Community gardens by foot & bike

Did I tell you that I joined the board of a wonderful organization called the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust (BQLT) this past spring? I didn’t? Well, that’s probably because I spent approximately half my waking hours between then and last weekend helping to plan our 7th Annual Bike & Walking Tour!!

Happy people in bike helmets looking at plants

Happy bike tour participants inspect foliage at a BQLT garden

But I get ahead of myself. Let me first explain that BQLT owns and stewards over 30 community gardens in NYC’s two most populous boroughs. This means these public green spaces are permanently saved from development and cannot be sold. It means we apply for grants and hold fundraisers to keep them in raised beds and water systems. It means the resident gardeners who put their blood, sweat, and tears into transforming many of these plots from abandoned wastelands into lush oases for the whole neighborhood to enjoy 20, 30, and 40 years ago can confidently pass them on to the next generation. I’m so proud to be part of all this work, and so excited to learning about everything from tree identification to city council budgets with the committed and good-humored BQLT crew.

Group photo in community garden

Select BQLT board and staff members giddy with relief at the end of the tour

That’s why, after many months of planning, it was so thrilling when our big day finally came. Last Saturday, September 15th, 60 awesome people showed up to tour a handful of our beautiful community gardens in Bushwick (apparently the 7th Coolest Neighborhood in the World, according to Vogue), and eastern Bedford-Stuyvesant. We started the afternoon at Concerned Citizens of Grove Street Garden with remarks by a community affairs rep from the office of our Borough President, Eric Adams (who is himself a vegan bicyclist, didn’t ya know?), and by the garden’s founder Jaime Alvarez, who started it 37 years ago.

From there, tour t-shirts donned and branded water bottles filled, we bikers embarked on our ride to check out six more gardens, while the walking group ambled off to four. We saw bitter melon growing and chickens scratching. We heard stories of gardens’ origins as ashen lots in the bad old days of 1970s NYC. We whizzed by stoop sales and farmers markets and a motorcycle washing station with hand-lettered signage set up in someone’s garage. I learned that my husband has the same birthday as one of city council member Antonio Reynoso‘s staffers, and that La Finca Garden was established way back in 1986.

Guy in bike helmet and glasses next to guy in blazer

Birthday twinsies!

Woman in bike helmet next to man in baseball cap

They even have embroidered hats!

After a few sunny hours of pedaling, peeping, and chatting, we arrived at the truly fabulous People’s Garden for plant-based Dominican snacks by woman- and worker-owned catering cooperative Woke Foods and music by a band from Haiti Cultural Exchange. Kids pushed each other around in a wagon. People waiting for the bus outside peered in and bopped to the tunes. And apparently a reporter was there from Our Time Press, because I just saw this article! Nice. As dusk approached, I finally took off my fluoro yellow tour leader vest and headed out the gate, mad tired but wicked satisfied.

While I can’t say I’ll exactly miss the scores of hours the little BQLT events committee spent in after-work meetings at the library, the email chains about flyer printing that grew to 50 messages deep, or the mosquito-filled crepuscular trial rides I took part in over the past handful of months, they were all totally worth it. See you for the 8th!

People on bikes in urban America

Sure Signs

Drive on left airport sign Dublin Ireland

AKA: These sure are signs!

Many exciting things are happening around here.

So many of them, in fact, and so exciting, that I don’t have the time or energy to report on them before August is over!!

Therefore, please indulge in the following selection of funny signs collected on Arthur’s and my second annual work-related pilgrimage to Ireland, plus this time Scotland:

Anteater sign outside museum in Dublin Ireland

Dublin National History Museum making everyone feel welcome

Beware of Cyclists sign Dublin Ireland

Usually good advice

Thermos Museum poster Edinburgh Fringe

My kind of culture! (off the beaten path at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival)

Good work

Good work, team

Flour and eggs exam sign University of Edinburgh

When I finished my exams, I usually just went home

Choking to Death on a Currant Bun

How did we miss this show??

Just Falafs funny falafel sign

One of the better food-related puns we came across

Last but not least, a reassuring sign of the times:

Drag nun with round glasses

???

