Issue 3: Spring 2019
Bury Me in a Free Land
Kimberly Denise Williams
A School of One’s Own
State of Mind: the Brooklyn Mindset
Layers and Layers
Dogs Off the Leash
Paws for Knowledge
About the Willow on Maple Street
Editorial Perspective: Songs of Ourselves
As we prepare to publish another issue of Voices of Lefferts, I find myself remembering the first round of writing workshops we held at Grace Reformed Church in fall 2017. We had just gotten funding from Humanities New York for the project, rooted in work that had begun two years earlier documenting a gentrifying neighborhood through black-and-white photographs and oral histories. By 2017, we had moved to a community writing model, encouraging participants to write their own stories, essays, poems, and histories about the neighborhood. We scrambled to recruit people, literally stopping passersby in the street to ask if they might be interested in join-ing our new community writing workshop.
On September 28, 2017, partly for recruitment purposes, we held a reading at the church by authors who had published in an early iteration of the journal, an 8.5 x 11-inch, photocopied pamphlet. Readers included Brenda Edwards, Sue Yellin, Ron Drenger, Jo-Laine Duke Collins, and Nancy Hoch. Brenda and Ron are now part of the project team, and Brenda published an essay in our Spring 2018 issue; Sue Yellin’s piece was republished in that issue as well, and Nancy Hoch’s essay is featured in this one. Going forward, we hope to include other work, including oral histories, from this earlier phase of the project with its unfunded, DIY ethos.
By the time we met the writers published in this issue of Voices of Lefferts, we had completed two rounds of workshops; held two author readings at Greenlight Bookstore, where the journal regularly sells out; recruited Frank Marchese, who participated in the fall 2017 workshop, to become our graphic designer; and mounted a pop-up art and photography exhibit in association with the 2018 PLG House Tour. In other words, we had gained some local recognition, and instead of worrying about too few participants, we were overwhelmed by a surprisingly large number—more than twenty— who signed up in fall 2018. We had become a journal with manuscripts in the pipeline, ready to be published in future issues.
Nearly all of those who signed up came that first Saturday. We had to meet in the basement of the church because the chapel had been reserved for a birthday party. A long, dark, windowless room with a low ceiling and folding tables and chairs, the basement has a very different feel than the chapel, which is drafty, full of light, and spacious. The project team members arrived early to arrange the tables, and one by one, people came down a steep flight of stone stairs and into the dark room. Once everybody settled in, we distributed handouts, described the project, and asked: What are your thoughts and feelings about the neighborhood? What concerns do you have? What questions?
That is how we begin. Sometimes there is rapid-fire talk and sometimes conversation comes more slowly as we gather our thoughts and wonder what others are feeling in this roomful of neighbors, most of whom are also strangers. We are a curious hybrid of “public”—the public out and about on the streets of a particular neighborhood, Flatbush-Prospect Lefferts Gardens; a bounded, visible public made up of people gathering in spaces like the church, where the workshop meets, author readings at Greenlight, and photography and art exhibits at local cafés and shops; and a public of readers who know us through the journal and our online presence, mostly on Facebook (our hashtag, #voicesoflefferts) and a dedicated website soon to come.
It is both this chorus of publics—the voices of authors, readers, neighbors—and the layered histories that emerge from that song of ourselves, to paraphrase Whitman, that produce a mix of dissonant and consonant points of view. On that first day of the fall 2018 workshop, we sat around an oblong cluster of folding tables covered by red and white checked cloths and shared perceptions of a changing neighborhood, questions about newcomers, observations of street life, and story ideas. As Laura Thorne, editor and illustrator, noted about this issue’s content, it resonates with “themes of transformation and layers: layers of history in the archives, in the soil, beneath the sidewalks.”
The project—we hope—generates the conditions, the space, for delving into neighborhood history in order to illuminate our own continual making and remaking of that history in tension with forces and circumstances not of our choosing. We continue to get detailed accounts of life in the neighborhood, the experience of children in the 1990s, the back story of the Maple Street Garden, the history of the church where we meet, the one-family covenant, the blizzard of 1856. We also hear more precise histories of the Vanderbilts and the Leffertses, the stamp they left on the neighborhood, and their views, evident in deed and word in the historical record, about the people they enslaved. We see the same history underlying stories of the gentry’s power to create and define the neighborhood and stories of those they enslaved and for whom the church was established. It is just this history from above and below that needs so desperately to be fully unearthed and retold as struggles for power, wealth, survival, and dignity, for these stories continue to unfold in different forms in our own time as racial profiling, mass incarceration, predatory home buyers, gentrification, and so on. Through sharing personal stories, recovering lost memories, engaging in archival research, interviewing neighbors, and closely observing everyday life, Voices of Lefferts aims to provide a medium for facing painful truths, rewriting false or partial accounts of the past, and resisting forces that threaten the neighborhood’s integrity. This history is not confined to libraries or archives, but seeps through the crevices of the sidewalks we tread each day, the gardens we till, the vents of newly developed, market-rate apartment buildings that rise alongside century-old houses and decrepit, poorly maintained tenements, and the words on the pages of this journal.
