Though Shalt not Steal
By David McKenzie
The Bogolan Merchants Association in Fort Greene Brooklyn has been very successful in improving its piece of Fulton Street. So successful, in fact, that some of its businesses have left the area entirely.
"It became too much of a good thing," says Jonathan Adewumi, former chairman of Bogolan, "I did not foresee it." Adewumi owns Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions, a high end African clothing store. He resigned from his post and moved to a far less fashionable Nostrand in May, "The rent went up 200 percent overnight."
Black and white flags hang smartly from streetlamps in this leafy section of the city. "Welcome to Bogolan Brooklyn," the flags read, " the soul of the Brooklyn renaissance." A few African clothing stores occupy the ground floors of large brownstones. A Chinese Laundromat sits between them.
"The area has been going through an organic rebirth," says Adewumi who helped spearhead Bogolan's initiatives, "but it is a microcosm of what happens all over America. Small business work to build up an area and then developers move in."
"We have lost a couple of businesses because of the high rent," Says Linda Howard as she sits on a custom made Ghanaian chair, "but I don't think it has had an impact on the association." Howard is a co-owner of Ashanti Origins a high end importer of West African furniture and art. Subtle animal prints and wooden furniture sit elegantly in the space.
Bogolan was started in 1995 to promote African culture and business in Fort Greene. The group organized performances and art exhibits to show off the renaissance. But over the past year rent has increased dramatically as professionals move in from Manhattan. The drop in crime and the increase of cultural options have also had an impact.
"Bogolan started as a cultural organization," says Howard, who also serves as the groups treasurer, "but it has developed into a business group." The name refers to a type of traditional cloth made in Mali.
"The names means more than cloth, it is also a ethnic group in Mali," says Howard, "it was a cultural decision."
"They should have called it African Village, not Bogolan," says Ganue Demu, former owner of Demu Cafe, "The fashion people pushed for it." He is not a member.
"Demu Cafe is still here," says Demu at his desk in a prefabricated building on Fulton street with papers strewn around him. He speaks metaphorically. Demu owned Demu Cafe a Nigerian restaurant on Fulton. Last year he closed because of rising rents. Now an upscale restaurant serving American fare occupies the space.
"Landlords don't hate the people," he says in a black t-shirt and African skull cap, "they have to go along with the market." At the end of the 90s Demu Cafe was lauded in New York newspapers as an epicenter of African Arts and culture. A place for poetry and cassava. Now there is only one African restaurant in the area
"Rent has been rising," says Salif Cisse, owner and operator of Keur 'n Deye Senegalese restaurant, "but if you do good business rentals won't matter." People have not been arriving quickly enough for some. "The landlords are increasing rents because of projected interest in the area," admits Howard, her furniture store devoid of customers, "but right now we need the foot traffic."
Business owners in the area claim that the projected interest was driven by nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music. The institution joined up with organizations like Bogolan and announced a move to transform Fort Greene into a cultural district. Consequently, rents skyrocketed. And black owned businesses moved out.
"I am buying the building," says Raven, the 'Harlem Cake Man, " so it doesn't affect me." His small bakery is crowded with customers on Sunday evening, praises waft down from the prayer service upstairs. Operators who own their property, though rare in Fort Greene, are happy with the influx of new residents. Demu now runs a general-purpose office center. But the squat building with rusted metal security gates rarely looks open. He intends to reopen Demu Cafe in the small plot because he owns it.
On the whole, the heart of Bogolan has a distinctly non-African feel. On one block a piano bar, express grocery store and a video store vie for customers. "I have not heard of Bogolan," says Kay Lee, manager of One Green Sushi and Sashimi Restaurant, a Bogolan flag hanging outside her building, "No-one approached me about it."
Demu thinks all should be part of an African Village. He admits that many of the businesses have nothing to do with Africa. They love the African community, Africa is a label for them.