‘Believe the Hype’ Column: Caring For Yourself and Others, Come Clay or Snow

By Christine Stoddard | cstoddard@queensledger.com

The following was originally published in the Jan. 25, 2024 print edition:

On yet another teeth-chattering morning, I found myself yanking on my snow boots and burying myself under an annoying amount of clothing. In less than 20 minutes, I was due at Artshack, where I would begin my first-ever wheel-throwing class. It was just enough time to walk, I realized as I double-checked Google Maps, but I didn’t want to risk slipping on the ice. I remembered walking through NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses earlier on in the week. The largest public housing project in Brooklyn has been under construction since 2020, and I found myself sliding on its frozen paths like a penguin. Such frustration would not be repeated that week. On a clear spring day, I could bolt over to Artshack, located on Bedford Avenue in Bed-Stuy, in a quarter of an hour. So into the car I went.

Warming up the car adds to the list of tasks that require winter’s slower pace. This is not a pace most New Yorkers seem to appreciate. We want to get moving, fast. Yet the reality is that we live in a place that demands extra prep on a typical January day. After we go through the annoyance of bundling up, maybe with a warm thermos in hand, we arm ourselves with ice scrapers, snow brushes, salt bags, and shovels. Then we brave the cold and all of its inconveniences. The upside is that we live in a place that experiences changes in season and snow, when it first falls, is a sight to behold.

Artshack, a Haven

Though I had never been to Artshack prior to that class, from the moment I entered, I felt at peace. Started in 2008 by McKendree Key, this non-profit community ceramics studio offers classes to children and adults, but, this being the heart of Brooklyn, it has a progressive slant. The studio, which moved to its current location in 2016, brands itself as anti-racist and queer-affirming, and claims a strong belief in “the healing powers of clay.” Classes are affordable, with opportunities for scholarships and free and subsidized programming for low-income members of the community. (Benefitting from such financial aid allowed me to take my pottery class here.) In addition to there being studio space, there is a gallery and café. The café seems to be an ecosystem of its own, with folks chatting or clacking away at their laptops.

Donations to Artshack are collected year-round and very tangibly broken down on the website at ArtshackBrooklyn.org. A $50 donation, for example, will pay for one child to come to Open Clay Time. On Jan. 27, Artshack will offer a free clay workshop in honor of Gun Violence Survivors Week as one of its regular Community Days. Participants will “create, connect, and shape symbols of peace with clay.”

My wheel teacher is Ivan Samuels, a talented artist whose pottery depicting coral reef motifs called to me. From my first interactions with him, I found him to be patient and good-humored. Any teacher will tell you that these can be difficult qualities to cultivate and maintain. Still, I didn’t detect even the slightest strain in Ivan’s voice, no matter how much I bumbled. In a society that emphasizes perfection, it was a relief to have a space to try and fail among encouragement. Clay is messy, figuratively and, of course, literally.

As I cleaned up, I remembered that working with clay sucks the moisture out of your skin. On a wintery day, that means applying even more lotion than usual. I personally prefer cocoa butter, though I must admit I have not tried any of the local Brooklyn brands. (Of course, I am open to suggestions.) You have to take care of yourself in the studio, much as you do in the rest of your life. There are consequences for neglecting what your body needs.

Severe Cold Tips For Everyone

NYC’s Severe Weather web page outlines snow safety because, depending on where you grew up and how long you have lived in the Tri-State area, it is not necessarily common sense. Our city has recently welcomed more than 100,000 new arrivals. Many come from warmer parts of the world; at this time the top countries of origin for New York City’s asylum seekers are Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia. Can they really be expected to know how to dress for the weather? After all, how many New Yorkers neglect to layer up? How often do I see people of all kinds not wearing hats, hoods, or scarves, despite the fact that most of our body heat escapes through the head? Proper winter attire is not common knowledge across America; even so, having knowledge does not mean having access. Thanks to that blast of Arctic air from Canada, more than 90 people died due to weather-related causes this past week. At least three of those deaths occurred in New York state.

Floyd Bennett Field Migrants

You may be aware that many asylum seekers live at a shelter at Floyd Bennett Field in Marine Park. According to ardent complaints in a Facebook group called “STOP FLOYD BENNETT ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS” (which I found because of a recent New York Post article), some of these migrants are going door to door not only asking for food and money but for warm clothes. Calls for donations to the “tent city” families have filled my social media.

