Death of a Sunday: Greenpoint Library Holds Candlelight Vigil

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

 

Book lovers gathered to mourn the death of Sunday services at the Brooklyn Public Library at a candlelight vigil in front of the Greenpoint public library on Sunday Oct. 17. 

 

After Mayor Adams five percent budget cut announcement, libraries announced their closures on Nov. 26. to cut back costs. After this Sunday, the Brooklyn branch, the last New York library branch to do so, is following suit. Sophia Cohen, a local resident, said that the community would feel the loss of Sunday service. 

 

“It’s horrible. I think this is such a vital service to the community and to lose a day where people can come and read and work, it’s a huge loss for the community,” Cohen said. 

 

With candles ablaze, politicians, community members, library go-ers and activists gathered to speak out against the budget cuts. With less than one percent of the city’s budget allocated for public libraries, the collective budget is down to $12.6 million from $36.2 million the previous year. State Senator Emily Gallagher said that Adams’ cuts were a reflection of his warped views on public safety. 

 

“A budget is a statement of our values,” Gallagher said. “Mayor Adams professes that public safety is at the core of what he’s about. We know at the core of public safety are places like a library, where people can go and be safe.” 

 

Lauren Comito, one of the organizers of the event and the board chair of Urban Librarians Unite, said libraries are a haven for community members. By slashing Sunday services, Comito said that the city was taking away time that neighbors could be together in a protected environment. 

 

“This is a place where people know each other. Those sort of tangential connections you don’t get when you’re working from home or staring at your phone on the subway,” Comito said. “Librarie are about people. Libraries are about human beings and the human stories inside them.” 

 

Lincoln Restler, District 33 city councilmember, said that New York City had a higher revenue than initially anticipated, eradicating the need to trim down on the city’s budget. According to a report by New York City Council, the city’s budget has a $2.6 billion surplus for 2024. 

 

“What is up with Eric Adams and his austerity agenda? The Independent Budget Office said there are billions of dollars in additional revenue this year. The council finance division has said there are billions of dollars in additional revenue this year,” Restler said. “There is no need for the mayor’s cuts. It is wrong. It is shameful.” 

 

Kevin LaCherra, a Greenpoint transportation activist and an organizer of the event, said New Yorkers deserve seven days a week services. LaCherra expressed his frustration with the mayor for cutting essential services. 

 

“We believe that seven day a week service ought to be the absolute bare minimum of what this neighborhood deserves, of what our city deserves. Greenpoint has seen clearly over the course of last year who this mayor is and what his priorities are,” LaCherra said. “At the end of the day, Eric Adams is far more concerned about what he can take from our communities than what he can give to them.” 

 

An employee of the Brooklyn Public Library, who declined to be named in the article, said their office was devastated when they heard that Sunday services would be cut. Despite their feelings in the office, the employee said they were happy with the crowd at the Greenpoint branch that came out to show their support. 

 

“I think it’s terrible. [The library is] a thing that people use no matter your background or if you can afford it, and so I think it’s sad,” the employee said. “I think it’s great that they’re spreading awareness and expressing the gravity of the situation.” 

 

John Cordovez, a union leader for library technical workers at Local 1930, said that the cuts would undermine the trust that patrons of the library have had in the institution for years. Cordovez said it was time for community members to rally in support for restoring Sunday service and increasing funding for libraries across the city. 

 

“The power is in the people, it has always been about the people, and we should continue to do what we need to do to get the word out and continue to fight,” Cordovez said. 

Collective Real Estate: A New Model for Vanishing Public Spaces?

By Oona Milliken | [email protected] 

 

After an 18-month long fight, advocates for halting the sale of Greenpoint’s Park Church to developers GW Equities LLC are still pushing. In front of an audience gathered in the backroom of The Palace on Dec. 13, Jeremy Hook, an activist pushing to keep the church intact, announced that the sale has been paused by the Attorney General’s Office until January and community members can find a way to get enough money to buy the church. Hook’s proposal, under the name Commonplace, is to pool money from interested investors in order to own the property as a community collective. 

 

“This is an opportunity that we can win,” Hook said. “There is a mechanism that exists by which many, many, many hundreds, even thousands, of people can collectively raise funds to purchase property in New York City.” 

