The Daily Heller: Brooklyn is for Visionaries

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Brooklyn was officially settled in 1645. It had been villages, communities and its own city until 1894, when it was consolidated into Greater New York. It has grown in land mass and population since then, but has always been New York’s “second city.” Its inhabitants have their own accents and customs, even though they’re New Yorkers all.

During the past 30 or more years, Brooklyn has virtually transcended Manhattan for “hip” and “cool.” Neighborhoods that once housed close-knit populations have been swooped up in the development frenzy. Now when a 20- or 30-something says “I live in Brooklyn,” the appropriate answer is: “Of course you do.”

In response to the influx of neo-Brooklynites, Anne Fink Bartoc, a Brooklyn-born and raised multidisciplinary artist, has developed a website—Brooklyn Visionaries—celebrating the longtime residents of the borough.

Bartoc’s work pushes the possibilities of communication, “embracing visual expression, photography and documentary interviews as compelling media to bring to light (reveal) social thought as a means to engage human connectivity,” she explains. Indeed, her work illuminates “the wonder of humanity through stories and visual images, and explores the emotion and purpose that radiates from the dense community of artists” in which she lives.

With Brooklyn Visionaries, Bartoc collaborates with Emily Schiffer (co-founder and creative director of We, Women, the largest social impact photography project by women in the United States) to explore the intersection of photography and social change.

I asked Bartoc, who began as a graphic designer, what the true inspiration was for this ambitious venture, and the impact it has made in the life of the community.

Richard Green, 2017, photograph by Emily Schiffer

What triggered (aka inspired) your Brooklyn Visionaries project? And how long have you been at it?
New residents here seem to be endlessly fascinated when they hear that my family has lived in Brooklyn for over 100 years. They all ask, “what was it like?” While I could easily relay stories of streets of crumbling brownstones and the profound looks of sympathy I received from people when they learned where I lived, I wanted to create a way for them to see how the Brooklyn we see today came together. Putting a face to these residents and giving them a voice might help people understand why Brooklyn is a place so many people now choose to live. The change was not a miracle but rooted in grounded individuals who saw the potential. Almost six years after clarifying my premise and format, I began researching and interviewing people in 2016.

What is your goal in documenting these incredible people?
Awareness. Many people see Brooklyn as a cool new charted territory. I wanted to provide context and shed light on the remarkable people who revived and created the social and cultural foundation that now draws tens of thousands of people each year to move here. Such as the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, the civil rights leader who has been a cornerstone for social activism and understanding racial identity since the early 1960s. Dianne Berken Menaker, the founder and director of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, also comes to mind. She’s created a nationally lauded choral group, but what I was most moved by is that its focus is also on it being a safe space to connect with peers

Debbie Almontaser, 2017, photograph by Emily Schiffer

The photographs by Emily Schiffer are lush. Why did you decide on black and white?
Black and white was, to us, a way to formalize and honor those in the project in both a historical and contemporary format. I met Emily Schiffer when someone from my undergraduate alma mater introduced us. She had moved back to New York after finishing her graduate degree and was looking for teaching positions. I took one look at her work and knew she was the one I wanted to work with. Funny enough, when I asked her if she was interested in the project, she immediately said, “Yes! Brooklyn is one of my favorite places. I met my husband in Fort Greene.”

How did you reach out to these people, and what has been your criteria?
I started by interviewing the artist Boaz Vaadia, who was married to my cousin Kim. After speaking with him, I started contacting others I knew from growing up in Brooklyn. At the end of each interview I asked who they felt was important to include. My criteria were authenticity and integrity. I sought out residents who honestly cared for the borough without the need for notoriety.

Otto Neals, 2017, photograph by Emily Schiffer
Ronald Shiffman, 2017, photograph by Emily Schiffer
Rachel Chanoff, 2018, photograph by Emily Schiffer

What do you want people to take away from this experience?
To listen and learn from your neighbors—with humility. To be truly part of a place is to know its history and people. I’ve always loved that New York City welcomes the world. We now have a great opportunity to grow our city neighborhoods by working together to continue growing the best of what Brooklyn—and America—can be.

Have you witnessed a movement in this documentarian-humanitarian direction of late?
Yes. Two I would put on my shortlist are Fadwa Yousef’s Listening Lab and Johnny Thorton’s Arts Gowanus. The interviews from the Listening Lab reveal the deep level of isolation we have experienced during COVID, and the critical need to share our truth. Arts Gowanus’ Johnny Thorton is the soul and force of Brooklyn’s art community. His latest exhibition Brooklyn Utopias: Along the Canal features over 200 artist’s work on banners around Coffey Park and the JJ Byrne Playground. Interspersed are banners highlighting Gowanus’ leading community members and organizations. With our collective enthusiasm to get outdoors and embrace spring, it’s a perfect way to reach Brooklynites and beyond.