African, Victorian B&B in Old Ghetto
Akwaaba Mansion, the only black-owned bed & breakfast in New York, has merged African art with Victorian opulence for a decade in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, once known as America’s largest ghetto.
Behind a white gate and a glass-enclosed porch, Akwaaba Mansion, the only black-owned bed & breakfast in New York, sits amidst historic brownstones and tree-lined streets. The house summons images of grandeur akin to old southern manors, not Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, its home for 10 years.
It merges African art with Victorian opulence. And among those “brownstones, but also brown people,” Monique Greenwood, former Essence editor-in-chief, says she found a passion, a mansion and a community when she founded Akwaaba, which translates to “welcome” in Ghana, West Africa.
In the parlor, well lit by wall-length windows, a two-person red-velvet seat poses beside a tribal-print couch. A vase filled with cotton branches sits above an electric fireplace, across from an antique piano bedecked with class photographs from the late 1930s and 1940s of a neighborhood school mostly populated by African Americans. Instrumental smooth music clouds the space from the likes of Mariah Carey and Brian McKnight. Below the house’s original low-hanging chandelier, a coffee table exhibits “Brooklyn — The Centennial Edition,” signed by author Brian Merlis, and “In Our Own Image Treasured African American Traditions, Journeys and Icons” by Patrick Henry Bass and Karen Pugh.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was once known as the largest ghetto in America. However, due to the recent mix of immigrants, joined by the achievements of a growing African American middle-class and an increasingly varied population, Bed-Stuy has transformed into a popular neighborhood — with the help of its historic architecture, according to Matias Echanove, author of “Bed-Stuy on the Move.”
Now, Bedford-Stuyvesant offers a once rural getaway, the B&B, typically associated with areas like Napa Valley or Vermont, to urban lovers.
When Akwaaba Mansion opened in 1995, there were no major hotels in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Marriot opened just seven years ago. “How can Brooklyn, which if it were a city unto itself, it would be the fourth largest city in the country, not have a hotel?” Greenwood asked. “And it just didn’t seem like rocket science to me that if I had a bed & breakfast with only four guest rooms that I could stay booked. And so, we said let’s go for it.”
Greenwood and her husband moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant about 16 years ago when they married. A native of Washington, D.C., Greenwood says, “My mom gave birth to me in Washington, but I was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s where I came of age.”
She discovered the community on a historic house tour and adored the “brownstones, but also the brown people,” she said. They lived in a brownstone just two blocks from the mansion and used to dream of living there. When the couple began vacationing at B&Bs, they thought the property would be the perfect urban getaway, and an ideal career. In the process, they helped to revitalize a community.
“I became convinced that it would be the profession that I would really enjoy,” Greenwood said. “It combines all of my passions. I love meeting people, talking to people. I love entertaining. Decorating is really a passion. So I get to decorate all these places, which is wonderful. I don’t love cooking, but I’ve learned to do it.”
Decorating the inn, and incorporating her culture, is part of expressing who she is, Greenwood offered. “There’s a great sense of pride that comes with people who are part of the culture because rarely do you go anywhere and see your culture reflected,” she said. For example, at a catering hall, you could see the Italian or Chinese influences. But rarely do you see African flavor. “But we welcome people from all over the world of very different ethnic backgrounds. We ourselves are African Americans, so that does make it black-owned, and what we have done with the décor is that we’ve celebrated the African-American culture. But we’ve also married it with the Victorian flavor because that’s the period in which the house was built,” Greenwood said.
“The two really coexist nicely,” she opined.
This past month, they celebrated Black History Month with The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which held its celebration to honor history and local African-American figures at the B&B. “I think it’s important because I think in a larger society the recognition is only going to come at that time. So, you know, we’ll take it whenever we can get it. But as a person of color, we want to recognize and celebrate yearlong,” Greenwood said. But, she added, “I think sometimes because we are black-owned and we celebrate through our decor the African or African-American experience, some people feel, ‘I’m not black. Is that OK?’ Yeah, that’s OK. No one would ever call the Marriot and go, ‘I’m black. Is that OK?’”
The weekend after Valentine’s Day, a young African-American couple shares the red couch in the parlor as they wait to check into the Ashante room, the most Afrocentric of the four suites, with African artifacts and Motherland textiles, Greenwood says. The man is a local from Queens, N.Y., and has a friend who lives in the neighborhood. He read about the B&B in Black Enterprise magazine, and the two decided to try it out for a romantic getaway that isn’t so far away. They glance at the wood detailing on the floors and notice the artwork on the walls. “It’s beautiful,” the woman said.
Greenwood has learned to do it all. She juggles phone calls, a broken toilet, three other inns, a wedding reception at the Akwaaba Café just blocks away, checking in guests and an interview. In the last year and half, Greenwood has opened two bed and breakfasts in two different cities — Washington, D.C., and New Orleans — in addition to her Brooklyn and Cape May, N.J., locations. She triples as chef, concierge and decorator at her Bedford-Stuyvesant residence. She and her family live on the top two floors and have a private residence at the other three Akwaaba outposts. Greenwood and her husband plan to retire in four years, at age 50, and spend each season of the year living at a different location, letting others take care of the day-to-day business. Each lodge has a live-in innkeeper and a chambermaid.
Greenwood learned about the business from the “Inn Deep Workshop” held in Cape May, and “So You Want to be an Innkeeper,” what she calls the bible for would-be innkeepers.
But prior to being mistress of the house, Greenwood had a successful career as a journalist for 20 years. She left the industry as editor-in-chief of Essence about three years ago and is now committed to the comfort of others and writing books. She has already published “Having What Matters: The Black Woman’s Guide to Creating the Life You Really Want” and “Go On Girl!: Book Club Guide for Reading Groups” and is working on a third — or at least is supposed to be. “My life is pretty full,” she said.
Her career as a writer helps her attract and welcome guests. She considers herself savvy at marketing. “I think that being an effective communicator is an asset in any field that you’re in. And certainly if you’re talking to guests and being able to get people to open up and relax,” she offered.
About 60 percent of Akwaaba Mansion guests are local people from the five boroughs. But thanks to guidebooks and the European appreciation of the homey bed & breakfast, it also receives many foreign visitors. Often patrons go to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, a girlfriends’ weekend or propose marriage.
But Greenwood was frustrated at the amenities available to the community. “You couldn’t go and buy fresh bread and fresh flowers. And you couldn’t meet a girlfriend for coffee,” she noted. And so, in addition to the bed and breakfast and the Akwaaba Café, which was licensed three years ago, the pair developed a whole section of Fifth Avenue. They have tenants who operate a book store, an antiques shop, a hair salon and a coffee house.
“I think that we have been a catalyst for economic development in our neighborhood,” Greenwood said.
When Greenwood and her husband first found the inn, they “had a definite agenda to help to change or dispel the stereotypes about the community.” Yet educating patrons about African culture, the soul of their look, is not a mission. “But I want them to appreciate it,” she concluded. “I find that [guests] just ask. I don’t bring them and say this is what this is, and that is what that is. But certainly if they show some interest, I’m excited about giving them more information.”
Visit www.akwaaba.com for room rates and availability.