Issue 9, Fall 2022
Greenlight in Lefferts Gardens
Piercing Red Roses
Literal Boxes of Gentrification
Where Are the People?
A Passing Train
The Abstract Energy of Sound
Otto Neals interviewed by Courtney Mooney, Deborah Mutnick, Craig Manbauman, and Mike Hayes
The Food of Art | The Art of Food
Oral History Interview Excerpts
– Anneliese Zausner-Mannes interviewed by Jon Earle
– Sheryll Durrant, interviewed by Pieranna Pieroni
Editorial Perspectives: A Tribute to Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery
As I sit down to write this introduction to the ninth issue of Voices of Lefferts in July 2022, I realize that we have been contending with the pandemic for three of five years of putting out the journal. Three workshops have been virtual. Most of our oral history interviews have been done on Zoom. Some authors dropped out because they got Covid-19. Oral history narrators like hospitalist Cameron Page, who worked at Downstate Medical Center at the epicenter of the outbreak, helped us document the impact of the virus on the neighborhood. We now have a collection of Covid-19 oral histories.
Traces of this recent history can be found in the essays in this issue but, as seems to be true for much of the world, life goes on—if not quite as we knew it. The inexorability of change, especially as it relates to Flatbush-Prospect Lefferts Gardens (Flatbush-PLG), is one of the themes we return to again and again. No matter how true it is that change is inevitable and that nothing stays the same, we feel the painful effects of loss and dislocation as well as the rapture of growth, creativity, and happiness that change can bring about.
We mourn the destruction of historic sites, the closure of local stores, the dispossession of those who can no longer afford rising rents and prices, illness and death from Covid-19 (with more than 14,000 cases and 279 deaths in our neighborhood), and gun violence. But we also appreciate our common past and the vision of a racially and economically diverse community with a richly varied cultural heritage that established groups like the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association and PLG Arts fought to realize, and that newer ones like the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition and Shelley Worrell’s CaribBEING are determined to celebrate, sustain, and preserve.
Although we cannot see the infinite layers of history that shape everyday life in Flatbush, especially those unrecorded points of view of Indigenous people in their encounters with settlers, of enslaved people with enslavers, or of women and workers with their bosses, we can excavate the past through archives, geographical and historical maps and studies, and stories that pass from generation to generation from the Lenape to the newest arriving immigrants. Renamed streets, landmarked buildings, old memorials torn down and new ones erected—these visible signs of our shared history mark but a fraction of the changes that, for better or worse, continually become part of life as we know it in Flatbush.
Several of the authors in this issue reflect on the changing neighborhood from different perspectives—newcomers, second- and third-generation homeowners, renters, white, Black, diverse peoples from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe—all convening at this global crossroad we call Brooklyn. When we confront these differences and the tensions that often arise from them in our workshops, it reminds me of an exchange at a Voices of Lefferts story circle in December 2017.
We had met at PLG Coffee House & Tavern with all fifteen to twenty of us seated at a couple of tables pushed together. There was a mix of longtime residents and newcomers made up of mostly young, white people, many of whom expressed feelings of guilt and remorse for gentrifying the neighborhood.
Though I can’t recall the exact words, a Black woman who grew up in the neighborhood said something like: Everything changes but it’s the specific kind of change we are seeing that nobody likes—that drives people out because they can’t afford to live here anymore.
It is a sentiment I hear repeated over and over from people with entirely different backgrounds and relationships to the neighborhood. Of course, there are other attitudes—angry, accusatory, selfish—but the diverse participants that gravitate to this project are generous, kind, and thoughtful in responding to one another’s stories.
Our workshops often invite self-reflection, revision, and, sometimes, a new consciousness of the social and economic relations that produce the conditions we collectively experience. Other times though, tension and conflict just make people uncomfortable. And that’s okay, too. Discomfort can be our best teacher of how others see us if we can push ourselves to look into the mirror it creates—like a puddle of unsettled water just after a storm.
As I said, even as we mourn our losses from Covid-19 or from dislocations caused by rising rents, we celebrate the neighborhood’s history and culture. In this issue, we pay tribute to Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery, the oldest, continuously running Black-owned gallery in New York City, established in 1970, by Mr. Lawrence P. Dorsey. After Mr. Dorsey passed away in 2007, the gallery was managed for fifteen years, by the LPD Brooklyn Arts Foundation. In addition to sponsoring exhibits of local artists’ work, the Foundation’s accomplishments include:
Renaming the corner of Fenimore St. and Rogers Ave. to Lawrence P. Dorsey Way.
