photo credit: Matthew Weinstein
Published June 13, 2022⏱️
28 min read
Neighbor Profiles – a series of interview-based stories about members of the PPUABA
By Patti Veconi
It is hard to overstate the delight (and relief) the block association's nominating committee feels when a new neighbor steps into an officer’s role in our block association. Ethan Mulligan not only recognized a need, but also acted on it. “I don’t think it’s a secret that the block association leadership was looking for some younger folks to step in and I think it’s important – I do feel we all have a responsibility to our communities. It’s easy to follow national politics, but folks often aren’t as focused on their local community… and, you know, change starts local. I think we could all spend less time screaming at cable TV and more time participating in block association activities, which are less stressful and more impactful.” This isn’t where our conversation started when we met on my deck a couple of weeks ago to hold this interview, but it is a nice introduction and set-up for what was to come in our visit.
Ethan is a proud native of New Jersey, but in moving to Brooklyn has returned to the immigrant roots of his great, great grandfather who is listed in the 1890 census as a coal trader in Kings County. “I think that was his way of sounding fancy to the census bureau. What he probably did was lug coal from the Erie Basin up Atlantic Avenue – maybe to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where I work now.” A few years later, his ancestor moved to “the greener pastures of Kearney” where the family has continued to have roots ever since. Ethan and his (now) wife, Kyle Taylor, moved to Prospect Heights in the fall of 2019 with plans for a June 2020 wedding, but found their plans interrupted by the pandemic. “It’s hard to even remember those first six months now… both of us working from home for the first time and in such close space, we would joke about how tired it made us having to do each other’s jobs as well as our own! But the neighborhood camaraderie every day at 7:00 and hearing Bruce come out with his shofar – that was great. But I didn’t see my parents for months and I still don’t think we’re all past the trauma of it, and obviously we’re still in it because here we are sitting outside. All the things that were laid bare by the pandemic: inequality, food insecurity, healthcare and education disparities… that was on the macro, but here, on the micro level, I did feel part of a community and that was helpful.”
Community was something of a theme throughout our conversation, which then turned to Ethan’s work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (or more accurately, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp.) where he is the Community and Government Affairs Manager. In preparation for our interview I had watched the video on the BNYDC website: https://brooklynnavyyard.org/ – (really, everyone should check it out) – and I was amazed. Who knew? “People not knowing about us is a systemic issue and that’s because the navy, for 165 years, didn’t want people in there. Marines guarded the perimeter with guns and we still have these brick walls. But our mission now is to soften that perimeter – to create public spaces where people can interact with the Yard.” Ethan started to list the myriad opportunities at the Yard, including the food-manufacturing hub at Bldg. 77, the permanent exhibition of naval history at Bldg. 92, the public programing, WWII tours, architecture and infrastructure tours… “It’s really a micro city of 300 acres for 500 businesses employing 11,000 people and we are working hard to let people know that you’re welcome there.” Those numbers amazed me, but what is really impressive is how they connect local residents to the jobs and resources there. Ethan’s work is in building those community connections, which include partnerships with the NYCHA complexes closest to the Yard, local Community Based Organizations like the Myrtle Avenue Restoration Project, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and what I found most exciting, partnerships with local schools, “from elementary all the way up to colleges and universities. We also have a CT (career and technical education) high school on the premises for juniors and seniors who spend half the day at their home school and then half the day at our STEAM center. There are five pathways for study and we work with eight local high schools – all public – that are in our hyper-local catchment area. What’s really, really cool is that, for example, in design engineering when they use 3-D printers or CNC machines, they will be using that same equipment when they go into Yard businesses. A big thing that they get is coming out with industry credentials, so the kids on the culinary path get their food handler’s license, the kid in construction is getting their OSHA 40s, etc. The idea is that if they wanted to step right from high school into a career, they will have these credentials to open doors. While most of them will go on to higher education, we also have an internship program where they intern with us, BNYDC, but also with other businesses here at the Yard… so it is a really cool program that is going well – I think we’re graduating our fourth class this year.” Ethan’s personal involvement in the Yard’s education program is in facilitating what he calls their “pyramid of engagement” which begins with public programming on the bottom, building through their STEAM center, internships, employment opportunities and finally being a business-owner. There are ten zip codes that comprise the catchment area from the neighborhoods that touch the yard. “I’m an ambassador within an eco-system, between the community and the Yard. I go out and explain to folks how they can enter at any one of those levels and then connect people.” This hyper-local focus means that NYCHA residents, for example, get employment opportunities on the Yard in manufacturing. “We focus on manufacturing because these jobs pay more than retail or food service jobs in entry level positions. Also, if you look at the racial breakdown in manufacturing, it reflects that of NYC as a whole more than some of those other industries.” With intentional and purposeful placement of workers through the Yard’s employment center and information workshops to build a cache of ready candidates, the Yard is able to connect local residents to jobs on the Yard. The Employment Center focuses on Brooklyn residents (especially those in the Yard’s catchment area), public housing residents, individuals who are long-term unemployed, and individuals previously involved in the justice system. The last focus is for women in non-traditional roles such as welding or working in the shipyard. I was so impressed and excited hearing about Ethan’s work and what goes on at the BNY – not only because it’s fascinating and I had no idea there was this whole world behind those old stone walls – but because he clearly loves what he does and is (rightly) proud of BNYDC’s mission. I asked a lot of questions and he had a lot more to say, so I feel a bit badly there isn’t room here to give you more details, but while I now had a good sense of the Community part of his job title: Community and Government Affairs Manager, I wanted to understand the latter part more.
