‘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!

Pandemic predators

Dear Editor,
I’m shocked by accusations that “nonprofit” hospitals sued patients and filed liens against their homes during the COVID crisis, despite receiving state emergency funds.
The Coalition for Affordable Hospitals, a group of labor unions, claims that 55 hospitals sued nearly 4,000 patients for medical debt while getting over $442 million from the state’s Indigent Care Pool.
These pandemic predators exploited taxpayers and patients out of sheer greed. Among the worst culprits, says the Coalition, is Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital system a biggest private employer with 23 hospitals, 650 outpatient facilities and more than 70,000 staffers.
Its president & CEO, Michael Dowling, got a total compensation exceeding $4 million last year, ten times higher than President Joe Biden’s salary. Not bad for the head of an enterprise designated as a “nonprofit, tax exempt” organization by New York State and the federal government.
In television commercials, hospitals portray themselves as compassionate lifelines to their communities. But their bottom line takes top priority in real life.
They are nonprofit profiteers who violated a basic mandate of medicine: “First, do no harm.” State leaders and regulatory agencies must probe and penalize them for financial abuse.
Richard Reif
Kew Gardens Hills

Variant fears

Dear Editor,
The recent news about a new variant of COVID-19 discovered in South Africa is very worrisome news. We cannot allow this variant to spread across the globe, which will certainly cause a resurgence in infections, hospitalizations and deaths, especially if the current vaccines and boosters are not as protective against it.
Will we ever be able to rid the world of COVID? According to most medical experts, that will not happen. Instead, the virus will diminish in spread and intensity and become endemic like the flu, and will require a yearly vaccine.
COVID19 has really turned everyone’s lives topsy turvy.
John Amato
Fresh Meadows,

Booster bozos

Dear Editor,
The FDA’s decision to limit distribution of booster shots to people 65 and older is ridiculous. I am 62 years old, and my wife is 66, which means she can get it but I can’t.
I have aortic stenosis with a 50 percent blockage in the artery leading to the aortic valve of my heart. I need to also receive this booster, but thanks to the asinine decision made by the FDA, I will not be able to receive this shot.
Anyone 16 or older should be permitted to get this important booster shot.
John Amato
Fresh Meadows

New York Transit Museum reopens in Brooklyn

After a nearly 18-month temporary closure for the pandemic, the New York Transit Museum finally reopened its doors to the public on August 14.
The museum first opened in 1976 to celebrate the country’s centennial, and has since become a favorite among locals and tourists who love its unique collection of vintage cars, photographs, and paraphernalia.
Located underground in Downtown Brooklyn’s old Court Street station at 99 Schermerhorn Street, the New York Transit Museum’s varied exhibits celebrate the stories of construction workers, transit workers, and commuters who created and sustained the city’s transportation system.
Museum director Concetta Bencivenga discussed the continued significance these stories hold during the pandemic, as well as the museum’s own experience over the past year and half.
“Not all museums are designed equally,” Bencivenga said during an interview. “We may not have the square footage of the Met or even the Brooklyn Museum, but more importantly we don’t have the same constituents.
“We have been part of our downtown Brooklyn neighborhood for 45 years, so for a lot of folks we’re the museum around the corner,” she added. “We are also a de facto children’s museum and are very well known in the international community.”
The museum stayed closed longer than many other museums in the city, yet as Bencivenga explained, this was a conscious decision.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody, our staff and visitors alike, had ample opportunity to get vaccinated,” Bencivenga said. “I am 100 percent fine with waiting as long as we did, because we did the right thing for our institution and the communities that we serve.”
Like any institution in New York City, the Transit Museum was fundamentally challenged by the pandemic. While museum leadership was successfully able to keep its entire staff intact for a full year, they finally had to lay off a number of employees earlier this year.
However, the pandemic has also proven just how vital and contemporary the Transit Museum’s work is.
“We have been very, very cognizant of the fact that we’re actually living in an historical experience,” Bencivenga explained. “So we actually have been collecting the mask verbiage, the signage, the social distance markers that have been produced by the MTA. We are basically saying everybody don’t throw anything out.
“The Transit Museum believes that you experience New York the way you do because of mass transit, you just don’t know it yet,” she added. “This is a historic experience for the entire world, but it certainly has a significant impact on mass transit.”
In addition to expanding the collection, the pandemic has also presented the museum with an opportunity to reflect on the larger history of mass transit in New York.
Some stories that museum staff tell on tours have found greater meaning, such as the Malbone Street Wreck of 1918 — the biggest subway accident in history — which was caused in part by a grieving motorman who had recently lost relatives to the Spanish flu.
Many of the other stories, however, are more familiar to the museum’s current visitors.
“We have the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coming up,” Bencivenga said, “and one of the most remarkable stories is that transit workers continued to show up. Whether it’s figuring out how to do it during the two world wars, the Spanish flu, the demise and resurgence of the system in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, or even Superstorm Sandy, transit workers are there. They are truly some of the most unsung heroes in the city of New York.”
The Transit Museum honored these dedicated employees during the city’s recent “Hometown Heroes” parade for essential workers, rolling out cars from its antique fleet to travel down the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan.
Yet on any given day, the museum is consistently dedicated to celebrating the way mass transit has shaped the ways New Yorkers work, play, and live.
“One of my favorite pictures in our collection is of Willets Point,” Bencivenga explained. “Queens is the way we know it because of the 7 train. That relationship between the people who live there and mass transit is so clear.”
The New York City Transit Museum is currently open Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. All visitors, including members, must reserve tickets online in advance. Proof of vaccination and masks are also required for entry.
“If you’re interested in the artistic inspiration that people have derived from the subway or mass transit since its inception, we have a show for you,” Bencivenga said. “If you want to just come and sit in a car that maybe your parents or grandparents or you yourself used to commute or go to the World Fair in Queens or get to school, then we have a fleet for you.”

