DonChristian Jones took over a dilapidated former laundromat in Crown Heights this past summer. Just a few months later, the mutual aid organization known as Public Assistants has become an important fixture in the community.
But now Public Assistants faces an uncertain future. Last week, Jones, 31, and his team found out that developers plan to turn the property into a gourmet supermarket, with demolition beginning in the next 20 to 50 days. While Public Assistants asked to negotiate for the lease to the space months ago, Jones said those requests were ignored.
“We are kind of in this fraught and precarious scenario where the community is obsessed with us, we are in love with the community and the property developers don’t know what to do with this because they are trying to figure out how to make returns on this space,” Jones said.
“We could probably find more adequate space somewhere near, but we do recognize that us simply being here is a stance against gentrification.”
Public Assistants has several initiatives — among them a bike repair and donation program, a garden, community art projects — but Jones’ larger vision was to include BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists, historically sidelined and unwelcome in other spaces. The space fills regularly with people writing poetry, screen printing, painting and making apothecary items. Public Assistants also recently began a community archiving project, where it documents and digitizes photos for people in the community.
There’s only been one meeting in eight months and Jones prides himself on the lack of hierarchy in the nonprofit. He says he’s informed about the organizational structure — or lack thereof — based on work as an educator in corporate, governmental and nonprofit spaces.
“To me, they all mirrored on another. I’ve worked extensively on Rikers Island and in public schools, and so much of what I saw did not seem that different from one another,” Jones said “So much of respectability politics and notions of professionalism go hand in hand with white supremacy, so I just wanted to bask and create in space with members of my tribe.”
In a gentrifying neighborhood, Public Assistants represented a way to hang on. “There is something so magical and special about this corner laundromat,” Jones said. “You turn the corner and you see all these murals. It’s just inviting in a way that I’ve never experienced.”
How you can help: Public Assistants is scoping out other properties in Crown Heights and adjacent neighborhoods if it has to leave the current location. Know a spot that might work? Let the team know. You can also donate to fund Public Assistants’ initiatives @public-assistants on Venmo or $PublicAssistants on CASHAPP.
DEAR READERS, please help us grow our community by hitting forward on this newsletter, spreading word about its existence in your networks and asking folks to subscribe. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. We also seek donations to pay our vendors and freelancers.
OUT & ABOUT
Yoga from the Epicenter: Join the Epicenter team for a special Inauguration Day mindful movement and meditation to start the day out with that which you can control: Breath. If interested, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Spots are limited; newsletter subscribers only.
A reason to visit Midtown: The Garment District Alliance this month unveiled Prismatica, an immersive art installation consisting of 25 6-foot-tall, multi-colored pivoting prisms that reflect the colors of the rainbow with accompanying music. On Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, the exhibit is on display through Jan. 30.
Eat a tamale, support a service worker: If you’re in Crown Heights this weekend, stop at neighborhood restaurant Mayfield and grab a tamale and a Mexican hot chocolate (splash of mezcal, optional). Mayfield and sister restaurant, Chilos, closed due to Covid, and all proceeds will be going to an employee relief fund. The Tamale Outpost will be open on weekends from 12 to 8 p.m. Check out Mayfield’s Instagram page for updates.
Live theater: “Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec”: Inspired by Bated Breath Theater’s production, “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec,” this theatrical walking tour is a reflection of the pre-pandemic performance hosted at the prominent Madame X bar. Theatergoers used to be immersed in a Parisian-style salon and served house-made cocktails in the company of prostitutes, dancers and outcasts. Now, audience members and cast alike are masked up to explore the streets of Greenwich Village together. To join this eclectic, bohemian group, get your tickets here.
BIPOC artists wanted: The Barrow Group, a nonprofit Off-Broadway Theatre Company, is looking for six BIPOC artists to share their stories during a free 10-week story development workshop with Seth Barrish (co-artistic director of the Barrow Group, director of Mike Birbiglia’s Broadway show “The New One”). Interested? The deadline is Feb. 8. Learn more and apply here.
