New members club bets on black business

Marva and Myriam Babel have spent much of the last few years thinking about the concept of space, particularly how to sustain it in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Now that they have a new one, a members’ club in Brooklyn called Babel Loft, they’re thinking about how to fill it.

The main area, a space with lounge furniture, two bar areas, books by Questlove and comedian Dick Gregory lying around, and DJ equipment on white marble, could be a daytime workspace and venue dancing at night. . Past the DJ booth is a smaller room designed as a quiet space, and a turn to the left reveals a small hallway – still under construction during a recent visit – that leads to what the sisters call Side B, which will one day be another musical space. the ladders and boxes are cleared. Another left turn brings visitors back to the entrance facing the main area, as if they were spinning a vinyl record, Marva Babel pointed out.

“Every location will be intentional, and it’s a work in progress,” Myriam Babel (pronounced “babbling”) said after the tour. “That’s actually the beauty and the fun of it all.”

The excitement about space lies not only in its possibilities, but also in the simple fact of having so much more. Babel Loft is the sisters’ follow-up to Ode to Babel, a cocktail bar they founded in 2015 that has become a favorite among Black and LGBTQ New Yorkers. The new business, aimed at what Myriam calls the “creative professional,” offers perks such as front-of-line access to events, coworking space and priority bookings for Babel Loft’s resident chef. To make these profits and the space itself financially viable, the sisters asked old customers and newcomers to take a chance: while Ode to Babel, which closed its doors at the end of June, was a place to free entry, Babel Loft – also in Prospect Heights – is a paid club. (Until the end of October, the annual fee is $810, after which it will increase.)

The creation of Babel Loft — which is backed by a group of 35 investors, almost all of whom are black, the sisters said — was spurred in part by a belief in a community-oriented approach to business. For years, they had seen customers support Ode to Babel because the film was owned by black women.

“The confidence came from really knowing who our community is,” Marva said. “Knowing that our community will want to hold space for each other, for themselves.”

Black-owned businesses were booming around the time Ode to Babel was founded. The number of Black businesses in U.S. metropolitan areas increased by nearly 14% between 2017 and 2020, compared to a 0.53% increase for all businesses. according to the Brookings Institution. The concept of Black ownership received more attention in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd forced an examination of the many hardships Black Americans face, including economic disadvantage.

To correct these disparities — which include less access to capital to start a business, as well as a large racial wealth gap — advocates have called on consumers to spend at Black businesses. Cheraé Robinson, an entrepreneur and former Ode to Babel regular who is now an investor in Babel Loft, has seen a growing sense of pride in this type of intentional spending.

“More and more people are also understanding the importance of us making these strategic decisions to spend our money in our community and doing it as often as possible,” Ms Robinson said. “We’re going beyond just, ‘I want a black doctor, I want a black dentist.’ Now, ‘I want a black acupuncturist, I want to go to a black wine store, I want to go to a black-owned yoga studio.’

The Babel sisters, who declined to give their ages, said their economic principles date from their upbringing in central Brooklyn. Their mother and grandmother, as well as their time at East, a Brooklyn educational organization that preached Pan-Africanism in the 1970s and 1980s, instilled in them the ideas of self-reliance and cooperative economics.

Tayo Giwa, founder of Black-owned Brooklyn, an online publication that has chronicled local Black businesses in the borough since 2018, recognized the increased visibility of Black businesses as part of the legacy of the George Floyd protests. Still, he said: “We did it this way before this. The work we were doing wasn’t really a reaction to anything specific.

The announcement of the closing of Ode to Babel was bittersweet. Guests remembered it as if it were a very noisy lounge, with an adventure promised every evening. “It was one of the few places where I could go and listen to all the types of music I love in one place, with the guarantee of leaving with at least one phone number, whether it was a new friend or a new baby,” Ms. Robinson said. .

But some felt the community had outgrown the space. Myriam compared knowing that the time was right to watch the final seasons of a classic sitcom, when the show becomes unfamiliar due to the addition of new cast members. The feeling was also literal: Parties were crowded, shoulders were rubbed, and crowds often spilled onto the sidewalks outside. When Ode to Babel held its farewell party on June 19, hundreds of revelers filled the neighborhood.

“What we saw, especially during the shutdown, was how many people were very emotionally affected by this,” Mr Giwa said. “The way they intensely cultivated a community just means they were a truly beloved institution.”.”

The Babel Loft is located on the fourth floor of a building two blocks from the sisters’ former business. On a recent Monday in October, brown paper covered a window near the entrance.

The understated exterior may hint at the uphill climb black entrepreneurs face. Access to funds remains a struggle; Last year, 46% of Black business owners reported having difficulty accessing capital, according to a survey released by Bank of America. The Brookings Institution estimates that it will take 256 years, at current growth rates, for business ownership to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the country.

But Babel Loft investors point to signs of promise as the project gains footing: Ms. Robinson said membership had grown from about 30 people to more than 150 two weeks after a weekend preview at the mid-September.

You will have to be convincing to attract more members. Kyla Kelly, chef and former Ode to Babel regular, said she planned to become a member after the preview weekend, which included a one-on-one discussion between a writer and a multi- creative feature and a DJ set evening. To make the decision, she said she had to see the space and its potential for herself.

“When people invest in an experience, you have certain expectations,” Ms. Kelly, 38, said. “It’s not like I’m just going to come and have a drink and hope I like the atmosphere.”

The extent of the sisters’ ambitions is gradually revealed over the course of their conversations. The plan to complete work on the B-side room by the end of November gives rise to the goal of expanding their spirits brand with the help of collaborators outside of New York, resulting in the vision of a interconnected travel hub with connections to Kenya.

“Marva and I have no egos,” Myriam said. “We’re like, ‘OK, this is what we want to do. Let’s build.'”