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

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.

Small world: Sassy dictionary tweets, meet progressive Southerners

Sometimes, it all comes together.

For the back cover of the Spring 2018 issue of Sarah Lawrence magazine (theme: “democracy & education”), I had the great good fortune of interviewing SLC alumna Lauren Naturale, former Content and Social Media Manager for Merriam-Webster—aka the woman behind all those sassy tweets that helped get you through the beginning of the Trump administration. I’m not on Twitter much myself, but even I followed along.

In person, Lauren was even more incisive than her famous tweets, while also being warm and funny.  Our conversation netted way more good material than the cover could contain, so my editor and I put together a fun “web extra” to take some of the spillover.

Word Nerds story with photo of blonde woman

Click for the full story!

That would have been enough awesome for me for one issue. But I also got to write about the invincible Polly Hoben Greenberg, a college alumna and one of the brains behind the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which launched that state’s Head Start program. Among other brilliant moves, Greenberg helped to recruit local black women with little formal education to lead those Head Start classrooms, and she produced an album of children’s music that included many freedom songs and spirituals and was released by Folkways Records (now a part of the Smithsonian).

Vinyl LP with little boy making peace sign

Click for the full story!

Definitely an embarrassment of riches now, right? But wait, folks—there’s more!

The cover story of this issue is Moises Serrano, an imminent SLC alumnus and rising star activist for both Dreamers and LGBTQ rights. In anticipation of the issue coming out, Arthur and I watched the award-winning documentary Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America, which follows Moises through several seasons of his life and work. About 15 minutes in, there’s a scene in a small church in North Carolina where Moises is presenting about the lesser-known hardships many immigrant communities face, like depression and teen suicide.

Forbidden documentary Moises Serrano

Click for the full story!

“Hey, is that Zach?” we suddenly asked each other. We ran back the video and yep, there he was: Arthur’s uncle Zach sitting in a pew, nodding thoughtfully to Moises’ words. What were the chances?! Zach—a former minister, current health care justice advocate, and lifelong civil rights activist—showed up again thirty minutes later, in another clip from the church event. Guess great minds are bound to be in the same place at the same time.

While I think every issue of Sarah Lawrence is worth reading (and I’m not biased at all), this one makes some particularly good connections.

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.

One weird trick to help preserve freedom of the press

Unlike the Greater Internet, I can’t recommend any remedies for tooth whitening, belly fat reduction, or “crepey” skin, but I can tell you…

THESE crepes are where it’s at!!

Vegan buckwheat crepes by Sweet Potato Soul.jpg

Delicious vegan buckwheat crepes — thanks to *Sweet Potato Soul!

Okay, I can also tell you the following, arguably more important stuff:

  • The internet is useful for a lot of things beside accessing dubious medical advice—such as reading the news!
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  • If you’ve been availing yourself of the latter capability at any point this year, you may have noticed (among approximately one billion other disturbing developments) that Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, is threatening to roll back Obama-era regulations that keep corporations from controlling who sees what on the internet. (At least one other FCC commissioner has her head screwed on right, thank god—see the righteous Mignon Clyburn‘s very sensible fact sheet on this matter.)
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  • Congress may still be able to sway the FCC away from turning the internet into one giant Comcast ad before they vote on the rollback on December 14 [fingers-crossed emoji].
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  • Even if they FCC does vote to kill net neutrality now, Congress could still pass legislation that protects Americans’ equal access to information (yay), instead of suppressing it for corporate benefit (boo).
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  • The divine Emily Ellsworth says sending paper letters to our reps’ district offices is second to phone calls in terms of effectiveness (but better than sending a paper letter to their DC address, emailing them, or pinging them on social media). I’m a writer to the core, so while I’m always trying to get amped to make a call, I usually wind up writing, printing, and shipping when I want to speak up (which is has been at least once a week this year, thanks to my babes at Shall Not Perish!).
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  • Case in point: THIS LETTER! Arthur and I drafted it last weekend while chilling at his mom’s house for Thanksgiving, and we purposefully made it general enough to send to any senator in the country.
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  • That’s where you come in! Cue up your entrance music, copy n paste our letter into your word processor of choice, edit the highlighted parts (and any other parts you want), and send it off! Here’s a list of every senator’s address, courtesy of the aforementioned Shall Not Perish.
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  • If you want to be a real free speech superstar, you can also…

