If you go to eat at a small restaurant in New York City, chances are it will be run by an immigrant. Neha Tara Mehta reports on how immigrants are overcoming the odds to open new businesses in a recession.
By: Jake Heller
In the shade of a low-lying oak tree in the heart of Staten Island’s Park Hill projects, Bangura Kromah sat selling palm oil.
Kromah is one of about 15 elder Liberian women who sell the greasy, deep-red cooking oil—as well as other traditional Liberian provisions—whenever the weather is nice; it’s a way for her to earn a little money and get away from the television set, she said.
“I don’t want to be inside,” the 64-year-old Kromah explained. She lives alone, has never gone to school, and has trouble walking.
Selling food in the makeshift market is also a way for Kromah to connect to her home in Liberia. Before coming to New York City 10 years ago as a refugee from that country’s civil war, she sold fresh produce in one of capital Monrovia’s many markets.
There, she was part of a movement. Market women make up a significant part of Liberia’s economy—an economy where only 15 percent of the population is employed in the formal sector. The women are often a family’s only income-earner. And they are a significant political force. As portrayed in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the market women’s peaceful protests brought an end to Liberia’s civil war, led to dictator Charles Taylor’s resignation, and culminated in the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Both Sirleaf and the leader of the women’s peace movement, Leymah Gbowee, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
But here in Staten Island, Kromah is struggling to get by.
“If you make $10 per day, you say God, thank you,” she sighed.
Kromah is a sturdy woman—the type of person who could actually be described as big boned—but sat half-slumped next to her table of produce. Her bright red and black dress was covered up by a weary gray fleece, and she kept a red Yankees toque snug on her head.
Like her fellow vendors, she imports palm oil in bulk from Africa and repackages it into Snapple bottles. They charge $5 a bottle. A bag of dried fish costs the same amount.
For Juah, a 60-year-old woman dressed in a bright orange and yellow robe called a lappa, that income was not enough. Last year, she could no longer afford to buy the palm oil. She now sells popsicles of frozen red Kool-Aid mixed with sugar for 25 cents each.
She said that she makes “sometimes $2, sometimes $3” per day.
Juah, who like other women refused to give her full name, also works part-time as a home caretaker. She accordingly makes just enough money to pay for essentials.
“In the mornings, I pay my rent,” she said, referring to the first two weeks of every month. “Over the following two weeks, I buy my rice.”
And she’s budgeting for another purchase: “Now that it gets cold, I have to buy sweaters,” she laughed.
Juah admitted that she does not have a permit to sell her popsicles, but was steadfast in her defense of the other vendors. They all have permits, she said, even though the permits are hidden from the casual shoppers.
Still, legality may not matter: the New York City Health Department, who administers the permits, has not received any complaints about the market. The children who were eagerly waiting for Juah to pull the popsicles out of her small blue cooler certainly had no qualms with her being there.
Older Liberians, meanwhile, enjoy the ambiance of the area they call “under the tree.” They gather there to talk politics and weather, and to trade local gossip.
“It is the tradition back home,” said Bamah Massalay, Kromah’s aunt who sells at the table next to her.
They also come to Sobel Crescent because it is the only place in New York to buy Liberian food.
Selling everything from sweet African beans—black and brown—to hot peppers—ground and whole—to banana chips, onions, dried fish and, of course, palm oil, the market is the center of a little Liberia hidden within a suburban Staten Island.
“We come and buy because it’s our traditional food,” said a woman named Hawah, who was chatting with a vendor dicing up green potato leaves. “We love to eat it.”
Other African markets do exist across New York, notably at the corner of 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market proudly displays signs that thank former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for orchestrating the market’s construction. The market was set up after Giuliani shut down the informal African market that used to be located on 125th Street. A sign outside the 25-vendor market reads: “Building a better community is our job.”
Outdoor markets in general are also experiencing a surge of popularity, as New Yorkers develop an appetite for local food. Diane Eggert, Executive Director of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York, estimates that there are more than 120 farmers’ markets in New York City, and says that the number of markets has increased steadily since the first market opened in 1976.
But Kromah and her fellow Liberians prefer to stay under the tree. There, they get a taste of home.
Three trends that have significantly changed news organizations’ economic models in the digital age
- The power of the package is gone. As audiences move online, the previously profitable ‘package’ model of distribution–if you subscribe to the newspaper, you automatically get all of its sections– is being disassembled. Consumers are now able to choose which particular articles they want to read or which specific show segments they want to watch. Ads used to be sold on the (false) assumption that everybody read everything in the newspaper, but now they are sold based on minute measuring sticks like impressions. That said, destroying the power of the package has provided news organizations with a flexibility hitherto unknown. Organizations can start and stop interesting projects more quickly on the web, and can accordingly take more risks. They also profit from all of their content longer–online, there’s no longer such thing as ‘yesterday’s news’.
- Information is ubiquitous. The audience for every news outlet is no longer confined to local geographic areas. All news organizations reach a global audience. Accordingly, news is becoming more centered around certain topics instead of around locales. Consumers also feel no allegiance to a particular brand. Just because I live in Toronto does not mean that I will get my news from The Toronto Sun. I may prefer the British Daily Mail. (Note: I don’t actually prefer either of those newspapers.) News organizations need to embrace this loss of control brought on by global competition. They need to maximize the potential for ‘user publication’–people sharing news with their friends–and start thinking of a global reach as a blessing rather than a curse.
- Online advertising strategies are still in their infancy. We still haven’t really figured out how to appropriately advertise online. Banner ads don’t draw in customers, and pop-up ads are annoying. Also, because Internet traffic is very volatile, ads supplied don’t always meet ads demanded. Website owners have likened this problem to that experienced by airlines: the plane is going to take off, but will all the seats be filled? Because some articles are very popular and others are not, pricing becomes difficult.
Why Digital > Print and Broadcast
- Creepy Information. Digital news providers have access to a lot of their users’ personal information. News organizations accordingly have a better idea of who their audience is than traditional print and broadcast outlets ever have. Should these digital news organizations capitalize on this connection with their consumers, they could build a strong, vibrant, online community that may help them increase their business. They can build a rapport with their customers.
- News in an Instant. Digital news outlets can provide people with the news when they want it: now. Less and less people wait until the 6 o’clock news to see what happened that day; many have already figured it out online. Through livestreams and live blogs, digital media has reshaped the way people consume information.
- Democratization. Governments cannot control online media like they can closed-circuit media. The Internet provides a platform for information dissemination that has never existed, and it has already helped overthrow despots and dictators the world over.
Why Print and Broadcast > Digital
- Time to think. In the rush to get information out into the world, digital news organizations often lack the time to think about their subjects. Long form journalism is not dead, and it will continue to thrive in newsrooms, publishing houses, and studios around the world. Sometimes people need to read a little more than a headline.
- The name. Legacy news outlets are still recognized by name and still hold large-scale cultural currency. People know them and trust them because of their history. In a world where information is rampant, trust in a news source is more important than ever. Legacy media brands have clout for customers in a way new media start-ups may never have.
- Less is more. Given particular restrictions on content–column space or air time–print and broadcast organizations are forced to think about what is ‘fit to print.’ In engaging in a selective editorial process necessitated by their medium, traditional media outlets are given an opportunity to hone their craft and create high percentages of high quality stories. Sadly, of course, that’s not always the case…