Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
For Trinidadian-born Kevon Langley, the D.C. Caribbean Carnival is business as usual. On June 28, Langley is wheeling a plastic bin of ice water and sodas through a sea of spectators and people in costumes along a major thoroughfare, as he has since the festival began.
The carnival used to come right to Langley’s door near Georgia Avenue, a street initially targeted in 1992 because it was populated by students from Howard University and featured multiple Caribbean-oriented businesses. But this year, the organizers of the eventwhich they estimate attracts 500,000 peoplehave relocated to the heart of downtown: Constitution Avenue, right by the Natural Museum of American History, the National Archives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
And most of the neighborhood vendors, unlike Langley, have decided to sit the downtown version out. According to festival organizers, out of some 40 vendors who paid the $500-a-day fee to serve food at the designated two-day festival site this year, 80 percent are from the D.C. area, but only oneTeddy’s Roti Shop, a Caribbean restaurantis from Georgia Avenue. Other food vendors at the end of the parade route are from Atlanta, New York, Ohio, and Miami.
Langley himself has skipped the permitting process, preferring to work through the crowd peddling his spring water at $2 a bottle, reloading his bin a few times when the stock begins to dwindle. A handful of other vendors have done the same, some setting up stands just beyond the official boundaries of the event.
“I’m an opportunist,” Langley says. “You got to think about the young person. I could be somewhere doing drugs. I could be home getting that quick money. But I’d rather be here sweating my butt off doing something positive. It’s entrepreneurship. That’s all that is.”
Before moving the carnival downtown, organizers went around to Georgia Avenue merchants asking them to chip in and help sponsor the parade, but they got minimal response aside from a few small donations from Caribbean establishments. Some months before the parade, members of D.C. Caribbean Carnival Inc., the nonprofit that runs the event, knocked on doors, asking for contributions.
“They tried to extort money out of the merchants on Georgia Ave. by saying that because our parade is passing on the street you have to give us money,” said Brian Baker, who helps out with Crown Bakery, a Caribbean bakery on the old parade route, in an interview a week before the festival. “The American way is I work for mine, you work for yours.”
“They’ve always gained from [the festival] and never supported it,” says Susan Mangatal, vending coordinator with D.C. Caribbean Carnival Inc. Mangatal says that businesses would extend their storefronts out to the sidewalk just for the day to maximize their profits.
“That money they got freely, that luxury for the past 12 years, is gone.” Mangatal adds, “If we had [had] more support, then maybe [moving] wouldn’t have been such an issue.” Organizers say they hope the move will help attract more sponsors to fund the parade in the future.
Langley says he sympathizes with the loss of money to Georgia Avenue businesses. “I don’t feel good at all. It took a whole lot from the businesses, and most people rely on that money base,” Langley says. “Most of the Caribbean restaurants and bakeries and food stores are up there. Now it’s not the whole experience that it usually is.”
At the new site on the 29th, Nefta, a regular Georgia Avenue vendor who declines to give his last name, is burning incense and selling Afrocentric T-shirts, his stand decorated with festive palm leaves for the occasion.
“Carnival doesn’t have the same meaning for me,” says Nefta, who is not of Caribbean descent. “I can see the pride and look on their faces when they dance in the costumes. They probably remember how life was like back home,” he says. “[But] I basically came down here to benefit economically and to feel the vibes.”
Nefta, who is African-American, has a regular location near Banneker Park that used to be in the thick of the carnival.
“I would think it would make more sense to have the carnival on Georgia Avenue in our own community,” Nefta says. “[But] it’s part of the insanity, part of the brainwash education that says the white man’s ice is colder.”
Not every Georgia Avenue business is sad to see the carnival move. Crown Bakery owner Trevor Selman says that, in previous years , carnivalgoers generally weren’t hungry when they passed by his store, which sits at the parade’s former starting point.
The move downtown “may be good,” Selman said. “People may want to come and hang out in the shop after the parade.” CP