Years ago I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge at night and made a promise to myself that I would someday live in New York City. I was a visitor then and the beauty of the sparkling city lights and the waves far below dancing in their reflection made me love this place. It is one of the most beautiful places in the United States and I hope someday you experience it.
Last night, I stood on the same bridge beneath a full moon, with friends and family. There were children in strollers, small kids, young adults, middle ages folk, and elders. Each one answering a call to do something more than just despair. Each one held a sparkling sign that I and a small group of Quakers had made or taught them to make on their own.
Our little working group, called Quaker Activists, had pulled together this second “light action” around all our too-busy work schedules. We walked in silence from the Brooklyn Meeting House, under police escort (we had gotten a permit to march) and immediately were greeted with smiles and camera phones. Yana, in a lighted body suite carrying a lighted dove led the way. Over twenty signs and 30 people followed. A few young women played their Ukuleles and softly sang. I helped my good friend Wayne carry a large sign that read “Unite.” Robin carried a sign that read love light. Nadine walked with her wife and kids and carried a sign their young son, Sam, thought of that said Kind is Cool. Maryland carried a BLM ( Black Lives Matter) sign bringing up the back.
People applauded us from inside restaurants, drivers honked their horns, bike riders stopped to say “good job”. As we approached the bridge, tourist from all over the world started recording video and taking photos. We walked in silence letting the lights do the communicating. People thanked us when we thanked them for filming us. We handed out a one page paper that explained that we marched AGAINST hate and FOR being the light - Light we all hunger for in these dark times.
One Spanish speaking couple borrowed a sign that said love in Spanish and held it over their head and kissed for a photo. Drivers in their cars honked their horns and filmed with their cameras. Families and groups of tourists simply stopped and filmed us walking by.
At the last set of stone arches nearest Manhattan we stopped and sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” I turned to see one of the NYC Policemen who had escorted us singing along.
Last night, I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge not as a dreaming visitor, but as an invested New Yorker. I stood with a small conspiracy of good people drawn together by warmth and hope that came from each other, from the light inside each of us.
For a moment, on the Brooklyn Bridge, the sparkling lights of lower Manhattan, and the full moon, took a back seat to our sparkling signs and simple voices making this place the most beautiful place in America.
We will march again and invite you to join us. But where ever you are, push back the dark and let your light shine.
The water slowly ran out of the fire hydrant, like a spring it ran across steaming hot concrete evaporating to rise and meet clouds forming a midsummer thunderstorm above me. The hydrant was on a dead end cul-de-sac in the Brownsville Housing Projects of Brooklyn.
Once the meeting place of gangs, the space has been transformed by local non-profits like the one I was working for into a kind of oasis; murals, a flower garden, and large vinyl prints of photos and art attempting to change the spirit and maybe direction of the community.
I was standing near the hydrant on a hot July day looking for my photography students. My co-teacher and I had given the assignment to shoot portraits of each other and they had fanned out into the community looking for interesting backdrops.
I did not see any students at that moment so I was stepping toward the hydrant to douce my bald head and take a drink when a thin middle-aged man approached and threw down a black plastic bag.
He knelt to take a drink and we began a conversation. He told me his name was Robert. I mentioned that I had a son with same name. I told him I was teaching photography to students in the community and that I wanted them to photograph this hydrant.
“You need to have them photograph the developers that are moving in here and turning buildings like that one ( he pointed across the street) into condos that no one living here now can afford. The anger in his voice rose as he explained. “They made millions in Manhattan and now they are coming here to make more money.”
I agreed and I mentioned that in fact several of our students had said they planned to photograph this very topic.
“Do you live around here?”, I asked. He grinned and looked at his plastic bag. “I’m homeless man, I live in the shelter down the street. It’s fu*king violent as hell, but I’ve run into hard times. There are no jobs, none that can pay the kind of rents they are charging now.”
As he walked away toward the shelter I bent down and drank from the hydrant. As I stood up a private, sleek blue helicopter zoomed low over head, most likely shuttling some millionaire to Manhattan. It had come from the direction of the dark rain clouds gathering on the horizon.
Imagine giving up everything, including electricity and running water to live in leaky trailer in the middle of the Dismal Swamp. Crazy, right?