“The line that has connected the different jobs in my career has been public service.” For his last semester in college (Johns Hopkins), Ethan was a public service fellow interning on Capitol Hill for the senator from New Jersey. “I moved to DC two days before Barack Obama was inaugurated.” From there he applied to the New York City Civic Corps (formerly AmeriCorps) where he ranked the environment as his first choice and was placed with the Parks Department on the million trees initiative. “My next step was working for a City Council member from Harlem and so I moved to 117th Street to live in the district… that was very fortuitous because that’s where I ended up meeting my wife.” The work was intense and comprised “just about everything from constituent issues work, legislation work, press releases… you’re interacting with everyone.” As difficult as it was, there were moments of real satisfaction. He shared one particularly poignant story involving the director of a supportive housing project. His career continued to evolve and his next job was with the Manhattan Borough President, which was even more intense. “It sounds cheesy, but even though I went to lots of fancy places and did lots of cool stuff working for the council member and borough president, I do remember that guy and how thankful he was. Knowing that it was for supportive housing and helping folks – that felt good.”
While government work is a powerful track, Ethan wanted to explore other opportunities in the private sector and not-for-profits. He landed at the FDR Four Freedoms Park Conservancy on Roosevelt Island, almost a home-coming for this young man from the garden state with a penchant for civic issues. This unique monument to ideas is nestled in the center of the East River and at the tip of a small island. “It’s something of an unknown gem in the city.” Ethan’s job was in visitor services and in addition to enjoying the work immensely, he also discovered a love of birding while on Roosevelt Island. (A hobby I was delighted to learn we share.) He spoke of his time there with real appreciation. “It’s a very meditative place; I encourage everyone to visit. It’s free, and you can now take the F train there, the cable car, the ferry… and not to get political, but the human rights laid out in 1941 and represented here… well, the way the country is struggling now, many people would come and find it interesting – for lack of a better word.” Ethan segued his work in visitor services from Four Freedoms Park to BNYDC, where he had barely gotten his feet wet before replacing the Community Affairs and Government person there. “They knew I had a background in that area, so with a hiring freeze due to the pandemic, I stepped into the void helping with government affairs.”
I came away from my visit with Ethan feeling as though I had learned so much and trying to determine how quickly I could arrange field trips to tour the Navy Yard and visit Four Freedoms Park. Our conversation had returned to the block association and I was talking about the last time I had served as an officer when Ethan interrupted me.* “That’s a chimney swift up there.”* Looking up, we mused about cedar waxwing sightings right here on our block, a yellow warbler in Mount Pleasant Park and a brown creeper in their backyard recently. We watched the swifts for a while, and I gushed a bit over how much material this interview had produced – the anticipated challenge of having to edit it down – and thanked him for sharing his story so thoughtfully. “Well, I do give tours for a living, so I guess I know how to talk.”
Joumana Jaber has the most inviting gaze and one of those voices that is so honeyed and euphonic, it was lucky that our conversation was being recorded because I nearly became hypnotized. Her life has been full of travel and culture, so I asked her to start with some history of what first brought her to Brooklyn. The warmth with which she spoke of her native Lebanon was much more than simply national pride; it was a complete expression of having integrated living the first twelve years of her life in a country under siege with who she is now. “The thing is, my childhood was full of bombs. The Israeli aggression on Lebanon was real, and my mom’s family was living in Bay Ridge, so they sponsored us when the fighting became really intense.” Before immigrating, Joumana’s childhood included running across the street to a neighbor’s shelter “where every family kept a stack of mattresses and a bag of potatoes and onions – and sometimes we were there for four or five days.”
