Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Murder in the (Pacific Street) Cathedral

(Pictured: Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. as Thomas Becket)

Put this on your calendar: 10 years after it was last staged in New York City, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral is coming to Prospect/Crown Heights, and in grand fashion. The site-specific production, featuring award-winning thespians both on and off the stage, will take place in the newly-restored Church of St. Joseph (visible in the background of the photo, above). A joint production of the Church and Brooklyn Arts HQ, a brand-new non-profit offering community-based performance experiences, the play will be directed by OBIE-award winning director Alec Duffy and features original music from Jonathan Larson Award winner Dave Malloy.

This one-of-a-kind show is being offered FREE (a $10 donation is suggested, but no one will be turned away), and runs from September 16 - October 2nd, with performances at 7:30pm Thursday - Saturday and a 2pm Sunday matinee. For more information, contact producer Hillary at 917.324.0041 or hillaryemiller [at] gmail [dot] com. Save the date!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Restaurant Rumor Mill

- The folks at the Park Slope Oaxaca Taqueria confirmed that the sign on Prospect is their doing, and they added that they hope to have the place open within 2-3 weeks, with the same menu and ingredients as their other locations.

- Lee from NachosNY (a local Franklinite who's going to have his hands full scoping out Oaxaca and the new offering from Chavella's) spoke to the folks at Bristen's, who confirmed that they'll be closed through the month of September for renovations. They also told him that they'll be revamping their menu, and re-opening as a noodle and dumpling place. Who knew? Sounds good, though.

- Finally, the guys at Nam's confirmed that they're looking to open a restaurant in the former Nairobi's Knapsack location, serving sushi and some other stuff, though they were vague about what their timetable is, and said that they won't be opening for at least a month or two.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Built + Branded in Brooklyn

From Lana Zellner, who brought you the inspired (if tragically short-lived) Tiny Urban Park, comes another fascinating neighborhood-based idea in need of some local support: Built + Branded. You can link to their Kickstarter page above to watch video and learn more about the project, which combines good ol' fashioned print media (a book), digital mapping, and a party at LaunchPad. A collaboration from Ground Up Designers, Built + Branded showcases small business design throughout central Brooklyn, and features, among other spots, Crown Heights's own Franklin Park, The Glass Shop, and Park Delicatessen. Check it out, and if you're moved, donate! (As added incentive, the refugee flowers from Tiny Urban Park found a home in the CHCA Community Garden, which is to say that these designers are community-minded as well as interested in local design.)

Beautify Franklin - Join the CHCA Mural Team!

(CHCA volunteers prime the construction fence back in June)

Local artists, your talents are needed! The Crow Hill Community Association is still recruiting people to paint an 8' x 8' section of the construction fence that surrounds the northeast corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway. All you need to do is submit an Artist Commitment Form, a sketch of your panel, and 3 location choices. The form, the map of location choices and the submission guidelines are available on their website (or at Nostrand Park). School groups are welcome, and 30 slots in total are available.

Just think, thousands of people going up and down the stairs at the IRT Franklin stop will see your work every day!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Catching Up - Tacos, Links, and More

Things happen quickly when you're away! Nostrand Avenue is experiencing a retail boom of its own, as covered by Nostrand Park, including a Sandwich Shop and a Coffee Shop, as well as some upscale renovation by a community-boosting landlord. Not to be outdone, Franklin (well, Prospect right near Franklin) is getting a branch of Oaxaca Taqueria (currently in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope) in advance of the new offering from Chavella's opening up at Sterling and Franklin. As a reminder that, well, it's still Franklin, the Skywatch is back again, on the corner where a particularly grotesque midday shooting took place earlier in summer (and where residents have complained for a while about rampant dealing and its attendant violence). The police cited, of all things, traffic concerns, but I'd be surprised to hear that's the guiding principle at work here. Residents, are you happy this is back, or do you prefer your Avenue sans Skywatch?

There are a number of events coming up, including the monthly Sound Bath at Force and Flow Studios tomorrow, and I'll get to those in later posts. For now, some linkage that I missed:

- A nice look at Basil, the Lubavitcher-owned Kosher Pizza and Wine Bar on Kingston, in the Wall Street Journal.

- A little history (with excellent photos) of the lost Brooklyn Social Clubs, including the former Union League Club at Bedford and Dean, courtesy of the New York Times.