Recently, I walked up a long, soggy, fog filled road near Columbia, North Carolina, to find a mobile home once owned by a women who spent 20 plus years living in it alone.
Alone, yet not lonely. I am told she used to stand in the woods and sing. This brought out her pet bears. Yes. WILD bears -over 20 of them.
Kay Grayson was her name and she was tall and beautiful.
She had lived all over the US, including in Las Vegas, leaving town each time a man did her wrong. I think she gave up on men after a while and picked bears. She befriended them, protected them from poachers, even let them into her trailer.
In 2015, after Kay failed to pick up a friend’s food drop by her driveway gate along Highway 64, they found her remains scattered in the forest near her trailer. The news and internet picked up her death and spread it as a “I told you so” story of how the wild bears that she loved turned on her and ate her. A coroner later said there was no evidence of an attack or fight. She may have just simply died in the words from an everyday event like a heart attack.
But “the bear lady” being eaten by her pet - but wild - bears fulfills a stereotype of nature being dangerous, so that it the story that spread and that we all remember. On the beautiful spring morning that I walked the road into her place, I found raccoon, not bear tracks, in the mud.
A door from her trailer lay on the ground, maybe ripped off by a bear, or a human. Looking through the open doorway of the abandoned trailer, I noticed that she had put a telephone pole up in the middle of her living room area to hold up a patched roof. Home repair books still lay on a table along with a box marked “Red Christmas Linens.” Small decorative bird houses hung from the kitchen cabinets.
Back out at the highway, plastic flowers still mark her driveway. On the back of a white cross I found a touching message.
Her life story deserves a movie made of it. Outside Magazine did a lengthy article on her life and death.
Kay found her bliss in the woods, with animals she could better predict, and more deeply love, than humans. She wasn’t crazy. But maybe we are for not recognizing the value of the life choices she made and the importance of the wild animals she tried to protect.
Like us all, Kay’s life stood for much more than how it ended.
Black Coffee, Please is Todd Drake’s blog on life as an artist, teacher, and activist. Drake lives in Brooklyn, NY and is originally from North Carolina. All images and writing copyrighted (c) 2017 www.the-equalist.com
Today, I realized I know this place is becoming home. I realized it after a day of biking across Brooklyn.
It started with riding across Prospect Park and down 9th Ave through Park Slope to scrappy old Red Hook. It was a cold but beautiful morning. My fellow bikers and I waved at people in cars using our bike lane as too-narrow parking spaces. Past the Gowanus Canal, I saw a worrying crowd gathering near a bodega only to discover up close that it was a crew shooting a movie.
After my meeting at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, I rode along the Gowanus Canal again and through quaint Cobble Hill (past the public sculpture of a new friend and artist) to BRIC Arts Media where I was given a walk through by the artist Miguel Luciano. His new solo exhibition is on Peurto Rico and the diaspora living in New York City. The show features altered and restored vintage Schwinn bikes from the 1950s through the 1970s. I owned one of those bikes back in the 70’s with the banana seats and sissy bars and the stick shift like gear changer.
The title of the show is Ride or Die. The artist related riding a bike to being free - exactly how I feel when I ride. I talked Miguel into letting us honk one of his bike sculpture’s giant horns while giving tours to kids.
I then rode my bike down to Dumbo for another meeting, this one at Brooklyn Arts Council with a room full of teaching artists waiting to welcome me. For one of the group building exercises we acted out a play depicting the overcoming of one’s fears. I used my bike’s red tale light as dramatic theater lighting.
Afterwards, I stepped out into the cool darkness of Dumbo and looked at the cobble stoned streets, the swirling water of the East River, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges arching away into the night. I lingered and counted by blessings; to be in this place, calling this city my home and knowing how to navigate its streets, making and teaching art.
I rode my bike back up the hill, away from the water, under the BQE and into Brooklyn’s business district. I silently passed police stations, colleges letting out their night classes, and nurses walking away from long shifts. I turned left near where I attend Quaker Meeting and soon was back at the Q subway stop next to Junior’s Famous Cheese Cake.
One the subway, I braced my bike against the pole and tried not to bother anyone’s shoes with my wheels.
Back in my neighborhood, I pressed my new remote and my building’s parking garage door opened. Like batman returning to his cave, I floated on my bike down and into the black. Home.
