A café project seeks to rejuvenate Brownsville
Let’s try an experiment. Go outside, turn left, walk or drive for 10 minutes. How many coffee shops did you pass, and how many of those were packed with young millennials feverishly typing away at their laptops? Could the next Bill Gates be in that Starbucks? The next Steve Jobs fueling up at Dunkin Donuts?
But what if you live in Brownsville, Brooklyn? Bordered by Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and East New York, Brownsville mostly makes the news as the murder capital of New York. With 18 public housing complexes confined to 1.1 square miles, the neighborhood is the largest concentration of projects not only in New York but also in the country. The median household income there is just $25,000 – less than half the median household income across the entire United States.
In Brownsville, there’s not one coffee shop – not one place for residents to sit for hours gathered with friends, study for exams or plan the next big innovative thing. As an entrepreneur, this really struck a chord with me. How was it that the mass gentrification of a vast majority of Brooklyn’s once-impoverished neighborhoods is leaving Brownsville in the dark?
I started the Dream Big Foundation in 2001 after 9/11, because I wanted to reach out and meaningfully connect with families in need in New York City. What began as a project to feed hunger – our annual FeedingNYC event continues to provide Thanksgiving meals to thousands of New Yorkers in need – has evolved over the years into finding ways to invest in communities, starting with Brownsville. I wanted to prove that neighborhood revitalization can be driven from within, to help residents succeed and to keep revenue in the community: that the best way to see this neighborhood grow was to alter the perception that residents can only succeed by getting out.
Brownsville is a neighborhood teeming with potential. Arnold Greenberg, (co-founder of Snapple), Andrew Dice Clay, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Willie Randolph and Mike Tyson all hailed from the historic neighborhood. There’s no reason the next billion-dollar idea couldn’t originate here with the right support and resources.
The 3 Black Cats Café and Cakery and the Dream Big Innovation Center is the first of its kind in Brownsville and will hopefully serve as a model for many more communities. It includes a combined 5,000 square-foot multi-function space on Belmont Avenue with a conference room, six desks, an 18-seat co-working table, Wi-Fi, smart TVs and chalkboard walls (not to mention delicious coffee and pastries). It’s a place for aspiring entrepreneurs and community members to work, meet with mentors and develop new skills. Owned and operated by three sisters from Brownsville, the first of many Dream Big Entrepreneurs, it’s a place to dream big and see those dreams become reality.
This project is just one example of the ways in which we can help communities to grow from within. With support from local politicians, nonprofits or even community members banding together, we can prove to young millennials that talent is not related to where you grew up or what tax bracket you fall into, but that entrepreneurial spirit and big dreams are enough to succeed. The next Martha Stewart could be sitting in the 3 Black Cats Café next week – and I’m excited to follow her story of success.
Rob LoCascio is the Founder of LivePerson Inc. and has been its chief executive officer since its inception in 1995. He is a founding member of the NYC Entrepreneurs Council of the Partnership for New York City. In 2001, he started the Dream Big Foundation, which launched FeedingNYC, which gives families in need a Thanksgiving dinner, and in 2014 started the Dream Big Entrepreneurship Initiative, which funds, mentors, coaches and empowers local entrepreneurs in underserved communities.