One final question - the Crown Heights tag/mural at Franklin between Atlantic and Pacific has been altered in a most specific fashion, namely, the signature (Home of the Smart Crue/Smart Crew) has been carefully painted over in red. Now, Smart Crew is a citywide (and sometimes wider) graffiti collective, and from what I understand, Franklin is bloods territory. Is it possible our local gangs were pleased with the mural, but wanted to make sure that their territory was marked? This seems to be the case, though usually stuff like this is outright defaced. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tomorrow: Kings County Cinema at LaunchPad

From the Kings County Cinema Society, currently in residence at LaunchPad:

Wednesday, August 25th, 8:30pm
Kings County Cinema Society presents a night of films about outsider artists.
Director Thomas Campell introduces BIRTH OF THE SUN, about Haitian street artist Gary Alexis.
Followed by DOWNTOWN 81 featuring Jean Michael Basquiat on a tour of the early 80s lower Manhattan arts scene.
FREE - BYOB - Popcorn will be provided.
Outside if it's nice, inside if it rains.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

IFLA On Vacation, but Crown Heights Never Sleeps

(Crown Heights, looking north from a fire escape on Eastern Parkway in March)

I'll be miles from email until next Tuesday or Wednesday, but despite my delusions, the world will keep spinning and Crown Heights will keep hopping. In the past few days alone, I've gotten a pile of emails from people about great happenings in the neighborhood, some of which are linked below. Also, many, many thanks to all of those who read the jury duty series, and for your kind words. It was a unique, intense experience, but your comments have been incredibly rewarding.

Also, if you're in need of Crown Heights news, history, and information in the next week (or at any point thereafter), look no further than Nostrand Park, Crown Heights' Virtual Town Square. If you aren't familiar with these guys, check their site out, stat, because they have a great team of bloggers bringing you everything from up-to-the-minute Crown Heights news to great photos, video, and in-depth interviews with locals from all walks of life. They're much more than a blog, too -- funded by the Fund for the City of New York, they're in the process of becoming a neighborhood org and creating a series of events to celebrate the neighborhood, including their first initiative, Destination Nostrand, which will bring an outdoor plaza celebrating the area's unique Caribbean heritage to a vacant lot sometime in Spring of 2011. No matter who you are, Nostrand Park should be your first online stop for all things Crown Heights (IFLA, of course, should be a close second).

Finally, some more great happenings (and don't forget Wash Ave Rocks, posted below, on Saturday the 21st):

- Force and Flow have a "Healing Through the Elements" class on Saturday at 12:15.

- If you want to venture north into Bed-Stuy, City Harvest, Carrot Mob and The Brooklyn Food Coalition are conducting a bodega cooking class this Saturday. More info here.

- If you'd rather head for Park Slope/Gowanus, Rooftop Films has their closing event on Friday.

- Finally, you can read a great testimonial about Park Delicatessen here. Check it out - Crown Heights if full of the best people!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wash Ave Rocks This Weekend

WAPHA, the Washington Avenue Prospect Heights Association, is hosting a street fair this weekend in conjunction with MASAI Marketing (who brought you two editions of Experience the Heights earlier this year) and Heart of Brooklyn (who have also just launched a Bike and Roll bike rental initiative at Grand Army Plaza ever Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through September 26). The following is from the organizers, and you can click on the flyers above for more information:

The street fair will have plenty of exciting activities, such as a Taste-Off, a friendly competition among local restaurants whose signature submissions will be judged by the crowd. There will also be a fashion show of sorts, free dance instructions and much more.

This is a family affair and all are invited!

If further information is needed, please feel free to contact Raphael from MASAI MARKETING at 646.552.2774.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part IV - The Jury and Their Verdict

(Author's note: Earlier this year, I served as a juror in Kings County Supreme Court. The crime was the killing of a homeless man at the Albany Houses in Crown Heights. What follows is the final installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. All names have been changed or omitted by authorial decision with the exception of the victim's. He identified by his real name, Steven Ingram.)

Selecting a jury for a criminal trial is like finding twelve needles in a haystack. When I report for jury duty on a Monday, the first half of the jury has already been selected, and it will take a full day, with two full pools of potential jurors reporting, to fill the remaining seats. Over 500 people report initially to the main jury room, where a few are dismissed and the rest of us are sectioned off and sent upstairs to the various courtrooms. Sixty people report to this specific manslaughter trial, where a few more are dismissed, and 15 of us are seated in the jury box. While the others watch, the judge and attorneys perform their voir dire. The judge asks each of us about our occupation, level of educational attainment, place of residence and neighborhood, marital status, and whether we know any of the individuals associated with the case. Then the attorneys take over, asking questions of the whole group and occasionally of individual prospective jurors at random. These include general queries such as "Can you consider the testimony of a police officer fairly, neither assigning more or less weight to it on account of the officer's job?" and "Have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a violent crime, and would this experience affect your ability to hear the facts of this case?" The attorneys also ask questions that relate directly to their strategies: from the prosecution, we are asked whether we can convict on the strength of one person's convincing eyewitness testimony (the judge reminds us that they law requires we do so if we are convinced), and the defense lawyer wants to know whether we can hold his client innocent until proven guilty even if he does not take the stand. After the process is complete, we are sent to lunch, and when we return, three of the 15 prospective jurors who were put in the jury box are selected. This process is repeated in the afternoon to fill out the jury.

