Volume 1, No. 2: Fall 2018
A Part of the Main
Back in My Day
History Lessons on Rutland Road
Backyard Fence Conversations
My Name is Suellin
Editorial Perspective: We Are Our History
As I sit down at my desk to write this introduction to the second issue of Voices of Lefferts: The Flatbush-PLG Community Writing Journal, I look out on a bright, cool July morning after the summer’s first debilitating heat wave. I see a clear blue sky, sunlit trees, and the sharp outlines of Brooklyn brownstones beyond my backyard. Voices of neighbors rise and fall, a dog barks, someone coughs. There is a sense of the sweetness of life, the tranquility of a place steeped in history and teeming with the multiplicity of experiences and perceptions that define Flatbush-PLG—the ground on which we walk today inhabited first by the Lenape who lived here for thousands of years and then by successive waves of migrants, including the Dutch, the British, the Irish, the Caribbeans, and the many others who continue to come and go.
I live in the “manor,” the 10-block historic district of limestones and brownstones that coexists with the larger neighborhood many residents still prefer to call Flatbush, renamed Prospect Lefferts Gardens in 1968 by a then-new neighborhood group that came to be known as the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA). At a meeting several years ago about real estate development, a young white man approached me and several others and angrily cried, “You homeowners are millionaires.” I am both one of those homeowners—lucky to have moved here in 1996 when houses were still relatively affordable—and the director of a community project that wants to document gentrification, displacement, and the legacies of newcomers who by the middle of the last century had begun to remake the neighborhood that we know today.
I start with these troubling (to me) contradictions to put the writing in this issue into the larger context of the project and the neighborhood as a whole. Since the project began in 2016 with photography, oral histories, and story circles, I have not heard anyone say they want a homogeneous neighborhood, a gentrified community, or a whiter one. Instead, some newcomers express concern and often a certain shame about their status, and longtime residents are welcoming, even if quick to add that those new to the neighborhood must respect those who arrived before them. Some longtime black residents remember that when their families moved here in the 1950s, often into houses in the manor, they were the ones breaking a color line. At one story circle, everyone at the table—black, white, African American, Caribbean, newcomer, longtime resident, homeowner, apartment dweller—agreed hat change is inevitable, but that they did not want to see the neighborhood lose its economic, racial, and ethnic diversity. It was precisely that diversity that attracted them here in the first place.
Such topics can’t help but arise in the Voices of Lefferts workshops when we sit down to talk about our experiences in Flatbush-PLG as prologue to, and inspiration for, writing about them. In the spring workshop, the question of race and racism surfaced one afternoon in a group that included writers from a wide variety of backgrounds. The tension in the room was palpable, the sense of treading on shaky ground with virtual strangers—none of the participants knew each other beforehand—evident in the carefulness with which everyone spoke. But talking openly across racial and class lines was also energizing, freeing. Here’s what I wrote to the group after that meeting:
Thanks to everyone who attended the last workshop for a thought-provoking conversation about, among other things, race and racism. For those who were not there, the subject had arisen at previous workshops but this time, we focused on it more consciously, in part in response to a suggestion that we do so. While I wouldn’t try to reconstruct that conversation here, I think it is fair to say that we all felt that it was a good and safe venue to talk about race openly and deeply and that it is a subject that haunts not just us in that room or our neighborhood or New York City but arguably all of Western history since the transatlantic slave trade began in the 15th century.
I suggested that we might continue the conversation in writing. One response, included in this issue, is Brenda Edwards’s essay “Backyard Fence Conversations,” in which she writes about a disagreement she had with a well-meaning white neighbor who could not understand why a black mother would not want her child to play with a white doll. Another short piece, by Rich Lubell—not included here but clearly related to his essay “History Lessons on Rut-land Road” (page 34)—focuses on a funeral of the younger brother of his friend Yvonne, with whom he had worked for years as a community organizer. Rich recalls that after having been raised in a “new white ’50s suburb,” albeit by progressive par-ents sympathetic to the civil rights movement and other social justice efforts, he went off to discover communities he “had not known as a child” and became a community organizer, making friends with “black, Latino, Asian, and gay people” and learning “firsthand about the struggles of expatriate immigrant communities, particularly from the Caribbean.” As he sat at the funeral for his friend’s brother, who was a Mason, he “began to tear up recognizing how important this black Masonic brotherhood was to [the deceased], who had struggled with his health and with the everyday struggles of a black man in this world.” Rich ends simply:
I was invited to stay for the repast and met all of Yvonne’s sisters and brothers and her nieces and nephews and shared in a well-catered, festive event. I returned home, up Flatbush Avenue to my present address on Rutland Road, only a mile or so away, now even closer to and more respectful of the black community in our neighborhood.
The Voices of Lefferts workshops bring together diverse groups of people who care about the neighborhood to think through questions about who we are as a community, what kind of neighborhood we want, and how to achieve and sustain it. By telling stories, we learn about our fellow writers and begin to see the neighborhood through one another’s eyes. Rich’s story illustrates the everydayness of deep change—individual and social. Simply by attending the funeral and the repast, he moves “even closer to a community” that he never knew as a child. We experience a similar dynamic in the workshop as we come together on Saturday afternoons to talk about life, the neighborhood, social relations, family, work, and all the rest of what defines us in this particular place and time. We all live somewhere in or close by Flatbush-PLG in this moment in history. We share this space. But as James Baldwin so cogently put it: “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Together, we write our own history, past and present, and imagine our collective future.