 

According to their website, Commonplace is meant to be a public space that is open to Greenpointers of all ages and walks-of-life to have a spot to gather. Their website reads: 

 

“What if there were a space in your neighborhood, like a giant living room, where you could meet your neighbors for a communal meal, play ping-pong with a stranger, see a concert with friends, schedule a meeting with collaborators, practice your hand at life drawing, or dance until late under a spinning disco ball?” 

 

The collective’s obstacle is raising enough money to make the proposition a reality. Hook said his goal over the holidays was to show the Attorney General Office that enough people had pledged money to halt the sale, approximately $1.25 million of the $4.8 million needed to beat GW Equities’ offer of $4.7 million. Hook said that people have already pledged $375,000, with $825,000 left to go. 

 

“I think we need it pledged, not in a bank, just pledged on a sheet that I can forward to the judge and say ‘Call any of these numbers,’” Hook said. “And these people will say that, ‘I did indeed pledge that amount of money,’ now I’m going to try and turn that pledge into a mechanical thing.”

 

The Attorney General’s Office was not available for comment to verify Hook’s claim. 

 

Commonplace is working with NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative, a non-profit organization that seeks to make the process of collectively buying land and property in New York easier. David Glick, a co-founder of REIC, said the money collected from community members would go into an existing bank account that could be used to purchase the church. 

 

“We see [REIC] as a way of democratizing the tools that are normally restricted to a few, putting them in the hands of everyday workers to have more of a voice and be empowered through crowd investment,” Glick said. 

 

Lyn Pinezich, a filmmaker and a Greenpoint resident, said the Commonplace proposal was incredibly exciting. Pinezech said she has been disappointed in seeing so many semi-public spaces being converted into real-estate developments and did not know that organizations like REIC existed.

 

“In the past, this would have been a slam dunk for the developer,” Pinezich said. “However, these sorts of structures that are apparently in place now that I hadn’t ever heard of before, are really encouraging, because I do feel that these communal things that benefit a community outweigh the value of an individual person, especially in a building that has never been a commercial space.” 

 

Mikel McCavana and Sam Palumbo, attendees of the presentation, said they would both pledge money to try and make Commonplace a reality. McCavana said he had attended music shows at Park Church before the pandemic and valued the church’s role as a community gathering area. 

 

“My first memory of the church was going to this ambient noise and projection show. Very sick,” McCavana said. “I’m really happy living in this neighborhood and I would be sad to see a space, like a potential community space, not being used to its full potential.” 

 

On whether or not the Commonplace plan would become a reality, McCavana said he wasn’t sure, but wanted the proposal to go through. 

 

“I have no ability to conceive of whether or not it’s going to be successful, I have no idea. I want it to be, love it to be successful,” McCavana said. 

 

With the January deadline looming, Greenpointers have a ways to go before Commonplace can be set into motion. Still, Pinezich said she wanted the residents of the community to stay hopeful and not give up on Park Church quite yet. 

 

“This is not a pie in the sky idea, that a community can value something and it carries weight for once,” Pinezich said. 

Brooklyn District Attorney Hosts Gun Buyback

Oona Milliken | [email protected] 

In the dining room of Junior’s Restaurant & Bakery this past week, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that the District Attorney’s office would be offering $400 to buy illegal guns and assault rifles at a Brooklyn church on Saturday, Dec. 16. For every additional gun, owners will be offered $200, as well as $25 for rifles, shotguns, imitation pistols, air guns and non-operable weapons. The event is intended to provide a space for illegal gun owners to relinquish their firearms without punishment. After collection, the guns will be taken out of commission and melted by the NYPD. 

 

Gun violence has gone up seven percent in New York City between 2011 and 2020, according to statistics collected by Everytown. Gonzalez said the Brooklyn DA has created a comprehensive strategy for reducing these statistics, including prosecuting illegal gun possession, targeting gangs in Brooklyn as well gathering intelligence on repeat offenders of crimes and deaths involving firearms. The gun buyback, the third event of its kind that the District Attorney’s Office has hosted, is just one of those methods. 

 

“It’s very hard to get rid of a gun. You can’t just call the police department and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a gun and I’d like to surrender it,’ Gonzalez said. “[The buyback] allows you to surrender [illegal] guns to make sure that they don’t get used in the commission of a crime, and it will help save lives.” 