Filmmaker discusses time, change & COVID-19

Catalina Kulczar has always made sense of life’s difficulties through the visual arts.
Born to Hungarian parents in Venezuela, Kulczar moved from Caracas to South Florida and then finally to North Carolina, where she went to school and began working as a photographer.
“I started documenting everything as we travelled,” Kulczar explained during a phone interview this past week.
While in Charlotte, Kulczar met her life partner Juan Miguel Marin, a musician and member of the Brooklyn-based band LEGS, and the two decided to move to New York to pursue their passions. They eventually settled in Greenpoint, a neighborhood that felt like a natural fit for the aspiring artists.
“Greenpoint used to be warehouses and graffiti everywhere and I loved it,” said Kulczar. “It was one big art gallery.”
However, the area has changed greatly since Kulczar arrived, as the warehouses gave way to new development and the artist community slowly moved elsewhere. Then last year the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, dramatically altering life for Greenpoint and its artists once more.
“Everything had to pivot with the pandemic, including the art,” Kulczar explained.
To make sense of COVID, Kulczar turned, as she always does, to the visual arts. This past March, she released a short film titled “When We Paused” on Vimeo. The project documents the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Greenpoint and was shot using 16 mm film to highlight the timeless quality of the neighborhood’s landscape.
“I started the project with film so it would feel natural,” said Kulczar. “Digital can’t compare with how analog film feels, and I wanted this project to show how I felt and how the community felt.”
Kulczar recorded the footage for the film during a series of walks last April. Throughout its entire runtime, only three other people are shown on screen, a far cry from the usual vibrancy of Greenpoint.
“I remember seeing no one,” said Kulczar. “You could hear the silence. I remember only hearing the birds.”
Despite the empty streets, “When We Paused” shifts in its second half to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and the social action that came to Greenpoint in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May.
Kulczar’s camera captures BLM murals as they seamlessly integrate with the timeworn Greenpoint landscape, a stunning visual of resiliency and compassion that inspired the artist.
“The art in Greenpoint became political, which I absolutely loved,” said Kulczar. “People really started taking action. Just look at the McCarren Gathering. They are the perfect example because they still haven’t stopped.”

“When We Paused” was released this past March as a retrospective on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. However, more time has passed since the film’s release, bringing with it even more change.
Vaccines are now readily available and New York City is slowly opening up, bringing hope after such a difficult year.
“It’s remarkable to believe that I lived through that,” said Kulczar, “A few days ago New York had no new COVID deaths for the first time since the pandemic began. We have come a long way.”
However, the sobering memory of all those lost in the past year remains. Kulczar is currently working on another film about the pandemic, a personal documentary that will detail her own experiences.
As more time passes though, “When We Paused” will continue to bear witness to Greenpoint as it was during the pandemic and to how resilient the neighborhood and its people have always been.
“It was a time capsule,” Kulczar explained of the film. “It was my love letter to Greenpoint. We lost a lot during the pandemic, but we still had so much.”

To see more of Kulczar’s work, go to catalinakulczar.com or to Instagram @catalinaphotog.

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