Issue 6, Winter 2021
The Death and Life of a Neighborhood Cooperative
Save Lenox Road!
Building a Life in Flatbush
Within Your Perception
Noel Hefele (featured artist)
Love Letter from Alaska to Flatbush-Prospect Lefferts Gardens
A Community History of COVID-19: Excerpts of oral history interviews with Flatbush-PLG residents conducted during the pandemic
– Norma Williams interviews Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick Cohall
– Laura Thorne interviews Emily Tellier
– Nancy Hoch interviews Nowshin Ali and Anurag Shrivastava
Editorial Perspective: All About Love
The change of seasons this year has, like everything else, been suffused by the strangeness of COVID-19. Since New York locked down in March, the earth has made three-quarters of its usual trip around the sun—it has taken forever—and here we are, still in the grip of the pandemic of 2020, still bracing for the worst. This issue of Voices of Lefferts reflects the conditions of life in Flatbush–Prospect Lefferts Gardens in the time of coronavirus. As we have witnessed here and worldwide, the disproportionate impact of COVID and subsequent economic fallout on working class people of color is not accidental but rather results from deep-rooted structures of racism and class division, leaving front-line healthcare, transit, supermarket, delivery, and other workers more vulnerable than their more affluent, mainly white counterparts who are able to work remotely or flee the city. No one is exempt, but, as Mya Guarnieri Jaradat noted in the Washington Post, “We’re not all in this together.”
This issue was born of a workshop that started as usual last February at Grace Reformed Church and went remote by our third meeting in March. If we are all pros by now at meeting virtually on various online platforms, back then we were just finding our way. That almost everyone who joined in person stayed in the workshop to the end and is publishing a piece in this issue is a testament to their—our collective—adaptability and resilience. Though not all those pieces chronicle or even mention the pandemic, it remains a through line of the issue precisely because the reality pervades our everyday lives, will do so for at least months to come, and will become a historic marker like the 1918 pandemic over a hundred years ago.
As Voices of Lefferts readers know by now, that is our mission: to document the neighborhood’s history from the distant past to the exigency of the moment, in the words of the people who live here. In that vein, we dedicate this issue to Bob Thomason, whose death on November 10 at age 92 leaves a gaping hole in the neighborhood’s fabric. Librarian, ballroom dancer, world bicycle traveler, crooner of old tunes, passionate antiracist, social justice activist, Bob was one of the founders of the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA), incorporated in 1969.
Bob helped make history in 1960s Flatbush by spearheading efforts to combat racist real estate and bank practices. He would fight for the rest of his life for racial and economic justice as the bedrock of a neighborhood’s ethos and quality of life. In 1973, he contributed to a PLGNA victory in a landmark legal case against redlining, the banking practice of denying loans in areas deemed financially risky. Decades later, many readers will recall Bob standing up at PLGNA general membership meetings or other local events, always fervent, punctuating every word with his fist. Here he is in a 1979 letter to the PLGNA Board:
“Lest our roots be forgotten, here is how we started. In 1968 Martin Luther King was killed, black urban ghettos erupted, and President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to tell America the meaning of those riots. Conclusion: that we were heading toward a split society of angry blacks, fearful whites, a police state to keep the peace, and a loss of freedom for everyone. I reacted by making a Christian commitment to work to build an interracial neighborhood where I lived.”
“In the end, it is all about love,” Bob said in his waning days, according to his beloved wife Jane. Flatbush-PLG has lost one of its fiercest fighters for social justice, but his spirit lives on in the place he helped create. Bob’s love was for people, places, and life itself. As Jane put it: “He loved every moment of each day, and never once in the 60 + years that we shared, never did he ever come home without reporting on a most wonderful experience that he had that day.”
We honor Bob with an issue that proudly features his neighbors, new and old. It includes essays and poetry by Mikela Ragin, Ashar Foley, Judy Spence, Meg Stentz, Kristofer Lyons, Rachel Hayes, and Ana Malagon. These writers were developing pieces during the first devastating months of the pandemic as sirens roared past our windows, cheers for front-line workers broke out at 7 o’clock each evening throughout the eerily silent city, and hospitals filled with the sick and dying. We gathered on Saturday afternoons in virtual space just as we had done in person at the church, and we always spent the first ten minutes or more checking in to see how everyone was doing.
This need to touch base and take stock of the new realities of everyday life can be seen in Mikela Ragin’s poetic diary “The Storyteller,” in which COVID-19 begins as a “global rift” and the narrator becomes a chronicler of her times: “And I will record it. What we carry and how we use it … I’ll write it down for us to look back on whenever we need to.” These acts of recording history as we live it are beacons of light to the writer who struggles to make sense of her world, to the reader who looks to others to help guide the way, and, finally, to future generations who will want to know what it was like in 2020, in Flatbush-PLG and for this particular author. The work of storytelling is never done, Mikela concludes, promising, “We’ll reconnect soon.”
