They came from the four corners of the world to New York City with a dream – and those dreams have become a vital buffer against the city’s battered economy.
City businesses are struggling in the recession, but some merchants in immigrant enclaves are weathering the storm by tapping into the niche market among their home countrymen.
"It’s the stuff I grew up with, so that’s what I want to buy," said Jamaican immigrant Mickhail Taylor, 23, of East Flatbush as he ordered a beef patty and coconut cookies from a Jamaican bakery in Brooklyn. "Sure, I could go to McDonald’s, but I want food that makes me feel close to home."
Folabomi Akinbajo, 55, who came from Nigeria in 1985 three years ago and opened up African clothing store Debest Fashions on Church Ave. in East Flatbush, said her immigrant customers from Africa and the Caribbean are getting her through tough times.
"All immigrants come here looking for the American dream," said Akinbajo, "so when you see someone in your community that has the same dream, you try to support them whether it be eating in their restaurant or buying clothes from them."
A recent study by state Controller Thomas DiNapoli showed neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents created more economic growth than the rest of the city from 2000 through 2007, contributing $215 billion in economic activity to the city’s economy, the report said.
Though that report looked at a period before the economic meltdown began in 2008, the same support system of patronage appears to be at work in keeping immigrant merchants afloat.
Queens had the most ethnic enclaves in the city, with Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights leading the pack, with newcomers from Ecuador, China, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
East Flatbush had the largest foreign-born population in Brooklyn – made up of immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago.
In the Bronx, Kingsbridge Heights, Mosholu, Williamsbridge and Baychester had the highest number of immigrants, with high West Indian and Dominican populations.
"Everybody has been hit by the recession," said Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road, an advocacy group that works with Latinos in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
"But the immigrant communities are still in need of basic services…and they’re going to go to places that are near their homes where they feel comfortable and welcome."
South Bronx community organizer Bourema Niambele estimated that immigrant Bronx businesses get about 70% of their support from ethnic communities.
"They rely on their own people to keep them afloat during these tough economic times," said Niambele.
Ecuadoran Angel Flores, 27, owner of Flores Records in Jackson Heights, said there is power in sticking together.
"The economy is the worst, but everyone is working together to get through it," Flores said. "We are close-knit. We are trying to help each other make it."