Making the journey at the time she remembers “as being exciting – it was my first time going on an airplane,” but it wasn’t simple. Like many immigrant stories, the one Joumana’s family lived involved many challenges, beginning with the fact that the American Embassy in Beirut was closed at the time. “We had to go live in Syria while processing our immigration papers, and then from Syria to Cairo, then to Amsterdam and finally to New York... and I still remember the ride from Kennedy in my aunt’s station wagon and seeing the Verrazano Bridge – I just fell in love with New York, especially with New York at night.” Joumana’s already silky voice got even lovelier as she leaned into that memory, “New York at night means the world to me – every time I travel – seeing it again, it’s always new, always a new feeling.”
Joumana describes her family’s experience of coming to America as immigrants – particularly for her parents – one in which “You have to forget your previous life – who you were – and you just have to put food on the table… but America means a lot to me, gave me safety, gave me my life, gave us who we are, but also is a place where we stay true to our roots.” She spoke frankly about the difficulty of being an Arab Muslim in America and her ability to keep a balanced perspective of the cultures she straddles, “It’s like you are split between two worlds – two worlds that you absolutely love – two worlds that you are constantly defending... But immigrants are resilient.”
Joumana is a deeply political person, speaking her truth always and not necessarily compartmentalizing those politics when they overlap into other areas of her life. “It’s part of who we are as Arabs. We grow up with politics. We grow up with a passport, a suitcase and a degree in political science.” But much more than just talking about politics, she takes action. Working as a group media manager with a large firm has been Joumana’s professional career, but she has also integrated her passion for helping immigrants, refugees and those displaced by violence around the world with the resources available to her through her company, raising awareness as well as tens of thousands of dollars over the years for various groups. One project is with Syrian refugees funding a school in Jordan. The company partners with a city organization for an annual day out of the office to work in one of the five boroughs cleaning schools, parks and shelters, visiting nursing homes and more. The day ends with an employee raffle from which proceeds go to different charities – for Joumana’s team, this is the Syrian school. Because the company has offices around the world, this has become an international project, building awareness while doing meaningful work for others. During the height of the pandemic when an explosion in Beirut killed 171 people, Joumana helped to organize support for hundreds of Lebanese families through an organization called Menelab Charity raising $10,000 herself. She was featured in a story about that work in the non-partisan digital news platform “The City.”
One of Joumana’s other passions is travel. I knew this not only because scheduling our visit for this article meant squeezing in an early morning appointment some hours before she was scheduled to leave on another one of her trips, but also because the only other time we had ever spoken was after a recent return from a trip she had made to Africa. This was some years ago at a neighbor’s party and I don’t remember her exact words at the time, but I very much remember her telling me that it was the most important place in the world to go. Today, she is no less fervent on the subject. “Oh yes, it grounds you. The first time I went my life wasn’t as comfortable as it is now... and I remembered what my mom would always tell me: ‘education, education, education’ and traveling is an education, a ticket to life. So I took her strength and advice and working through tumult in my own life I went to Africa and that place gave me inner peace.” That journey brought her back to America with what became the first project she pursued through the resources available with her company, which was Feed the Children. They built seven schools with clean water. She has since returned several times to Africa with another trip planned for next year with her daughter. More broadly, she describes all of her travels through the simple action of having a morning cup of coffee. “You know how when you wake up in the morning and you make that first delicious cup of coffee? No matter where you sit – at a café or on your stoop or at a window somewhere – wherever I travel I get up early and have that first cup of coffee somewhere and I watch people, and then you always remember that moment – you’re never the same – you always connect that city with that cup of coffee. I just love how life starts in the morning.” Remember how I started this by saying her voice could hypnotize? This was the point in our conversation where it struck me that I was speaking to a kind of life artist: someone who sees and experiences the world through a deeply emotional lens and who can then express those memories in a very beautiful way.
Joumana came to Underhill Avenue and Prospect Heights through her husband, Dan Deverell, with whom she shares a blended family of four children. She has now been here twelve years and she speaks very fondly of her Underhill Avenue block and the closeness of her neighbors there – with particular appreciation for the many countries and cultures represented and how “We all come from different parts of the world and I love them dearly.”
