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Postcard from Crown Heights

Updated: Nov 11, 2023




Imagine a Better World


John Lennon wrote in his song “Imagine,” Imagine all the people, Livin' life in peace. I think he was expressing something profound. Imagination is the vehicle – through language, song, and images – by which we discover what it is we fear, what we desire, and how we find happiness. We can “imagine the worst” and often do, or along with Lennon imagine everyone living together in peace. We are all stuck in reality, but we can imagine what is much worse and also what is better. Furthermore, imagination can make what is better a reality. If we think it, we can make it so.


I live in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. It is one of a line of neighborhoods that stretch from Brooklyn Heights deeper into Brooklyn. After the Heights come Cobble Hill, Borum Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights and finally Crown Heights. As one moves through these neighborhoods one finds that they become less and less prosperous, but that prosperity has grown steadily through the process of gentrification. Gentrification largely means wealthy white people move in and increase the value of real estate. This process creates layers in the class system. Below the new white people are others who have benefited and those who have not. For example, there are many old people who own houses; they have benefited from the increase in value. Many emigrants live here, some of them open stores and benefit from the wealth. The diversity of these emigrants is extraordinary. If one moved north on Nostrand Avenue, a major shopping street, from Eastern Parkway, one would encounter: an Israeli who runs a bagel store; a hair cutter from Columbia; a cafe owner from Ecuador, a discount store owner from Bangladesh; a Deli owner from Yemen; a beauty products store owner from Jamaica. There is a place to have one's nails done run by Chinese women; a restaurant run by a West African; a cleaners run by Koreans; a pharmacy owned by someone from Syria; a Japanese restaurant run by a Japanese family… The whole world is represented.


After the store owners come people from the lower middle class, people who work in the post office and the subways, plumbers and superintendents supporting families with children in public schools. Below them, in this condensed sketch of the neighborhood’s social pyramid, are the seriously poor, deserted women who, on their own, try to raise their children, street criminals, maybe members of gangs, old people on a fixed income, desperate alcoholics just holding it together. Finally come the lowest of the low, the homeless, the insane, people sleeping in boxes, spending the night in parks, people wandering the streets shouting at invisible enemies who have done them harm. The whole drama of human life is here, there are winners and losers, some effortlessly succeeding, others struggling, and some who are lost souls. Imagination is rife both as fear and as hope.


One way this struggle of different classes is portrayed is through murals that dot the area. Some pictures and words on the walls document directly the on-going conflicts, like the signs at the Hebron Church and School that show how the institution is trying to keep dogs out of the area in front of the building. Others are just vanity graffiti. Still others are calls to action. I find most eloquent those that refer to what is worse but do it using murals as a vehicle to what is better. Here are a few of my photos from the streets of Crown Heights.


One photo that makes a postcard depicts part of a mural about gun violence, a problem that was quite bad in Crown Height. This section of the mural depicts the iron pipeline by which guns come into Brooklyn from states that have lax gun laws. However, the mural also depicts a mother, child and father existing in peace while the father reads a newspaper about the problem. Police statistics show gun violence is down dramatically in Crown Heights.



Another photo, shows a mural, partly hidden by rose bushes, in which Orthodox Jews are living in peace with Black People. In August of 1991, there were riots in Crown Heights lasting days. Two Black children were struck by a car in a motorcade carrying Rabbi Schneerson, and, in response, Black youths attacked Jews and killed one of them. It was a terrible race riot. However, today the two communities live together in peace, perhaps somewhat like what the mural shows.



Everyone fears doctors, especially dentists, as they can cause so much pain. The mural accuses you have not gone to the dentist because “YOU ARE AFRAID.” The sign encourages you to go to Dr. Burton because, “WE CATER TO COWARDS.” The sign addresses the fears of dental work but also allows us to imagine having clean, white teeth and a healthy bite. Statistics from the American Dental Association show that dental health has vastly improved in all of Brooklyn.


Everyone fears death. Perhaps just as much, we fear being forgotten. To live and leave no mark behind is a terrifying idea. There is a mural in memory of Staff Sgt. Andre E. Bullen and Brother Nigel E. Bullen who both died on Sept. 20, 2005, presumably in some awful incident. Yet here they are commemorated. The Bible asks, “Death, where is thy sting.” Death has no sting if it is followed by life. One way life can continue is through the memory of living.



Another sign in Crown Heights has to do with food. What a complicated subject! We fear to go hungry, even to die of starvation, or less dramatically to eat food that is bad that makes us sick or unhealthy. Yet we also dream of a delicious meal that satisfies our cravings. The sign for the Japanese Bowl suggests through bright colors and totemic designs that we will be very happy with their fare. Perhaps there is a connection with the more recent statistics issued by the Department of Health that show that hunger and bad health from food that is not nutritious is way down in Brooklyn.



Another mural depicts two faces above a third in a different style. It addresses the question of who we are. In each of the faces lurk many personalities: some might be fearful, hoping not to be noticed; another lives for attention; one suffers from embarrassment, matched by one who is free and gregarious. As the neighborhood becomes more prosperous, as schools improve and crime goes down, there is a chance that the happier selves emerge into the bright light of community. We imagine a better world, and then that world emerges.




Just as good as a mural is a girl in a costume for the West Indian Day parade. In this parade imagination runs riot, but it is also a celebration of many victories over dark forces – curses, the evil eye and voodoo, poisoned cows, and barren women. The bright regalia signal triumph in which feathers, color and pageantry conquer all.


Phot. John DeWind

Through imagination we realize our fears and problems and through the same mechanism we can imagine solutions that can then become reality. This double use of imagination is very active in Crown Heights, as one can see in the images throughout the community. I believe this is one reason it has become such a wonderful place to live.


 

John DeWind is a lifelong New Yorker, largely educated in the city. He got a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University and worked as an adjunct lecturer for many years at City College. After a dispute with the Dean, he left City College to pursue various projects. He founded an organization that taught high school students to write by having them prepare work for school literary magazines. Many of his students went on to win various prizes. This work ended after a fight with the Department of Education. Next, he engaged in representing artists, setting up shows in galleries, restaurants, empty stores, and apartments being displayed for sale. A large amount of art was sold at very low prices given what is possible on the market -- hundreds of dollars instead of thousands and more. Next, he founded an organization called Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association which published a magazine called Nostrand Avenue News with articles about local events and merchants. At the same time, he managed a group that did litter pick up and tree care on the avenue and nearby. He also won an effort in participatory budgeting to plant fifteen trees on Nostrand Avenue or nearby. NAIA was ended by the Covid pandemic. Since the pandemic receded DeWind has engaged in new efforts: to plant trees on his own block, to support all day festival on Nostrand Avenue co-organized by Nostrand Avenue Merchants Association, and to help an organization called Success for Freedom that pursues cases of unjustly incarcerated prisoners, most famously that of Colin Warner whose story is depicted in the movie Crown Heights. DeWind has lived in Crown Heights since 2010 with his wife. They have two grown children, a girl who lives in Queens and a boy who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. DeWind and his wife are devoted grandparents.

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