Issue 5, Summer 2020
Aubrey Marquez: A Man of Dignity Who Channeled Another Era
Steven “Definition” Rice
In All My Black Boy Joy
Summers in the Village, Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Where Souls of Lefferts Gardens Meet Crown Heights
Sue and Me
Cameron Gipson (featured artist)
A Community History of COVID-19: Excerpts of oral history interviews with Flatbush-PLG residents conducted during the pandemic
Nancy Hoch interviews Sue Yellin
Nancy Hoch interviews Cameron Page
Elizabeth Oliver interviews Carmen Castillo-Barrett
The COVID Diaries: A Medley of Reflections on the Pandemic
Editorial Perspective: From the Epicenter
I could have drafted the editorial for this issue of Voices of Lefferts weeks or days ago, but it is today, June 3, 2020, that I cleared a space for it. All I can think about as helicopters hover overhead are the events that have transpired since May 25, Memorial Day: the viral video of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin pressing his knee for an unbearable eight minutes and 46 seconds into George Floyd’s neck as Floyd repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe,” and the uprisings here on Flatbush Avenue and worldwide as hundreds of thousands of mostly young, racially diverse activists took to the streets to protest the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the tragically long list of others before them. In many places, protesters were met with still more violence meted out by heavily armed police in riot gear, intensifying an already dizzying sense of history in fast motion. All this during a global pandemic and economic collapse in which the zip code 11226 is at the epicenter.
As the crises have multiplied, the Flatbush-Prospect Lefferts Gardens community, like so many others nationwide, has been reeling from illness, loss, unemployment, hunger, and isolation. Community members have responded to one call after another for mutual aid, rent strikes, and an end to systemic racial violence and injustice. On May 30, as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter became a battle cry, hundreds of protesters convened at the Parkside Avenue subway station even as mutual aid deliverers organized by Equality for Flatbush’s Brooklyn Shows Love Mutual Aid Project and Flatbush United Mutual Aid continued to bring groceries to neighbors in need of support. From its inception, the Voices of Lefferts project has sought to document neighborhood history and current conditions in the words and voices of those who live here. This mission is especially critical during these fraught, momentous times.
Already in production at the time of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, this issue of the journal could not extensively chronicle the ensuing wave of protests. I hope, however, that our readers will join us in face-to-face or virtual dialogue about racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. and here in our neighborhood, and that some among the next group of writers will take up these historic events from their own perspectives. We did manage to collect oral histories and short essays on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the neighborhood, which has been hit especially hard by the virus: according to the New York City Department of Health, area code 11226 is a hotspot with a reported 2,100 cases and 241 deaths as of May 30. In addition to the suffering directly caused by COVID-19, the New York State Department of Labor reported that Kings County’s unemployment rate rose from 3.8 percent in April 2019 to 14.6 percent this past April.
With all the challenges of producing the Spring/Summer 2020 issue, I am pleased to present it here. Different from previous issues, this one reflects not only the conditions of the pandemic but also an interruption in our schedule of writing workshops, from which we took a hiatus in the fall of 2019 to regroup, raise money, and start the oral history strand of the project under the direction of Laura Thorne. Thus, instead of our usual collection of works from the previous season’s workshop, this issue contains new essays as well as reprints of three pieces that were first published when the journal was still a stapled pamphlet, along with oral history excerpts and short written responses to the pandemic. Oral history excerpts, showcasing interviews from our growing archive, will be a regular feature in the journal going forward, as will works of visual art by local artists.
We are grateful, first, to have received a Local Arts Support Grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council and the Decentralized Program of New York State Council on the Arts, and, second, that both the writing workshop and oral history interviewing survived the virus. Virtual workshops and remotely-conducted oral history interviews have enabled us to persevere in the face of stay-at-home orders. And I am thrilled to announce the launch—at last—of our website at voicesoflefferts.org. Please check it out. Many thanks to Laura for ushering it into the world.
Finally, we dedicate this issue to two longtime residents, Aubrey Marquez, a beloved neighbor who died on January 19, two months before Governor Cuomo issued stay-at-home orders, and Dr. James A. Mahoney, a revered pulmonary and critical care physician at University Hospital of Brooklyn, referred to by medical students as “our Jay-Z,” who lost his life to COVID-19 while working to save the lives of others.
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In his moving tribute to Aubrey Marquez, his neighbor on Rutland 2 who passed away earlier this year, Rich Lubell recalls that when Aubrey arrived on the block nearly thirty years ago, moving back into his childhood home after his father had died, he “came not merely as an aid to his mom, but as a guardian, reclaiming his roots, intent on preserving and beautifying the neighborhood for which he had deep affection.” As the block’s unofficial mayor, gardener, and caretaker, Aubrey “became a wealth of local knowledge and gossip, often the first to know who was sick, or had died, and the stories behind neighborhood squabbles and conflicts.” With a rich background of New Orleans Creole, French, Spanish and Black descent on his father’s side, and “British aristocracy and the dignity of free Black communities” from Gouldtown, New Jersey, on his mother’s side, Aubrey, recalls Rich, “was a memorable presence on our block, often resting in conversation with neighbors as he lit up one of his designer pipes with the finest of tobaccos, leaving a sweet aroma in his wake.”
