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By Sam Bojarski

More than 40 years ago, in Haiti, Margarette Medina learned to use herbs to make home remedies. Like so many other vendors in the Flatbush Caton Market, she has turned the knowledge she gained in her homeland into a business ‒ Medina’s Body Care

But after the coronavirus pandemic forced the market to close, Medina had a hard time selling her skin care products, which have a relatively short shelf life. 

“Some of them I will have to throw away, that’s a loss there. And then I don’t get to sell my stuff either, because it’s closed,” said Medina who came to the United States in 1982 and has been selling in the Flatbush Caton market for more than a decade. 

The numerous micro-entrepreneurs like Medina who sell goods at the Flatbush Caton Market have been bringing the sights, smells, tastes and wears of the Caribbean to central Brooklyn since 2000. But many of the businesses in the market operate informally, making them ineligible to receive money from government initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Since business shut down more than three months ago, the market’s managers have collaborated with other partners to start the Flatbush Caton Market Micro Entrepreneur Relief Fund.

For standup comedian Tanael Joachim, the ambassador for the relief fund project, Flatbush Caton Market is a special place. 

“I have an aunt who was a micro-entrepreneur in Haiti. She basically does what people at the Flatbush Caton Market do, and she raised three kids on that,” said Joachim, who moved to the U.S. about 12 years ago. 

In 2017, Joachim was performing at the Eastville Comedy Club, when he met Androniki Lagos, a consultant at Urbane Development, which manages the Flatbush Caton Market and provides resources to its vendors. 

Standup comedian Tanael Joachim. Photo credit: Jenni Walkowiak

Originally, the two discussed having Joachim plan shows and create a community space for the arts in the summer of 2021, when the new Flatbush Caton Market building is scheduled to open. Coronavirus changed those plans.

“Then Nikki told me about this relief fund and asked me if that was something that I was also interested in, so I immediately thought, ‘yeah, why not.’ Because we’re all kind of struggling right now, and unfortunately, raising money is how we’re going to have to do it, especially with these small businesses,” Joachim said. 

As the main ambassador for the effort, Joachim has been raising awareness for the fund and encouraging others to donate. 

Urbane Development has also used its own partners and promotional channels to bring attention to the fundraising effort. 

According to Lisa Thompson, who serves as market director of Flatbush Caton Market for Urbane Development, the initiative stems from the fact that most of the micro entrepreneurs ‒ mostly immigrant Caribbean women, as well as some men ‒ lack the banking relationships and organizational capacity needed to access government responses to the COVID-19 economic crisis, including the PPP and EIDL programs.

“Because these entrepreneurs are constrained in the amount of cash they have on hand, we implemented a direct cash assistance crowdfunding initiative to help put money into the vendors’ hands that is unrestricted,” Thompson also told the Haitian Times. 

The relief fund, hosted on the crowdfunding platform Ioby, is set up with the goal of raising $64,975, $11,112 of which was raised as of June 29. The campaign will run through July 18. 

Angelina Civil of Angelina Boutique, a fashion retailer in Flatbush Caton Market. Photo courtesy of Urbane Development.

According to the crowdfunding page for the campaign, Urbane Development and its partners will convene the vendor community after that date, to coordinate an equitable distribution of cash funds. The money can support whatever needs vendors have, in the wake of COVID-19. 

For Medina, that means buying new ingredients for her products. 

“That money will mean a lot, because I will use it to replace some of these things I lost,” Medina said. 

“I buy the ingredients and make my product, I make everything by myself, but you know, you have to buy all the water, essential oils and stuff like that,” she added. 

Since Flatbush Caton Market closed, sales for Medina’s Body Care have dropped significantly. The small enterprise has a website, but it is only about a year old. 

“I don’t have good traffic on my website. But every now and then people call us, I encourage people I know to go and sign up,” Medina said. 

New York City entered phase two of reopening on June 22, which means retail stores are open with limited service. Restaurants are also allowed to offer outdoor dining. Phase three will allow gatherings of up to 25 people and for restaurants to reopen dine-in service at 50 percent capacity. While the city was previously set to enter phase three on July 6, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated he may make adjustments to the phase three reopening process. 

Thompson said she hopes Flatbush Caton Market can open again soon and that vendors have been on site to prepare for reopening, but she did not provide a specific date. 

Selwyn Branker, who runs the Flagathon store. Photo courtesy of Urbane Development.

Vendors have been operating out of a temporary location at 2184 Clarendon Road, while a new building at Flatbush and Caton avenues is being constructed. A 14-story, mixed-use development there will eventually house a revitalized Flatbush Caton Market, along with residential units.

Completion has been delayed due to COVID-19, but Thompson said she expects it to be done by summer of 2021. The building will include a business incubator, to help entrepreneurs in the market develop their businesses. 

But vendors first have to weather the economic storm wrought by COVID-19. 

By helping market vendors through this economic crisis, the Flatbush Caton Market Relief Fund will provide the short-term lifeline needed to preserve their businesses and the decades of wealth that their owners can pass down to future generations, according to Thompson.

“Without these people, you lose a huge part of the heart of Brooklyn’s Caribbean community,” Joachim said. 

Visit this link to donate to the Flatbush Caton Market Relief Fund. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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