While writing this column, I saw @southbrooklynmutualaid post a call for donations on Instagram. On the list were gently used or new winter coats, warm layering clothes (sweaters, heat tech, jackets), winter shoes, and ponchos. Advertised drop-off locations include Roots Cafe (639 5th Ave.), Community Bookstore (143 7th Ave.), Van Alen Institute (303 Bond St., Tues.-Thurs., 10am-5pm), and Brooklyn Army Terminal (with a filled out form, available on @southbrooklynmutualaid’s Instagram bio link). Inquiries for joining up the organizing work can be sent to southbkmutualaid@gmail.com.

Savvy Snow Removal

Now back to NYC’s Severe Weather tips. In perusing the list, I was reminded to stretch before going out; shoveling snow especially is a work-out. Another tip is to cover your mouth so brutally cold air does not enter your lungs. Shoveling snow can be a major heart attack risk, so take breaks and guzzle your H20. Also, keep dry, which means going back inside and changing your clothes if you get wet from lots of sweat, melting snow, or who knows what. And let’s not forget our neighbors! If someone is a senior citizen or has disabilities, they may need assistance. We may not always have the patience for kindness, but looking out for each other is part of what makes New York City liveable.

The City of New York also has a whole Snow Response webpage on the New York City Department of Sanitation site. Did you know that you can track snow plows in the city? There is a feature called PlowNYC that supposedly lets you see where plows are working in real-time. Of course, I found out about this feature after it snowed, so I cannot tell you how well it works. I will have to wait until the next snowfall to investigate.

According to the DSNY site, it is up to residents and businesses to clear snow and ice from sidewalks. The path must be at least four feet wide; snow and ice must be removed from around fire hydrants, as well as sidewalk corner ramps. If the snowfall ends between 7am and 4:59pm, it must be cleared within four hours. If it ends between 5pm and 8:59pm, it must be cleared within 14 hours. Snowfall ending between 9pm and 6:59am must be cleared by 11am. Precise! Fines range from $100-250. Yikes. Let’s try to avoid those, shall we? And not just because of tickets, but again, to do right by our neighbors.

‘Believe the Hype’ Column: Nostrand Avenue on Foot

By Christine Stoddard | cstoddard@queensledger.com

The following was originally published in our Jan. 4, 2024 print edition:

The Brooklyn Star this week, introduces our readers to Christine Stoddard, our new community editor. Christine will pen a weekly column on Brooklyn from the ground floor, called “Believe the Hype” While covering events and meetings is part of her everyday life, Christine will bring a whole new meaning to living in Brooklyn through the eyes of a journalist. Welcome Christine!

“I’m gonna need a couple of dollars if that’s the case,” says a cock-eyed man in a wheelchair, parked on the block of Nostrand Avenue just south of Atlantic. While he went through his ritual of asking for money in the street, I had the nerve to approach him with the excuse of a class reporting assignment. No mention of Columbia University because I knew better. We are in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood I have called home for the past year, though I have lived in the general vicinity for the past seven. My brief conversation mate is someone I have noticed before, usually sitting a block or two closer to the Nostrand Avenue subway stop on the A/C line. His response implied what I’m reminded of day after day: By living here, I have already trespassed. Stop asking for more. Or at least give something in return. Embarrassed, I returned to the Monday rush hour crowd, wondering who had patience for me. After all, wasn’t I asking for free emotional labor?

A silhouetted person walks past an illuminated store window displaying clothing for sale.

The window of Stacy Adams, a men’s clothing store, on Nostrand Avenue. Photo by Christine Stoddard.

My ex, a white, college-educated Virginian in his late 20s at the time, used to complain that Central and East Brooklyn strangers “always” assumed he had money. Back then, we lived at the edge of Crown Heights in working-class Ocean Hill, just south of Bed-Stuy. My ex had all the visual markers of a suburban middle-class upbringing: L.L. Bean polos, R.E.I. khakis, New Balance sneakers. And he had the mannerisms, too: relatively quiet speech, strained “polite” smiles, the total lack of desire to dance to music blaring from sidewalk boomboxes. All that was missing from his Gentrifier-in-a-Bag Halloween costume was a Starbucks cup. (He didn’t drink coffee.)