Our conversation ambled on to cooking, children, reading, home decorating, the souls in these old brownstones... our gray hair... it was one of those conversations I was sorry to see end, but left feeling we will pick right back up on at the next opportunity.
April, 2022 My first memory of Al Bass was from a block party some twenty years ago. He had been manning the music and sound entertainment station for the day, keeping us all in a festive spirit with lively tunes. Then, as the afternoon was getting lazy and the tables were starting to pack up, he picked up the microphone and began crooning out a jazz ballad. Al was in his element and having fun, but more than that, he cared about what he was sharing with his neighbors in that song; he wanted to engage and invite us in, and those same qualities of comfortably being in his element, joy and genuine caring have come together in literally every area of his life’s work. Speaking with Al is a pleasure. He takes his time, listening to his own story as he tells it in a kind of magical balance between narrator and audience, sprinkling a warm chuckle throughout his anecdotes and marveling along with me at moments of consequence, irony or poignancy. While it is easy to list achievements as the signpost markers that define a person, (and he has more than his share to enumerate) Al speaks with equal pride and satisfaction about the success he has enjoyed refinishing wood flooring or leading a karaoke party.
Al first came to Brooklyn as a young child, living in Crown Heights and then Bed Stuy until, as a young man, his college studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army. In revisiting that history, Al’s naturally wry and understated style could not minimize the significance of that experience. “You may recall that the sixties was a very interesting period in the U.S. – especially as it relates to the Black consciousness movement.” His call to service in 1968 came just at the time he was becoming aware of political and social shifts in the world. He began his stint in Key West, Florida “…where the US had a base set up to deal with the threat of Cuba.” Al was assigned to the personnel unit where it was his job to type up the orders that came down from headquarters that reassigned servicemen who would be going from that base to Vietnam. “I was there so long I thought that I wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam.” He chuckled at the memory of how confidently he came home during leave in August of 1969. “But when I came back a couple months later and read the list of new names: there was my name. It turned out I had to type my own orders sending me to Vietnam!”
Al talked for a while about his experience in Vietnam, but let me take a step back here for a moment to say that listening to his remarkably gentle, mellifluous voice as he described his time there belied the intensity of what that experience must have been. It struck me in particular that instead of using the word racism, Al uses the words “hatred energy” to describe an environment that “…started here in the U.S., but in Vietnam it was really pronounced.” And why not: isn’t hatred energy what racism is? The saving grace was the community he found himself in. “There was a brotherhood that formed naturally to resist this hatred energy and that brotherhood allowed us to exist and survive in the service differently than previously – I think…That brotherhood prevented a whole lot of negative stuff – it insulated us from the hatred.”
Because of his two years in college, Al was assigned to the officers’ branch as a sergeant – a rare position for African American servicemen at the time. Despite language barriers, the Vietnamese Al interacted with made their opinions about him clear, but he used his position to try to educate and to deal with the racism that permeated everything in that environment. This included working in the affirmative action committee to find discriminatory policies within the command. Bringing attention to the disparities of representation by people of color among officers (1.6%) versus all other units in the service (well over 50%) did not impress Al’s superiors at the time, but it did impress Al, who parlayed that wartime experience into a lifetime of community organizing.
