Photographing at the West Indian Day Parade
Every Labor Day weekend, Brooklyn hosts its annual West Indian Day Parade, part of a Carnival celebration of Caribbean culture. The parade, which goes along Eastern Parkway through Crown Heights, ending at Grand Army Plaza, has been a tradition since the late 1960s and is known all around the world as an incredible party and celebration. I decided to go to the parade this year to photograph some of the scenes; I live in Prospect Heights, so the parade route is just down the street from my apartment.
The morning of Labor Day saw an extraordinarily festive scene in the neighborhood. I went down to Eastern Parkway at 11 a.m., just as the parade was kicking off about a mile east. Walking along the street, the mouth-watering smells of jerk chicken, grilled fish, curry, and other delicious food hung heavy in the air. Food vendors had been setting up their stalls since the night before. Eastern Parkway was already crowded, and calypso, reggae, and other music was blasting from all directions.
In addition to the people selling food, other vendors were hawking flags, clothing, and tchotchkes from stalls, carts, and by hand. As I hung around Franklin and Bedford Avenues, the front of the parade reached us and floats with dancers joined the party with even more music.
The parade is famous for its colorful costumes, and this year did not disappoint. Some people were simply draped in flags of Caribbean countries, some wore elaborate feathered ensembles, and a few walked around on stilts (it was hard to tell who was a spectator and who was a parader who had reached the end of the route and joined the party).
While Carnival is a lot of fun, a string of violent episodes have cast a shadow over it over the past decade. As Errol Lewis, political anchor for NY1 and a life-long Crown Heights resident explained, members of local gangs use the cover of the parade and j’ouvert — a wild overnight pre-parade party — to settle disputes. Because of the crowds, innocent bystanders are often caught in crossfire. Throw in the free-flowing alcohol and, as gang members join in the party, you have a potential recipe for disaster. Despite an enhanced police presence this year during the overnight event, four people were shot, two of them fatally. One of the shootings occurred just steps from where officers were stationed.
Throughout the entire West Indian Day Parade, there was an extremely heavy police presence. A few years ago violence associated with Carnival could be worse and often coincided with the parade itself on nearby streets. The police deployed heavily along the parade route and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. They did a great job of not only keeping everyone safe, but also helping the atmosphere stay festive. Despite their omnipresence it didn’t feel like a crackdown, more like they were hanging back to observe in case they were needed. Some officers even joined in on the fun, going to the food stalls on breaks or to rehydrate – it was a very humid day.
Later in the afternoon, the crowd started getting a little bit rowdier while still keeping the jovial mood. The police notoriously look the other way in terms of alcohol during the parade, so some people were getting a little bit loose. It definitely gave the event the feeling of a giant block party!
What stood out during the whole parade was how much fun everyone was having. Whether people had set up folding chairs to hang out and watch in one place, or were instead walking around with groups of friends going to different booths and smaller side parties, everyone was into it — including the people working and selling. It was a fun and customary chance for people of Caribbean descent to proudly boast their heritage, while the whole neighborhood partied. As people came and went, drinking beer or lemonade, marching in the parade or watching and eating, it was a happy, friendly, laid-back end of summer.
As community stakeholders and politicians discuss how to solve the outbursts of violence during j’ouvert, it’s vital to remember that the parade is an important tradition, and focus on the role it plays in honoring Caribbean culture and the fun it brings to Crown/Prospect Heights. Hopefully next year, the entirety of Carnival goes off without anyone getting hurt.