Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saturday Afternoon in Bushwick: Stefanie Joshua's Award-Winning Documentary "Bushwick Homecomings" at the DeKalb Branch Library

Well, I guess this year we have already had our summer sun and warmth during our three-plus weeks in Phoenix. We're totally bummed out by the constant rain we've had since we got back from the desert Southwest and today we scuttled plans to attend anything outdoors, instead sticking to the indoors close to home.

But that didn't stop us from a really interesting and thought-provoking event nearby, in Bushwick, at the DeKalb branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where there was a screening of Bushwick native Stefanie Joshua's award-winning documentary, Bushwick Homecomings.

With no formal background in film production or editing, Stefanie initiated this documentary project while researching and writing her Master's thesis on delinquency and social disorganization theory at CCNY. Growing up in Bushwick and then returning home after years away at college, she ahd questions about the area, which of course was home to drugs and crime. (You can hear a great interview with Stefani from last fall on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show.)

Our only contact with the neighborhood growing up in the southern end of Brooklyn was going with our dad (Happy Father's Day!) to see his pants manufacturing firm's customers on what he always called "Broadway-Brooklyn." By the late '60s, by the time we could go to Bushwick on our own, we knew enough not to go there. And we remember during the summer of '77 blaackout listening to the transistor radio and hearing that Bushwick was burning with looting. So we never had any reason to go there on our visits from Florida as things seemed to get worse in the '80s and '90s with the crack epidemic.

Of course, now we live in East Williamsburg, really close by. It took us about 20 minutes on the G and J trains to Kosciusko Street.

It was out first time in the DeKalb branch library on the corner of DeKalb and Bushwick Avenues.

It's a handsome Carnegie Classical Revival building over 100 years old and has this beautiful fireplace in the adult reading room.

Downstairs, there were four rows of chairs, and eventually about 35 people came out on a rainy afternoon to watch Bushwick Homecomings. Most were from the neighborhood and it was a diverse crowd: black, white, Latino of all ages from senior citizens to a baby a few months old. There were also refreshments at the back of the room: water, sodas, and individual bags of snacks (we grabbed 100 calories of chocolate chip cookies).

Due to the usual technical difficulties - at one point Stefanie asked, "Are there any A/V people in the audience - the start of the DVD was delayed. Eventually, with the speakers not working, we listened to the sound on the laptop computer and it was fine.

The 37-minute film begins on the L train as it goes out of the subway tunnel into the exhilirating and surprisingly beautiful light of day around the cemeteries just before the Wilson Avenue stop. This is a trip Stefanie made all the time, and it's a nice introduction.

The heart of the film are interviews with five guys from the neighborhood, two of whom were in the audience today during the film's Bushwick premiere. The project was inspired by the death of a close friend, Mister "Pooh Bear" Smith, in a drive-by shooting in August 2005. He wasn't involved in the drug or crime scene but was standing near the target. As the Times article the morning after the shooting stated,
In the Bushwick attack, the 15-year-old, David Cromartie of Brooklyn, and one of the men, who was critically wounded, were both shot in the head, the police said. The police identified the critically wounded man as Mister Smith, 23. Investigators believe they were shot because they were standing with Mr. Fair and another man, both of whom suffered less serious injuries, a police official said. Mr. Fair was shot in the leg and arm.

The other man, Jermain Saunders, 19, was shot twice in the leg, the police said.

Mr. Cromartie and Mr. Smith were taken to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, the authorities said. Mr. Cromartie was shot in the face and leg and died later in the morning, and Mr. Smith, who was shot once in the head, was said to be in extremely grave condition, the police said. A nursing supervisor at the hospital declined to discuss the two patients and refused to contact the hospital's administrator on duty.

Mr. Saunders and Mr. Fair were in stable condition at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, the police said.

The Bushwick shootings left Decatur Street between Wilson and Central Avenues littered with spent shell casings and splotches of the victims' blood. The block was closed off for several hours while detectives mapped out the crime scene after the victims were taken to the hospitals.

Detectives believe that Mr. Fair was targeted by a man who lives on nearby Chauncy Street, the police said.

These shootings were not uncommon in those days. As the five neighborhood men in the film relate, most of them were involved in some way with guns, drugs and violence and most spent some time in prison. Bushwick was saturated with drugs from heroin to crack as well as guns, and even guys not involved carried guns just to avoid being robbed.