    +   cc Ajit Pai, Chairman, and send the letter to:
    Federal Communications Commission
    445 12th Street SW
    Washington, DC 20554

    +   Call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask to be connected to your Senators’ offices, and ask them to urge the FCC to vote NO on this awful plan!
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    +   Tell me you did one of these things so we can at least know we’re together in this, whatever happens :)

Thanks, fellow Americans! Let’s flood those mailboxes (and phone lines) this coming week and let ’em know we’ll stop reading about how to fix fatigue with one weird trick when we damn well please, not when AT&T says so.

(Do check out Jenné Claiborne’s *Sweet Potato Soul, too. Happiness on a plate!)

100 influential urbanists you probably don’t know about, but might-should

I don’t think I’ve heard the hyphenate “might-should” since I last hung out with my high school boyfriend’s Florida-born, Lynyrd Skynyrd-listening parents in their motor home—which was definitely a while ago! But sometimes it just fits the bill.

Case in point: last week, my beloved client-friends at ioby asked if I could help them with a project. They had recently come across Planetizen’s “100 Most Influential Urbanists” article and wanted to put together their own list of 100 more influential urbanists who also happen to be ioby Leaders (their honorific for residents who step up to make their neighborhood better in some way, and raise awareness and money on ioby to do it).

Naturally, I didn’t even need to think, “Might-should I do this?” I totally leapt at the chance to mine five-plus years’ worth of inspiriting ioby blog posts, videos, and giving reports for 100 awesome people who demonstrate the range of just who ioby Leaders are and just what they can do. Summarizing their stories into bite-sized pieces was also fun, though a taller order.

It’s so hard to have favorites when everyone is a knockout, but here are a few who stick with me:

  • Lucille White of Cleveland, crossing guard and grandmother of 19 (!), who lost two nieces to hit-and-runs. “Miss Lucille” convened a dozen middle and high school students in her neighborhood to help design and implement desperately needed traffic calming interventions where they live.

  • When the city of Highland Park, Michigan repossessed over 1,000 street lights from Jackson Koeppel‘s already underserved neighborhood, he co-founded Soulardarity: a membership-based, community-owned solar power nonprofit that’s installing its own new solar street lamps to light the way for his neighbors.

  • A poet and musician from Black Hills, South Dakota, Lyla June Johnston leads a team of 50-plus volunteers to organize the annual Black Hills Unity Concert, an event that joins native and non-native people alike in prayers for reconciliation, celebrations of unity, protests against injustice, and songs of hope.

Jeez, if I keep going, I’ll start tearing up again! Just too much greatness here for one blog post. Good thing you can check out 97 more excellent people and stories on ioby’s blog any time you want. They might-should help you remember that—despite Donald Trump’s best efforts—there’s still a lot of good going on out there these days.

Deconstructing guns with Of Note magazine & artist Jessica Fenlon

“Gun violence is a women’s issue,” begins editorial director Grace Aneiza Ali’s introduction to the latest issue of her magazine Of Note. Grace goes on to explain that while ‘gun culture’ in America is dominated by men, it’s women who bear the brunt of gun violence:

  • Every 16 hours, an American woman is fatally shot by a current or former intimate partner.
  • 80% of people shot to death by their intimate partners in the U.S. each year are women.
  • Women are 16 times more likely to die by guns in the U.S. than in any other developed country.

Yet the silence and stigmas that blanket most of our country’s gender inequalities continue to hamper efforts to combat the gun violence that hurts women most.