A drag nun performing at the Frankenstein pub during the Edinburgh Fringe!!!

As you (hopefully) do some gallivanting around this Labor Day weekend, keep those eyes peeled for fun in written form. Send me your faves and I’ll post ’em on the blog!

Building Tamir’s Legacy

If I were a faster thinker, I would have a handful of pithy, insightful takeaways prepared to share with you following the hour-long phone conversation I had with Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, late last month. But alas, my brain is of the slow drip variety, and I’m still processing it all. (Or, as Tom Robbins so wonderfully put it, I’m still lapidating it in the old cerebral gem tumbler.)

What I can tell you now is that Samaria was remarkably open with me, a total stranger. I am always interested and honored when people I interview feel at ease enough to go off script, to keep going after our allotted time, to share with me some of the more personal details of their stories. In this case, I was bowled over by Samaria’s willingness to speak candidly about the death of her son, and about the many kinds of trials she’s endured in its wake. I will long remember her adaptability and determination.

Tamir Rice Cleveland brick building

Tamir Rice and the Cleveland building where a youth center will be opened in his name

As I continue to reflect on my talk with Samaria, I invite you to hear her in her own words in this story I wrote for ioby. Through June 25, Samaria is raising money to renovate the building that will become The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Center, a youth center she’s founding in her son’s name, as well as to host a Sweet Sixteen party for him at the Cleveland Museum of Art this very evening.

If you appreciate Samaria’s work, please consider giving to her campaign.

ArtPlace America: Birthdays & Anniversaries Edition

I like birthday parties as a rule, but when attending one leads to new friends, new work, and new travel possibilities, my like grows into love.

Such was the case a year ago last May, when I met Sarah Westlake—esteemed writer, teacher, and editor of the ArtPlace America blog—at a birthday party in (where else?) Brooklyn. It turned out we had some friends, some favorite beers, and some editorial pursuits in common. She told me she might have some work for me in the future, and before parting ways, we exchanged business cards. I was excited, but tried to keep calm, since I’ve learned anything can happen in the wild world of freelancing.

ArtPlace Annual Summit 2018 Polaroid Louisville Kentucky

A vision of things to come
(portrait by the singular Eli Keel: twitter.com/thateli)

Happily, this chance meeting was not my last with Sarah. Fast forward a handful of months, and I was pitching her story ideas and starting to write some posts. (You can peep the first few here, on the topics of: health equity and art; preserving black culture in gentrifying neighborhoods; and a public utility’s investment in their community’s story.)

I was already stoked with the new gig, but when Sarah asked if I could cover a couple of upcoming creative placemaking conferences happening in other states, my stoked-ness increased. While I’ve learned that traveling for work has its ups and downs, I still get a kick out of it. Plus I had never been to Madison, New Jersey (“A Town Right Out of Central Casting“) or Louisville, Kentucky (home of bourbon, baseball bats, and that famous derby), which meant one more uptick on the stoked-o-meter. So I packed my bags and experienced every major public transit typology to help document the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit’s Northeastern Corridor Conference on May 3 & 4 and the ArtPlace 2018 Annual Summit, May 21 – 23.

If I were to sum up these trips in two words, I would use the words: GOOD STUFF.

My posts from the events are still in process, so I’ll have to leave you with that verbal cliffhanger for now, but I can share a handful of my choice snaps from in and around the proceedings:

Woven tapestry featuring people

One of Ebony G. Patterson’s remarkable photo tapestries
(exhibited at the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville)

Shine Bright cardinal mural downtown Louisville Kentucky

Rad mural in downtown Louisville
(if anyone knows who painted it, please leave a comment!)

Skippy in the trash can

One or another of America’s finer airports, exhorting you to throw your perfectly good food and toiletries into the garbage

A big thank you to Sarah, ArtPlace, and a couple of groovy U.S. states I don’t often get to for extending me such a warm welcome this past year. I hope our relationships can enjoy that most oft-uttered of birthday wishes: many happy returns.

When to request a wizard on live radio

Two years ago this evening, my husband (who was then a lowly fiance) and I called up the host of Pyramid Power!, a monthly radio show that broadcasts on WGXC 90.7-FM, a community station based in New York’s Greene and Columbia counties.