I, on the other hand, am more ambiguous because, though born and raised in the transient Arlington, VA, my parents are not from there. Both lived through poverty and El Salvador’s civil war, during which they met. My father, a native New Yorker, taught me, “School’s the place for the Queen’s English. On the street, you talk fast and slangy.” My mother, a Salvadoran immigrant, raised me to “never show you have money even when you do.” Still, I am not Black. My closest proximity to blackness is occasionally being confused for mixed race: half-Black, half-white. In Ocean Hill, a man who noticed me taking pictures with my DSLR on a lone winter‘s night in early 2020, stopped me to hit on me. Then he asked if I was “Spanish or Jewish,” as if those were my only ethnic possibilities in that neighborhood.

Ocean Hill, What’s In A Name?

A former city historian colleague of mine once explained that Ocean Hill is a historical name resurfacing in real estate marketing aimed at people like my ex and me: young, non-Black, middle-class, and from elsewhere. For decades leading up to 1960s, Ocean Hill was primarily Italian. During our 2016-2020 tenure there, it was largely West Indian and African-American. Many of our Millennial peers who were raised in Brooklyn called the area Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, or even Brownsville. Few had heard of this historical name so long out of use. They warned us that “Ocean Hill” was a gimmick—like how some real estate listings brand the Broadway corridor of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick as “Bedwick” or call eastern Bushwick “East Williamsburg.” Luckily, we were not paying “East Williamsburg” or “Bedwick” rent.

Back on this more recent Monday evening, most of the people who speak to me first are men who seem to choose to sexualize me. As I take out my DSLR to document one of the two pizzerias by the subway stop, a smooth man calls to me: “Hey miss, are you taking pictures today?” It’s not an innocent question. I ignore him, knowing that the follow-up will be, “Take my picture, darling.” This is a familiar script that sometimes turns hostile as I reject all advances. Casanova continues to say “hey” a couple more times from the van he’s leaning against, but I walk away. Once, during my first six months in Ocean Hill, a scorned catcaller spat on the ground and yelled “Welcome to Brooklyn, sweetheart!”

The Artist in Me

I consider putting up with the catcalling and begging as my price for living in Bed-Stuy. After all, most other aspects of living here make me happy. This is not my birthplace or childhood stomping ground, but it is my home. I benefit from a comfortable apartment and proximity to many lovely local businesses on Tompkins, Throop, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X. I shoot hoops at Potomac Playground (which reminds me of the Potomac River dividing Arlington from D.C.) and meet friends at Herbert Von King Park. My bodega guy has all my bad habits memorized. I know which dollar stores to hit up for which bargains. Since I first moved here, the neighborhood organization STooPS has supported my creative work, even securing a Brooklyn Public Library residency for me. The STooPS art crawl brings neighborhood old-timers and newcomers together for arts programming presented on stoops or, more recently, in block parties. I have met generations of neighbors through these events.

The Bodega Experience

Maybe I deserve some of the tension. One early morning a few months ago, a 40-something man shimmied up to me while I waited for my bodega sandwich. When I wouldn’t chat, he complained “people come into this neighborhood and don’t want to talk.” Had I wanted to start a fight, I would’ve told him no woman owes him her time. Instead, I told him to have a good day on my way out. My disregard for him had nothing to do with a gentrifier’s scorn and everything to do with zero interest in flirting. The fact remains that he perceived me as an outsider. Transplants flock to Williamsburg and Park Slope, where hallmarks of chi-chi suburban living abound: Whole Foods, The Apple Store, Urban Outfitters. I didn’t move to New York City to replicate my life in Arlington, just with more job opportunities and hipster cred. There’s also the fact that I cannot afford the aforementioned zip codes. But if I deigned to stomach another industry, maybe I could. I have the “right” education, the “right” passport, the “right” complexion. These checked boxes could afford me upward mobility if I wanted—mobility denied to many of my neighbors.

