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Brooklyn couple builds a hub for Black culture

The couple started Black-Owned Brooklyn, an online publication where they document and recommend local Black businesses

Cynthia Gordy Giwa and Tayo Giwa. Image courtesy Black-Owned Brooklyn

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 04.01.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

When Cynthia Gordy Giwa and Tayo Giwa started dating in 2018, one of their favorite things to do was walk the streets of Brooklyn together. It was their way of getting to know each other—and their favorite borough.

“We were always coming across new spots that we’d never seen before, going in and immediately knowing there was a story to these places," Cynthia says. “There was a lot of texture, a lot of color and I wanted to learn more."

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Cynthia recalls searching for articles about these newly discovered spots—a Trinidadian cafe in Crown Heights called Lazy Ibis, or a shop called Coffee Snob in a converted open-air garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant—and coming up empty. (Both businesses have since closed.)

Frustrated by the lack of recognition, the couple decided to start Black-Owned Brooklyn, an online publication where they document and recommend local Black businesses. What started as a few bite-size articles has turned into an archive of the borough’s many subsets: Americans and immigrants, young and old, hip-hop and house, newcomers and natives.

“A lot of what’s written about Brooklyn in recent history has been about upscale white folks who’ve moved to Brooklyn and gentrified the communities, but what’s not paid attention to is the Black community and culture that still lives here," Tayo says. “The pushout is real, but Brooklyn is still a beacon of Black culture, both in the United States and globally."

Restaurants were an early focus: They were ahead of the game in touting Dept of Culture, the Nigerian-focused four-course prix-fixe restaurant helmed by Ayo Balogun in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood. It’s gone on to be written about by the BBC and the New Yorker. But the duo is just as likely to herald the less-heralded: Bierwax, a craft-beer bar in Prospect Heights run by former public-school teacher and Level 1 Cicerone Chris Maestro, who also plays his favorite vinyl records inside; Zanmi, a popular Haitian spot in Flatbush; and the Real Mother Shuckers, a roving oyster cart operated by Ben “Moody" Harney.

During the pandemic, the website became a lifeline to the community. Black-owned businesses shut down twice as often as other businesses; the New York Fed released a brief titled Double Jeopardy that examined why. Reports from Brooklyn show that even in 2023, Black-owned restaurants are still struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re often told businesses get a surge of new customers after being featured on Black-Owned Brooklyn," Cynthia says. “Particularly during the pandemic, a lot of these businesses that we covered during that time were new businesses who no one even knew that they existed, so being featured on Black-Owned Brooklyn literally saved their businesses."

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Cynthia is the writer. With a background in journalism and marketing, she’s worked stints at Essence, The Root, and ProRepublic. Tayo is a photographer and filmmaker who also practices law.

Five years later, the site’s ambitions have grown. “The mission has definitely expanded past businesses," Cynthia says. “On Black-Owned Brooklyn you can read about block parties and parades, institutions and activist organizers, mutual aid networks and community gardens."

It offers guides to events such as the International African Arts Festival, community spaces like the Free Black Women’s Library, the origins of Afropunk and historical landmarks related to Hattie Carthan. “Even within the Black Brooklyn narrative, there tends to be a focus on the creative class of young, cool Brooklyn people," Cynthia adds. “But this is an intergenerational community, and the elders have just as much to contribute as much as young people have."

For a recent feature on Tiffany McCrary, owner of 28 Scott Vintage, the duo visited her shop in Flatbush, where she had recently moved after more than 20 years in Soho, and then posted a reel, which focused on the business, and a carousel, which delved more into McCrary’s personal story, to its 119,000 Instagram followers.

The Giwas also recently produced their first feature-length documentary, The Sun Rises in the East, which tells the story of a Black cultural organization founded in Bed-Stuy.

Storytelling as a way to preserve history is a common tradition in Black culture. Black-Owned Brooklyn evokes the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnography, or The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook of establishments that were safe and welcoming to Black people in the Jim Crow era.

“We are standing on the shoulders of generations of people who’ve been doing this work," Tayo says. “So much of our history is told through oral traditions—if you know the right people then you’re steeped in it, but this history isn’t necessarily super spelled out in an easily accessible way. The community was really quick to embrace Black-Owned Brooklyn, because storytelling is significant for us."

Cynthia says what they choose comes from “thinking about how we can connect pieces of history to people’s lives today"—as much living document as collective memory.

For instance, in 2021, Black-Owned Brooklyn wrote an Instagram post tracing the origins of Black Solidarity Day, a memorial day created by playwright and former Brooklyn College professor Carlos E. Russell.

“In previous generations, this was a holiday where people in the community had off from school," Tayo says. “We think it’s important to give voice to that history so that people don’t forget that this is a community with a significant Black population where people celebrate their identity in a big way."

In each story, the Giwas search for a way to marry their passion for deep and extensive storytelling with social media’s need for quick content.

“It’s a bit of a contradiction in that our primary home is on Instagram, which really feeds off of small bites and quick turnarounds," Tayo says. “While we want to find success in presenting these stories on social media, we don’t want to be driven by social media. We want to tell the stories that we think are important for our community and tell them as authentically as possible."

To that end, the couple has recently made forays into filmmaking.

Their first project, Soul Summit: Doin’ It in the Park, came out in 2020. The short film is centered on Soul Summit, the open-air house music dance party that brings thousands to Fort Greene Park every summer. The film was created during the event’s off-year because of the pandemic and uses archival footage from previous Soul Summits alongside interviews with the creators, DJs and other attendees. 

“That really started us on this journey of being sort of archivists in that way," Tayo says. “There was so much existing footage that we could pull from that informed how we told this story."

Those skills would be critical in their project The Sun Rises in the East, which delves into the creation and legacy of The East, a pan-African organization founded in 1969 that contributed dozens of institutions to their community, including an African-centered school, food co-op, record label and bookstore. 

In their effort to preserve and showcase Brooklyn’s Black community, the Giwas say they’ve become even more in love with the borough and more firmly rooted.

“When I moved to Brooklyn, there was so much deeply rooted history to discover," says Tayo, who has lived in the borough since 2010. “There was this sense that I was always learning about my community and being accepted here was really empowering. There’s so much pride in this community and to experience that everyday is really redeeming on a personal level."

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