That first Saturday afternoon that we met, in September 2018, it felt as though our voices intermingled with the voices of those who walked this ground before us, echoing in the basement of the church—the same church founded by Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt for formerly enslaved people after the great snowstorm of 1856—where we sat and read aloud, having written in collective silence interrupted only by the sounds of pages turning, rustling pens, tapping keys, occasional murmurs. Who could have anticipated a sonorous baritone late that afternoon calling forth the spirits of the children of formerly enslaved people a century and a half after they sang or prayed or sat in the same space we sat now?
We start this issue with the essay born of that invocation of the children, Robert Gibbons’s “Bury Me in a Free Land,” in which he writes a letter to Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt about the church she founded in 1856. Shining the light of the past on the present, he asks Lefferts Vanderbilt to answer for the “contentious political weather” in the years leading up to the Civil War, laying bare her claim that “It is not probable that slavery ever exhibited its worst features in Lefferts. A kindly feeling existed between the owner and the slave…” And yet, these “are unresolved questions; their homes, their names, and their humanity.”
In another, more recent history of the neighborhood, “A School of One’s Own,” Kimberly Williams remembers her daily walks to St. John’s Elementary School at 19 Winthrop Street, the hunter green uniforms she and her classmates were mandated to wear, and the “formative lessons” they learned from handbooks imported from the Caribbean and from teachers who wove discussions about Nelson Mandela and the African diaspora together with math lessons and spelling tests. In “The Covenant,” David Stoelting tells the story of the one-family-house-only restriction in Lefferts Manor, tracing its history from the Leffertses’ arrival in New Amsterdam in 1660 to his own family’s purchase of a house on Midwood Street in the 1990s. Built one hundred years earlier in 1898, the four-story house was one of twenty-two brownstones built by William A.A. Brown. “A kind of oath that comes with the price of admission,” the single-family covenant, David argues, “has without question been a benefit to Lefferts Manor and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.”
In “State of Mind: The Brooklyn Mindset,” Autarchii writes a love letter to his homeland, Jamaica, lament-ing the incivility that he perceives among residents of New York City. Even though people back home hear “there’s gold on the ground that glistens at night,” Autarchii concludes, “Living in this part of the first world, lets me know that the third is better.”
Nancy Hoch traces another neighborhood history in “Layers and Layers,” interweaving it with her own story of moving to Maple Street in 1987 and her father’s tales about growing up in the 1930s half a mile away on the south side of Prospect Park. From the wood panels of her house to the soil in her backyard, she uncovers layers of history going back to the Lenape people who farmed and hunted on the land. Also featured in this essay is Nancy’s neighbor, 104-year-old Dorothy Burnham, whose story we hope to tell more fully in a future issue of Voices of Lefferts.
In her ode to Prospect Park, “Dogs off the Leash,” Jessica Balter captures the allure of seasonal changes in the annual transformations of the sweet gum trees, red oaks, ginkgos, and magnolias, emblematic of her deep love for a defining place in her life, where she walked hand in hand with her father as a four-year-old in a “furry gold jacket” and where she met her husband, whom she liked because he gave her “dark laps,” bike rides through the park “when the sky became black and the moon beamed bright.”
With Hazel Lynch’s fairy tale “Paws for Knowledge,” we shift gears to encounter the adventures of Señor Fluffy, Madame Du Bois, Tiger Lily, Marley and more, all on their way to the Flatbush Library. This lighthearted paean to our local library, which houses the Caribbean Literacy and Culture Center and a Caribbean-themed community garden, is best summed up in the words of Tiger Lily, who explains to her friends, “Now it’s like my second home! I come and go as I please, stretch luxuriously, purr within reason, take catnaps, and scratch a post or two when the humans are busy.”
Finally, in “About the Willow on Maple Street,” Zhenia Nagorny drills down into the deep history of Lot 72 at 237 Maple Street, where an enduring willow tree has witnessed three generations of families, a devastating fire, a community garden that rose out of its ashes, and a battle to protect the fragile garden from “the forces of greed and gentrification.” This story takes us from the construction of the house at 237 Maple Street in 1901 to the fire that destroyed it in 1997 to the solace of the community garden, providing a meditation on historical memory, collective loss, and renewal and hope.
It is especially fitting that we pay tribute to Walt Whitman in this issue, which coincides with the bicentennial celebration of his 200th birthday. Born in West Hills, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, Whitman and his family moved to Brooklyn in 1823. He first published “Song of Myself” in 1855 and would continue refining it until he died in 1892. Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and co-founder of the Brooklyn Freeman, Whitman simultaneously asserted the “I” and overcame boundaries between self and others.
He was America’s bard, singing the song of a country torn apart by its defining contradiction, freedom and enslavement, a division into which Whitman metaphorically thrust himself, standing “between the masters and the slaves”—the “poet of the body” and the “poet of the soul.” In “Song of Myself,” he writes: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
So, here’s to Whitman, Brooklyn, Flatbush, and all of us. We, too, sing the body electric. —Deborah Mutnick