The Man Who Brought the West Indies to Brooklyn

Carlos Lezama, a Caribbean-born transportation worker who turned Brooklyn's West Indian Carnival parade into a world-famous event, died Monday at 83. Michele Norris talks with former New York City mayor Ed Koch, and Herman Hall, publisher of Everybody's Caribbean magazine, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

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NORRIS: Over Labor Day weekend in New York City, a stretch of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn is filled with lavish floats, colorful costumes and masses of people all moving in step to the steady beat of steel drums.

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NORRIS: The West Indian Labor Day Carnival is an annual tradition. It's called the largest parade in New York City. And Carlos Lezama was the King of the West Indian Carnival. He helped started it in Brooklyn in the 1960s and organized it for decades. He died Monday at the age of 83.

Lezama worked a day-job as a machinist for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but that's not what he will be remembered for. Just ask former New York Mayor Ed Koch.

ED KOCH: In order to get big things done, you need to pool people who are willing to dedicate themselves, their lives, their time, and he was wiling to do it. This particular parade, which started before I became mayor and is now not really a parade, it's a more than a million people standing for the most part, maybe walking on occasion.

NORRIS: And a lot of dancing too.

KOCH: A lot of dancing. I think the parade is a great asset to the city of New York and now certainly more than rivals New Orleans with elaborate outfits. And it's just wonderful.

NORRIS: When the parade started in Brooklyn in the 1960s, it was a much smaller affair. Herman Hall is editor of the magazine Everybody's Caribbean based in New York City. He says Carlos Lezama worked for years to promote the parade.

HERMAN HALL: America did not recognize the Caribbean as much as it is today. And one of the ways to promote the art and culture of the Caribbean was essentially to bring something very positive and that parade included everyone.

NORRIS: Were there benefits from this parade that extended, you know, long after the drums went silent? Did it in some sense help people learn how to live together?

HALL: Of course. From a Caribbean perspective, we are all from different islands. And quite a number of immigrants, they never went to another island, so we all met each other in New York City. So he was able to unite the Caribbean American community. There are quite a number of middle-class Caribbean Americans in the Brooklyn area in New York City who felt that such a carnival should go on Fifth Avenue.

But he was very, very community oriented, and he felt that taking this carnival to Fifth Avenue will be counterproductive, because for one the carnival is not a parade. In this carnival, you dance, time is not a factor, and that would have not fit into the formalities of a Fifth Avenue.

NORRIS: Now I want you, before we let you go, Mr. Hall, I'm trying to imagine what it's like on Eastern Parkway on Labor Day about 2:00 when the festival is in full swing. Help me understand what I would see and feel and smell and experience.

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HALL: Okay, at 2:00 o'clock, if you are hit on the head, you stand at Rogers Avenue, this is (unintelligible), all you're going to see are heads and heads and heads. When it comes to the aroma, you are smelling every spice on the face of the earth, because there's all sorts of cooking. The Greeks are there. The Italians are there. The Jamaicans are there. The Trinidadians are there - Caribbean flavor, the smell of spices in the air, punctuated with music, dancing and people from all parts of the Caribbean and the United States.

NORRIS: Sounds like a lot of fun.

HALL: It's New York City at its best.

NORRIS: Herman Hall of Everybody's Caribbean magazine. New York's West Indian Carnival is the legacy of Carlos Lezama, who died Monday at the age of 83.

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