Morning gives way to afternoon and I think ahead to the fall when this issue will figuratively hit the streets—Greenlight Bookstore—and the next workshop series will commence. This past year has been a transformative one for the project as we reinvent ourselves. The most remarkable part of that process for me as the project director was the creation of the journal, which could not have been possible without the contributions of he many talented individuals who responded to our recruitment efforts last fall: the authors, the coaches/ editors, our photographer Alexis Holloway, illustrator Laura Thorne, and graphic designer, Frank Marchese. Nor could we have succeeded without the support of Humanities New York, LIU Brooklyn, PLGNA, Greenlight Bookstore, PLG-Arts, the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library, and, most recently, Lefferts Manor Association.
On June 3, in coordination with the annual PLG House Tour, we held the first Voices of Lefferts exhibit of photography by Alexis Holloway and pen and ink drawings by Laura Thorne, at three locations: a popup gallery in an empty rental space (courtesy of Renata Gomes and Howard Gibbins), Ix Café and Chameleon BK Café. Thanks also to Little Mo Wine and Glady’s for drink and food donations for our reception. On June 18, we celebrated the launch of the new journal and held our first reading in the project’s present incarnation at Greenlight Bookstore, where the first issue is on sale for $5. We are especially grateful to Greenlight owners Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo for their generous support for the project and the journal.
As we prepare for the next workshop series and the creation of content for issue #3, we look forward to meeting a new group of writers and artists from the community, and more students of the neighborhood’s history, culture, and controversies.
At the Greenlight reading in June, several audience members asked how writers found their topics and what happens at the workshops. The short answer is that we talk a lot and those conversations become the incubator for everyone’s writing. While one participant may arrive on the first day with a definite topic that is transmuted by this process, another, struggling to get those first words on the page, is inspired simply to begin. We also spend time in the workshop sessions writing—that wonderful hushed silence of pens and keyboards in a roomful of writers—and sharing with one another these short forays into the good mess of early drafts. It is useful to bear in mind the etymology of the word “essay,” which comes from the French essayer, meaning “to attempt.” All of our work can be seen as attempts to say what must be said.
By the third workshop, writers begin to draft their pieces for publication. They pair up with a coach—a project team member who also serves as an editor—and develop the draft outside as well as during the workshop meetings. Each draft is then read aloud by the author in the remaining workshop sessions and feedback is provided by the group. This format offers community members an opportunity to write, get input and support, and publish their work. We work with all community members who wish to tell a story, from experienced, published writers to those who prefer to “speak” a story aloud and work with a coach to transcribe it. And we invite participants of all ages to join us. Our youngest participant so far was 11 years old. High school and college students are most welcome, as are neighborhood elders.
In this issue, in “A Part of the Main,” Sharon Rose-Calhoun takes the reader on a hilarious tour of the neighborhood—and many of the changes it has recently undergone—as she and her visiting older sister engage in the all-too-familiar urban ritual of driving around in search of a parking space. Allyson Hightower, in “Charge It,” reminisces about food-shopping with her father when she was growing up on Maple Street, paying homage to him and loving tribute to the place that has always been her home. In “Back in My Day,” Gayle Pilgrim, a former PLG resident who now lives close by on Nostrand Avenue, returns for a ritual haircut at the Perfect Image barbershop and tells us along the way what she thinks of the “new demographic” that has “catalyzed the changing storefronts.”
Rich Lubell contributes “History Lessons on Rutland Road,” in which he chronicles deep friendships with three black men on the block to which he moved twenty years ago with his wife Selena, “a traditional church-loving Jamaican, with a progressive political disposition.” Brenda Edwards’s essay “Backyard Fence Conversations” also deals with neighbors across the color line, revealing subtle racial tensions despite much congeniality, and concluding with her call for more “casual backyard fence chats” as a way “to understand each other and build a better community, even while being taken out of our comfort zone and even when we don’t agree.” Last, in “My Name Is Suellen,” Sue Yellin shares some of what she loves about Flatbush-PLG, as well as her fear of being priced out of her rental apartment with little hope of remaining in the neighborhood that she, too, has come to call home.
Two final notes on Sue Yellin’s piece. First, it was written in the spring of 2017, more than a year before the first issue of Voices of Lefferts was published. She and six other community members wrote and published essays as part of an earlier iteration of the project. The previous year we published narratives based on oral histories from five Flatbush-PLG residents, and since then have conducted several more interviews. Our goal is to slowly but steadily republish—and in some cases, publish for the first time—these essays and narratives in the journal. Second, we chose Sue Yellin’s essay for this issue because the questions she raises about affordability and displacement remain at the heart of the project’s mission. We want the journal to entertain but also to trouble our readers.
The cool July day has turned to evening. When you read these words, it will be September or beyond. Perhaps you will pick up this issue in time to attend the next Voices of Lefferts public event at Greenlight Bookstore on September 17th or to enroll in the fall 2018 workshop scheduled to begin on the 29th. If not, we invite you to join us when and where you can—at a workshop, a reading, an exhibit, or simply by turning the page. —Deborah Mutnick