The neighborhood men in the film report being robbed of money, jewelry, electronic equipment and even a newly-purchased lunch from Crown Fried Chicken. Most of their assailants had guns. Stefanie had a chain snatched from her neck, a common occurrence. In the early '80s we once shared an end seat on the subway with a young lady whose chain was snatched off her neck so quickly by a man who timed it so well that he got off the train immediately as we just sat there dumbfounded.

Anyway, the litany of sad stories of violent deaths and lives wasted by crack and other drugs, as a review on The African-American Book Club stated, "leaves the viewer with the feeling that it’s a miracle that any of them could have survived such a dysfunctional and dangerous concrete jungle."

To us, it appeared that given the environment of Bushwick at the time and their own limited resources, the young men were making rational economic decisions. All left the scene as the crack epidemic abated, they became fathers and more mature, and endured jail and prison. The neighborhood got increased police presence and a crackdown (following a series of New York Times articles) and crack lost its allure.

Recently, of course, Bushwick has gentrified, and while it was once home to numerous vacant lots, most of them have been filled with new housing, much or all of it unaffordable to longtime residents like the men in the film and others.

A good part of the film is devoted to the death of Pooh, a friend to Stefanie and some of the men in the film. Because he lived in Manhattan and was just visiting his old friends in Bushwick and because he was a gentle soul who didn't carry a gun and wasn't involved with drugs, his killing seems especially senseless, but it's hard to consider that any of the many shootings of friends (one man estimates that more than 20 of his friends were killed) made much sense.

The interviews with the articulate, thoughtful and funny Bushwick men are interspersed with headlines and clippings from the New York Times and other papers, many of which we recalled reading:
From 1989, "In Silence of Bushwick, Residents' Fear is Heard"

Mary Tabor's 1992 articles, including "Where the Drug Culture Rules" and "The World of a Drug Bazaar, Where Hope Has Burned Out"

From the Sunday Magazine in 2000, "The Two Faces of Bushwick; A Troubled Brooklyn Neighborhood Is Mending. But Its Leaders Are Feuding Over the Size of the Gains and What to Do Next." and in 2003, "The Darkest Night"

Also from 2000, "Teacher, 31, Fatally Stabbed in Bushwick"

From 2002, "Drugs in the Blood"

Sigh. The documentary, which was the winner of awards at the 2008 Swansea (UK) Life Film Fetival and the 2007 Motor City International Film Festival, is remarkable for its coverage of the human stories behind the press coverage.

Ric Curtis, the chair of the Anthopology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (where we taught in the SEEK program in the fall of '80, '84 and '85), provides the perspective of a longtime researcher in Bushwick and sheds some light on not just the crime and drugs epidemic of the time but the health problems (HIV, STDs, TB, rampant asthma).

We pretty much agree with this review from DVD Verdict:
My only complaint about Bushwick Homecomings is really a backhanded compliment: I wish it were longer. While touching on a complex series of economic, sociological, socioeconomic, and racial topics, Joshua mostly maintains a detached objectivity that allows the men to tell their stories with a minimum of directorial commentary. Her framing material as well as an interview with Ric Curtis, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose research on the spread of AIDS among drug users in Bushwick has given him a keen understanding of both the history of the neighborhood and the lives of its residents, provide a modicum of sociological analysis. But Bushwick Homecomings is less interested in offering answers to the difficult questions that it poses, than giving voice to the neighborhood's residents. That's a strength, not a weakness, but the movie left me wanting to hear more of the what the men had to say. . .

Cinephiles and fans of documentaries should make it their mission to seek out Bushwick Homecomings. It's well worth 37 minutes of your time.

It was certainly worth seeing this afternoon for those of us in the audience.

There was an interesting discussion after the screening among people in the community, including some of the guys who were interviewed, often about the recent changing face of the neighborhood as artists and young people priced out of other neighborhoods move to Bushwick. Gentrification, as always, is a mixed bag.

Councilwoman Diana Reyna came up after the movie to present Stefani with a proclamation from the City Council honoring her for her fine work on the documentary. Ms. Reyna spoke movingly about her own upbringing in the neighborhood and how inspired she was by Stefani's work. Her talk was pretty inspiring itself.

Finally, the library was closing at 5 p.m. so we all got ready to leave after a hearty round of applause for the filmmaker. For a project that was created as a corollary to a master's thesis in sociology, Bushwick Homecomings is a remarkable product and an amazing accomplishment.

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