Al returned to New York and civilian life spending the early 1970s as an adult advisor to the Youth Leadership Foundation in the Bronx, finishing his Bachelor’s degree (Cum Laude in Business Management) and simultaneously working to support a new family. He returned to Brooklyn in 1974 where his work in tenant organizing took hold after an initial experience building a coalition of neighbors who were being forced out of their building on Eastern Parkway during a renovation. That project left him with an appreciation for what could be achieved through organizing as they won their court case against the landlord, but also, “Based on that experience, I decided that I didn’t want to be a tenant anymore.” In the early 80s he started looking for a townhouse and found one in Clinton Hill. “It was a fixer-upper and they were asking close to 90K, but after conducting an inspection with a professional, I was able to get that home for 35K.” (Insert another one of those warm chuckles here.) “The roof was bad, the boiler was out, pipes had burst…a myriad of things…but I proceeded over the next fifteen years to restore the house myself.” During this time, Al also organized a non-profit called Brooklyn Neighborhood Improvement Association (BNIA), which became part of a coalition opposing the city’s plan for redevelopment of city-owned properties here in both Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. The city’s proposal (under then-Mayor Ed Koch) called for all of its properties west of Washington Avenue to be developed as market rate housing while all those east of Washington Avenue were to be developed as what was euphemistically being referred to as affordable. “Washington Avenue was to be the dividing line where poor folks would be on this side and everyone else…well, it was worse than redlining...” The coalition successfully argued for quality, mixed-income housing throughout the development areas under consideration and further proposed that different organizations sponsor developers for the various site projects. BNIA worked specifically with units here on St. Marks and “The Crown Prospect Houses” was redeveloped with a 1% ownership in the project. After the regulatory agreements expired the city transferred complete ownership of the project to BNIA, which today holds 100% ownership interest in the project, ensuring that those units will continue to remain affordable in perpetuity. It’s a legacy of my otherwise modest subject that elicited a particularly warm smile and chuckle in its telling. “Prior to us, we’re not aware of anyone ever doing that, but being involved in housing and understanding the problems of gentrification and redevelopment…well, our position was that the community needs to own and manage the housing on a non-profit basis.” Today, BNIA is 42 years strong and one of the few organizations of its kind in New York to survive that long.
With a master’s degree in Public Administration that focused on urban development issues, it is easy to see how Al’s professional and volunteer/civic work have overlapped. “There is a connection between all of my activities where one thing leads to another.” Al’s professional journey has covered a variety of private and government sector positions including Assistant Director in the Governor’s Office of Minority and Women Owned Business Development; Supervisor with the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Preservation Program; Housing and Community Development Representative with the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal; and a manager with the MTA’s Office of Civil Rights. In addition to that impressive resume, there have been times when he has pursued a variety of self-employment ventures. Those times when he found himself between steady gigs were when he made opportunities for himself that tapped into both his artistic/creative abilities and his people skills. He has worked as a photographer, a karaoke host, a handyman and more. I recognize in Al the work ethic of generations of Americans who are now becoming less and less the norm – he has never shied away from learning something new: “Sweat equity is the mother of invention…to me, calling a plumber seems strange.”
Circling back to that first impression I had of Al Bass the singer, he chuckled (a really delightful one) and gave me his history with music from the time he was a kid singing with his older brother (Mom made them stop touring to prioritize school) to a stint in a college group and later, being recruited as lead-singer for a band that he spent three years touring the east coast with. “That was an experience that demonstrated what can be done when people come together with various talents and energies and choose to work together to support one another.” He paused a moment then added, “Musicians who have different skills are no different than folks who come together to make sure Vanderbilt Avenue stays open.”
After more than ninety minutes of a truly engaging narrative, it was time to wrap up and Al noticed that the two most local and relevant organizations we share in common hadn’t been discussed. “I left out PPUABA and PHNDC!” We chatted a bit more and he concluded with this: “I try to stay low key; by nature I try to fill in the blanks. If I see people doing stuff, I’m happy to play a supportive role and add to the mix where something needs to be added because most of the time, even when there are obvious leaders, there is support that needs to be done.” Somehow, even after hearing about a lifetime of taking on leadership roles, this modest assertion did not come as a surprise. Al isn’t someone who you think of as rolling up his sleeves and getting to work, he’s someone you think of as never having buttoned those cuffs in the first place.
A quick Google search for Chrissy Angliker will fill your screen with images of her paintings – rich, bold, mesmerizing… I’m a neighbor, not an art critic – I just know that they are arrestingly beautiful and inviting: representational enough to let me in but abstract enough to let me interpret. She has a current solo show at Massey Klein Gallery, so this month’s profile is particularly timely.
Chrissy invited me to meet with her in the cozy Park Place apartment she shares with her “brand new husband,” Mike Hanne. It’s a home she says evokes the chalets of her native Switzerland. “Especially now in winter and after the snowstorm we just had – all the wood and the angled ceilings – and since I can’t go home, it’s combining all my worlds in one and it’s so comforting. We just really love it.” Chrissy is new to Prospect Heights but first came to Brooklyn to study industrial design at Pratt then stayed in Clinton Hill for another decade. After recognizing that the “safe track” wasn’t right for her – “I tried all the avenues of creative expression through design, but it didn’t touch on what I needed to communicate” – she made the decision to end her six-year hiatus from painting and return to it. She describes this reunion as being like the return to a relationship. “It was scary, but I needed to check in and find out… is it still the one? Because if it was, my whole life would have to change, but also if it wasn’t then I would have resolution and peace with that decision.”
