Living in New York City for a summer is an exciting whirlwind, but let's be honest: it's really expensive. When I interned in Manhattan in 2022, I lived in Crown Heights, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that's predominantly Black, and even better for me, predominantly Caribbean.
In the summer of 2022, I interned at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York City. I worked in their 277 Park Avenue building in Manhattan, but lived in Brooklyn to save on rent. My commute to work was about 50 minutes give or take on the 4 train straight from the last stop at Utica Ave all the way to Grand Central. Although it was far, I enjoyed living in Crown Heights, because I was able to explore Brooklyn so much more throughout the summer - something I don't think I would've done if I had stayed in Manhattan.
As a Chinese-Jamaican, living in Crown Heights was one of the many experiences outside of Jamaica that I've encountered where I've had to learn how to "prove" my "Jamaican-ness" through my accent. Throughout my time studying in the United Sates, I regularly encounter scenarios where I gravitate towards Caribbean people, and naturally find myself standing out as the only Asian-Caribbean person in a room of Black-Caribbean people. And that's okay. I've learnt to use it as an opportunity to educate people about the diversity of the Caribbean and Jamaica in particular. I've learnt how to manage my expectations as a Chinese-Jamaican navigating new spaces, and I've learnt how to build strong communities surrounding shared Caribbean identity as a result.
Crown Heights was the best piece of home that I could've asked for in New York. Usually, I'd miss home - especially the food - but I lived right around the corner from Mandeville Cafe, a small Jamaican cook shop that made jerk chicken everyday, and rotated my favourite Jamaican soups throughout the week. I am not exaggerating when I say that I ate there every day, and sometimes twice or thrice in a day.
My favourite part about living in Crown Heights, however, was that I was able to build a community with my neighbours in the area. The chefs, servers and even the owner of Mandeville Cafe all knew me by name, and I'd always stop by to chat with them after work even if I wasn't buying food at the time. It was a pleasure to even just walk by the store front and shout to them inside as I passed by on my way home. That was the first sign of building my own Caribbean community in Crown Heights.
I'm going to be honest here. The A-train subway station was a 10 minute walk from my apartment, and late at night, it could be a little scary when walking to and from there in the poorly lit streets alone. Every night, there was a group of older people that would sit outside on the sidewalk and hang out around a small bonfire where they roasted breadfruit and drank beers, and I had to pass through their gathering on my way to the subway station. It was unsettling, because I had no choice but to pass through, and of course it felt uncomfortable walking through a social gathering when you're already a bit thrown off by the fact that it's 12am at night.
Stick a pin. We'll come back to this later.
From my bedroom at Cornell, I had a fiddle leaf fig plant (named Freya) that I carried with me to New York to keep over the summer. I lived on the fifth floor of my apartment, and I had a balcony attached to my room. About 3 weeks into living there, I put Freya on the ledge outside on my balcony so that it could get some sun. I ended up leaving it there overnight. The next morning, unfortunately I couldn't find Freya where I left it, and when I looked over the ledge, there it was, it's pot smashed in the backyard of the neighbour 5 storeys down. Ouch.
As a committed plant-dad, I had to find a way to save Freya. I had no idea whose backyard it had fallen into, but I did know the chef at Mandeville Cafe, which was the backyard right next door. So naturally, I immediately went to talk to the chef to ask if he knew who lived there. Turns out, the guy who lived next door was also Jamaican (his nickname is Blacks, naturally), and he actually regularly hosts parties and events in that backyard. He wasn't there in the morning when I went, so I went back and knocked on his door day after day until one day I saw him sitting outside his place on the sidewalk as I was on my way to work. I asked him if he'd seen the plant, and he let me in to go pick Freya up, and of course recognized my Jamaican accent and asked where I was from. He ended up inviting me to a fish fry that same Sunday, where I got Jamaican escoveitched fish and met even more people from the community. Man, you just never know whose backyard your plant is gonna fall into right?
After meeting Blacks, I said hello to him every single morning on my way to work, because he was always sitting outside on the sidewalk from 7am. He introduced me to his best friend, Danny, who I'd also say hey to whenever I saw him. Regularly, Blacks would invite me to his cookouts and parties that he'd have at his place to hang out but unfortunately I didn't make it to most of them because I was usually with my friends gallivanting in Manhattan.
Back to that pin.
About 7 weeks into living in Brooklyn, when I was walking to the A-Train, late at night as usual, I walked past that group of older people roasting breadfruit. Just as I'm about to finish passing through the gathering, I hear behind me "Justin! Wah gwaan bredda!"
I turned around, and who was it shouting my name from a seat at the bonfire, Red Stripe in hand? Danny. The man himself.
I turned around and hailed him up (said "hello" for non-Jamaican readers), and he told me that he and his friends always sit outside at night and roast breadfruit and jerk chicken and drink beer on the sidewalk at night, and he told me I should stop by one night and hang out. I met a couple other people who were sitting at the bonfire that night, and was happily welcomed as another Jamaican in the neighbourhood.
Man, you just never know whose backyard your plant is gonna fall into!
After that encounter, walking to the A-Train at night wasn't ever as scary as it was before, and my Caribbean community had spread down the road from my apartment and I really felt more at home where I was living.
That summer, I had also started building a Caribbean community at JPMorgan Chase & Co. but I'll talk more about that in a future blog post.
Living in Crown Heights was one of the best decisions that I could've made, and I reflect fondly on my time in New York that summer because of where I lived. As a Jamaican, Caribbean communities in the diaspora have always helped me to feel more at home, and I'll always be an advocate for building those communities for other people because of the way that they've helped me throughout my life.
Also - Happy Chinese New Year!
Until next Sunday,