Man and woman inside green pyramid

Pyramid Power! in action

The show is great—full, as its show page promises, of “amplified thought forms,” “sounds from this planet and others,” and “space news and self-help.”

But the reason we dialed its digits that April night was not (solely) to profess our love for radio programming well done. It was to ask the esteemed host of Pyramid Power!, one Sarah Van Buren, to be our wedding officiant. Except that’s not exactly how we put it. I know because I saved the script we wrote so we wouldn’t choke on the air!

Unison: Sarah!
April: This is your friends April and Arthur in Brooklyn!
Arthur: We’re calling to say that we love Pyramid Power!
April: And that, as you know, we’re getting married in Hudson this October, which is very exciting!
Arthur: And we’re thinking about our ceremony, and realizing that it isn’t a job for a priest
April: or a rabbi
Arthur: or a justice of the peace
April: or even a Love Boat captain
Unison: We need a WIZARD!!!
April: A wizard who will sanctify our cosmic adventure
Arthur: and unite us by the power invested in the pyramid!
April: So, we’re not asking for you to reply now, BUT!
Unison: Would you be our wedding wizard???!!!
Arthur: We’ll take our answer off the air! <3 <3 <3

You can hear bits of it here, starting at about 1:25:00. We are happily squished between some Constance Demby space bass and Led Zeppelin’s “In The Light,” but you’ll get the drift.

We asked Sarah to marry us for many reasons. I’ve known her since I was her Resident Assistant in the Arlington dorm at Emerson College back in the ’90s. Since then, we’ve taken part in uncountable adventures, both together and together in spirit, including unprepared car camping in California:

Woman outdoors with plastic bag hat

dance parties galore:

Woman in black dancing in red makeup

and at least one Polar Bear swim on New Year’s day:

People smiling on a beach

 

After Hurricane Sandy, I biked some peanut butter sandwiches down to Coney Island and followed Sarah around while she photographed the wreckage. When she was working at a gourmet food store in Brooklyn and I also had a shite-paying job, she’d hide their day-old bread in a paper bag near Prospect Park and text me so I could pick it up. We’ve been to Trees of Mystery together, we’ve had blue margaritas with her family on Easter together. We’ve ridden the Skunk Train and cried over breakups and once she decorated this Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’77 LP exclusively for my birthday:

Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '77 record album

On top of all that, she rides a motorcycle.

She has gravitas.

And she knows how to, as the Germans say, make party.

Sarah first met Arthur at an old apartment of mine, shortly before she moved to Wales for a while. In him, she recognized a fellow devout music-head. He still remembers her dazzling hand gestures. I felt so happy that day, and remain so grateful, that these two impeccable people are two of my best friends, and that they also see the genius in each other.

To our great thrill that night in April 2016, Sarah immediately granted Arthur’s and my wedding request, over a cacophony of mutually delighted cackles. Six months later, dressed in head-to-toe wizard regalia, she joined us in holy matrimony in a 19th-century steel forge and foundry.

But not before she had led some of our guests in a pre-wedding pose of some mystical import:

People balancing on one foot in a circle

Was it Pyramid Power?

Isn’t it always?

To bee or not to bee (hint: it’s the first one)

UPDATE: Our bees got us in The New York Times! Happy to have gotten my 15 minutes of fame with a box of bees on my back.

Man and woman on bicycles with box of honeybees


The trouble began three years ago this June, when I wrote a blog post for a client about a couple of fun-loving guys from Pennsylvania who’d endeavored to disrupt beekeeping.

This was not a joke! They built a modular honeybee hive called BEEcosystem that combined the visibility of a classic observation hive (the kind you might see at a science fair) with the workability of a classic Langstroth hive (the kind you see dotting the idyllic, sheep-fuzzy farm in your dreams).

Langstroth beehives in a field of lavendar

Thanks for the idyll, Homesteading.com!

It was cool. I enjoyed the fact that the hive’s inventors wanted people to know about and care about and see bees—these excellent creatures who are responsible for producing much of our food, and who offer us interesting ideas about our own behavior and habits. I also just liked that it was a wooden hexagon that hangs on the wall. That’s a good look.