Also hailing from Rutland 2, spoken word artist and high school English teacher Steven “Definition” Rice celebrates the place where he grew up. In “All My Black Boy Joy,” he describes the block in the 1980s from a six-year-old’s perspective, as a school-of-life where he “learned discipline, the urgent need for imagination, how to socialize, and how to help a neighbor in need.” The litany of neighbors’ names speaks for itself: Jasmine, Violet, Kendahl, Kelsey, Pee Wee, Ramel, and a “whole crew” of children played double dutch, red light/green light, hide-and-go-seek, and other games until the street lights came on. “And that’s how it was growing up on Rutland Road,” Rice concludes. “You respected your elders, you did your work, you made great friends and neighbors, and you played hard.”
Jo-Laine Duke-Collins and Claudette Murphy both published essays in our pamphlet published in the spring of 2017, and we are delighted to reprint and archive these essays here in Voices of Lefferts. Like Rice, Jo-Laine still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up. In “Summers of the Village: Prospect Lefferts Gardens,” she describes life on Nostrand Avenue as “a sea of people, hustling to work, children playing in the streets, and men and women exchanging stories, many of which were tales of ‘back home’ in the West Indies or ‘the days’ in Brooklyn.” Recalling summer visits from cousins who had migrated from the West Indies to other places—Canada, Miami, Virginia, and North Carolina—she writes, “We spent nights talking about our adventures for the next day…We traveled alone, bike rides to Wingate Park, long walks to Flatbush and back, lunch at Joy Kitchen Chinese, the neighborhood bodega filled with nostalgic candies, and sunsets in Prospect Park.”
In another representation of the neighborhood’s Caribbean community, Claudette, who has lived for over a decade at the Ebbets Field Apartments, writes about her love for the Crown Heights-Flatbush-PLG area. In “Where Lefferts Gardens Meets Crown Heights,” she recalls growing up in Trinidad, where she and her friends “played ‘cricket in de road’ and hide-and-seek between the cocoa, coffee and banana fig trees.” When she migrated to New York City in the early 2000s, arriving in Brooklyn soon after to marry her boyfriend, she wondered, “Where else in the world would you get such a diverse group living together in harmony…beside the island of Trinidad that I migrated from?”
The last of the full-length essays in this issue is “Sue and Me,” by Brenda Edwards. Originally published in the 2017 pamphlet, Brenda’s story begins with how she and Sue Yellin met in a neighborhood group that was fighting to stop the construction of the 23-story Parkline building at 626 Flatbush Avenue. Though the group lost that particular battle, its anti-gentrification and tenant organizing efforts have continued, and a close friendship evolved between the two women, despite the fact, Brenda writes, “that we are often defined by our differences more than how we are alike.” With a coda on the impact of COVID-19 on the neighborhood and the two friends, “Sue and Me” captures the ethos of the neighborhood through a friendship of two women across racial and religious lines, drawn together by “a common cause: the love of our community and a desire to stay connected to our roots.” Sue tells her own story in an oral history interview described below.
In the first installment of our local artwork feature, we are proud to publish a comic by lifelong PLG resident Cameron Gipson, who graduated this year from the School of Visual Arts. Cameron began by focusing on the mental health impact of sheltering in place, but while he worked on the comic, George Floyd’s murder rocked the nation and protests spread worldwide. The resulting artwork examines the toll of both isolation and continuous racist violence, recording history in the making against the backdrop of Flatbush-PLG.
In November, we launched an oral history initiative with a public interviewer training led by Laura Thorne. Then, in March, as we confronted the global crisis triggered by the coronavirus outbreak, we reconvened that first cohort of interviewers to train on remote interviewing techniques and envision a sub-collection about the pandemic. Since then, eight interviewers have been hard at work gathering testimony from their neighbors to build “A Community History of COVID-19.” The oral history excerpts that appear in this issue are from interviews with Sue Yellin, who discusses facing eviction during COVID-19 and her ongoing struggle to find affordable housing in the neighborhood; Cameron Page, who shares his experience as a hospitalist at Downstate and the urgent need to support medical staff; and Carmen Castillo-Barrett, who tells us about education in the time of the coronavirus and her local science education project, Kiddie Science.
We supplement these excerpts with the COVID Diaries, a collection of short written pieces that reflect the thoughts and feelings of Flatbush-PLG residents in response to COVID-19,exploring the pandemic’s impact on the authors personally and on the neighborhood. Billy Richling, Noel Hefele, and Wendy Cole first reflected on their experience of the pandemic on Facebook and Medium. Norma Williams, a previous contributor to Voices of Lefferts who remains involved in the project as an oral history interviewer, shares a poem about the ambulance sirens that wailed night and day when the virus was tearing through our city. And Cal DeJesus chronicles her work as a mutual aid volunteer, concluding that the pandemic revealed not only “how unprepared we are as a society but also how deep our societal inequalities have become.”
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When I started drafting this introduction on June 3, the protests for racial justice were already in their ninth straight day. Two weeks later, they are still going strong here in Brooklyn, the country, and the world. We also continue to grapple with COVID-19 as New York City begins to reopen. The local impacts of national and global events, and vice versa, have never been clearer, nor has the need to record stories in the words of people across communities with overlapping and very different histories, conditions, and priorities. Voices of Lefferts is ever more committed to documenting, sharing, discussing, and archiving some of the local chapters of these larger stories as they unfold in Flatbush-PLG. –Deborah Mutnick