Listening to Chrissy describe her return to painting was like being told a beautiful love story: vulnerable, intimate, self-aware and ultimately humble before her art. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a little, appreciating how beautifully she can articulate and express that journey. Her work is about finding a balance between control and chaos. (I had read this already in her bio before we met, but was amazed at the extent to which this really is the authentic lived experience of her work.) “It’s about me being in control but at the same time letting paint have its own expression, its own gravity, its own will… so also accepting not having control.” This control/chaos balance is essential to her expression as an artist and what was missing for her in design. “In design, you build things for the world… but I always felt that painting is about the world.” Recognizing and staying fluid with how the world is constantly changing takes this important distinction further for Chrissy, and brought us to a point in our conversation about her current show and how the pandemic has informed her most recent work. “Look where we are now… my relationship to my process has to be upped to match the new times.” Living through the pandemic in lockdown as a New Yorker, particularly those early weeks, Chrissy realized that her family and friends in Switzerland were having a very different experience – especially because she was still in her previous industrial loft apartment in an area with no trees. “I was starved for nature.” Adding to the isolation was the growing sentiment that the pandemic was somehow “a great opportunity for artists… you know, when things are crazy that’s when the artists will come and save the day.” For Chrissy that sentiment felt like an expectation to automatically convert everyone’s shared experience into something with “a pretty bow – to explain what it’s all about” when in reality she was “speechless for a long time.” I was struck by that word – speechless – because Chrissy had also described her art as a language during our conversation, and in asking her to elaborate she doubled down on the word, explaining that “It’s important to know when you’re speechless and not pretend you can say something…even though those are painful times, you have to wait… which is again, the loss of control.”
In her early pandemic painting, Chrissy returned to subject matters that come and go for her, including water. With the water paintings, she found a way to be present with her feelings in spite of the speechlessness she was also experiencing. “Also, very literally, it was painting about the blues… being in touch with the blues… trying to explore the full landscape of what being blue can mean. Those paintings were about functioning in the space (of the pandemic) when I wasn’t yet able to comment or incorporate this new reality that was still unfolding.”
Even though she kept painting through those difficult times, it wasn’t until after Chrissy and Mike moved to Park Place last spring that she began to find the new vocabulary for where her work would take her next. She is thrilled to be in a home where she can “look out and see trees… where it’s bird heaven – and the buildings you see, they’re beautiful brownstones.” The immediate connection that Chrissy felt in coming to the block was largely due to how welcomed she felt as an artist. “It can be tricky when you’re an artist looking for a place to live because of the preconceived notions about responsibility and finances – but coming here and being received not only without judgment, but with excitement (she makes a winning gesture) it was incredible!” After getting permission to have a stoop garden, Chrissy was introduced to her gardening neighbor, Den Gordon, who shared moon flowers for her to start with, “and then nature flooded in… now I don’t even have the urge to leave the city.”
Flowers became the new vocabulary that Chrissy had been waiting for during those speechless days. She had begun to anticipate that nature’s expression of blooming would be her next inspiration, and through both noticing how “flowers were manifesting everywhere around me” and weekly trips to the farmer’s market to buy fresh bouquets, “the inspiration came and it kicked in.” She specifically works with cut flowers that are still blooming. “Flowers are ancient – an archetype – and flower painting is forever, so working with cut flowers speaks about something that is at its height, but cut at its source… so it’s a violence and a crescendo of drama – the beauty of life and death coming together – a symbol of us now. The flower is the perfect vessel for what I want to say.” Bringing her inspiration photographs into the studio, Chrissy has structure up to the moment she begins to paint, saying that she enters the work through reality, but then surrenders control so that “the paint and I enter into a dialogue – I’m keeping it realistic in that it doesn’t turn into a completely abstract painting, but I let the paint speak as it wants to and that’s when I learn what it’s about.” Chrissy also has a phrase from her native Swiss/German that is present when she works. The literal translation is “say it through a flower,” but the meaning is more nuanced and translates as “To deliver news that is difficult through gentleness, elegance, grace and great care.”
Writing this neighbor profile on a snowy 25° day, I can think of nothing better than heading over to Massey Klein Gallery to see Chrissy Angliker’s show, “Crazy Says the Daisy.” It will be on view through March 5.
