‘Believe the Hype’ Column: Casual Encounters in City Life

The following piece was originally printed in our Jan. 11, 2024 edition.

This week, our new Brooklyn community editor, Christine Stoddard, returns with her column “Believe the Hype.” Send your comments, questions, and tips to brooklyndtstarnews@gmail.com.

On this page, you will find a photo of my former neighbor Christina, dated from 2018. I use the term “neighbor” loosely. Christina lived a few blocks away from me when I called Howard Avenue, just south of Atlantic, my home. At the time, I was walking through Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Brownsville to take posed portraits of people I encountered. The cityscape served as our set. We always exchanged a few words, sometimes going into longer conversations if it flowed naturally. I was curious about folks’ experiences and how we co-existed in Central and East Brooklyn, despite living totally separate lives. Every apartment building or brownstone is a microcosm; bodegas occupy parallel universes. A city park contains galaxies upon galaxies.

A Black woman, wearing a puffy coat and holding a rake, stands in front of an apartment.

A photo the columnist took in 2018 of a neighbor.

Resumed Mask Mandate at NYC Public Hospitals

Though the COVID pandemic has ended, the coronavirus remains with us. As of Jan. 3rd, the mask mandate has resumed at all 11 of New York City’s public hospitals due to a rise in not only COVID but flu and respiratory syncytial (RSV) cases. The mandate applies to NYC Health + Hospitals’ health clinics and nursing homes, too. A COVID surge may inspire any number of reactions: ambivalence, disbelief, fear, frustration, sadness. When I first learned about the reinstated mask mandate, I mentally transported myself to March 2020, back to that apartment on Howard Avenue, and that crippling feeling of isolation. Even next door neighbors were suddenly off-limits. I had to abandon my neighborhood photo project, or at least put it on hold.

Eventually, as we all know, the city reopened, but, as we also all know, it is not the same city we knew in 2019 or even early 2020. What I miss most are the abundance of casual, sometimes heart-warming, hilarious, or incredible encounters that can only happen in a big city like ours. In suburbs and rural areas, people are simply too spread out from one another. There is far less foot traffic (or perhaps none at all). Have you ever been to a small town with no sidewalks? Having lived in different parts of Virginia and Iowa, I have…and it is creepy.

Outside of a metropolis, stand-alone houses and cars silo neighbors from one another. You may have a bigger lawn, but it is unlikely you will meet interesting strangers on the bus or witness unexpected acts of kindness from someone you just met.

Vendor Ban on Brooklyn Bridge

New Yorkers’ appreciation for synchronicity is probably one of the reasons so many people are upset about the vendor ban at the Brooklyn Bridge. The city ban went into effect on Jan. 2, with the Department of Transportation employees and NYPD officers clearing tables and carts at the stroke of midnight. No more souvenir tables. No more pop-up photo booths. No more kebabs. According to Mayor Adams, this ban is necessary for improving pedestrian traffic and safety. Last fall, more than 34,000 pedestrians visited the bridge on an average weekend.

Not everyone agrees that the vendors should go. Currently, New York City Council member Gale Brewer (District 6, Manhattan) is working on legislation to create a designated space for vendors. I, for one, am intrigued by this possibility and hope for a solution that promotes street life without allowing a circus to take hold.

Abolitionist Plaza

While there’s debate on how we ought to use our public spaces, one thing is certain here in Brooklyn: We have them–and, according to the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s 2023 Year-in-Review report, there are more on the way. In July, the mayor announced that more than $40 million would be invested in Downtown Brooklyn for streetscape improvements, public space and transportation upgrades, and pedestrian safety enhancements. That includes $8 million in dedicated funding for the Fulton Mall Streetscape.

Also mentioned in the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership report was Abolitionist Plaza, which I am waiting for with bated breath. Slated to open in Spring 2024, the 1.15 acre space between Duffield Street and Albee Square West promises “a children’s play area, waterplay feature, lawn space, a dog run, multiple seating areas, and more.” It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at “and more,” but let’s check it a few months (fingers crossed) to see what we find. Or at least I will!

‘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.

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