flatbush market vendor
Shantie Madray, owner of S&S Fashion, in the Flatbush Caton Market. Photo by Sam Bojarski

It’s been more than three years since vendors at the Flatbush Caton Market decamped to a temporary location, as construction workers turn their once-modest home to a shiny steel and glass building. 

The new mixed-use building at 800 Flatbush Ave., will provide a permanent location in a matter of months for the market, a diverse representation of Flatbush’s Caribbean culture that houses 30 retail vendors, most of them Caribbean immigrants. 

The vendors say business at the current 2184 Clarendon Road location has been slow, and they look forward to moving 10 blocks north again, to the corner of Flatbush and Caton avenues. 

“We had more customers, because Flatbush and [Caton], it has more activity,” said Ernst Charmant, who runs the Victorie En Jezu food store in the market. 

“We are going to return to Flatbush and Caton again,” said Charmant, who added that he is eager to move to the new location. 

While there is no exact date, the target opening date for the new location is early fall of this year, said Lisa Thompson, a market director for Urbane Development, which manages Flatbush Caton Market. 

“The construction site is still active, so timing is contingent on construction completion timing,” Thompson also said. 

Architects from Studio 397 have interviewed vendors to learn their specifications and customize the design of the new market. There will be a forthcoming liquidation sale for vendors to sell their wares before the move, Thompson said, although a date for the sale has not been determined. 

In 2000, the formal Flatbush Caton Market was founded to provide an indoor home to dozens of Caribbean street vendors. Prior to the indoor location, the vendors sold their wares in a parking lot near the corner of Flatbush and Caton avenues. 

The market also has a website, and customers can purchase goods on the Flatbush Caton Market online store. Launched in August 2020, any vendor may sell non-food items online, said Thompson. 

Tucked away on Clarendon Road, the market’s current location is no less than 250 feet from the corner of Flatbush Avenue. But compared to the old location, it has minimal visibility for pedestrians, said Shantie Madray, a vendor who runs the S&S Fashion store. 

“Nobody comes in this way,” Madray said. “We’re not on Flatbush where the people walk up, people don’t even know we’re in here.” 

Recovering from COVID, preparing for the move

As with other brick-and-mortar retail businesses in New York City, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the Flatbush Caton Market last spring, forcing its closure until early July 2020

The market currently operates with reduced hours, Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Markers on the floor encourage people to maintain a six-foot distance, and all customers must wear a mask while in the market. 

But the market does not receive enough foot traffic for capacity limits. Bertiny Bellevue, who runs security and monitors entrance and exits from the building, estimated that he might see 20 customers or less on weekdays. Saturdays are slightly busier, he said, with anywhere between 20 to 25 customers. 

Urbane Development stepped in last year to provide cash assistance for retailers who were impacted by the pandemic. 

An online crowdfunding effort, which ended in September 2020, raised $46,040 for the market’s vendors. Each of the market’s 30 vendors received $1,489 in direct cash assistance, Thompson said in an email. 

Tanael Joachim, a comedian who served as the public ambassador for the relief fund effort, said he would have liked to raise more than $2,000 per vendor. 

“I was happy with it considering the situation,” Joachim said. “People were struggling, so asking people for money when they don’t have money for themselves is a tough thing to do.” 

Urbane Development has taken several steps to support vendors within the past two years. Since 2019, vendors have been eligible to apply for interest-free financial assistance through an internal microloan fund. Two-thirds of the vendors have also completed a business accelerator course, learning finance, marketing and other skills, Thompson said. The program will continue as the new location opens. 

“The last few years, even prior to COVID-19, have been challenging for small retailers,” Thompson said. “Unlike other retailers, legacy [Flatbush Caton Market] vendors have a guaranteed rent which has not increased since 2009. Their rents [will] remain unchanged as the vendors move into the revitalized market.”

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. 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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