In “The Death and Life of a Neighborhood Cooperative,” Ashar Foley meditates on the complexity of de facto racial segregation. The essay pivots on the remark of a passerby on a bicycle who says she sometimes hates Q Gardens, a local community garden, because “Every time I come here, I see only white people.” Ashar notes that the woman is white, she herself is white, and the other two women who happen to be in the garden are white. Troubled by the remark, she wrestles with its implications. By reflecting on her experience as a volunteer at a neighborhood food coop attempting to build a more diverse membership, she comes to understand that: “[W]hite supremacy culture is not just about blatant forms of racism but also about specific practices and attitudes that maintain whiteness as a position of power and as the default perspective.”
Judy Spence moved to Flatbush-PLG in 1973. Back then, it was considered a “‘nice’ neighborhood, one where doors were, not long before, pretty much closed to people of color.” In “Save Lenox Road!” she laments with bitter irony that she and her husband, along with many other longtime residents and newcomers, must contend with gentrification and possible displacement. Jokingly referred to as “Ground Zero,” her block has become infamous for the destruction of freestanding houses that face the wrecking ball. And yet, as she documents in her essay, the power of collective action she and her neighbors have taken to stop development and save the neighborhood has seen success—big and small—and that, she concludes, is something to celebrate!
In “Building a Life in Flatbush,” Meg Stentz tells the story of meeting her partner Mat on Machu Pichu and moving in with him a year later to share a life together in Flatbush-PLG. Intertwined with their sweet love story—a happy ending awaits you, dear reader—are place-specific lessons about what it means to be a young, middle class white couple in a gentrifying neighborhood. Reflecting on their relationship to each other and to Flatbush-PLG on long walks through Prospect Park, they delight in listening to the music of the African Drum Circle yet feel self-conscious about their whiteness, their outsiderness. Meg concludes, “When we talk about the future we want, we talk about the growth that comes from living in community. When we live in diversity, we get to know our neighbors and ourselves.”
Kristofer Lyons, in “Within Your Perception,” takes us on a journey from the United Kingdom to Flatbush, where he moved at age twelve with his Senegalese mother and his Haitian father, to the present as he winds through an “intricate polka-dot spider web design” of brownstone houses. “If you’re not familiar,” he notes, “it’s very easy to get lost.” In a struggle to connect with the people he sees, whose pain he, too, feels, outsider and insider, rich and poor, he writes about “the metabolism of the Brooklyn borough” and “the painfully beautiful reality of New York.”
The novel coronavirus assumes a persona in Rachel Hayes’s poem “Invisible,” making its way through “droplets” and “pathogens” to “grab hold of the weak, the old and the young, anyone and everyone I can take.” This invisible enemy delights in its power to shut down countries and “leave permanent scars” on the world’s history. Yet in her ironic tribute to COVID-19, Rachel ultimately asserts a sober message of hope that we, the collective body of the world’s people, have “an opportunity to begin again” and to “heal [y]our land and reconstruct [y]our cities.”
Finally, Ana Magalon’s “Love Letter from Alaska to Flatbush-Prospect Lefferts Gardens” traces her movement from Seattle to Brooklyn, where she “found banana leaves at Western Beef and plantain chips everywhere,” biked on foggy nights, planted callaloo and kale in the Lincoln Street garden, joined a hot yoga class on Flatbush, participated in a book group at Grace Reformed Church, quit her programming job, and decided to become an emergency medical technician. “And then,” she writes, “it was COVID time and we stayed inside.” Her love letter to the neighborhood is just that: a closely observed story of her life here and how it hurt to leave for a farm internship in Alaska at the height of the pandemic.
We are also pleased in this issue to feature Noel Hefele’s paintings of the neighborhood and three oral history excerpts from interviews in our COVID-19 collection, with Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick Cohall, Emily Tellier, and Nowshin Ali and Anurag Shrivastava of People In Need. Although Noel moved out of Flatbush-PLG this year, he is well known here for his landscape paintings of the park, local streets, and bird’s eye views of the neighborhood—all of which originated in the pre-COVID era inspired by his daily walks.
Rev. Dr. Cohall discusses what it is like to care for his congregation’s spiritual needs and sustain “vital and vibrant” community involvement in the time of COVID-19. Emily Tellier, a dancer whose freelance jobs last spring were all canceled when the city locked down, reports on her life and work at Gibney Dance, offering virtual classes in the schools and homeless shelters in a program called Hands Are For Holding. Finally, Nowshin Ali and Anurag Shrivastava talk about the heroic collective efforts of People In Need to alleviate hunger in Flatbush neighborhoods during the pandemic.
Looking ahead, we are thrilled to announce a new, special project for 2021 called Flatbush Eats, inspired in part by the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project’s never- published collection “America Eats.” We will partner with community gardens, eateries, merchants, and cultural organizations to explore the topic of food in relation to local recipes, cooking, cultures, and oh yes, eating! We will also examine issues of food insecurity, hunger, mutual aid, food and social reproduction, and food and the environment. In addition to a special issue of the journal and oral history interviews, we plan to hold public events if COVID permits (here’s hoping!!) and promise to have lots and lots of food at all of them. –Deborah Mutnick