You are wandering down the street on a normal weekend day, on your way to run some errands. Your mind is circling around the countless other tasks that remain on your to-do list—studying, cleaning, calling friends—and you plod ahead, passing the same buildings as usual, everything a routine until...What is that?! A crowd ahead, frying food smells, music, bright signs, and streamers. Your most boring of days has been transformed because in your path is the most infectious and delicious of surprises: a street festival.
There is a magic to stumbling across what is essentially a block party on steroids. The temporary stalls and the usual river of taxis and cars become adults and little children running back and forth, creating a familial atmosphere that is often lacking in our crowded, work-obsessed city. We become kids again: Our public space, the streets that usually serve as the economic veins carrying New Yorkers to their destinations every day, is temporarily changed into a playground equipped with everything—food, fun, and music—for true leisure and carefree fun.
Luckily for all festival-goers and street fair-lovers, it isn’t necessary to wait for a serendipitous run-in. On Sunday, you can dive straight into the action and visit the largest street festival in New York City. The Atlantic Antic, started in 1974, perhaps best encapsulates the enduring power and popularity of street festivals in the city and their significance to individual communities. Stretching for more than a mile along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn—from the start of Brooklyn Bridge Park to Barclays Center—the festival will be bursting at the sidewalks with local and international vendors, face painting and other activities for kids, and nine musical stages (nearly one musical act per block).
Tammy Ben-Eliezer-Baxter is the executive director of the Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that grew out of the tradition of the Atlantic Antic, and now oversees the festival along with various neighborhood initiatives. She says that the focus of the festival has always been—and will continue to be—the economic development of the neighborhood around Atlantic Avenue and the introduction of newcomers to the area.
“We have the vendors that come, and that’s great for them, but for us it’s really about the merchants as well because we want to make sure they come back to this location,” Ben-Eliezer-Baxter said.
Walking from one end to the other, it is clear that Atlantic Avenue is a busy and diverse commercial area, with various ethnic restaurants and stores distributed among new boutiques and high-end fashion stores: A Barneys New York is on the same block as several locally owned Middle Eastern restaurants and halal grocery stores. A mixture of old and new lines the avenue, and the multifaceted demographics of the neighborhood are reflected in the steadfast tradition and the constantly evolving Atlantic Antic.
Neighborhood store owners agree that the festival helps promote their businesses, despite the fact that street festivals tend to draw business away from local vendors.
“I do well,” Bi Li, owner of One Thirty Nine Art and Design Coop, said. “I do much better that day.” During the festival, many people stop to look at her organic hemp clothing, terrariums, and terrarium jewelry, which she and her partner Al Atara make and display both in the store and at their festival booth.
Antonio Paz, manager of the Botanica Garden Center, agrees that the festival has a positive effect on local business.
“I think it’s been very good for business because they bring a lot of people,” Paz said.
“Any time people are exposed to the store, it helps,” Marty Lake, a store employee, added.
“We did it last year, and it’s insane,” Jacqui Daniels, manager of the Herb Shoppe, said. The Herb Shoppe has been open for two years. “The Antic is good, but it’s crazy.”
All business matters aside, store owners themselves enjoy the day and the sense of community it creates.
“It’s a great place to hear music, see vendors,” Li said. “It’s a great day for gathering friends together too. I get all my girlfriends to help me watch the store.”
Li said she always takes a break from the store to take in the festival.
Politicians have also become heavily involved in the historic event, adding to the commercial promotion a strong sense of local celebration for local residents and Brooklynites as a whole.
“Since 1974, Brooklynites have eagerly waited all year for the ‘Mother of All Street Fairs’ and the most exciting street festival in all of New York City—the annual Atlantic Antic,” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said in a statement, calling the antic a “‘Moveable Feast’ for gourmands.”
“I definitely think that the day of the Antic there is a sense of community,” Ben-Eliezer-Baxter said, noting that Markowitz will be crowned “King of Brooklyn” this year, in honor of his last year in office and all of the work he has done for the borough.
Despite the festival’s continued growth—it attracts more than a million people—some community members are nostalgic for the early years of the Antic.
Gary Mustapha, owner of Oriental Pastry and Grocery, was a member of the group of business owners who first banded together to host the street festival in 1974. To him, these were the golden years of the festival as it would stretch into the night.
“There used to be camel rides, parades...You could see the Middle East, you could see the atmosphere of the market everywhere,” Mustafa said.
Ben-Eliezer-Baxter acknowledged this shift.
“It has changed over the years somewhat,” she said. “It used to have parade components and marathon components. With the marathon, to set up that again would require merchants less time to set up their booths.”
Marathon or no, the Atlantic Antic is well worth the ride down on the 2 or 3 train this Sunday, and if you can’t visit then, there is still a thriving, growing neighborhood to be explored all year round.
The Atlantic Antic festival will occur on Sunday from 12-6 p.m.