By Lou Cespedes

In June of 2019, I wrote about the groundbreaking of Caton Flats, a new 14 story residential development that will house the Flatbush Caton Market, on the corner of Caton and Flatbush Avenue. When the original market opened in 2000, it was heralded as a great achievement of local political leadership under Dr. Una Clarke and The Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry (known as CACCI) under its founder, the late Dr. Roy Hastick, who passed away earlier this year.  The real estate deal that secured the new development’s air-rights and up-zoning obligated the developers, BRP Companies, to give “legacy vendors” from the old market guaranteed placement in the new retail space. This was always an uncomfortable and highly unprofitable proposition (but one the developers begrudgingly accepted). The architects of this deal were the NYC Economic Development Corporation, CACCI, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the Mayor’s office for Small Business Services, and the developer BRP Companies. In the follow up to my original article one year ago, what I’ve discovered is not only gut wrenching, it also reeks of deception, sabotage, and just plain negligence. Of course, one might assume that these are just novel manifestations of change, but quite the opposite may be true.

The original Caton Market’s opening was a hobbled endeavor. Administratively CACCI oversaw its day to day management. The first vendors of the market tell the story of a rag-tag group of occupants that were given a space practically without proper infrastructure. It was unorganized, unlit, uninviting, without proper ventilation, and with an air of a transient flea market. Yet, for the vendors, it represented a “great improvement” from being on the street. They began in chicken wire cages. Lack of structure and clear rules often led to a free-for-all workplace. Then the vendors started helping each other by making proper sheds for their work and the storage of their goods built by a group of handy-men that were also co-vendors. Soon they created a microcosm of cooperation, and eventually the market formalized under more efficient management and a culture of self-sustainability slowly evolved. “Survival” was the modus-operandi of the Caton Market vendor as CACCI dutifully and punctually asked for rent payments every month. Some vendors became staples, yet others had a more hit-miss experiences often seizing on “fads” within the market to turn a quick buck. This created copy-cat sale of products by vendors in proximity, causing occasional animosity among them.

Under Dr. Hastick’s leadership the facility grew more unsustainable despite the great efforts of management and vendors. Vendors’ distrust of Dr. Hastick was palpable. Described as a great salesperson with a knack for persuasiveness, Dr. Hastick was constantly on-guard of rising figures that could threaten his leadership, and quickly neutralized any dissent among the vendors. He was an active, shrewd, and committed self- promoter, and Dr. Hastick used the vendors and the market as a back-drop for his dealings and photo-ops. His private invitations to vendors to discuss grievances in his office were recounted to me as limited two-minute presentation of their issues followed by an hour of Dr. Hastick’s long paternalistic and scolding lectures. Dr. Hastick needed the market as CACCI’s primary marketing tool. The Caton Market was his showcase piece among local pols and leaders, but he often belittled the vendors in private within the organization. Dr. Hastick, through CACCI, was an instrumental in spurring the new real estate deal.

As the Flatbush housing market sizzled, the deal for the new real estate development was inevitable. The vendors had to go! They were enticed to sign onerous “take it or leave it” contracts once the city removed its protection for the “micro-vendors”. CM Mathieu Eugene never completed the due diligence he was responsible for to protect vendors from “morality clause” language in their contracts. In exchange for signing, vendors were guaranteed 16,000 square feet of prime commercial storefront space at the new Caton Flats building under “preferential rent agreements” and CACCI will assume ownership of very valuable condo office space within the new building. The market concept was “sold”. Vendors now operate under a contractual “gag order” for fear of losing their space.

When the deal was completed, BRP Companies hired Urbane Development under CEO James Johnson-Piett, and he was tasked to take over the management of the market from CACCI. While still in the old building and in close cooperation with Development Director for BRP Co’s, Mr. Andrew Cohen, Urbane began the research phase of the market’s businesses focusing on SWOT analysis and detailing their vulnerabilities under the promise of “professionalizing” and bringing much needed “business development” and discipline to the market’s operations. The vendors cooperated but soon sensed uneasiness and intimidation. They hesitated cooperating not knowing what the information they shared would be used for.

Once vendors transferred to the temporary annex provided for them on Clarendon Rd, something dramatically changed. One vendor expressed a sense of malaise and aimlessness taking root among them in the space. The impression is that although Johnson-Piett’s intentions may have been genuine at first, the real power broker behind the market’s future was Mr. Cohen, a friendly and understated gentleman who appears to have been very active in the early negotiations, but receded after the move to the temporary facility.

As late as October of 2019, I personally attended a focus group at the temporary market. Many of us present questioned if vendors would be ready to transition back to the new building in 2021. The work of the focus group seemed lazy, underfunded, and was not evidenced in the temporary location. The idea of an experimental “laboratory and incubator”, conveyed to me when I interviewed Johnson-Piett in May of 2019, seemed illusory.  During closed door meetings with Mr. Cohen, Urbane, and other stakeholders at the temporary site, vendors spoke among themselves of being kept in the dark. Urbane’s activities kept scaling back to little more than “policing” vendors, using the contracts they signed to threaten them, and providing no follow up on the promises of business development which were central to their buy-in. Eventually Johnson-Piett also became disengaged, leaving Lisa Thompson, a somewhat inexperienced underling to manage the facility.  Then came COVID-19, the shutdown, and disarray.

When reached for comment, Johnson-Piett cited several rollouts in the coming months and provided this statement: “Our primary mission at Urbane is working with and for the Brooklyn community and we are proud of all of the effort that has gone in to the Caton Flats development. The unprecedented course of the last few months has presented its set of challenges to our Flatbush community and the Flatbush Caton Market, but we commend our development partners for keeping the Caton Flats project moving and on schedule in order to bring the new modern market to vendors and the neighborhood as soon as possible.” Johnson-Piett resides in Philadelphia, not Brooklyn.

It’s almost inexplicable how unprepared the vendors were to weather the sudden closure of the market. Many with limited resources wondered if help would come via Urbane and the many companies that now own the market and its operations. Only a matching funds “Go Fund Me” campaign was initiated without the vendors’ consent. Neither BRP nor Urbane lobbied for any kind of relief under the PPP program or any grant or subsidy that may have been available; but then, why would they? There is more profit in their failure. The sense is that the vendors are being led to their own slaughter by their new stewards, hastened by the new COVID paradigm.

What is clear is that the market, like the leadership of our current business and elected officials, is a growing disappointment that threatens the stability of our cultural enterprise in Flatbush. The question we must ask now is whether we will fight to preserve and improve our institutions like the Flatbush Caton Market, or whether we are all ready for its slow demise, as well as that of our own Caribbean community.

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