A close friend of mine visited the city from Trinidad last weekend. That Sunday morning, we stood on a sweaty 6 train platform on our way to a drunk brunch as he recounted his days partying in Brazil for the World Cup earlier this summer. “Dawg, I tired of people sayin’ New York don’t sleep,” he sneered. “You walk around New York at 4am, people sleeping. I’m used to being out until well after sunrise.”
There may be one night a year where the city can keep up with endless summers of distant tropical lands. At the end of every summer, revelers from all over the world arrive at Crown Heights streets for the West Indian Day Carnival, also known as the Labor Day Parade. It’s the largest carnival in North America, with dozens of floats and costumed attendees swelling down four lanes of Eastern Parkway, snaking around Grand Army Plaza, and spilling out into side streets packed with on-lookers, street vendors, house parties and more. Booming speaker systems soundtrack the party with quick, hot soca and dancehall anthems freshly imported from the islands. It’s also big business for the city: the parade attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees and an estimated $1.5 million in revenue. The West Indian American Carnival Association, based in Brooklyn, works year round to pull it off. “We secure a permit, we make calls for sponsorship. We lobby elected officials,” says Rhea Smith, head of PR for the committee. “We invite other cultures and groups to participate by way of vending, volunteering, creating costumes, participating in the music. We hire local talents and a lot of local business, for stage, for lighting, for security, for staffing. There’s a lot of authentic Caribbean stuff out here, so why not just use what we have right at our front door?”
The carnival tradition started in the Caribbean in the late 1700s, a product of French colonialism. “In Versailles, they used to have the masquerade balls,” explains Ms. Jean Alexander, board member and director of marketing on the committee for the past 37 years. The custom found its way to New York City in the luggage and collective memories of Caribbean immigrants who first poached the city during the '20s and '30s. “The Caribbean people who lived in New York at that time lived in Harlem, and they missed going to Carnival in their home countries. So they staged costume balls indoors: the Audubon, Savoy, those huge ballrooms.” It was originally held in the winter, but was rescheduled to summer months and brought outdoors by the mid 1940s. Even decades ago, news of the party spread mainly by word of mouth. “I remember in 1975, I was at Merrill Lynch, and one of my girlfriends who worked with me was from Jamaica,” recalls Ms. Alexander. “She asked me, ‘Jean, did you go to the West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn?’ I said no, because I wasn’t aware there was one. She then introduced me to a young man who also worked with us that played the steel pan for one of the bands. So I had somebody to come to Carnival with. Of course, I was not prepared to see the millions of people that I saw.” Ms. Alexander’s story reads like many immigrants who arrived in New York in the 1970s. She came with her husband and five children from Trinidad to a 16-degree New York December—all her kids caught whooping cough. “I had a garden back home. I cried and cried when my husband said we were leaving and I had to leave my garden.” The parade committee was one of the first organizations to provide resources for Caribbean immigrants trying to figure out which way was up in a new country.
"We do this so that we will still have that feeling of home."
“It has grown tremendously, but what hasn’t grown is the organization of grassroots people, many of whom are still [on the committee],” Ms. Alexander recalls. Still, the younger members keep the parade on the pulse of emerging music and style each year. “The committee is such a body, there’s elders and there’s young professionals,” explains Ms. Smith. “The young people give good suggestions because they go out, they party, they go to concerts. And the elders get to go to more like Jazz at Lincoln Center and all these places, and they get to see entertainment from a more mature side. So we get a coming together of the minds. Some things work, some things don’t, sometimes it trial and error. And based on the target audience we come up with a nice little mix that gives a bit of high energy and a little bit of calm to the event.” When asked what changes she’s observed since first attending, Ms. Alexander gives a more needled reading. “The people have changed. In those days, Caribbean kids were model citizens. Teachers used to say, ‘why can’t you be like that young man from Trinidad or Jamaica? He never hangs out, he’s always doing his homework.’ But in recent years, that’s no longer the case. Everybody is a New Yorker now. Whatever New York says or does, they do it in the next minute in the Caribbean. That has a lot to do with social media. If it weren’t for that, for example, would we have known about that young man in Staten Island who was killed?”
The man she’s referencing, Eric Garner, was choked to death by an NYPD officer this summer. The murder was caught on film and spread virally, sparking debate about police practices across the country that have only heightened as the days have passed and more lives have been lost. It’s a topic that hits close to home for committee members: every year, incidents of violence at the parade not only threaten the safety of attendees, but the very existence of the carnival itself. An increased police presence and stricter rules on traffic flows and attendees have made the events feel tense in recent years. According to the team, however, the NYPD is mostly cooperative and supportive. “Our relationship with the NYPD is mainly helping them understand our social customs and culture,” Ms. Smith explains. “Because it’s not just during carnival time, Caribbean people are everywhere all the time, and there is always some type of party. We hope that these kind of events are also welcome from other cultures, as much as they would want us to do for theirs. So we do work with the community leaders and the NYPD on a year round basis.” Ms. Alexander elaborates: “The press does the most damage. It is so, so difficult. We don’t sleep. It’s a very uncertain time. I will not go to bed on Monday night until I see all the news channels to make sure no one is saying anything. It gets harder to find sponsors, because money is so scarce. The bands have less costumes.”
After almost five decades, the costumes are still the heart of the celebration. Elaborate swimwear inspired by the tropical flora and fauna of the islands, attendees who play mas in this gear attract thousands of ogling eyes, and it's fiercely competitive to secure the best look. “In the old days you’d see beautiful costumes. They’d make anybody’s heart melt.” Ms. Alexander remembers with a laugh. “Nowadays, everything looks that same. Whether you’re in Brazil, China, Trinidad, everybody wants to wear the skimpiest costume, the thongs and the beads and little tiny, tiny bikinis, and feathers on their head, and they call that carnival. But that is not what carnival really is. And the majority of people who play mas in those kind of costumes are the younger people.” But in some ways, that's the point: a parade that's become a symbol of shifting generations and borders, populations spread across oceans, linked by a deep passion for fun, sun, and the sounds that soundtrack it all. "We do this so that we will still have that feeling of home," Ms. Smith says. "And a sense that were giving back to where we came from."