 

Critics have questioned if gun buybacks are effective in reducing gun violence. The buyback programs only target illegal firearms and are voluntary, with a limited turnout. However, last year’s December buyback for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office collected 200 firearms. On Saturday, they only gathered 50, according to NY1, but Gonzalez said Brooklyn DA has taken 400 guns off the streets in the past two years through the program. 

 

The announcement was held at Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn, owned by restaurateur Alan Rosen. Rosen said he wanted to host the press conference after observing violent and deadly incidents involving guns in the borough, such as the toddler who was killed by a stray bullet in Brooklyn in 2020, and a 12-year old boy who was fatally shot in the back of a car while eating in November 2023.* 

 

“A study released just this week found that New York ranks as the third most anxious state in terms of gun violence. Let that sink in for a minute. We are on edge. It is obviously on top of everyone’s mind, even more so with the holiday season upon us. I am one of those anxious New Yorkers,” Rosen said. “My holiday wish and prayer is that we make this the safest city in the country. That would be the best present I could ever hope for for all Brooklynites, New Yorkers and of course, my friends and family here at Junior’s.” 

 

Dr. James A. Thornton, a pastor for the Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Flatbush, said he was delighted to be a partner in helping get guns off the streets of Brooklyn. Thorton urged parents and community members to spread the word to bring illegal firearms to the church on Saturday. 

 

“I want to appeal to parents that if you know that you have people in your home with guns, Saturday is the time to come and turn it in safely without any consequences whatsoever. And so I’m appealing to everyone, wherever you are to let’s get these guns off the street. Let’s make a difference. This is the season for Christmas. And there are three words for Christmas: hope, peace, joy, and love.” 

 

Carlos Velasquez, from the Police Athletic League, a youth development organization focused on mentoring relationships with young people and the police, said that they have lost several members due to guns in the past year but hoped that would change in the future. 

 

“Unfortunately, the Police Athletic League has known the repercussions of violence. We’ve lost five young people this year to violence in our programs, and the work is continuous and we try the best that we can do inside our doors,” Velasquez said. “Programs like this and supporters like Mr. Rosen, DA Gonzalez and Pastor Thorton is what makes the difference.” 

 

*Disclaimer: Rosen misidentified the victim as a young girl during the press conference. 

Ember Charter School’s Tribute to Hip-Hop

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

On Friday, Dec. 8, the hallways of Ember Charter Schools were decked with cultural symbols from what some would call one of New York’s greatest inventions: hip-hop. Kids, volunteers, parents and teachers mingled and chatted in the Bed-Stuy building for the school’s annual Culture Fest. Quilaya Dubose, senior operations manager for Ember Charter School, said she came up with the idea eight years ago when she wanted to create a holiday event that celebrated the various cultures represented at the school.

A banner at Ember Charter School’s Eight Annual Culture Fest

“Because we, Ember Charter School, focus on so many different cultures, we didn’t just want to lean on Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. So our school’s leader, Rafiq Kalam Id-Dim, said ‘You can have something as long as you include everyone,’” Dubose said. “I had to think for a while, like ‘What can I do?’ Then it came to me. Culture.”

The event has a different theme each year. Last year, the theme was “Royalty in Our DNA: Past, Present and Future” to celebrate Black culture throughout the ages. This year, Dubose said the school wanted to pay homage to hip-hop music due to the genre’s deep roots in the borough. Iconic rappers like Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G and Lil’ Kim all hail from Brooklyn. 

Culture Fest is split into three sections: a talent show with children from Ember, a walk-through installation in the school hallways and a potluck for students and parents. According to Dubose, there were approximately 800 people in attendance at the event. For the hip-hop theme, Ember staff and volunteers had decked the second floor of the school’s elementary school in Bed-Stuy with the faces of hip-hop greats, mock MTA stations names including “Tupac St” and “Biggie Ave. Station” as well as designated breakdance space for attendees who might be in the mood to dance.

 

A mock MTA station in a tribute to Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G.

Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, the founder of the Ember, said he started the school in 2011 in Bed-Stuy due to the neighborhood’s history of inequity. The school, which runs from kindergarten through 12th grade, has three campuses: an elementary in Brooklyn, a middle school in Brooklyn and a high school in Manhattan. Kalam Id-Din said he wanted to create a school that emphasized community, empathy, critical thinking and nurturing well-rounded students.

