Monday, May 20

A new membership 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 an upscale neighborhood. Now that they have a new one, a members’ club in Brooklyn called Babel Loft, they’re brainstorming how to fill it.

The main area, a space with living room furnishings, two bar areas, books by Questlove and comedian Dick Gregory scattered about, as well as DJ equipment on white marble, could be a daytime work space and a place for dancing by Night . Beyond the DJ booth is a smaller room intended as a quiet space, and a turn to the left reveals a short hallway — still under construction on a recent visit — leading to what the sisters call Side B, which once it will be another musical space. the ladders and cardboard boxes are removed. Another left turn brings visitors back to the entrance facing the main area, as if they’ve rotated a vinyl record, Marva Babel pointed out.

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

The excitement about space isn’t just about its possibilities, it’s about simply having so much more of it. Babel Loft is the sisters’ follow-up to Ode to Babel, a cocktail bar they founded in 2015 that has become a favorite of Black and LGBTQ New Yorkers. The new venture, geared towards what Myriam calls the “creative professional,” offers perks that include front-line access to events, a co-working space and priority bookings for Babel Loft’s resident chef. To make these benefits and the space itself financially sustainable, the nuns asked former patrons and newcomers to take a chance: while Ode to Babel, which closed at the end of June, was a free-entry venue, Babel Loft, also in Prospect Heights, is a paid membership club. (Through the end of October, the annual fee is $810, after which it will increase.)

Babel Loft’s founding — backed by a group of 35 investors, nearly all of them Black, the sisters said — was encouraged in part by a belief in a community-oriented approach to business. For years they had seen customers support Ode to Babel because it was owned by black women.

“Trust comes from truly 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 on the rise at the time of Babel’s Hymn to the Founding. According to the Brookings Institution, the number of Black businesses in U.S. metro areas increased nearly 14% from 2017 to 2020, compared to a 0.53% increase in businesses overall. The concept of Black ownership received additional 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 disadvantages.

To correct these disparities — which include less access to capital to start businesses, as well as a stark 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 that kind of intentional spending.

“More and more people are realizing the importance of making strategic decisions about spending our dollars in our community and doing so as often as possible,” Ms. Robinson said. “We’re going beyond: ‘I want a black doctor, I want a black dentist.’ Now, ‘I want a black acupuncturist, I want to go to a black wine shop, I want to go to a black-owned yoga studio.’”

The Babel sisters, who declined to reveal their ages, said their business principles date back to their upbringing in inner-city 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-sufficiency and cooperative economics.

Tayo Giwa, a founder of Black-Owned Brooklyn, an online publication chronicling local Black businesses in the borough since 2018, acknowledged the increased visibility of Black businesses as part of the legacy of the George Floyd demonstrations. However, he said: “We’ve done this before. The work we were doing wasn’t really a reaction to anything specific.

The announcement of Ode to Babel’s closure was bittersweet. Customers remembered it as having been a very noisy stay, with an adventure promised every night. “It was one of the few places I could go and listen to all the types of music I love in one place, safe in the knowledge that I would leave with at least one phone number, whether it was a new friend or a new girlfriend,” said Mrs. Robinson. .

But some felt the community had outgrown the space. Myriam compared knowing it was time to watch the final seasons of a classic sitcom, when the show became unknown due to new additions to the cast. The feeling was literal, too: Parties were packed, shoulders were touching, and the crowds often spilled onto the sidewalks outside. When Ode to Babel hosted its farewell party on Juneteenth, hundreds of partygoers packed the block.

“What we saw, especially when they were closing, was how many people were so emotionally affected by it,” 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’ old business. On a recent Monday in October, brown paper covered a window near the entrance.

The understated appearance might hint at the uphill road that black entrepreneurs face. Access to funds remains a struggle; last year, 46% of Black entrepreneurs said they had difficulty accessing capital, according to a survey released by Bank of America. The Brookings Institution estimates that, at the current growth rate, it will take 256 years for business ownership to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the country.

But investors in Babel Loft point to promising signs as it gets its footing: Ms. Robinson said membership grew from about 30 people to more than 150 two weeks after a preview weekend in mid-September.

Attracting more members will take some work. Kyla Kelly, a chef and former Ode to Babel regular, said she was planning to become a member after the preview weekend, which included a one-on-one discussion between a writer and a multi-hyphenate creative and an evening DJ set. To make the decision, she said she had to see the space and its potential for herself.

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

The extent of the sisters’ ambitions slowly reveals itself in conversation. The plan to finish work on the B-side room by the end of November generates the goal of expanding its liquor brand with the help of collaborators outside New York, which generates the vision of an interconnected travel hub with connections up to Kenya.

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