But if you had told me that in the winter of 2018, my husband and I would make the nutty late-night decision to order a BEEcosystem and start shelling out hundreds of dollars for beekeeping classes, specialty accoutrement with names like “veils” and “smokers,” and (yes, this is how they do it) a three-pound package of LIVE BEES, well.

I would totally have believed you.

There is a LOT to know about keeping bees. (Did I think there wouldn’t be?!) We rushed out and got our copy of Beekeeping for Dummies, enrolled in a daylong beekeeping primer, and have been checking hourly to see when the UPS man is going to pull up with our booty so we can start officially freaking out.

The class was very informative, and enjoyable, led as it was by Andrew Coté, who I have come to understand is something of a giant in this world. He’s one of the main humans behind Andrew’s Honey, the New York City Beekeepers Association, and Bees Without Borders. This is him last Saturday, with the first slide he presented:

Andrew Cote beekeeping class slide projection

At least he was honest about what we’re in for!

Other highlights of the day included this slide that features his father next to a swarm of bees engulfing a statue’s head in the sculpture garden at MoMA:

Bee swarm engulfing head of statue

And the live smoker demo fellow beekeeper Flynn gave us in Columbus Circle:

Man with bee smoker

In reality, the class was much more substantive than these photos suggest. I suppose it’s just that nothing can prepare you a hundred percent for taking on a hardcore hobby like keeping bees. You just have to leap in—preferably veil on.

Ow!

A brush with vegan greatness

Last night, Arthur and I celebrated Valentine’s Day a day early—because even vegetarian restaurants are booked hella far ahead for V-Day in Brooklyn!

We settled on Modern Love in Williamsburg, purveyors of “swanky vegan comfort food.” Not only did this restaurant’s name scream Valentine’s Day, but our excellent realtor and friend Alison McQueen had given us a Modern Love gift card to say congrats after we closed on our house last year (thanks again, Alison!). The stars seemed to be aligning.

Vegan cheese plate with fruit, cocktail, and flower

Part 1: Into the (nut cheese) void*

We walked in to find the place abuzz with well-dressed veg-heads.

We opened our menus and found approximately two dozen mouthwatering choices.

And then, We Saw Her.

“Hey—by the host stand in the black overalls. Do you think that’s…?” Arthur asked me.

“Holy crikey! Maybe!” I replied, craning my neck.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz is the brains (and at least some of the brawn) behind such legendary acts of veganism as Post Punk KitchenVeganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World—as well as Modern Love, which also has an Omaha location (of course).

Woman with glasses holding a plate of food in a restaurant

Our lady in the flesh!

We were giddily discussing the possible implications of sharing a thousand-square-foot space with this mythical woman when the colorful fruit and cheese plate pictured above was set down on our table by none other than… the Notorious ICM herself!

While we blinked alternately at the plate and up at her, she explained each cheese and cracker variety to us (including their homemade Cheez-Its). When she was done, I ventured:

“Um, are we having a celebrity sighting right now?”

She looked at us, and with delicious deadpan, said:

“Yup, I’m Sarah Silverman.”

Then she walked back to the kitchen.

Isa, we love you even more now.

 

*Sorry, folks—that’s an inside joke with the Arthur-man. Happy Valentine’s, my sweet!

Faces of Work

In my experience, what we might call the architecture of work is not the same for freelancers as it is for full-time employees of organizations. The idea—and the doing—of work hang differently on a sole proprietor’s frame than they do on a company’s. For one thing, when you’re on your own, it’s your job to build the frame itself—as well as to make whatever you’re going to fill in with!

Powersuit Making Workshop at the Wassaic Art Festival 2012

Maybe you’ll make a powersuit!

When you start out to work for yourself, there is no path or plan ahead of you. There is no preexisting ladder to climb or maze to figure out: you have to make your own goals and your own route to reach them. There are no preordained titles to aspire to: you have to decide what you want to be called. There are no rules to chafe against: if the company culture sucks at You LLC, it’s YOU who has to change!

