African Braid Shops Bring Competition to Bed-Stuy Neighborhood
By Tammy Mutasa
Umu Sogho, 28, emigrated to Bedford-Stuyvesant from the West African nation of Senegal eight years ago with only one goal: to make money.
That’s how the Sogho Express Professional African Hair Braiding Shop came to life on Fulton Street.
But making money has become harder since immigrants coming from Africa are getting into the same business as Sogho: African hair braiding.
Over the last 10 years, the rise in immigrant-run African hair braid shops has been stirring up fierce competition on Fulton Street. Not only are the African hair braiding shops—chiefly owned by immigrants from Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast—competing to win over customers, but because there are at least 20 hair businesses huddled along Fulton Street, owners are slashing prices to attract customers. As a result, more tensions and resentment are brewing from established native black business owners who have been on Fulton Street for years.
According to the 2000 Census, the foreign-born population in the neighborhood increased by 18 percent between 1990 and 2000. The 2005-2007 New York City Planning Community Survey even estimates that now 37. 4 percent of the population Bedford-Stuyvesant is foreign-born—some of who see hair braiding as an easy money making opportunity.
Not that the profession promises instant profits, mind you.
“It is tough,” Sogho said competing with a sea of chatter from braiders yacking in French and Mandinka, a Senegalese language.
Sogho’s shop and 23 other immigrant-run and black owned hair salons are jam-packed next to each other in a three and half block radius along Fulton Street. Claire’s Beauty Shop is literally four footsteps away from Cisse African Hair Braiding, and if someone sneezed in Mbandiga’s # 2 Unisex Salon, the people next door in Beyond Beauty Salon would hear.
Umu Sogho knows not everyone will live the American Dream, she just hopes she will.
“Yeah, there are a lot of us but so what?” Sogho said. “If you do a good job, the customers will come back, if you don’t do a good job…” Sogho shrugged.
In addition to the stiff competition to keep businesses open, immigrants face another tough barrier: some native business owners are upset that the immigrant-run shops are taking “American business.” Like Carmel City Hair Salon owner and Brooklyn native Simone Cremona. For the last decade Cremona has seen people struggle to make it on Fulton Street, including herself.
“It sickens me how many hair braiding stores there are,” Cremona said looking out the window at Oumou’s African Hair Braiding Shop across the street. “If we even went by legal status, half of these places wouldn’t be here.”
Cremona has now reluctantly started African braiding in her hair salon, which used to only focus on perming, styling and straightening. But she knows she has no choice but to keep up with the competition. Cremona said she’s frustrated because at times she’s been forced to charge customers as little as $60 for a style she would have ordinarily charged $120 for. She said the price reduction is a result of the African braid shops charging whatever they can to get customers.
“I understand they have to make money too,” Cremona said, slicing thin strands of black hair that fell into a pile of hair littering the floor. “But we still have to go home and feed the kids. We work long hard hours. It’s either we do it or we loose.”
Despite their differences, both immigrant-run braid shops and native-owned hair salons face another hurdle: rent on Fulton Street is not cheap. Cremona said depending on store size, rent can range anywhere from $1700 to $5000 a month.
But Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation Economic Development Officer Mike Rafferty said there are other factors that outweigh the rental costs. Since Bed-Stuy is mainly African and African American, the demand for ethnic hairstyles is always present. Rafferty said hair and nail services make up about 15 to 20 percent of the shops along the entire Fulton Street commercial district.
“It makes sense for there to be so many hair places in a central location like Fulton Street,” Rafferty said. “It’s also cheap industry to operate and maintain relative to, say, a restaurant.”
Whether it’s an African braid shop or a hair salon attracting, “non-African” styles, the competition on Fulton Street is unyielding. And both Simone Cremona and Umu Sogho know they have to bend over backwards to stay open and both reach the American Dream.
Cremona said it’s more important now than ever before to keep her loyal customers because they help her earn a living.
“I drove two hours from Philly to get my hair done,” said 35-year-old Lynee fields, one of Cremona’s frequent customers as she looked in the mirror and smiled l at her new shoulder length weave. “It’s that hard to find someone you trust to do your hair.”