Riding across the Manhattan Bridge today on the Q train the sun was shining almost white in the subway windows and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge and the statue of liberty off in the distance. The water in the East River was the same copper green as the statue and you could see it below and between the rail tracks if you stood at the end of the car and looked down.
A young group of “Show Time” pole dancers had come into the car at Canal Steet and had started with clapping and then some recorded music. They spun around on the pole nearest Robin and I, their perfectly fit arms and chests able to hold themselves out vertically from the pole like a flag.
Beside me sat two teenage Muslim women working hard to be oblivious of the shirtless young boys dancing just feet away. One of the girls read a book and the other played a video game on her phone.
Across from us sat a women in a fuzzy orange mini skirt. Her shoes had white feathers. Robin later commented on her patterned hose.
As the young men spun she pulled out her bejeweled cat eyed sunglasses and put them on. She smiled just a bit and watched them behind the safety of her shades. Just down from her sat a young man dressed all in black with a small US Army patch on his sleeve. He hugged a black scooter and watched through his shades too- without a smile.
The boy’s moves and their music were good but I did not have any money to give them so I sat quietly just taking in the moment. Robin and I were on our way home from the Lion King’s Broadway production. It was an amazing experience, but what I saw in front of me was the real show of New York City. At the next stop the dancers got off. I looked at Robin and then turned back to see a young man standing in their place- with a surf board…..the show never ends.
Deborah and Glenn are talented artists from Chicago who are determined to make it happen on the dance floor that is New York City. Here is their story.
Previous to our “migration” from Chicago to NYC, Glenn and I had talked for many years about living in NYC for “a year or more.” We visited NYC often for 20 years before we had the opportunity to “migrate.” So we knew NYC quite well and always enjoyed the differences in “artistic energy” between Chicago and NYC. We also visited Berlin (less frequently, but frequent enough) and explored living in Germany for a time.
Chicago is a wonderful city, and Glenn and I have family and friends (artist and non-artist friends) in Chicago.
“Migration” is a keyword for us in telling our story, because we continue to “migrate” to NYC, but we also return to Chicago, and we enjoy other “art centers” in other countries.
We are asked sometimes why we are migrating towards NYC. The “short answer” is that we are seeking art/cultural opportunities. We do not see Chicago as “better or worse” in terms of artistic practices; different cities offer different opportunities. We see ourselves as artists whose work is able to reach people in many parts of the world. The location of NYC on the Eastern coast of the USA is helpful to us in terms of mobility, and also the abundant variety of artistic opportunities.
The catalyst for our migration was that I was offered a part-time job teaching art in a private high school in Manhattan. I began teaching in February 2014. I found an AirBnB room for 6 weeks in South Park Slope – $1200 per month. After 6 weeks, I came back to be with Glenn in Chicago for 2 weeks (Spring Break at my high school – it was less expensive to fly back to Chicago than to stay in the AirBnB for 2 weeks.)
After Spring Break, Glenn and I found an AirBnB room in Harlem for 3 months, April through June 2014. It was $1600 per month. We began to share our work with others in NYC in a more focused and disciplined way.
We went to events almost every evening – events at museums, galleries, nonprofits, and alumni events for SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago) graduates. At one SAIC event, I met the residency director of the Catwalk Residency in Catskill, NYC. We applied to the residency and were accepted for 3 weeks in August 2014. The residency gave us time to work on our art, but it was also an opportunity for migration from Chicago to NYC.
During Summer 2014, we lived in Chicago and began to sell/give away our furniture and other possessions. We found renters for our condo. We stored our remaining possessions. We flew to Catskill with minimal clothes and possessions with the goal of finding an apartment in Manhattan at the end of the residency.
The hardest part of our “migration” journey came at the end of the residency. The only “pay stubs” we had were my part-time job pay stubs – and those did not qualify us for an apartment lease. I mentioned our problem to a teaching colleague – she arranged for us to stay in a room at her church for two weeks at $30 per night.
We stayed at Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen for 2 weeks and during that time we looked at apartments every day/evening.
