On a July Sunday, right next to Newkirk Plaza in Brooklyn – between the yellow facade of a laundromat and the red awning of a bodega – the soft sounds of a saxophone hovered over a crowd of around 150 people. Haitian jazz guitarist Eddy Bourjolly introduced the song, “Complainte Paysanne,” and the band serenaded the street.
This was a kick-off event for Open Streets, a series of Sunday concerts that run in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn through late August. It will host Porch Concerts from 5 p.m., one of a handful of groups that have gained a foothold in the Ditmas Park neighborhood since the pandemic began. Operation Gig, which combines local musicians with paying gigs, began last July. Artmageddon, an arts and music festival on the porches and gardens, took place for the first time this June.
With takeaway cocktails – and (hopefully) outdoor birthday parties in cold January – a thing of the past, some of the rituals that have evolved during the pandemic are kept in town. The emerging art and music scene around Ditmas Park – a neighborhood in Flatbush below Prospect Park – seems to be one of them.
Robert Elstein, an artist and public school teacher who organized Artmageddon, plans to host the next edition in October. Last time, paintings and sculptures by groups like Flatbush Artists and Oye Studios were on display in Höfen and Newkirk Community Garden. The Kiez has always had artists and musicians among its residents, but because of the pandemic they suddenly stopped, Elstein said.
“Our world has grown from being the whole world to our local community, no matter where we have been,” he said. “And because of the neighborly spirit and creativity of the residents of Ditmas Park, we saw what we saw.”
The quiet, leafy area of Ditmas Park is known for its Victorian houses rather than concert halls (there is actually a shortage of them), but it became a city musical destination in 2020, thanks in part to wiry 70-year-old saxophonist Roy Nathanson.
From April last year he played “Amazing Grace” every evening at 5 o’clock on the second floor of his balcony in Ditmas Park – a calming change from the constant wailing of the sirens. Soon a colorful troupe of local musicians – including the pianist and composer Albert Marquès – took shape and played this hopeful anthem with him for 82 days.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last May and New Yorkers took to the streets to protest police brutality, so did Marquès.
“I played for the community, we did all these things,” he said in a video interview from Spain this month. “And I went to the protests. So I thought the two had to go together somehow. ”That connection took shape when Freedom First, a series of jazz concerts in New York that he organized for a purpose to raise funds to help Keith LaMar, sentenced you to death Ohio inmate fighting for a crime he says he did not commit.
Last summer at 5 p.m., the Porch Concerts revolved around mostly jazz performances and began offering outdoor lessons to young musicians in middle and high school in June 2020. After mostly resting over the winter, they began “porch jams” in April; This series, which takes place on Sunday at 5 p.m. on East 17th Street, will continue in mid-August.
Another group, Operation Gig, founded by Aaron Lisman in July 2020, has been bringing live music to Ditmas Park for a full year, paying local professional musicians for their work. Especially during a pandemic, musicians cannot be expected to play for free.
There is no overhead for shows like this and no booking agency or venue. Each concert costs an average of $ 300 to $ 500 in crowdfunding (think Venmo), according to Lisman’s estimate. The record set for one performance was around $ 1,000 – more than some city music clubs pay. At a recent event, they announced a proposed donation of $ 10 per person and $ 20 per family. Many young families take part, but also older people.
“They’re not going to go to Manhattan, let alone clubs,” Lisman said. “So they’re kind of an untapped market, and it turns out that making music on verandas – which turns out to be really beautiful and special – is a perfect way to open up that market.”
On the same Sunday in July, folk and happy music could be heard on Buckingham Road, an area lined with beautiful old Victorian houses. A brigade of strollers was parked on the grass. A bright red stucco box of a house in Japanese style emerged through the trees, trimmed with forest green and built at the beginning of the 20th century. A white-haired couple held hands under the porch. Amy Bramhall of Copper Spoon Bakery was sitting by the fence over a table with free cupcakes, macarons, and cookies.
Homeowner Gloria Fischer for 40 years listened to the four songwriters performing Operation Gig – Scott Stein, Andi Rae Healy, Jeff Litman, and Bryan Dunn – from their front porch. Fischer said she hosted around 50 Operation Gig shows in the last year alone, sporty Teeshade sunglasses with purple frames.
“I think it actually gave me an emotional boost,” she said. “Because it was obviously such a dent” during the pandemic.
“When you’re a busy creative in New York, you just get used to having to adapt and having a lot of things happen at the same time,” she said. “So it was like, ‘Oh, well, that whole source of income is gone.’ And that’s what we did instead. “
Last summer at 5 p.m. Porch Concerts kicked off a program of outdoor lessons that brought together professional musicians from the neighborhood with children aged 10-18. At the Open Streets event, which turns Newkirk Avenue into a car-free zone on Sundays until the end of the year, the Multigenerational Playing for the Light Big Band performed in the summer, in which teachers took part alongside their students.
Aidan Scrimgeour, a melodica player, said the inspiration for the class came from knowing the amount of musicians doing different and interesting things in the neighborhood and how many kids could have access to what I thought was a really cool opportunity . “
15-year-old pianist Rhonasha George is one of Scrimgeour’s students. At the Open Streets event, she sang a song she wrote herself, “Outside My Window,” her fire-engine red braids that matched her dress. The song comes from a poem that George wrote with the informal music school last summer. Via Zoom, teachers asked students to imagine what was happening around them during the pandemic.
For George it meant writing about an old man who got caught in a summer storm outside her window, with no coat and no umbrella. But like the city itself: “He was fine. And he was actually stronger and healthier than anything, ”said George. And like the city she added, “He knows how to come back.”