While browsing the Greenlight Bookstore on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, not far from Prospect Park, you may come across a remarkable journal of memory, oral history and photography by and about the locals and the neighborhood, “Voices of Lefferts “. The community writing, photography and history project documents âneighborhood life in the words of the people who live here,â to quote the program’s website. If you live nearby, you may have heard about the newspaper from a neighbor or seen a read for an issue at the bookstore.
Launched in 2017 by longtime neighborhood resident and English teacher Deborah Mutnick, it was inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s art and writing programs, which documented the life across America. The creators of the newspaper, an ever-growing group of about two dozen volunteers whose regulars include coach / editor Brenda Edwards and graphic designer Frank Marchese, recently published their seventh issue.
Sponsored by PLGNA and Humanities New York, among others, Voices of Lefferts reflects and helps nurture community. âIt was a project to bring people together, to understand the world through the eyes of others and to listen to each other,â as Mutnick said. Empowered to tell their own stories, participants help shape the recorded history and how others and future generations will view it.
The quality is high, refined through a process of group discussion, writing and editing assistance by volunteers that allows even non-writers to tell their article. All members of the community are welcome to contribute, including former residents and those who work in the area. In non-COVID times, the group meets at Grace Reformed Church, the 1893 Italian Revival building on the corner of Lincoln and Bedford. Lately they have been holding virtual meetings.
In a series of weekly two-hour workshops, a dozen or two participants, a handful of trainers / editors and a photographer come together to produce the journal and document the process. Much of the agenda is conversation, followed by writing, and then sharing what they have written.
Mutnick enjoys the writing segment the most, she said. âThis feeling of concentration, of intensity. The minds of everyone in the room writing and trying to put words into something. It’s still a very rich process and people appreciate it. Even people who afterwards say âI hate writingâ or come in and say âI’m not a writerâ, there’s something going on during this time where everyone is writing that’s very transformative and then we talk again. ”
A year ago, someone filmed the project, and the group recently added an oral history component, led by editor Laura Thorne. Themes that constantly emerge during the workshops are gentrification and how to maintain the diversity of the neighborhood, said Mutnick. Life stories and neighborhood life are eternal topics, and the journal also includes poetry and art. The Summer 2020 issue, which appeared in October of the same year, was produced during the pandemic.
It includes a tribute to the late Aubrey Marquez, a dapper retired graphic designer known as the mayor of Rutland, who died last year at age 75; an essay on a friendship that reflects on race, community, COVID and gentrification; memories of growing up in the neighborhood over the past decades; observations on distance learning; a story of work at Downstate Medical Center at the height of the pandemic; and a story about facing eviction and struggling to find affordable housing during COVID.
The newspaper had a positive impact on participants and the community, said Edwards, longtime PLG resident, activist and educator. âIt’s through conversations with members of the community that you find out how people are feeling. You can’t do this if you keep quiet, stay home, don’t have a place to come and talk about these issues and not get yelled at and be seen as the meanest person in the universe â , she said. âSometimes people don’t understand and they need to be educated or to explore different perspectives. I think that’s how it affected the neighborhood because people come to events and buy our brochures. For me, it had a huge effect on those who came and shared. A positive effect.
The seventh issue came out in the fall and focuses on food with the theme âFlatbush Eats: Food, Survival and Celebrationâ. A gift box of the first five issues is available at the Greenlight bookstore for $ 30. The project was popular, with indoor readings only and sold-out editions. While Mutnick has said she can’t predict the future, her ambition for Voices of Lefferts is to publish 10 issues over five years.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
[Photos by Alexis Holloway]
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