Woman standing in a green garden with a rake

Sarah, YOU should never change! You’re great.

These and many other aspects of work have been on my mind lately. Simultaneously, I’ve recently found myself captivated by others’ musings on work. Rather than try to deduce whether the chicken or the egg came first, I’ll just share two perspectives that have most recently tugged at my brain-strings.

Blonde woman with sewing machine

Another Sarah tugs at another type of strings.

  • “The Spirit of Work” by Marie Corelli. The variously regarded English novelist and mystic touches on lots of potent themes in this fin de siècle essay, such as the attitude of the worker determining the quality of the work; the weirdness of humans trying to elevate and separate themselves from the brilliant workings of nature; the notion that the having of love makes anything easy and the lack of it makes anything hard; the recommendation that everyone should learn a trade as part of their education; the misuse of the word “common” as an insult; and the fact that “‘gentlemen’ are not made by position, but by conduct.”
     
    Man holding cup on roof

    Neil T is a gentleman whether he’s working or working it

    Among many other gems (and some hyperbole I am actually not down with, such as basically suggesting that people never take a day off), Corelli also invokes Goethe, whose “inspiring lines should animate the mind and brace the energies of every worker :—.

    ‘Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute,
    Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power, magic in it;
    Only engage,—and then the mind grows heated;
    Begin!—and then the work will be completed.’ ”

    If that doesn’t get you jazzed to do something, perhaps you would feel more at home in the company of the “toadies, time-servers, and hypocrites of the community” whom Corelli depicts as crawling “before a trumpery ‘title’ as abjectly as a beaten cur trails its body along in the dust under the whip of its master.” Dang, girl! Sing it. Nice use of “trumpery,” too.

    Woman opening bottle of wine while camping

    Cynthia has never committed trumpery in her life.

  • Jerry Seinfeld interviewed by David Remnick. A century or so after Corelli, top-tier funny guy Seinfeld dropped such interesting insights about work during this exchange that I listened to it all the way through twice. When Remnick asked him what made him think he could be a comedian, he said:
    .
     ………“The truth is, I really didn’t think that I could. And I didn’t really care whether I could or I couldn’t. I just got to this point where I was so in love with it that I just decided, ‘What’s the difference?’ It seemed much more important to me to do the thing you want to do than success or failure.
    .
    ……….“This is 1975, you know, and we were still [in] a little bit of the vapors of the ’60s, where you did what you believed in. It wasn’t a ‘success’ culture, it was more of a ‘soul’ culture, I think.”
    .
    Soul culture!! Who among my fellow Gen X’ers—we who are coming to terms with our vocational destinies while wading through a waist-deep culture-sea frothy with vocoded singing, native advertising, and a bank storefront in every formerly vacant lot—does not envy this description of someone’s adolescent zeitgeist?!

    Man with headphones and laptop in easy chair

    Drew’s productions might occasionally involve a vocoder, but they remain excellent.

    A bit later, Remnick asked Seinfeld how long it takes him to prepare an hour-long stand-up show. He replied:

     ………“That’s like asking God how much time goes into an oak tree. He says, ‘I don’t know. I do it every day, I do it all day. I don’t know, I plant the tree, it grows, eventually it’s an oak tree, who the hell cares? It’s all I can do. I don’t know.'”

I think all of us—freelancers or employees, plumbers or pundits—do well to meditate on work and our relationship with it from time to time. Whether it’s been hunting our food to eat, breaking rocks in the hot sun to appease the man, or selling insurance to yacht owners, people have always spent lots of our time working. Let’s do what we can to make it time well spent.

Woman standing in office Lichtenstein

Yours truly working hard—or hardly working?!—in arts administration circa 2006.

Remembering Suzanne: An elegy in correspondence

The last email exchange I had with Suzanne Davenport—leader of NYC’s Violin Femmes, instructor at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and committed tapir conservation enthusiast—was in May of this year. In it, she wrote of a recent tapir benefit concert of hers that I had apologized for missing:

Don’t worry about the missed event. It was absolutely amazing though, I will say, great music, 3 original tapir songs, although not performed by tapirs but fellow artists, we had a surprise guest from Japan who played monk-punk in his traditional Japanese monk outfit and his basket over his head, we had super cute hand knitted tapirs and hand printed tapir shirts – we left few stones unturned and whipped everyone into a tapir frenzy. It went so far that there were knitted Tapir Kidnappings and ransom notes! (Happy ending). All in all totally awesome.