BBQ+Biden: Sek’ənd Sun bar in Astoria is opening its doors this Wednesday, Jan. 20 for a special inauguration barbecue featuring smoked meat by Tikkun Bakery. Stop by between 3 to 9 p.m. for brisket and pork belly sandwiches — 50 percent of proceeds will go to Astoria Mutual Aid.
Design BPL’s next library card: Brooklyn Public Library is celebrating Juneteenth this year with a new look for its library card. Artists are invited to submit designs until Sunday, Jan. 31. Not only will BPL members rock your work when they check out books, but you’ll be paid a $2,000 stipend and have your card featured at the African American Heritage Center at Macon Library. Learn more here.
This week, our sister newsletter about schools, The Unmuted will be discussing how adults can be better allies to high school students. As always, let us know if you have any questions we can help answer.
Department of Education cuts pre-K programs: The DOE rejected the applications of 105 community pre-K schools requesting to continue services into the fall. That means 11 percent of the city’s 997 programs are shutting down — leaving many families without alternative childcare options. Disapproved sites were told that the needs of the community were better met by the proposals of other programs. Included in the cuts is the Brooklyn Archdiocese, which will have to close its programs at its Queens and Brooklyn Catholic schools. You can search for childcare options in your borough here.
G&T program reboot: More changes are coming to the city’s Gifted and Talented program. Last week, the DOE announced it would abolish its single-entry test for the accelerated programs. Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza are hinting toward the significant role of digital instruction come September. De Blasio also spoke to the apparent lack of diversity in the program. Just 14 percent of current students are Latino or Black. Eliminating testing is one way de Blasio and supporters of the decision believe more Black and Brown children can gain entry and access the opportunities G&T has to offer.
Mystery rise in graduation rates: The city saw its highest graduation rate in 2020 with 78.8 percent of 78,934 high school seniors defying the odds of the pandemic and remote learning. 57.7 percent met CUNY’s admission standards for proficiency in English and math. The only thing is that the DOE has no idea how, or why, it happened. Some explanations are the city’s relaxed grading policy and the state’s cancellation of Regents exams. Whatever the reasoning, some are worried about there being too much leeway when it comes to normal graduation requirements.
GIVE & GET HELP
Self defense: To combat gender-based violence, South Queens Women’s March will be holding a free self-defense course Saturday, Jan. 23 from 12 to 2 p.m. The training will focus on nonviolent communication and de-escalation. Register here.
Covid-19 hotel program: Do you or someone in your household have Covid-19? If you’re unable to self-quarantine, are worried about spreading the virus among those you live with and have nowhere else to stay, the city has a place for you. The Isolation Hotel Program is free for eligible New Yorkers. Call 311 or 1-844-692-4692 between 9 a.m and 9 p.m. and a medical provider will assess your situation and refer you to a hotel if appropriate. Learn more about the program here.
Talking about Covid anxiety: Brooklyn Community Pride Center is partnering with Visiting Nurse Service of New York and Griot Circle to give the LGBTQ+ community a safe space to talk about the pandemic’s effects on their lives. Each virtual group session will be held on Tuesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and are free to the public. Sessions will be facilitated by Jean Metzker, Ph.D. If you’re not much of a sharer, don’t worry. Listening is encouraged all the same. Learn more and sign up for a session here.
SMALL BIZ SPOTLIGHT
Every other week we will highlight a small business owner in Jackson Heights, Queens, to learn how they got through the pandemic and how they are preparing for the long winter ahead. This community reporting project is produced in partnership with the New York University Studio 20 graduate program. Each business owner profiled will then refer another small business owner in the area, creating a chain of connections throughout the community. This week we are highlighting You & Me Wireless.
What You & Me Wireless does: It sells cellphones and phone accessories.
