St. John's Place
About St. Johns Place
St. Johns Place between Nostrand and New York is an interesting block that has many different people living on it, mostly in harmony. There are Black Americans and Caribbeans, Whites, Asians and Hispanics. There are young and old, small children of school age, young people who have just moved in with jobs, young people at loose ends who sometimes smoke at the corner leaving a sweet smell in the air, some people who are starting families and some long time residents whose children are grown up. The south side of the street is mostly occupied by homeowners who have valuable buildings; the north side is mostly apartment buildings filled with renters. Some people have lived on the block for thirty or forty years or more, and others just arrived a few months ago.
What first got me interested in the block was looking for mulch materials for my backyard garden at the beginning of last summer. I met Keiarra Lyons, a young Black woman, in her front yard and asked for the leaves and other debris that she had been sweeping. She was brash and funny and said I could have the stuff for fifty dollars. So began a relationship in which we traded information about gardens and plants. I lost track of her by the end of the summer. She worked hard at a night job and may have gotten a new position and moved on. At the same time I met Maxine McClinton. She is from Jamaica and lives in New Jersey, but visits St. Johns to see her mother. She wanted ground cover for the tree in front of her mother's place. I gave her some oxsalis to plant in the tree bed, but it did not fare well. Soon it was trampled and dead. I also met a woman who gives piano lessons named Beverly, and her mother who had taught at Clara Barton High School where I used to run a writing program. These first acquaintances were mostly gardening friends.
By the end of the summer, I had become more interested in community activism and became aware of a complicated issue developing at a building under construction some six buildings in from Nostrand on the south side of the street. It was interfering with Amavi Hair Salon owned by Jalen and Maritza. The building jutted out into the sidewalk and thus cut off the hair salon from the avenue. The owners of Amavi wished the construction would end quickly. However, next to them lived Tim Bishop along with his wife and child. Tim noticed the building was being built with inferior materials and the workmanship was shoddy. He would call the Buildings Department who would issue Stop Work Orders, which of course delayed the work. Eventually construction advanced enough to take down the structure on the sidewalk, but by then Amavi had closed. Sadly the owners shut the doors in the spring of this year.
Through Tim I found out about other activists on the street – Bobby LaPointe and Alex Rodriguez. They along with Tim were involved in an effort to make St. Johns one way. The street is a narrow one but is two way with a bus route on it running east and west. The street is prone to being blocked; if two buses encounter each other they can barely pass one another. When a garbage truck picks up trash, the street is clogged up and dangerous. Cars trying to pass the garbage truck pull out into the opposite lane and may come face to face with traffic coming the other way. Bobby, Alex and Tim were hoping to deal with the safety issue by making St. Johns one way. That would raise the question of how the bus would be rerouted. I went to a meeting of the Transportation Committee of Community Board 8 chaired by Robert Witherwax. A large number of people came from Sterling Place who vehemently objected to any buses coming down their street. The issue was deadlocked. After the meeting Bobby and Tim seemed a bit down. I wrote an article for the NAIA website supporting the St. Johns people. I think Bobby had been a bit unnerved by the response of the Sterling Place people and this led him to take a new tack. He worked at gathering information to make an argument to the Department of Transportation and did manage to arrange a meeting that went well. In making plans for a large area of Crown Heights it seemed that making St. Johns one way made sense.
Bobby is also interested in other projects. One of his daughters attends Charles Dorsey. Bobby along with Deirdre Levy, who teaches at the school, and many others, introduced a proposal in Participatory Budgeting to upgrade the terrible bathroom in the school. I ran into him and Deirdre many times in the course of making my own proposal to plant trees on Nostrand Avenue. We were all delighted that both of our proposals won.
One effect of making a technical argument to the Department of Transportation might have been less involvement by people on the street. Alex Rodriguez had moved to Lincoln Place. He recently wrote to me that the two biggest issues on the block are making the traffic conditions safe and doing something about the drug dealing that goes on at the corner, which also raises safety issues with cars without license plates and stashes of drugs hidden in the large tree planters. Tim Bishop seemed to become less involved. I met him going to pick up his child, and he told me he was bit out of the loop. However, he did tell me Alex was looking into taking over an old charter for the St. Johns Block Association. Alex said the charter is not particularly interesting, and he seemed more concerned about the issues on the street.
Around this time I met Barbara Saunderson on the street. I first got to know her at the Lincoln Place Block Party last summer. I ran into her outside her home on St. Johns. She is a long term resident, one of the people who go way back. I asked her about how things were going on the street. She immediately said, “We've got to make St. Johns one way. It is so dangerous having buses blocking the street.” She also wished the litter would be picked up, something NAIA had been doing but we got stretched too thin to keep it up. Barbara also pointed to a derelict motor bike fastened to a street sign. It had been stripped of parts and litter was accumulating around it. I don't know if Barbara is in touch with the activists, but she seemed to be on the same page.
Another person who I recently met is Michelle No who moved in just a few months ago and is a food writer. I met her at a recent party for the Dean Street Block Association at King Tai. She asked for contact info for Bobby, which I gave her. She was interested in an article written by Katie Baker for the NAIA website about a speed dating event at Fit4Dance. Carla McAlary, another person who writes for me, was also intrigued. I gave the young women each others contact info and apparently they got together and had a good time. They might do it again. As a newcomer, Michelle is interested in everything. I don't know if she wrote to Bobby or not. But going into the trenches to fight for street safety might not be at the top of her list.
Two other people have emerged to me on St. Johns. One is Jenny at Clean City Laundromat who is Chinese and was good enough to arrange a translation of some passages that had come my way in Chinese. The passages were in Cantonese so she needed some help from a friend of hers. Also Clean City allows me to get water for the new Tree Care Program that I am just setting up. And then there is Kelly Shine, who is boldly opening Wayward Hairdresser at the old site of Amavi. She is consumed with the endless things that need to be taken care of to start a new business.
So there you have it. Old people, parents, young single people and children, some renters and some owners, involved in all kinds of different things. They are all living together creating a wonderful community atmosphere, but also dealing with individual problems as well as those of the larger community. Dr. Johnson said it about London, but it also applies to Crown Heights. With apologies to the great man, I would say, “If you are tired of Crown Heights, you are tired of life.”
– John DeWind