Of Note magazine cover with gun image

“The 10 multidisciplinary women artists in Of Note‘s ‘The Gun Issue’ engage the gun as an art object in their artistic practices,” Grace continues. “In doing so, they confront the infiltration of guns in our day-to-day lives.”

It would be tough to think of a more vital and urgent topic to write or read about. Couple that with the fact that I have long been a huge fan of Grace’s, and you can imagine my excitement when she asked if I would interview one of those 10 artists and contribute a story to Of Note‘s Gun Issue.

While I would have been eager to speak with any of them (you can see they’re all spectacular), I wound up feeling especially lucky to have been paired with Jessica Fenlon, a brave, articulate, and intuitive poet and visual artist, currently based in Milwaukee. Jessica uses a process she calls “glitch sabotage” to visually break images of guns in an effort to neutralize their danger. As she said it:

“There’s a feeling of power, of control, in that moment of, ‘Here’s this thing that kills all these people, and I’m just going to break a bunch of them!’”

Jessica went on to say a lot more interesting things as we talked—but please don’t take my word for it. If you’re interested in art, guns, women, technology, reading, thinking, and/or Pittsburgh, I hope you’ll check the story out when you have time for a sit-down read. Extra credit if you drop me a line to let me know what you thought.

The Trump presidency isn’t the only reason to start planning for your demise

You’re still gonna die someday, no matter who’s president! Dem’s da breaks, folks.

Elon Musk spacesuit

Unless…?

No one can game this system (well, maybe Elon Musk?), but we can go a long way toward making sure we shuffle off this mortal coil gracefully—at least with regard to our worldly stuff.

I recently spoke with an NYC-based estate law and probate attorney who gave me some good end-of-life planning tips that people of any age and economic status can use to help their friends and family avoid painful posthumous guesswork.

For her complete primer, and a few other attempts at making reading about wills and healthcare directives fun, you can peep my article in Bushwick Daily.

Oh, and as for that whole Trump-giving-everyone-suicidal-anxiety thing, here’s a bit of a cheerer-upper. Today is The Ides of Trump! Send a postcard and take a deep, life-affirming breath.

Two Shameless Feminists

When my friend Angela Altus—of Bushwick Daily and Shameless Photography—spread the word that she was looking for volunteers to man up in front of the camera for a project called “This is What a Feminist Looks Like,” I was all ears.

“The purpose of the project is to showcase the many faces of feminism, and how shared values span gender, age, race and so much more,” she wrote. While my combined characteristics peg me as just about the most predictable feminist in the world, I still wanted to represent! Thankfully, so did my fabulous husband.

Feminists in bike helmets

In our bike helmets, OF COURSE

The shoot took place at Shameless’s awesome space in an old industrial building in Dumbo earlier this month (site of countless body-positive boudoir photo sessions!), and has so far resulted in some gorgeous documentation on the studio’s website and Instagram; I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of these brilliant shots on billboards soon!

Big ups to all the ladies and dudes involved in this uplifting creative project. The organizers said it best themselves: “No matter our differences, if we can come together around equality, we can accomplish great things for the world.”

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Also: My friend Kaitlin Archambault of Incendiary Designs recently redesigned Angela’s website. Wonderful, isn’t it?

A good sign: The Women’s March on Washington

Of course, there were about a BAJILLION good signs there, which is the focus of this post.

But the pun is not lost on me that this event was also a good sign of broad support for women’s rights (oh man—”broad support for women’s rights”? they just keep coming!) as well as for human rights, environmental stewardship, and general common sense and decency across the board.

Those sentiments came across loud and clear in thousands of amazing handheld signs and banners. (Which is quite fortunate for me: if a sign is worth a thousand words, and I tried to convey the meanings of thousands of signs… I’d have loads and loads of words to write!) If only I’d been able to capture more. But here’s a decently representative sample:

Womens march protest sign

Mega-love to all the amazing people out there! It was a miraculous day suffused with positive vibes, politeness on all fronts, and even the responsible disposal of litter!

See you at the next.

Family at Womens March on Washington