, Caribbean immigrants wanted an American equivalent of Trinidad & Tobago's Carnival. Brooklyn Carnival used to be held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in February/March, but the hideous New York Winters forced the Caribbean community to move their celebration to August/September, where it eventually landing on Labor Day Weekend. By 1964, the rights to celebrate in Harlem were revoked, and by 1967 it found its permanent home in Brooklyn, where a considerable portion of New York's two million Caribbean population (40% of the city's immigrants in total) resides.
Roughly three million people attend the celebration, a third of those attendees arriving from elsewhere, including out of State, Canada, the Islands, London (and other parts of Europe), Africa, and Japan. It is the biggest of the 38+ Caribbean carnivals in the United States, as well as being bigger than Trinidad's Carnival and London's Notting Hill combined. Guests go well beyond the Caribbean community. "It is definitely a cross-cultural intersection of the city," explains Arlene Pitterson, masquerader and faithful attendee for nearly two decades. "People come out to try the variety of Caribbean foods because you're sampling cuisines that typically you would have to hop on a plane to get. As Brooklyn has gotten more gentrified, you are now seeing a lot more people on the Parkway who are not Caribbean, but still participate."
Pitterson has played mas for various festivals in places like Barbados and Trinidad, but she won't in Brooklyn for safety reasons. "I will never play mas in Brooklyn, because there's almost an unspoken set of rules that you abide by when you play mas in the Islands that aren't abided by here," she says. "It really has to do with the ages of a lot of the masqueraders. It's a lot younger crowd and you can dance with whomever you want to dance with, but if I don't want to dance with you anymore, I will move away. You don't have to chase me down." She also speaks on a population of sneak attack masqueraders called stormers. "Those are people who come into the band who did not pay for a costume, did not pay for anything and they'll go in and dance and play everything," she adds, "and that's kind of why it's gotten unsafe, because the police can't control a lot of the stormers."
However, Executive Director of The Caribbean Center Of New York (CACNY) and Director of Marketing and Media of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WADCA) Jean P. Alexander said that there were no reported criminal incidents in 2014. Jean has been a part of the Labor Day Carnival since 1976 and has watched it grow to make $300 million annually for the city and local businesses. But no one affiliated with the carnival is paid, and the city refuses to pony up funds. The reason? If they have to give to one festival then they have to give to them all, conveniently forgetting that this Carnival accrues the most income by far. "This is a huge moneymaker for everybody but us," she adds, explaining that the organisation barely reaches $150,000 in sponsorship dollars, often having to borrow money from association members.
Still, there are ways to profit on the down low. Take Patrice Callender, whose family has been known for their rum punch, which they've been selling on the parkway for the last 20 years. Callender's uncle pawns an elixir of rum, pineapple juice, tropical extract, soda water, and more rum straight from his backpack at $10 a cup. His profit is in the thousands every year. "It's totally not legal, but he's never been shut down," Callender says.
It's the organised noise of the West Indian American Day Parade that has kept it going for close to 100 years, but according to Jean Alexander, some young blood needs to enter the mix to help organise and not deconstruct. "It's a labour of love for us," she says tiredly. "We don't even sleep for the five days before the Labor Day celebration. By that Monday, we are all ready to drop dead. We can really use some younger blood." So if your turn up routine is restless, plan your next year here. No sleep 'til Brooklyn.
Text Kathy Iandoli
Photography Carnaval.com Studios