We were fortunate and finally found a man who rented us a small 450 sq ft furnished apartment in the Garment District for $2500 a month for 9 months. We had to pay several months of rent up front and there were other “restrictions” – for example, he did not want us to receive packages or mail at the apartment. But overall, we liked the apartment – it was our first “live/work space” in NYC, and we were very happy there for 9 months.
In the summer of 2015, we received a matching grant ($6500 total) from the 3Arts organization in Chicago and we travelled and did art projects and exhibitions in Africa and Europe. It takes a lot of time and effort to get matching grants and raise money for our art projects. We were in a serious car accident during our travels, and it gave us a new perspective on how fortunate we are to be alive and retain our physical mobility. We are grateful that 3Arts and others supported us, both financially and emotionally, during our travels.
It is noteworthy though, that it cost us less to travel (using the grant money) than to live in NYC for the 2 summer months.
We are always sharing our art work with others, and we enjoy meeting other people who are interested in what we do. We are also very interested in the work of others and we help other artists whenever we can – so there is a synergy between our socially engaged work, helping other artists, and sharing our work with all who are interested.
We could not “migrate” without the help of many friends and also our four parents, who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and who allow us to come back and live with them in Chicago when we need to. We are fortunate to have good relationships with our families and friends, and it takes time for us to nurture these relationships and not neglect them.
When we returned from our exhibitions overseas, we lived in an AirBnB room in Brooklyn for one month (approx. $1900) while we looked for another 9-month furnished apartment situation. We found a furnished 450 sq ft apartment in NoLIta through the Listings Project (https://www.listingsproject.com/.) Again, the rent was approximately $2500 per month and we had to pay two months ahead. The location was great, but the apartment was narrower (railroad style) than our first apartment, and was not as functional for us as a live/work space as our first apartment.
We continued to work our “jobs” and shared our work from our small sublet in NoLIta – and caught the eye of the curators at the Sheen Center in NoHo.
In February 2016, the Sheen Center offered us a 3-month residency for summer 2016 and also a solo exhibition opening in February 2017. As of this writing, we feel very fortunate to have lived at the Sheen Center for 3 months. Yet, it is also a lot of work to prepare for the exhibition. The materials for the exhibition will cost upwards of $3000. Our time to prepare (unpaid) should be calculated at approximately $6000-$7000. So, even though we are not paying rent for three months, we are not being paid for our time or our expenses to contribute to the cultural life at the Sheen Center and lower Manhattan.
At the end of September 2016, we must again find a place to live. We would like to find an apartment closer to $2000 per month. Glenn and I continue to look for more ways to earn steady income so that we will qualify for a lease. Glenn is an experienced small business consultant and an expert with Quickbooks. He has 25 years experience as an Operations Manager for a large corporation. I continue to teach part time and will also be teaching a class on Art/Math fusion in Harlem. I can also work with Quickbooks and am very good with numbers! I founded and managed a design firm for many years, while developing our conceptual/socially engaged art practice. I am experienced with Photoshop and other Adobe programs – and I can hand-cut Yupo stencils with ease and speed!
We would be glad to respond to, and help, others who would like to share their socially engaged work with us.
We would be grateful for introductions to people or organizations that need bookkeeping, teaching (workshops), and especially high-level art and culture services! We are artists, first and foremost, and we bring a positive-upward-migratory energy to all that we do. We are here to contribute to the “common good” – in NYC and beyond!
Contact Deborah and Glenn at http://www.doeprojekts.com
Moving to New York City is an exercise in creativity, endurance, and patience.
Ways of finding a place to call home include (cheap to expensive):
1. Sofa surfing on a friend’s sofa until you get a job and can rent.
2. Staying in a Youth Hostel (after your friend throws you out)
3. Find an artist-residency. Some pay you and give you a place for free, others offer reduced housing costs.
4. Air BNB it - some folks are just living this way permanently
5. Sublease - Some come with furniture and this type of landlord may require less in the way of proof of income.
6. Find a rental broker free listing.
7. Pay an broker to show you the better apartments and sign a year lease. You’ll hate giving up an additional one month’s rent worth of a commission to the agent but it’s a popular way of screening renters for landlords so it’s hear to stay. By the way, the average Brooklyn rent is $2,600. Here is a website with other averages.