“I wanted to start in a historically-Black community that had deep roots but also high needs. Bed-Stuy represents both of those things,” Kalam Id-Din said. “We wanted to serve this community and we wanted to have the opportunity to help change things, to take lessons from our ancestors and elders and amplify them for the 21st century.” 

The school is primarily made up of students of color, Kalam Id-Din said they might have had one or two white students since its opening, and uses an Afrocentric education model. The founder said the intention of the school was not to exclude anyone but to represent the community that they were in.

Students from the elementary and middle school dressed as famous hip-hop artists and R&B singers

“They say it’s not diverse, which is actually not true. We welcome anyone and everyone. The truth is, the Black and brown diaspora is rich with diversity, we have over 37 different countries represented,” Kalam Id-Din said. “That’s the thing we want to celebrate.” 

Joanne Cruz and Rhian Reece, two students at the high school, were volunteers at the event. Cruz, a ninth grader, said Culture Fest was her favorite day of the year. She was helping out with hair and makeup for the talent show. While taking a break from their volunteering efforts, Reece and Cruz both said they liked the educational flexibility of the school.

“I feel like Ember gives us the opportunity and space to express our creative selves,” Reece said.

“And have freedom,” Cruz, an 11th grader, chimed in. 

“There’s not a lot of things we can call community these days, [Ember is] community,” Cruz said.

“Tupac St.” E Train Station in the halls of Ember

Natelege Alexander, a parent at Ember, said this was her first year at Culture Fest. Alexander had heard about Ember four years before her son enrolled; she said she chose the school based on positive reviews she had heard from other parents. 

“They are very much involved in helping him excel and be better,” she said.

Alexander also expressed her excitement about Culture Fest.

“It’s my Culture Fest, it’s alive, it’s beautiful, the decorations are beautiful. Everything that everybody put into it, you can definitely feel and see. I love it.” 

Ember Charter School Founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II

No More Training Wheels Required: New Bill Cuts Down on Wait for Bike Lanes

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Bikers can pedal easier knowing that new bike lanes are coming to the city faster than before. On Dec. 6th, Councilmember Lincoln Restler, alongside Borough President Antonio Reynoso, passed legislation that would eliminate the three month waiting period before bike lanes can be put in. The legislation, Intro 417, cuts that waiting period down to 14 days instead of 90. 

Aside from the 90 day waiting period, the Department of Transportation also had to wait 20-15 days for approval from Major Transportation Projects before beginning construction of bike lanes. Now, that waiting time is also repealed. In a statement from Restler, the Councilmember said that the new legislation would go toward building infrastructure for protected bike lanes, reduce cars on the road and aid in preventing the climate crisis. 

“Every day, New Yorkers make more than 550,000 bike trips,” Restler said in a press release. “Each trip helps us reduce the number of cars on the road and combat the climate crisis. The best way to encourage more biking is to make it safer by building a truly protected network of bike lanes.” 

Jon Orcutt, Director of Advocacy for Bike New York, an organization that seeks to empower New Yorkers through bicycling, said the bill removes an extra burden on creating new bike networks throughout the city. Orcutt said the 90-day waiting period was initially put in place in 2011 during a period bicycle activists call the “Bike Lash,” when community members were reacting to the Bloomberg administration implementing a lot of protected bike lanes at a fast pace. The 2011 legislation, Intro 412, required the DOT to give due notice to community boards when any bike lanes were constructed or removed. 

“They tried to slow bike lane development down with this additional set of rules for notifying community boards about the project,” Orcutt said. “The legislation that Councilmember Restler put together basically repealed that and so now bike lanes are treated like any other change in street configuration.” 

Though Orcutt said the bill was a win for bike advocates across the city, he said the current mayoral administration has been opposed to creation of new bike infrastructure in places like Grenpoint, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights. 

“The most bittersweet part of it is that now that we sort of have this streamlined bike lane production in terms of the procedural part, we have an administration who’s been intervening in bike lane development in a bad way,” Orcutt said. “It’s fantastic that Lincoln was able to push this through. But, now it’s sort of back in the city administration’s court to use this new procedure to get more done.” 

