Staten Island’s Park Hill neighborhood is home to the largest population of Liberians outside of Liberia itself. About 9,000 Liberians live there – a sizeable community.
But unlike many immigrant enclaves in the city, it is hard to recognize Little Liberia by the names of its small businesses or the flags on their windows.
In fact, while nearly half of all of New York’s small businesses are owned by immigrants, according to census data, it’s rare to find Liberian owners among the Park Hill business storefronts.
Many Liberian immigrants arrived in the U.S. as refugees during and after the two civil wars that plagued their country between the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Jennifer Brumskine, a community leader and presidential candidate in the 2012 elections for the Staten Island Liberian Community Association, said that many Liberian immigrants were at an economic disadvantage when they arrived, unlike many of their counterparts, who came to the U.S. with more financial resources.
Thus, the Liberians living in Park Hill may buy local West African food from a Nigerian-owned store in the neighborhood. They can dine at local Chinese restaurants, and buy clothes, from a Ghanaian-owned store. But about the only Liberian businesses they can buy from in Park Hill are part of a very informal economy with no fixed storefronts.
One example is Muna, an 80-year-old immigrant who would only give her first name, who sells cooked food from her apartment building on Bowen Street.
One block away from Muna’s apartment building, Mary Spiller runs a barbeque in a small space next to a gas station. Local community leaders helped negotiate with the station’s owners for that space. They also secured a parking lot to allow Muna and other elderly Liberian immigrants to sell vegetables, palm oil and other West African goods at an informal market – but only in warm months, because the market operates outdoors with no heating source.
Bobby Digi, president of Staten Island’s North Shore Business Association, said that these businesses could be formalized, and receive support and training from city offices like the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. But there has not been “aggressive interest” from Liberians, he said.
“You can’t get them to come and attend these things en masse,” though the result would be much different, said Digi, “if you said ‘let’s throw a big party.’”
Brumskine said that part of the reason Liberians do not own businesses is misplaced financial priorities.
“If you go in any poor neighborhood, you’ll see a Mercedes sitting in front of a project. That’s how they’ve demoralised us and made us think that owning a car is more valuable than owning a house.”
At one Park Hill storefront, Nigerian immigrant Elizabeth Vaughan talked about how she came to be a business owner. Vaughan said she ran a small business selling African food in Nigeria before she won the visa lottery 19 years ago. She and her husband moved to New York, where they run three African food stores. She personally manages the Park Hill location that she moved from Brooklyn to be closer to the African community.
“The best part of having this shop is that I see my people every day,” she said, referring to the many Liberian immigrants and others who come to make specific requests for items she might have imported from Nigeria, including yams, tins of powdered milk and spices.
Vaughan said cash is essential for running her small business; it can cost around $4,500 – even as much as $7,000 — to clear one container of imported goods at the seaport.
“You are bringing different food to a different continent, so there is extra scrutiny because they don’t know why it smells a certain way,” she said.
Vaughan said informal, indoor shops in Park Hill like Muna’s were a way of making just enough to survive, and avoiding the costs of running a more permanent business.
“I don’t want to scare anybody off their passion, but just know that this [kind of business] will take lots of time, energy, and money to do,” she said.