The next morning, all 15 of us (12 jurors and 3 alternates) are together for the first time in the jury box, and the judge gives us our instructions. We are the "finders of fact," which is to say, we determine what happened based on the evidence, mostly testimony, that we see and hear. The judge will arbitrate the law, and the attorneys will make arguments, but ultimately, the fate of the young man charged with killing Steven Ingram is in our hands. By extension, justice for Mr. Ingram is in our hands as well. This is a grave task.

Our jury is a diverse group. Of the twelve of us, five are male and seven are female. Eight are African-American or Caribbean, two are Hispanic, and two are white. Our ages range from the early 20s to near-retirement, and our jobs and education levels are equally broad. We don't necessarily have a lot in common, but we're going to be sitting together in a jury room on the 18th floor of the Kings County Courthouse for a long time, so we're going to get to know each other.

One other key point: we can't talk about the case until we've heard all the testimony. This was a wrinkle I wasn't expecting. Jurors, of course, cannot share information about the case with anyone outside the court, nor can we speak to the judge, attorneys, witnesses, or defendant. We can't read about the case anywhere (not that Mr. Ingram's death was covered by any news outlet at all), nor can we visit the crime scene or research any questions about the laws in question (for instance, whether or not manslaughter is a fair crime to charge). But I had expected that, at least, the jurors would be able to talk to each other about the case. However, the laws are designed to keep any one of us from influencing the others throughout the trial before all the facts have been revealed. Until everything is on the table, we are to be individual receptacles for information, keeping our own counsel at all costs, and even after four hours of intense testimony, after hearing Paul plead to the judge that John is his best friend, when we retire to the room, we cannot talk about what we have just experienced. It is a peculiar kind of solitary companionship - we were all there, but we must remain silent, and we do.

One of the judge's many jobs throughout the trial is to ensure that we only hear admissible evidence, that the only factors weighing on our mind when we do finally deliberate are the facts of the case. To this end, we are constantly sent in and out of the courtroom while points of law are deliberated or evidence is considered for admission. Nonetheless, there is much more to the trial than the official record. The defense attorney, though he knows he cannot, constantly alludes to Mr. Ingram's history of drug and alcohol abuse and his criminal record. We hear, briefly, from Mr. Ingram's niece on the stand, and she, her mother, and grandmother (Mr. Ingram's mother) can be found in the courtroom nearly every day (or at least one of them can), waiting for justice for their uncle/brother/son. A woman who bears an unmistakable likeness to our defendant, and who must be his mother, sits behind him most days as well, sometimes with a younger teenage girl who appears to be her daughter. She is waiting to see whether her soon is guilty of killing Mr. Ingram, whether he will be going to prison for anywhere between one and nine years.

After two and a half weeks, our trial wraps up on a Wednesday morning, and the judge reads out the counts we are to consider, in turn, against the defendant. We are to consider manslaughter in the first degree, manslaughter in the second degree, assault in the second degree, and assault in the third degree, in descending order of severity. The accused can only be found guilty of one of these crimes. The key differences between the two types of manslaughter are state of mind - first-degree manslaughter requires "intent to cause serious physical harm" that contributes (and only contributes -- this violence need not be the ONLY cause) to the death of the individual in question, while second-degree manslaughter can be the result of "recklessness" (this includes intoxication). With regard to the assault charges, second-degree assault requires "intent to cause serious physical harm," while third-degree assault requires intent to cause "physical harm" that is not necessarily serious (this is the only charge that is not a felony).

In their closing statements, the attorneys offer their final assessments of the evidence. The ADA leads by shouting "this man beat Steven Ingram to a pulp!" She is right, if we are to believe his best friend. The defense leads by saying "we don't even know when this crime took place." He is right, too. The ADA emphasizes that beating Mr. Ingram must have contributed to his death - he died of blunt force trauma to the head, after all - while the defense makes the point that several other individuals were observed assaulting Mr. Ingram, and that only his client has been charged with manslaughter. He discredits every witness, pointing again and again to the police tactic of threatening those who became witnesses with a murder or manslaughter charge. Can we believe any of them? It is up to us to decide. The judge gives us final instructions, namely, that we are to act as arbiters of fact, not law, and that as none of us has been qualified as an expert witness, none of us may act as an expert in re-interpreting the facts of the case. Then we are off, sequestered until we reach a verdict.