Elizabeth Adams, Deputy Executive Director for Public Affairs at Transportation Alternatives, also gave her support for the bill. Transportation Alternatives is a New York based organization that seeks to prioritize walking, biking and public transportation for the city, rather than relying on cars. In a press release, Adams said that the bill would go towards helping bikers stay safe in New York. 

“To combat the rising levels of bike riders killed in traffic crashes, achieve the legal mandates of the NYC Streets Plan, and meet our climate goals, New York City needs to build more protected bike lanes. Yet, current law makes it harder to build a protected bike lane than other street safety projects. New Yorkers cannot afford delays,” Adams said. “We applaud Council Member Restler and the City Council for passing Intro 417 so bike lane projects are no longer singled out with arbitrary delays and waiting periods that other street projects don’t face.” 

Litchfield Villa Lights Despite Park Budget Cuts

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Across the city, trees and buildings light up to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season in New York City. In Brooklyn, the seven year tradition of lighting the Litchfield Villa in Prospect, the Brooklyn Park headquarters, took place amidst a steady downpour of rain. Martin Maher, the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner, said he instituted the tradition in order to commemorate the Litchfield building.

“It’s such a beautiful building. It’s become so important to the community so that they appreciate that the headquarters of Brooklyn Parks is right here,” Maher said. “We wanted to have a way of highlighting the building and making people feel good.”

Politicians, community leaders and Parks Department personnel in front of the LitchField Villa light switch. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

Politicians, park employees and community members gathered in front of the villa to pay their respects to the park and to watch as the building was lit up with holiday lights. The event, though festive, was sprinkled with comments about the looming reality of Mayor Adam’s budget cuts. In a speech, Councilmember Crystal Hudson said that she was working with Councilmembers Rita Joseph and Shahana Hanif, the two other city representatives for areas surrounding the park, to secure funding to upgrade the Brooklyn Park Headquarters.

“We’ll be working very very hard to make sure that we can do so much more than just light up the villa but also hold it up with some city funding. No promises or guarantees, but we’re surely going to try our very hardest to get that to you,” Hudson said.

During a speech, Councilmember Hanif said the city spent less than one percent of their annual budget towards the parks. Out of NYC’s $102.7 billion budget, only $582 million goes towards maintaining and staffing the parks system, or approximately .6 percent. In contrast, the NYPD receives $5.41 billion in funding, and corrections $1.23 billion, though these agencies also received cuts to their fiscal budgets this year. Against the backdrop of Litchfield Villa, Hanif critiqued Adam’s fiscal policy and said she was hoping for a holiday miracle to maintain the parks departments in New York.

“I love Prospect Park and I’m wishing for a Christmas miracle,” Hanif said. “As you know, the administration is putting out more cuts. We are one of the only large cities that don’t have more than one to five percent being spent on our parks. That is a deep shame.”

In Sept. 2023, Mayor Eric Adams directed city agencies to cut their budgets by five percent in order to reach the rising cost of the migrant crisis. Parks are now receiving $75 million less than last year, according to reporting by the news outlet Hellgate. However, parks are not the only agency affected: on Nov. 26, the NYC Public Libraries announced that they would close on Sundays in order to meet the new fiscal goals. The number of police officers in the city has dipped below 30,000, the lowest since 1984, according to the NYTimes. Hanif said the cuts have already caused 350 staff reductions in the parks department, which will affect the sanitation and cleanliness of the park.

“I think not having the maintenance of cleanliness is going to show. This takes us back to our goals for climate justice. Parks play a big role in making sure that we meet our climate justice goals, and we are living in a climate crisis,” Hanif said. “It’s not something that we are headed towards, it’s something we’re living in. Without the support needed for maintenance workers, we’re really going to suffer.”

Maher said that Prospect Park was the pride of not just Brooklyn, not just New York City, but the world.

“You happen to be, everybody knows this, everybody from Brooklyn, you’re in the greatest park, not in Brooklyn, not in the city, not in the country. You are standing in the greatest park in the world, Prospect Park,” Maher said.

Later on in the speech, Maher added that he would be content with the Parks Department receiving one percent of the city’s budget, but would be happier with more.