How it survived: Owner Sanjay Guragain says he had to cut down expenses in order to financially survive the pandemic. He gave his staff of four a break for three months and reduced their work hours. His landlord also cooperated, giving him a break from rent for five months. That was helpful, he says, because he has two young boys to raise — the younger one was born in December 2019, right before the pandemic. Guragain says You & Me Wireless is currently serving about 30% of its previous clientele — customer spending has slowed down due to the pandemic, and the second wave has made visits more infrequent.
What Sanjay Guragain wants you to know: Guragain, a Burmese immigrant who moved to the U.S. in 2009, says he’s not afraid of shutting doors for a while if it’s for the health and safety of his community. “Businesswise, the lockdown is a pain, but it’s good for the community. Lots of lives are going to be saved.”
Why you should visit: Guragain says You & Me Wireless is a “deals store.” There’s always a Deal of the Day or a Deal of the Month offer. Right now Apple AirPods Pro are on sale for $200, which is $50 less than if you were to buy them through Apple.
Location: 37-50 74th St., Jackson Heights, 11372
Nomination for the next business: Raja Sweets and Fast Food
Muscoot Farm: Just one hour north of the city, Muscoot Farm in Katonah, Westchester, makes for a lovely stop for farm-animal viewing and a quiet stroll through the farm’s vast landscape. An early 1900s interpretive farm, the buildings at the farm are currently closed due to the pandemic. But the six-plus miles of hiking trails are open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day.
The farm boasts dozens of animals (no feeding them) including donkeys, goats, sheep, pigs and horses. The animals are representative of a typical early 20th century “gentleman’s farm,” according to its website, and includes rare breeds. Meander along a network of undulating trails and you get views of the local reservoir, open fields akin to the English countryside and dense woods with glimpses of nearby local mountains.
We want to see, hear, feel, support your art and response to this moment. To submit a poem, short story, artwork or any shareable experience, email us. Selected artists receive a $100 payment and join our growing community.
This week, we welcome Jen Lue. Lue is a writer and graduate of the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Hunter College. She is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Tin House, Jerome Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony and Anderson Center at Tower View, among others. She was a 2018-19 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and serves on the board of the literary journal Epiphany. She lives in Brooklyn and works for The Moth, a storytelling nonprofit.
Lue’s work focuses on the intersection between writing and community building, particularly when it comes to supporting other Asian-American artists and literary organizations like Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She loves exploring Chinese-American identity through the lens of thorny, complex women characters. Lue believes in BIPOC artists’ rights to tell a multiplicity of stories, not just the ones focused on family background or cultural expectations. She is most interested in what it means to be a woman artist, particularly an Asian-American woman artist, and how decisions around desire, power, motherhood, selfishness and femininity affect the friendships and relationships that matter most. You can find more of her work on her Instagram page and website.
11 April 2020
From Bitter Melon’s Stay Home Diary
I dream about L almost every night. It’s been months since we last spoke, long before the isolation began. He comes to me in different forms: as a high school boy kissing me on the lawn of a long backyard. As a dog wrapping its hind legs around me.
My white friend T posts a video urging Americans to participate in the census. She writes in the comments “& I am talking mostly to my white friends because my friends of color know better than I ever will (obviously) what it’s like to be both profited off and abandoned by the state.”
It is the use of the word “obviously” that irks me the most.
In the video she looks lethargic, reciting a string of words with no real affect, an improvised performance done badly. Later in the text, “oh, but I am so sleepy now, I’m going off to stretch,” because advocating for black and brown people exhausts her so much that she now has to do yoga to recuperate.
My therapist asks, “When will you stop measuring yourself by a rubric that will never accept you?”
I want to ask in return, “When and where will I recuperate?”
I read in a book that stays open on my desk that gossip—the very act of thinking, speaking and writing about another person—constitutes a way of paying attention (another form of love).
If that is the case, I want every man to speak my name on his lips. To remember me, like this.