In New York City, night markets are synonymous with Queens. In 2015, a former lawyer named John Wang founded the seasonal Queens Night Market in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which has served more than one million people with affordable street food from 80 different countries. That market recently made a triumphant return to the borough for the first time since the pandemic began.
But Wang has said that night markets are more than just about food—they are a "vehicle and gateway" for culture. Now, a group is taking that loose definition and trying to make their own version in southeast Queens, in a neighborhood that represents the heart of the city's Black middle class.
On Sunday night, more than 30 Black vendors gathered in St. Albans Park for the first of what they hope will be many night markets in the area. The event, which included live music and games for children, drew hundreds of residents from across the area. By 8 p.m. cars had completely lined the perimeter of the roughly 11-acre park. Music and beats blared from several speakers. At a nearby playground, rollerskaters spun and danced as part of a weekly meet-up.
"It's a cornucopia of so many different elements," said Dianna Rose, one of the organizers who runs a weekend farmers market at the Laurelton Long Island Railroad station.
Unlike other night markets, the southeast Queens incarnation has a focus on bringing organic and vegan foods to the Black community, a message that took on new urgency in the wake of COVID. The disease took a far greater toll on Black and Latino residents, in part due to underlying health conditions like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Councilmember I. Daneek Miller, a vegan himself, represents portions of southeast Queens, and spoke about a need to change cultural and lifestyle habits that for some may have been ingrained over generations.
"Once we change that paradigm, then we get different results," he said, standing amid a loud hum of generators powering the various food tents.
What sets this latest initiative apart, he argued, is that it originates from within the community.
"I'm going to paraphrase some of my more famous residents, FUBU," he said, invoking the hip hop apparel company name that stands for "For Us, By Us," which was started in Hollis, Queens.
Towards that end, Sunday's night market showcased a vendor called Earnest Food. Its owner, Earnest Flowers, a southeast Queens native, recalled how he learned how to play ring-around-the-rosie at the big tree that stands in the center of St. Albans Park.
Later this summer, Flowers, who originally started out working for local state senator Leroy Comrie, will open the first Black-owned organic supermarket in the area. "I've always wanted to open up a grocery store similar to a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, something that we've never had in our community," he said.
According to him and others, residents in southeast Queens have clamored for years for a Trader Joe's.
Flowers plans to sell vegetables and fruits grown by Black farmers in the south.
Rose said her goal is to put together a night market once a month, possibly in different locations across southeast Queens. She also wants to triple the number of vendors to 100. Sunday's event came together in roughly 10 days, with the help of social media outreach and groups like the BlaQue Resource Network, which promotes networking, conversations, and events for the Black community in Queens.
Strolling with a companion Sunday night, Anthony Swifts, a 31-year-old south Jamaica resident, said he had never been to a night market before but he was impressed by what he saw.
"It's all beautiful," he said. "We gave some money over here. I love seeing my people be successful."
A prior version of this story stated that officials called the St. Albans event the first night market in southeast Queens. But in 2015, there was an international Queens night market held in Jamaica.