Brown, cardboard barrels, nearly four feet tall and two feet wide, can be found in basements and pantries throughout Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, where 80 percent of foreign-born residents are from the Caribbean.
Along with packaged food, clothing and household supplies, each barrel tells of the obligation and loyalty the neighborhood’s immigrants feel toward the families they left behind.
“Family bonding was linked in large measure to any form of remittances, but particularly the barrel,” said J. A. George Irish, a Caribbean scholar and professor at Medgar Evers College. (For a Q&A with J.A. George Irish, go here.)
But the recession has made it difficult for Brooklyn families to fill barrels, at a time when Caribbean nations also are feeling the effects of the weak economy.
“Instead of sending two barrels [a year], we have to send one, none,” said Jamaican-born Grace McKnight, a Brooklyn restaurant owner.
Sharing a ‘New Culture’
When large numbers of Caribbean immigrants began arriving in Brooklyn in the 1960s, many also began to send American products, packed in barrels, back to their relatives.
At first, the popular items, like logo T-shirts, were “a taste of this new culture,” said Donna Fleming, who coordinates the Brooklyn Public Library’s Caribbean Literary and Cultural Center.
As immigration boomed from the 1970s to the 1990s, and the Caribbean economy stagnated, barrels became critical to survival, and food – especially canned and packaged goods – comprised the bulk of the shipments.
“Some of these things cost three times the cost [in the Caribbean] that it sells [for] here,” said Kamal Aleen, who owns KBB Shipping on Nostrand Avenue. (For an Q&A with Kamal Aleen, go here.)
Cereal is one popular item that is prohibitively expensive in the Caribbean. A 10.9-ounce box of Kellogg’s Corn Pops costs $7.70, or JMD$693 (Jamaican dollars), at Super Plus Foods, a supermarket chain in Jamaica. A 17-ounce box of the same cereal costs $4.69 at a New York supermarket.
Families usually pack barrels gradually, picking up items during regular shopping trips.
“You catch the Macy’s sale, the Key Food sale,” Fleming said. “Every week you commit to spend so much, and it becomes manageable.”
But it’s getting harder for relatives in the U.S. to spend as much on items when their loved ones in the Caribbean need the care packages more than ever.
The World Travel & Tourism Council expects Caribbean tourism to earn nearly $40 billion in 2009, or 14.5 percent of the Caribbean gross domestic product. That is a projected drop of nearly eight percent from 2008.
Last year, five hurricanes at Category 3 and above caused millions of dollars in damage in the Caribbean, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“The recession is definitely the case,” said Chris Kennedy, president of the Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association of Jamaica. “It is significant. A number of persons who used to send their relatives barrels, we have seen a decline in that.”
McKnight, owner of the Four Seasons Restaurant on Nostrand Avenue, is feeling pressure from her loved ones in Jamaica, who depend on her shipments of rice, flour, oil, canned food and clothes. But business at the restaurant has been slow, limiting her ability to help her family.
“It makes us feel bad,” McKnight said, “especially when they call and we can’t send.”
“They say, ‘Mommy’s hungry,’” added her sister, Laverne Hudson.
Not being able to ship as often, or at all, takes a psychological toll on both senders and recipients.
“It raises that feeling of inadequacy,” Fleming said. “You also want to make your relatives set their minds at ease, that your emigrating has not been in vain.”
Fewer barrels sent has meant less business for Brooklyn’s local shipping companies, mostly independently owned.
Many families send barrels around Christmastime, said Dwight Wisdom, who owns Trans Jam Express Shipping on Rogers Avenue. His busy season, from September to December, is months away and business is slow.
Kennedy estimated that the volume of barrels coming into Jamaica has declined by 0ne-third over the past few months. The last Christmas season was markedly slower than the previous year.
“Based on the increase in cost of customs and inability for a lot of people to send the barrel,” he said, “it has affected a number of people here who rely on their relatives.”
The expense to clear a single barrel from Jamaican Customs ranges from $70 to $100, he said, or about JMD$6,000 to JMD$9,000. A family in Jamaica earned an average $7,400, or JMD$555,000, in 2008, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
For those who are still sending, it makes sense to ship barrels through local companies. They are much cheaper than major shippers. Some of Wisdom’s clients drive their full barrels from Philadelphia and New Jersey just to ship with him.
Wisdom charges $65 to ship a barrel weighing up to 200 pounds to Kingston, Jamaica. Sometimes he adds a $20 pick-up fee, but $85 is still much cheaper than shipping the same barrel by UPS.
UPS will not ship packages that weigh more than 150 pounds, according to its Web site. To ship a package weighing the maximum 150 pounds to Kingston costs nearly $1,100.
Hope for Survival
Despite the financial threat to the barrel shipping industry, Caribbean people in Brooklyn and the islands were confident that it would survive because of strong cultural and emotional ties.
“People plan this thing with precision,” Fleming said. “Money’s short, but you have that commitment, too.”