“And just so you know, when you’re advocating for parks, one percent is okay, but we’ll take two.”

Pols, Residents Call for Better Flood Infrastructure

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

On Sept. 29th, 2023, heavy rainfall flooded the streets of New York City prompting Mayor Eric Adams and NY State Governor Kathy Hochul to declare a state of emergency. In Brooklyn, areas like Gowanus, Williamsburg and South Williamsburg were particularly hard hit with flood water falling more than eight inches in some parts of the city. Now, local Brooklyn politicians are attempting to prevent the next flood incident by proposing rainwater legislation to allow for a fee to fund more comprehensive water and run-off infrastructure.

At a press conference in front of McCarren Park, where flooding submerged cars in September, State Senator Emily Gallagher, alongside residents affected by the floods, as well as Councilmember Lincoln Restler and State Senator Kristen Gonzalez, introduced legislation that is expected to collect anywhere between $266 million to $892 million a year. In a press conference, Gallagher said the legislation is intended to raise money for the creation of green infrastructure in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Gallagher and press conference attendees at the event, held in area of Williamsburg that was hit hard by the flooding on September 29th. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

“You can imagine the terror as you watch the water rise. That’s what many of our neighbors here experienced with little warning from the city [on September 29th],” Gallagher said. “Green infrastructure is what we call the array of practices that use or mimic natural systems to manage stormwater runoff, rain gardens, infiltration basins, stormwater green streets, green roofs, permeable paving, the list goes on. But now take a look at this map of green infrastructure projects in New York City. There’s almost nothing in Greenpoint or Williamsburg.”

The legislation is a little bit “wonky” according to Senator Gallagher. She is not proposing an implementation of any type of fee but legislation that would allow the city of NYC Municipal Water Finance Authority to collect revenue from property owners in New York at their Finance Authority’s discretion. Right now, the Authority does not have the jurisdiction to add new fees.

According to John Paraskevopoulos, the Legislative Director for Gallagher’s office, the fee is meant to be implemented on those who own impervious surfaces such as concrete parking lots. Paraskevopoulos said that any additional revenue acquired by the Water Finance Authority would go to alleviate high water and sewer bills.

“It doesn’t mandate anything, but it creates a framework within which a stormwater fee could be implemented and authorizes the creation of one by any sewer authority in the state,” Paraskevopoulos said. “And also, if there’s any revenue left over, hopefully, it can help balance or make more equitable people’s existing sewer rates and water bills.”

Gallagher’s office is basing their legislation in part on a study on rainwater by New York’s independent budget office. The study modeled their findings off of rainwater fees in other large cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. in order to create revenue predictions for New York City.

Brenda Suchilt, a horticulturist for Newtown Creek Alliance, an organization dedicated to restoring and revitalizing Newtown Creek, said that creating more greenspace to absorb excess rainwater can do more than just help prevent flooding.

“There’s a lot of value in green infrastructure aside from obviously diverting a lot of this local flooding from our combined sewage overflow,” Suchilt said during the press conference. “It has an encompassing benefit for the community. Aside from the safety side, there’s an encompassing value with green infrastructure, aside from beautifying these neighborhoods and creating habitat for local wildlife, it can also help with our urban heat island effect.”

Attendee of the press conference Kelly Marks, a Greenpoint resident, said she had to help her downstairs neighbors on Sept. 29th when a wall collapsed on them with their one-year-old in the apartment. Marks said she feared another dangerous flood and hoped that the new legislation would go towards preventing potential deaths due to excess rainwater.

“The water flooded five feet on the first floor. It came in through one of the windows. It was so powerful and came in so quickly that it knocked the wall that separates [the apartments],” Marks said. “Something has to be done, because my biggest fear, besides losing lovely neighbors, watching them lose belongings and feel afraid in their own homes, I’m so afraid someone is going to die if something isn’t done soon.”

Union Trees Opens for Holiday Season

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

Christmas came early this year as Union Trees, nestled into the Metropolitan Avenue and Union Avenue intersection in Williamsburg, recently opened their seasonal location. With one step, customers can leave the bustling city intersection and duck into the tent pop-up to find 1,000 trees ready to purchase for the holiday season.

