Marva & Myriam Babel
The founders of Brooklyn bar Ode To Babel talk with writer Chadner Navarro about holding space for others, bottling their own gin—and why it’s always about building community.
As many of New York City’s historic enclaves continue to undergo change and gentrification, new businesses landing in those neighborhoods often bet on further transformation in three, four, or five years. But it was about doing the exact opposite for twin sisters Marva and Myriam Babel, owners of the popular Crown Heights cocktail bar Ode to Babel. "The goal was to open a space reminiscent of the Brooklyn we grew up in," Marva says of their original concept for launching the bar back in 2015.
The sisters recall how in the 1990s, the Crown Heights of their youth was all about fluidity and camaraderie: Summer afternoons hanging out with the folks who lived nearby, everyone’s doors open to one another; and running in and out of friends’ houses, taking the hangout wherever it felt right. That carefree neighborhood spirit is what they aim to capture at Ode to Babel. It’s an open space—social, community-driven—available for use in any way that makes sense for the people in it. There’s a small bar, a retail element, art on the walls, small tables all around, and a regular DJ setting the mood. "We really wanted it to feel more like the living room at a fun house party,” says Myriam. “We wanted to create that energy instead of what you would typically expect from a bar."
That energy has resonated with Crown Heights’ changing demographic. Even as the streets around Ode to Babel seem to be shifting away from what the neighborhood once was, Marva and Myriam say the right people who share their vision for building community and culture keep finding them. "Like-minded people who want to connect with allies make it to Ode eventually," Marva says, adding how it’s meeting amazing new people that will push their brand to expand and grow.
Q. How did you approach creating the unique atmosphere at Ode to Babel?
A. Before opening Ode, we didn’t really go out to bars that much. So our whole idea for the space was more visceral, more organic. We grew up with incense burning, with music playing. Lighting was a big deal at home. Everything at Ode is specific to what we experienced growing up. But we also feel like that’s shared across cultures. Someone will come in and say that our bar reminds them of their aunt’s house with the incense and the plants. So all of this—the palo santo burning and new-wave R&B playing—is natural to us. We wanted to create a place that we would authentically enjoy. And that’s become the brand.
Q. As the neighborhood around you continues to change, how do you maintain Ode to Babel’s identity and mission?
A. There is a strong social and hospitality component, but we’re really about community development. Our space is a melting pot: Our guests are primarily people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, people who are marginalized. They can come to Ode and feel totally welcomed to congregate in this creative space where they can work on a better future. While real estate developers might be cooking up ambitious building plans to change Crown Heights, we continue to focus on what we’re here for. Ode to Babel is here to hold space for our people to build culture. So we’re also using the space to host fundraisers for organizations like Planned Parenthood. There’s a lot of noise, but we just try to do our thing and give back. Another point that’s really important for us is ownership—having our own, having a piece of the neighborhood that they can’t take away from us.
Q. Every small business owner has a pandemic story. What’s yours?
A. Like most people in hospitality, we were forced to close. That was devastating. We started this project in a bootstrapped kind of way, trying to make space for our community. So to rebound from having to shutter the business, we were actually one of the first local bars to start doing to-go cocktails. We were very intentional with it: bottling, labeling, adding handwritten notes with your order. This went viral. And then we started coupling that with Instagram Lives with our favorite DJs to provide an escape for the people who were supporting us and wanted to live their Ode to Babel fantasy from home.
Q. There’s now an Ode to Babel gin. What made you decide to get into spirits? Was that always part of the master plan?
A. No, we never thought we would be doing this, but we’ve been talking about it for a while. In the midst of day-to-day responsibilities, we never had the time. But what really pushed us was seeing big spirits brands offering little-to-no support to small bars, especially small, black-owned bars during the pandemic. Under normal circumstances, they would be throwing marketing money at these bars, but during those truly difficult moments, when we went looking for funding and support, these brands were nowhere to be found. So we decided to make our own gin. We love gin; we love a certain style of gin. But it seemed like a lot of our guests didn’t like the juniper-forward, astringent profile of most gins. So ours is a bit more new-age in that we scaled back on the juniper in favor of other botanicals, like makrut lime and jasmine.
Q. And the success of the gin has now sparked an entirely new business in spirits, including plans for a local distillery.
A. It is part of our community-driven ideology. We want our distillery to be right by the bar so that our guests can give us real-time feedback about our recipes. They’re not an afterthought. While we’re still trying to sort out logistics, we are committed to launching a portfolio of spirits. We’re hoping that rum can be next and some really interesting amaros, vermouths. We’re going to be very hands-on. We want to learn all we can about these spirits. But it’s just one of the things that we’ll have going on at Ode.
Q. After that? What’s next for Ode?
A. We’re germinating the idea of opening in new locations. We can see Atlanta as the next outpost of the Ode to Babel experience. It’s a city that everyone keeps telling us we need to go to. It’s top-of-mind, for sure. We’re keeping an eye on some spaces there, considering a one-year pop-up to see how it goes. Maybe Los Angeles. Maybe Houston. We hear from people who visit that we need to be in their cities, because they don’t have anything like it there. They may have a big club or transactional bars, but the Ode to Babel experience is lacking, and we know that the people we attract are everywhere.
"While real estate developers might be cooking up ambitious building plans to change Crown Heights, we continue to focus on what we’re here for—to hold space for our people to build culture."
Writer: Chadner Navarro
Editor: Dickson Wong
Photography: The Malin