Photo: Simbarashe Cha
It’s no shock that New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world, has famous international enclaves such as Little Italy, Chinatown and Koreatown. But you may not know that NYC is also home to the world’s first and only Little Caribbean, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.
Shelley Worrell, who brought that designation to life, is a first-generation American born and raised in Flatbush by parents who immigrated from Trinidad. Through Little Caribbean and her Caribbeing platform, Worrell shines a spotlight on Brooklyn’s Caribbean American community and fosters opportunities for business owners, makers and creators. We talked to her about how she came up with the idea for Little Caribbean, the value the community brings to the City and some of her favorite neighborhood hangouts.
How did your family end up in Brooklyn?
Shelley Worrell: My father was Afro-Caribbean and the first of 13 children. My mother is Indo-Caribbean and the first of seven. So as we say in the islands, I have plenty cousins! My father met my mother on a trip to Trinidad during Carnival, and I guess you could say the rest is history. My parents were largely responsible for their families immigrating, mostly to Brooklyn with green cards in hand. That’s a tremendous display of responsibility and sacrifice they achieved.
Photo: Simbarashe Cha
Aside from your Caribbean heritage, you have a deep investment in the Caribbean region. Tell us more about that.
SW: As the first person in my family born in the US, I spent summers in Trinidad. They’re some of my earliest and fondest memories. While an undergrad, I started celebrating my Caribbean culture and heritage largely through Carnival, playing mas and going to fetes in Brooklyn, Trinidad and around the US. It’s such an important ritual in Afro-Caribbean history. I also started traveling more extensively in the region.
I grew up here immersed in a multilingual community with food, music, aesthetics, wellness practices and pride all tied to Caribbean culture. So much of my investment came early on and has been sustained throughout my life, studies and now work.
Tell us about your organization, Caribbeing, and what made you start it.
SW: Caribbeing began as the first film festival in NYC dedicated to Caribbean cinema. I was working in media and saw a huge deficit of culturally relevant programming. A friend was running the Caribbean Literacy and Cultural Center in the Flatbush Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and we decided to run a series of cult-classic Caribbean films, like The Harder They Come and Egalite for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. Only a handful of people showed up, except for one screening where a group of seniors filled the room. They laughed, danced and wanted to give us money.
I went back to my day job until the earthquake in Haiti later that year. One of my aunties, Simone Trudo, was working for the UN and sadly didn’t make it. Our co-founder Janluk Stanislas directed a film, On Lanmen ka Lave Lòt [United We Stand], on a Caribbean relief effort, and I felt that it was important to screen that film here in Flatbush [at Brooklyn College’s Whitman Hall] since it is home to a significant Haitian population. We included art, music and food. Three hundred people showed up, and from there we built a platform centered on Caribbean creativity and lifestyle. We’re now 10 years in.
What motivated you to officially coin Little Caribbean?
SW: In 2015 I was asked to give a Jane’s Walk. I thought the idea was crazy! Me, a tour guide? At some point I agreed to it, and believe it or not over 70 people showed up. I was amazed at just how many people were interested in my neighborhood, Flatbush, and specifically Caribbean culture, heritage and food.
In 2017, after leaving my corporate job to care for my father, I started spending more time on the ground in Flatbush. I saw gentrification, but I also saw this huge concentration of Caribbean people and businesses. I asked myself why we didn’t have a Little Caribbean, like other immigrant neighborhoods in NYC. I started asking local elected officials about it, and they didn’t know either. Eventually we received guidance from the NYC Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit on how to move forward with the designation. Since then, I have spent most of my time developing Little Caribbean with the people that live and work here.
How has the neighborhood been impacted by Covid-19, and in what ways have you seen the community come together?
SW: At a certain point in the pandemic, my zip code was literally the epicenter, having one of the highest rates of Covid-19 in NYC. We also know that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. I thought, What can I do right now? We started meal deliveries to local hospital staff, followed by a donation of digital tablets for patients, a directory of Black/Caribbean-owned businesses to support in the community and distribution of 40,000 PPE to frontline workers in Central Brooklyn in partnership with NYC’s Economic Development Corporation.
More recently we leveraged our corporate partnerships with Lyft and Door Dash to drive traffic to Black-owned businesses in Little Caribbean. The fun part about that collaboration is when you visit by car or order food from a meal delivery platform, it says Little Caribbean on the map. Just a few years ago that name didn’t even exist!
How would suggest people experience Little Caribbean on a visit?
SW: I think a perfect weekend is where you go island-hopping. Make a bucket list and go on a scavenger hunt for the Caribbean foods and music you’d like to discover. I’d try to find the best jerk, curry, oxtail, patty, Ital, rum, rice, juice, bread and let’s not forget cake and ice cream. Another angle could be to see how many Caribbean countries you can find represented in language, accents, storefronts, food or music.
Shelley Worrell (center) and friends at The Rogers Garden. Photo: Simbarashe Cha
What are some of your go-to spots to in the neighborhood?
SW: I really love going to The Rogers Garden to lime [Ed's note: a Caribbean phrase for "hanging out."] The garden courtyard feels like you are in a West Indian rum shop, and on weekends there are tasty food pop-ups and live music. Aunts Et Uncles is another go-to—you feel like you are in your auntie’s chic living room. Sip Unwine has a cozy backyard, and I usually pull up at least once a week during the summer for drinks or their mouthwatering mac and cheese.
Describe the feeling NYC gives you in three words.
SW: Best city period.
In this video, Shelley Worrell discusses how she transformed pandemic-related hardship into an opportunity to serve.