Massey Klein Gallery is located at 124 Forsyth St. New York, NY 10002. Hours are Thurs-Sun from 12:00-5:00. For questions about works available, please contact email@example.com or call +1.917.261.4657.
Chrissy’s photograph was taken next to her impressive collection of Tschäggättä masks. These imposing masks with a mysterious history are a folk art tradition from the Lötschental Valley in her native Switzerland.
In addition to her current gallery show, Chrissy’s paintings can be seen on her website at www.chrissy.ch.
Our neighbor Rhoda Westerman first came to Prospect Heights almost sixty years ago. “Guess what my rent was in the 1960s?” Um... around $200? My guess was low, but still pretty far off. “Eighty-three dollars a month. Eighty-three! And things were so different then; I would walk up these dark streets and wasn’t nobody but me coming back from work.” Rhoda describes Vanderbilt Avenue in those days as very quiet, “Just a little grocery store, a shoe repair and a hair dresser (Miss Cleo). Cleo would go to second hand shops out on Atlantic and Nostrand and come back with things to sell out front on the sidewalk on weekends. Vanderbilt Avenue was a ghost town, but everybody looked out for one another.”
Born in Manhattan on 63rd Street, Rhoda was the youngest of seven children and she still marvels that her mother had to take a boat to the hospital on Roosevelt Island where she was born. Rhoda’s attachment to Brooklyn began in her teens when she started working at Abraham and Straus, and I notice something that has struck me before in the many conversations we have had about her 30-year career with the flagship department store: she only refers to it by its full name, not the easy abbreviation of A&S. A testament to how proud she was of her time and work there. “I started as a cashier and worked there all through high school and then stayed. I did every kind of job there. My mother died when I was in high school and they were so good to me.”
In the mid-70s, Rhoda made a career change and went to work for Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s wife), moving to Brownsville where she became the housing assistant at Rutland Road Plaza. Mrs. Robinson’s real estate development company specialized in low- to moderate-income housing, and it was at Rutland that Rhoda found her vocation as a Cub Scout den leader. Recognizing a need among the little boys who lived at Rutland Plaza, Rhoda chartered a Cub Scout troop. She is still remembered by some of those boys, (now men), including the Mayor of Savannah, Georgia, Van Johnson II. Mayor Johnson spoke at Rhoda’s 80th birthday party and in a letter she keeps on the wall, he fondly remembers the impact she made on his life.
Rhoda would shepherd a dozen little boys on outings and overnight trips with more classroom management than most teachers ever get, and she remembers them all as beautiful boys she shared adventures with. A favorite Cub Scout story she tells is of the 1977 blackout when about 20 little boys stayed the night in her two-bedroom apartment until their parents could safely come get them the next day. “I always had other people’s children,” she remembers with pride.
It would be hard to overstate the importance that church has, and always has had, in Rhoda’s life. She was a longtime member of New Frontier Baptist Church, staying until the death of their pastor. She then joined Brooklyn Tabernacle, through which she has built many friendships, including with people who have sought out the famous church on visits to New York. My husband’s Aunt from Wisconsin is one such long-distance friend. A family visiting once from California came to the church and sat next to Rhoda. When the service was over, they asked her for directions to the subway, but Rhoda went one better, escorting them all the way back to their hotel. They have returned many times to New York to see Rhoda since then and continue to stay connected as loyal pen pals.
When Rachel Robinson closed her business, Rhoda returned both to Prospect Heights and also A&S, where she worked until retirement. She then began caring for an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Hill, at 296 Park Place, eventually moving with her husband to live in the house. When I asked Rhoda what she thinks has changed in the neighborhood, her answer wasn’t surprising – especially for 2022: “Something that’s changed here is the people connections. I miss the meetings. Mrs. Hill would make sure I met everyone when I first came. Everyone is still very friendly, but making connections isn’t as easy.”
Connecting with people is a particular gift of Rhoda’s. She is known locally as the founder of the Grand Army Plaza Wedding Watchers: an informal but very dedicated group that would go every Saturday during the summer to support and help bridal parties with their photographs at the fountain. A video story by the New York Times in which Rhoda narrates can be found here.
With the recent death of her beloved husband David, and the challenges of living in a home with so many stairs to navigate, Rhoda is now considering looking for a place that can better suit her changing needs. She does have one condition, however: “I want to stay in Prospect Heights. This is the best neighborhood. I don’t know everybody; but I know just about everybody.”
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