Holding education and mentoring programs to foster the development of young artists through classes taught by master artist Otto Neals.
Continuing to sponsor the 37-year-old Annual Holiday Benefit Auction Show in support of NYC children.
Providing a renovated gallery space for aspiring and experienced artists of color to exhibit their works.
Providing a venue for people to visit the gallery, experience art, learn about history, and participate in book signings, craft shows, and rich conversation.
Currently, the gallery is managed by Dorsey’s granddaughter Naima Wood, who announced a featured window display in August 2022, of works from Sol’Sax’s Sol’Sain’t photomontage series featuring Biggie Smalls and Michael Jackson, and is eager to get the word out to the community about the gallery. She writes:
It is an absolute honor to serve as director for Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery to continue the legacy of my grandfather. The gallery still operates today with the same vision Mr. Dorsey had over 50 years ago when he established it, to make art accessible to all. The gallery presents museum-quality exhibitions and cultural programming and events with artists, public talks, and the annual holiday benefit art auction to give back to the community, as Mr. Dorsey did. Please visit dorseysfineartgallery.com for updates.
Born in 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Lawrence P. Dorsey attended LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he majored in journalism. After two years of college, followed by service in the Army during World War II, he landed in Brooklyn, where he worked on the SS United States cruise ship, traveled internationally, and began to collect artwork. After leaving the cruise ship, he settled in Brooklyn where he owned several businesses and ultimately purchased a frame shop in 1970 that became Dorsey’s Picture Frame & Art Gallery at 553 Rogers Avenue. An art lover, collector, educator, and mentor to young Black artists, Dorsey created not only a gallery but also a beloved center for the art community and a haven for art collectors in the New York City area and beyond.
Giving a sense of the gallery’s ethos—its gaiety, spontaneity, and creative energies—artist extraordinaire and close Dorsey associate Otto Neals recalls: “Chris Lowe was a regular at Dorsey’s Gallery, as well as Elizabeth Catlett, Tom Feelings, Vincent Smith, and Faith Ringgold. I mean, you know, all of these people used to just flock in there… Dorsey’s was a place where anytime especially Saturday night, you walk in there and look, there’s Elizabeth Catlett, she just got in from Mexico. There’s Vincent Smith. They just happen to stop by, so it’s like a party, and there was always food and wine, a big spread…. It was really wonderful.”
Other notable artists who frequented Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery include the renowned painter Jacob Lawrence, Brooklyn-born painter Ernest Crichlow, James Denmark, best known for his collages, but whose body of work includes woodcut prints, watercolors, and sculpture, Ann Tanksley, who produced a collection of more than 200 monotypes and paintings based on novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s writings, and master printmaker Bob Blackburn.
Lamerol A. Gatewood, the featured artist in this issue, has shown his paintings at Dorsey’s and also hails from St. Louis. Asked to comment on Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery, Gatewood said: “I first heard about Dorsey Gallery, after I moved to Prospect Lefferts Gardens in 1991. The gallery has been a home to many Brooklyn artists, providing them with opportunities to exhibit their drawings, paintings, and sculptures. I personally participated in a number of group exhibitions. A special thank you to Jennifer Stewart, Duna Menos, Karl McIntosh, and Naima Wood, Dorsey’s granddaughter.”
Community Board 9 (CB9) executive committee member Nicolas Almonor noted, “The Dorsey Gallery has been around for close to fifty years and provides a welcoming venue for up-and-coming artists of color. Some of these artists I have met. Some of them are good friends. After hearing rumors of its closing, I am elated that the gallery will remain a resource for Black artists and the community.” As chair of the Parks, Recreation and Culture Committee, Almonor promises to give as much support as possible to Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery.
In This Issue
In “Greenlight at Lefferts Gardens,” Leslie Martinez pays homage to the bookstore that came to the neighborhood in 2016. A high school teacher, she describes her love of Young Adult (YA) literature and her discovery of Greenlight’s first store in Fort Greene, which opened its doors in 2009, and then her delight in the Flatbush store’s program supporting classroom visits by YA authors. Voices of Lefferts is thrilled to publish a story that celebrates the bookstore that has been one of the project’s most ardent supporters.
Next, Michael Rance takes us on a tour of neighborhood history as seen through the eyes of a relative newcomer trying to become part of a community in the midst of a global pandemic. In “Piercing Red Roses,” he also expresses the yearning of a young activist coming to political consciousness, searching for camaraderie and clear direction in a way forward, a desire to recapture the sense that “anything was possible,” which he and other Brooklyn bargoers felt in February 2020, the night that votes showed a massive lead for Bernie Sanders. Take the tour with him to find out what he discovers.