8. Buy a place! Hope you have an extra million!
Our own story:
When my wife and I decided to move to Brooklyn we knew we wanted to rent a place for a year. We asked friends for a recommendation to a real-estate agent. We found one, and though very friendly, they ended up showing us only one good apartment they had listed themselves and a few really, really, awful apartments (think dungeons) that were not at all comparable or a good fit for our needs. We had agreed in advance to work with them for up to 3 days to look for places in Brooklyn, but after one day ( and a free meal on us) and after showing us only about three places, the agent told us they were not available the next day. They had boxed us in to accepting their place. (An apartment with a ceiling so low the ceiling fan hit my head - with windows facing a solid brick wall!) We went to bed that night despondent and feeling played. We had only one mediocre option.
While lying in bed we got on our smart phones and found several places listed on the internet that seemed good. At 10:30 PM I emailed an agent and he called me on the spot. After some thoughtful questions he said he had some matches for us and by noon the next day we had found a perfect place for us; high ceilings, newly remodeled, wooden floors, kitchen with granite bar, windows over looking trees. We left a message dumping the agent who had played us and never heard from them again. Lessons? #1: Do not prearrange an agent. Just look online and work with the listed agent for each apartment. One of them will be a good match and your go forward with them to see other places. #2: Give yourself more than three days. #3: Don’t let yourself be played. The Internet gives you the power of knowledge.
Because we did not have jobs yet in the city, the landlord asked for five months prepaid rent. We talked them down from that but ended up having to pay several months rent all at once. So be ready for that. There are two types of rental properties; one is offering rents at market rates and can raise their rent yearly. The other is operating under rent control and cannot raise rents without permission from the city. Be sure to know which you are getting. Also, research the landlord online to make sure they are not slum lords that abuse their tenants. Renters can call the city at 311 and lodge a complaint, if an issue is not addressed. These complaints are public record. Try www.rentlogic.com - they tally all such information and give a letter grade to landlords like the health department gives to restaurants. You can check by address and by name of landlord.
Next, I will share the story of a couple of artists who are good friends now. Their approach was different but equally successful.
If those words can persuade you to not move to the city, then you are not supposed to be here.
I once had an art professor who used the same logic on me and his other students; “Don’t become an artist!” he said. I remember hearing him and being confused and put off. Later I dismissed him - I became an artist away. Years later I spoke to someone who knew him for decades and complained about that statement. Her response was “Oh, he said that every year to every class. It was his way of separating the uncommitted from those who really had the drive to become an artist.”
If you want to move to New York City, you need that same drive. Any hesitation will result in someone else moving into your spot, the same way traffic in this city operates. Think water. Traffic, and people flow here just like water down a stream, no empty spaces, no hesitation.
So if you are prepared to jump in, be ready to swim. I find the pace refreshing. Ignore the horns once you get here too; the car type and the people type. My first free lance customer here liked boasting that she could get anything done by free interns, so didn’t need to pay a living wage. I quickly learned to ignore her, just like the web designers that never called back after she had me call them and low ball them for their services.
New Yorkers are good at ignoring things. The unpleasant and the dangerous mostly. They also respond to beauty, talent, and kindness. I was walking my dog the other morning when a tall, tattered clothed, fully-tattooed, man approached me on the side walk. He was headed to an AA meeting in the church across from my apartment. I looked at him and said “Good Morning” my voice free of fear or irony. He stopped in his tracks and said “Ya, thanks.” Then added “What a nice thing to say.”
The reputation among outsiders of New Yorkers is that they are rude. I have found them generous and direct. Don’t waste time with pleasantries; drop the “Hello! Beautiful day isn’t it?” introductions, just ask a question and they will, 99% of the time, answer and have a mature, thoughtful conversation. Think of it as one ongoing conversation with the whole city.
Remember the water thing. Keep calm, keep swimming, and you won’t drown here.
1 Cent. That’s what the book sells for on Amazon. Artists Observed by Harvey Stein changed my life back in 1986 when it was published. I must have bought it at SECCA ( Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art) on one of my many solo visits while in medical school at Wake Forest University. I was unhappy in the program feeling the pull of the arts much stronger than the pull to be a rich and respected doctor. It was before the Internet and my art education had been limited to one book on Norman Rockwell, a few 8 mm films of Andrew Wyeth and a slide show on Picasso while attending Governor’s School in 1977. That was about it, until I found this little brown book with photos of living artists inside, along with brief interviews.