Had I followed the path of many of my high school classmates, I could be making six figures at a government consulting firm now. Instead, I rejected that career option. Having the ability to say no comes with privilege. I never begrudged the transplants who moved to my native Arlington to work at the Pentagon or other federal government entities. I wasn’t sad when Shirlington, a neighborhood previously known for auto body shops and dark, empty lots, was converted into  a lively avenue for shopping and dining. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had generations’ worth of roots there or wanted to raise a family there. Now, the cost of living in Greater Washington, D.C. is almost as high as that of New York City. This economic upsurge only shifted during my lifetime, when Millennials flocked to the region to serve the Obama Administration.

View of an outdoor fruit stand on an urban street.

A fruit vendor’s wares on the sidewalk by the A/C Nostrand Ave. stop. Photo by Christine Stoddard.

I don’t have to look hard to notice other transplants coming to Bed-Stuy. More white people. More polos. More Starbucks cups. The row of brownstones across from my apartment building is occupied largely by couples with small children. Still, this remains the neighborhood where just that during that same evening jaunt, I saw an unstable woman trash-picking on Herkimer off the Nostrand strip. She was already wearing one filthy boot, presumably gleaned from the pile before her, when she found another, mismatched but similarly calf-length. She slipped it on and sashayed in the street, many plastic bags hanging from her shoulders, shrieking as the bags shook. Each bag seemed to contain even more plastic bags. In the past, I had only ever heard this woman rasp “Money, please” outside the subway. I don’t ask to take her photo—it could turn transactional—and a candid feels voyeuristic. I remember the beggar in the wheelchair. Another time.

I am still learning my place.

Christine Stoddard is a published author, journalist, artist, and filmmaker named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s Top 50 Most Fascinating People. Send your comments and tips to brooklyndtstarnews@gmail.com.

Lest We Forget: Black Veterans on Memorial Day

Black Veterans for Social Justice, founded in 1979, is a veterans service and community-based nonprofit organization headquartered in Bed-Stuy. Every year veterans can be seen marching along the little stretch of pavement between Throop Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard on Willoughby Avenue in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The annual parade, now in its 11th year, has the usual fanfare: a hot sizzling grill pumping out burgers and hot dogs, the big banners and an even bigger line of marchers, as well as refreshments to stay cool in the first sweat of summer.

Attendees at Black Veterans for Social Justice Memorial Day rally in Bed-Stuy.

“This traditionally is the start of summer. And I’ve had so many people text me saying Happy Memorial Day. And although I say thank you, or sometimes I just give a thumbs up emoji. But Memorial Day is to commemorate those who have fallen, primarily on active duty, but we want to remember those who are soldiers for life, and who did not get a chance to enjoy the fruits of their retirement,” Walter Gist, a veterans outreach coordinator with the Services for the Underserved, said.

Gist is manning one of the many different types of services tables Black Veterans for Social Justice hosts to connect veterans with different kinds of support services ranging from job training and interview preparation to helping people apply for social services like ERAP funding, a pandemic-era rent relief program.

William Lugo has been attending the Black Veterans for Social Justice parade since its inception. It’s the easiest for him to get to at 73-years-old, as a local resident of Bed-Stuy. Lugo said the parade has helped him in the past get connected with all his benefits.

“Remember the men and women died defending this country,” Lugo said in an interview. “That’s why there will always be a Memorial Day.”

While thanking a veteran for their service may seem customary in today’s America, Vietnam Veteran Errol Vanmooden said that Americans have still failed to recognize the service of his fellow Vietnam service members.

“I remember my fallen brother in Vietnam. I remember the good times and the bad. I remember the holidays. Christmas, Birthdays. I remember the disrespectful welcome that I received back from Vietnam. I remember one person saying ‘are you part of the baby killers?’,” Vanmooden said.

While Vanmooden says he wants the day to be about celebrating the contributions of fallen soldiers, he couldn’t shake the bad memories that come with the day.

He remembers when he was injured on the battlefield, his buddies coming to help him. He was the only Black member of his unit, but that didn’t matter. Army green was the only color that mattered, he said.

He remembers his 22nd birthday. He was awoken by a barrage of heavy artillery fire early one morning in the jungles of Vietnam. Rockets would land and get stuck in the thick mud. He was sure he was going to die.

“I remember my brothers were always there for me,” Vanmooden said solemnly.

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