In “Literal Boxes of Gentrification,” Mia Gomez introduces us to her cat, Tabasco, with whom she spends hours at the window of her first-floor apartment on Rutland Road “watching his version of TV: the people of PLG walking to and fro, up and down the street.” But from their perch, they could see more than that as the houses across the street with “nice people” and lots of stuff in the front yards gave way to construction crews and green fencing with a rendering of the building, another “big gray box.” Capturing the ethos of a changing neighborhood, Mia describes the impact of the new building on the neighborhood even as she, her boyfriend, and Tabasco are forced to deal with an unexpected turn of events.
Maura Balaban also delves into the theme of change as a self-described gentrifier. In “Neighborly Education,” she takes the reader through a series of in-person and virtual encounters with neighbors that seemed always to begin with the question of how many years they had been living in Flatbush-PLG. As a naturally shy person wrestling with the demands of any new home but more particularly with “the unspoken, though palpable, fact of [her] whiteness,” she probes conflicts of race, class, policing, and all-too-familiar sounds of gunfire. With candor and courage, she writes as a relative newcomer about becoming “schooled” on a neighborhood she has grown to love.
Born and raised in Flatbush-PLG, Isoke Senghor takes a crucial lesson she learned in college back home in the middle of the pandemic. In “Where Are the People?” she pays homage to Dr. Philogene’s class, Disorderly Women, in which she discovered marginalized, often discounted women who were “disorderly for their time and fabulous in their own way.” When she returned to Brooklyn in spring 2020, as colleges nationwide shifted mid-semester to remote instruction, she kept asking: Where are the people? Pursuing that question as Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the world, she discovered an answer in her own backyard.
Finally, in “A Passing Train,” Travis Cameron invokes the poetry of the New York subway system from the window of his apartment near the Prospect Park Station. As the train roars by, he hears “a special song. Against the restriction of the tracks, comes a cascade of sounds. The clatter of wheels on the tracks while powerful, is cool in tone—a soothing tenor voice.” Woven into the song of the train is a recurring image of a mysterious woman whose plans to leave New York fill the author with mixed emotions and pressing questions about his own life in the city.
In this issue, we are pleased to feature the art of Lamerol A. Gatewood. Fascinated by the relationship between sound and image, he was also influenced by the quilts of his grandmothers and recalls threading needles as a boy while his maternal grandmother, Gustera Owens, and her mother-in-law quilted on the front porch of the family farm in Arkansas. His current work, The Abstract Energy of Sound, captures the invisible language of jazz and African Diasporic music in the spiritual energy of color, shape, and movement.
We are also delighted to feature three oral history excerpts. The first is an interview, “I always say to just keep doing it,” with Otto Neals, conducted by Courtney Mooney, myself, and two Long Island University students, Craig Manbauman and Mike Hayes, in 2016 during an early phase of Voices of Lefferts. Also featured is an oral history from our Flatbush Eats collection with Anneliese Zausner-Mannes, interviewed by Jon Earle in 2021, “[T]he mantra of mutual aid is what you need, leave what you can,” as well as one by Sheryll Durrant, interviewed in 2022 by Pieranna Pieroni, “I’m very, very proud of what we built in Flatbush,” in which she tells us about work in Flatbush and Ditmas Park around food-access gardening and community building.
Many thanks to all who make this community history project possible: interim oral history director Liz Oliver and oral history assistant director Kimberly Denise Williams; coaches Jenn Chen, Brenda Edwards, Robert Gibbons, Andrea Phillips-Merriman, and Norma Williams; copyeditors Annabelle Allen and Gillian Arthur; photographers Nancy Treuber and Neil Carpenter; and graphic designer Frank Marchese. Acknowledgments also go to Greenlight Bookstore for supporting many Flatbush-PLG community projects, including this one, and Park Slope Copy Center for consistently expert printing services. We are grateful to Humanities New York, Citizens Committee of New York City, the Brooklyn Arts Council, LIU Brooklyn, the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association, the Lefferts Manor Association, and all of you, our faithful readers, for support over the years and for phases of the project that enabled the production of this issue. Finally, many thanks to everyone who generously contributed to our GoFundMe Campaign, especially Alison Novak, Kate Groby, Colman Lynch, Carl Alan Blumenthal, Neil Carpenter, Carlene Braithwaite, Elizabeth Sawyer, Mark Schwartz, Phillip Mayer, Rama Valentin, Wendy Sawyer, Winifred Murdaugh, Meisha Welch, and several anonymous donors.
By Deborah Mutnick