Looking at it today I can still remember every photo and the feelings I had reading about the artist’s lives. Some were cantankerous, some sexy, others spiritual. I remember trying to find my own personality in them, rejecting many, embracing others. My emotions back then were a lot more pronounced, age has a way of calming you, but those old feelings of longing and excitement rose up inside me recently when I picked out this book among the hundred art books I brought with me to New York City.
That book, the art I saw at SECCA, and a lot of soul searching led me to walk away from medical school. I’ve never regretted taking the artist’s way. I’ve made a lot of art, taught others to release that same creative excitement, and grown a belly that gives away the fact that I did not become a starving artist.
Fast forward to 2016, and just like that I googled Harvey Steins’s name and found him, still alive, still making great photos, particularly on Coney Island. My guess is he lives there. I plan to reach out to him and ask for an interview. Maybe I can write a piece for publication or a part 2 of this post.
Stein’s photos and the narratives on the lives of the artist showed me another world like looking through a peep hole. Their unabashed creativity and city-bread toughness inspired me but I would be too chicken to move to New York City for several decades. My wife and I did honey moon there a year after we married - we couldn’t afford it right away. We danced on a roof top in the shadows of the Twin Towers and walking through Times Square was scary; XXX movie houses and pick-pockets. But that was the mid 1980s and Keith Haring was still alive, and Andy Warhol, and all the others in Stein’s book.
In the 1990s we brought our kids back to the city, when they were old enough to travel. They stood atop the World Trade Tower and we all felt the gentle sway. That movement gave away the fact that the building did not have a central spine - a hidden tragedy on the horizon that we could not have imagined.
We also came back around 2002 to see Ground Zero - the kids and us in shock over what had just happened and what we all had lost. Only our youngest son, oblivious as a toddler, smiled in that photo.
I found that painful image when packing to finally move to New York City last year. I left it behind.
Harvey Stein’s photos and narratives helped me imagine another life, one that I have finally embraced. Time is a thief of many things. But 30 years has not lessoned my appreciation for this book. Thank you Mr. Stein. Artists Observed is worth much more than a penny to me.
The bats were gone. Like me, having moved out. I could not hear their high pitched chatter from the bat box attached to a second floor roofline. At dusk, their bodies would not swoop and dart to feed on the mosquito in the sky above. Still, the yard looked exactly the same, the large old oak trees doing their summer duty of shading the lawn and porches. The house I had designed and built with my wife had been rented to strangers the year before. It was fairing well without us. My wife and I left North Carolina and moved to Brooklyn, NY to write a new chapter in our personal and professional lives. We left behind a dream home. One that had raised our kids and provided us with cool night breezes, turkey calls, and visits from deer, fox, and humming birds. Although it had an artist’s studio to die for, it no longer fulfilled my needs as an artist. My life-long interests in humanitarian work had taken me out of the secluded studio and into the larger world, and although the local newspaper had given me front page coverage, I felt like I had maxed out what I could hope to do as an artist in that city.
It was tough leaving. I had lived in the same county since 1969 and knew the roads by heart. Driving down congested four lanes I could recall them being a dirt road. I had said hello to newborn children and goodbye to parents in its hospitals. It was time for a change, so we packed up a few things to take to New York and farmed out the rest to family for safe keeping. Securing a discount on the moving van because we were headed North, not South, we left for The Belly of the Beast - my brother’s nickname for New York City. We arrived having spent more money, energy, and emotion than anticipated.
It had been a year - a successful year - and I was back to check on the house and make arrangements for one more round of renting. As I washed the porches and cider siding to pretty the old place up for viewing, I took a few moments to pick black berries from the old garden, its soil soft and giving like so many quilt blankets from years of mulching. I felt as if my legs grew up from it like sunflower stalks. I could stay planted here I thought, then a humming bird approached me, one that I had watched dart about the year before fighting for a place at a plastic feeder. It had wintered in Central America, I knew. And I had done the same in Brooklyn.
Soon after we parted ways, each seeking our own flowers.
( Black Coffee, Please is an occasional blog by photographer Todd Drake spotlighting his experience of making art and a new life in New York City. Copyrighted Todd Drake 2016)