Thomas Vaughn, whose primary occupation is running Control Air Solutions, a mechanical control company, can be found manning the stand during the winter months. Vaughn, now 48 years old, said he sold his first Christmas tree at age 11. Bringing joy to the community is energizing in comparison to the rest of the year, according to Vaughn.

“The energy, just the energy. Coming up to this time of year, I’m tired,” Vaughn said. “But now I’m like, ‘Yes, I have energy.’ I don’t know where the energy comes from, it’s like a switch that turns on.”

The venue has been there for 30 years according to Vaughn — the Williamsburg intersection is Union Trees’ original location. Finding the right Christmas tree can be hard, according to Vaughn. Union Trees organizes their selection into three categories, “Premium Tree,” “Average Tree,” and “Basic Tree.” There are two species of trees available in the stand, both from Canada: Balsam fir and Fraser fir.

Depending on the category, a tree can cost the customer anywhere between $80 and $200, but the average tree usually comes with a price tag of $85 or $90. Vaughn said a premium tree is healthy and full, like a sphere, with symmetrical branches. Most importantly, Vaughn said, a premium tree has “nothing wrong with it.”

“A premium tree is the finest tree,” Vaughn said as he pulled out a Balsam fir. “Look, it’s nice and full. Check her out, we can call her Samantha.”

Thomas Vaughn in front of the 1,000 tree bales at the Union Trees location in Williamsburg.

Selling trees is not always easy, according to Vaughn. He said that the market has been hit by rising costs of inflation. According to a survey of 55 of the largest tree wholesalers, their costs have gone up between five percent and 15 percent.

“We’re laying out trees, trying to make everybody happy, trying to avoid the little children’s sad faces. You know, when they come in and say ‘We want a Christmas tree,’ and we say ‘Inflation hit our market almost 15 percent this year,’” Vaughn said.

Vaughn said that the venue will receive 15 or 20 daily visitors looking to buy a tree the two weeks following Thanksgiving. Union Trees usually receive two shipments of 1,000 trees and reserve about 500 trees to donate to the community. Vaughn also said that around the 18th of December, workers from the Christmas tree team will go around to public housing developments and drop off trees for free. Mostly, Vaughn said that he wanted people to stay positive during the holiday season.

“Come shop and be merry,” Vaughn said. “Just be happy and enjoy, you know? Enjoy the family around you. That’s it. If there’s bad energy around you guys, get rid of it and create good energy.”

Brooklyn’s Turkey “Trot” to Connect Public Spaces

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

This weekend, the North Brooklyn Open Streets Community Coalition and the North Brooklyn Parks Alliance partnered to create a non-traditional Turkey “Trot.” Part of the event was to raise awareness for NBKOpenStreets and NBK Parks Alliance projects, but also just to create a fun event for community members to enjoy, according to Benji Lampel, an NBKOpenStreets volunteer.

NBK Parks Alliance booth along the trot for participants to plant a flower bulb.

“We really care about open space in the neighborhood, part of that is using the DOT’s Open Streets program and the plaza program, and just show people what it’s like to have public space that’s not a park that you can come and enjoy, and sit, and enjoy being outside without having to spend any money at all,” Lampel said.

Instead of a typical community run, North Brooklynites gathered on Sunday, Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to participate in a bingo scavenger hunt that took them across Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

The trot connected three open street and plaza projects in the area, Bedford Slip, Banker’s Anchor and Berry Street. Participants of the event could cross off bingo ticket items like answering riddles or trivia on the neighborhood, taking a photo with Williamsburg or Greenpoint merch at the coffee shop Upstate Stock, having a friendly conversation with a neighbor, planting a flower bulb, or signing the Berry Open Street petition. Prizes for completing the bingo included a $50 gift certificate to Black Seed Bagels, a jar of organic mangoes from Maison Jar and a three-day pass to the VITAL climbing gym.

Josiah Clagett, another NBKOpenStreets volunteer, said that creating open public space was important in modern cities where people often work from home, driving cars by themselves or don’t have access to public spaces to gather in. NBKOpenStreets’ mission is to create “safe place for all to walk, exercise, enjoy fresh air, and patronize our favorite shops, bars, and restaurants.” Both Clagett and Lampel said they appreciated that NBKOpenStreets emphasized the importance of creating areas for city residents to come hang out in together.