Needless to say, I was pretty crazy about this woman.

Woman standing with tapir animal

Suzanne with a tapir, her favorite

On January 2 of this year, we commiserated about the results of the presidential election. She wrote:

No words. Only 😱😱😱. Even more so I hope to see you in 2017 – we have to stick together!!!

In 2016, when I lamented missing another of her gigs, she replied warmly:

It is so easy to grow apart in the big city, and the Femmes have taken a little bit a different path the last year, but tonight we just rocked it and I think we are back on the prawl (isn’t that a word? The thing big cats do, what’s that called). I am getting better with social media, but still a far cry from what’s possible – it does help to at least FEEL in touch.

In 2015, when I told her I’d moved in with Arthur, she replied hilariously:

April, congratulations to the moving in with the beloved! For me of course it means I can’t send you any cards as I don’t know your address. But honestly, I don’t write that often – you certainly get more out of moving.

I first met Suzanne five years ago through our mutual friend Anya, who also played in the Violin Femmes. In 2014, I wrote about them for Brokelyn. Suzanne had been a professional performing musician in her native Germany, making a good living. When she moved to NYC in 2002, she founded the Violin Femmes to give adult musicians (mostly women over 40) a venue for performing publicly (usually in the subway and on street corners), no matter their level. Why did this pro devote so much time and energy to a music gig that was poised to pay just above diddly squat?

I just really love to give these guys this opportunity to play music with each other. It’s a very democratic band, it’s not “my band;” everybody has the same say in what we do. But on a very small level, I feel that starting and maintaining it has been my contribution to adult music education. It gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. It’s my favorite thing I do musically.

Women playing the violin dressed like Santa

The Violin Femmes rock the NYC subway one fine holiday (Suzanne on the far left)

Suzanne approved of the Brokelyn story, writing to me:

April, that is amazing! You will make us famous.

After that, Suzanne and I got to sending each other the occasional picture postcard or small package containing items such as (according to my journal) an “acorn holly cluster” and sheet music for the Violent Femmes song “Blister in the Sun.” In response to one of her gift boxes, it appears I replied, in part: “Awesome dream your friend had about the golden glasses, though I’m with you that the gift of fun could be just as valuable.” The fact that I can’t remember exactly what delighting volley of Suzanne’s I was replying to is evidence of just how rich the fruits of her friendship were.

Last month, on November 10, Suzanne died suddenly and completely unexpectedly of a heart attack.

While I know she was too cool to have been serious about wanting to get famous, Suzanne did achieve celebrity status in the minds and hearts of her students, collaborators, friends, family members, and everyone she impressed on the streets of New York City with her instant generosity, super-friendly take-no-shit vibe, and of course her musical skill—which were all evident even (or maybe especially) when she was wearing a burlap sack and a Santa hat.

Suzanne’s husband Scott (who, if I remember right, she met at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen over a pack of Pall Malls some years ago), set up this wonderful memorial page for her. When I tied the knot last year, she wrote to me:

I thought I’d never get married and it’s one of the best things I have done. 💝

Of course, all of this is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t even a close friend of Suzanne’s, and still she maintained a thoughtful and enchanting correspondence with me for years. I never felt she had forgotten about me, or wouldn’t be happy to see me at her next show or for a sit-down pint-and-chat. Especially in the ‘big city,’ cultivating such an easy familiarity over time and distance is rare. But Suzanne was rare.

My heart goes out to Scott and everyone else who knew and loved Suzanne. I think she would be glad to know that she’s given us all so many good experiences and lessons. In a frenetic and selfish world, she modeled how to stick together—namely, by showing up, in every way, every time. Now, she reminds us to regard our lives and relationships as the miraculous and chancy gifts they are. Thank you, Suzanne. Your genius will live on.