“I think people are far too lonely, and part of that is how we design our cities. Since joining [Open Streets] I have felt my loneliness completely go away. Part of it is because we’ve designed places like this that are accessible, you can go and because of the way it’s designed people are hanging out there all the time,” Clagett said. “It’s a community.”

Katie Denny Horowitz, the Executive Director for the NBK Parks Alliance, said her organization acts as a liaison between agencies like the Department of Transportation and the rest of the community.

“It’s a public private partnership, which means that we’re kind of straddled between the agencies and the public, basically acting as a liaison,” Horowitz said.

Part of acting as a liaison means creating connections between outdoor city plazas, parks and open streets and the public, according to Horowitz. She said she was excited about the Turkey Trot because it created a link between three large public space projects in Brooklyn and allowed residents to see the broader plan of creating community spaces.

Bedford Slip where the Turkey Trot began on Sunday. The Slip is not currently permanently shut off from car traffic, but NBKOpenStreets and NBK Parks Alliance are pushing to make it more friendly for pedestrians.

“I think part of the reason why this is such a beloved event is because it brings together these three very popular projects like Berry Open Street, the Banker’s Anchor Public Plaza and the Bedford Slip, which we refer to as a future public plaza,” Horowitz said. “We’re also very interested in these initiatives because it creates safe crossings between existing green spaces, or in the case of North and South, potential green corridors, pedestrian pathways between actual neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg.”

Lampel said public space projects can help reimagine a city that isn’t centered around cars but focuses more on taking public transportation, walking and biking. According to Lampel, these spots could also strengthen communities in an age where there are not many places to gather publicly.

“You can look back at like, ancient Greece, a lot of where democracy happened was in public squares right? It’s a great place also to just run into friends or meet a new neighbor. But it can also be a place where people can come and discuss the future of the neighborhood and how to build resiliency as a community,” Lampel said.

BKLYN Commons Hosts 7th Annual Small Business Fair

By Oona Milliken | [email protected]

The co-working space BKLYN Commons held its seventh annual Small Biz Pop-Up amongst a bustling arena of retail vendors, informational desks on business management, food from different parts of the world, a health service check-in station, lively music and more.

The event was held at BKLYN Commons headquarters at 495 Flatbush Avenue Wednesday, Nov. 16. Johanne Brierre, the Chief Executive Officer of BKLYN Commons, said the event was created to give small business owners access to bureaucratic information and clinics for managing a small business while allowing them to build relationships with each other and their community. Brierre said small businesses were the pillar of many New York communities, but they didn’t have access to the same type of support that large businesses are afforded.

“Small businesses are important in so many other ways, they’re like the backbone of the community, they’re the backbone of New York,” Brierre said. “BKLYN Commons is serving a number one business hub.”

Camille Fanfair, who owns the holistic health shop Essence of Asi, said she has a co-working space at BKLYN Commons because it allowed her to afford her own business venue. Fanfair had set up her booth with various essential oils, candles as well as herbal essences and sprays in order to display her products to passersby.

“I’ve been here for two years, I have my holistic healing space and it’s really great because it gives us opportunities to get your own space location. When you try to get a venue outside, rent is really high, so they make it affordable for entrepreneurs,” Fanfair said. “BKLYN Commons is an amazing co-working space, and they provide a lot of opportunities for different entrepreneurs. They help market our business, they open us up to a lot of contacts on the outside so it’s a really great space.”

On the other end of the vendor hall, Sharyi Harris, a small-business owner who specializes in cheesecake cupcakes, said she was at the event because it was an opportunity to promote her business and speak to other entrepreneurs. Harris is the owner of Brownstone Cheesecakes and makes her products from scratch herself.

“I think [business pop-ups] are important because you have a chance to see what other people have to offer, not just for myself,” Harris said. “It just gives me opportunities to be around and have my business out there when you aren’t necessarily thinking about having to promote it. You can only promote on Instagram and Facebook so much, person to person actually matters.”

Brierre said that working with small-business owners was heartening because they continued their work despite all odds. Brierre said that many of her clients had families, other jobs or faced a lack of information on how to navigate starting a business. She said BKLYN Commons’ goal was to help small business owners along on their journey.

“I am so inspired by these business owners. I love working with people. They have so much resilience,” Brierre said.

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