The moment we are in the room, three weeks of pent-up ideas come pouring out in an incessant, incoherent jumble. Two of the men argue about what "wrestling move" Dick and Harry used on Mr. Ingram when he was unconscious, and whether or not this was the death blow, while another man argues with a woman that getting up and chasing Mr. Ingram down constitutes intent to commit serious harm, and two women nod gravely about the speck of metal found in Mr. Ingram's cheek. All is chaos until our forewoman and her self-appointed clerk, who is taking assiduous notes (we are forbidden from note-taking in the courtroom, another way in which individual jurors are kept from having any record but the official record), call us to order, and we go around the table giving our opinions.

We are united on many points. The police investigation was shoddy in places, and wholly unsatisfactory as a whole. Others should have been charged in Mr. Ingram's death. Tom, our first witness, so thoroughly confused himself and the attorneys with his denials that his testimony is hard to believe. Paul, on the other hand, was entirely convincing. There is dissonance: some of us are repulsed and angered by the crime, affected by the presence of the victim's silent mother, waiting every day with hands folded in her lap for justice, while others believe, as the defense lawyer said, that this young man has been left "holding the bag," that he was singled out by an unfair system and does not deserve to be punished for a group killing. But we believe Paul, which means we believe that John, our defendant, did in fact assault Mr. Ingram. Now we must split hairs, and carefully.

Was John impaired? He had, according to reports from Paul, smoked marijuana and drunk alcohol, though when asked about the amount, Paul said it was "not that much." This may rule out first-degree manslaughter, but not second-degree. Did, in spite of this, he mean to cause harm? We believe he did - he got up and chased Mr. Ingram down, after all, and pushed one of his best friends away to continue hitting the man once he was already on the ground. Impaired or not, impetuous as the first swing may have been, he chased the man, knocked him down, and kept swinging. This went beyond misplaced, wounded pride. This man intended to hurt Mr. Ingram.

Was the harm he intended to cause serious? We believe it was - it would be unreasonable to think otherwise, to think that multiple blows to the head, especially after someone has hit the ground, would not cause serious harm. This rules first-degree manslaughter back in, as well as second-degree assault, and seems to rule out second-degree manslaughter. The question now is whether or not the blows that we know he threw were a contributing cause of death.

It is here that we bicker most vehemently, where the weight of this decision begins to strain our camaraderie, causing the lines of race and class to show through the fabric. We return to the courtroom to have the charges read back to us, hoping that the specifics will help us to clarify the issues, but they do not. Those who have grown up or lived in similar circumstances to our defendant accuse those who have not of lacking the requisite familiarity with the circumstances to judge this man, while others accuse them of letting sentiment override logic. Our forewoman, a nurse, expresses her professional opinion, namely, that the presence of blood does not necessarily imply "serious harm" was done and that the presence of the metal speck implies that he was hit with a piece of metal. This is well outside the scope of the evidence presented, but it encourages a host of other conjectures, many of which are based on little to no evidence. Tempers are starting to rise. Finally, our scribe brings us back around to the key point: we have agreed that our defendant intended to cause serious harm. Based on the evidence provided, how can we determine whether or not this harm, which he did indeed inflict, was a contributing cause of death?

The room gets quiet for a moment, and then some of us begin to argue that if Mr. Ingram, as every medical expert told us, died from blunt force trauma to the head, there's no way these punches did NOT contribute to his death. In rebuttal, one juror returns to the unexpected point made in cross-examination: when Paul left the scene, Mr. Ingram was still covering his head with his arms, implying that he was still conscious. We do not know what happened after that, as there are no witnesses and there is no video. Perhaps, seeing his friend flee, the young man realized that he was out of his mind, and fled the scene himself, leaving a battered but conscious Mr. Ingram to be killed by others. Perhaps he beat him into the coma himself, and the others, when they arrived, found only a body. We know that others kicked and assaulted Mr. Ingram. What we don't know is whether he was already on his way to death when the defendant stopped punching him. If we don't know, argues our juror, there is reasonable doubt. We cannot convict a man for manslaughter if the only witness did not even see him knock the man unconscious. Our nurse raises another point - no wounds or bruises were found elsewhere on Mr. Ingram's body. Despite Tom's muddled testimony, it would appear that whatever kicks, punches and wrestling moves were later directed at Mr. Ingram landed on his head.

This line of reasoning carries the day, though some of us do not remember the specific testimony, and must have it read back to us, an excruciating process that keeps us in the courtroom while the stenographer drones on for well over an hour. Finally, however, it is repeated: when Paul left the scene, "the man was covering up." We return to the room, and though many of us are frustrated that no one will be held responsible for killing Mr. Ingram, we scratch the manslaughter charges off our list. We think we are decided on assault in the second degree (we do not know this at the time, but it is a Class D felony, punishable by at least a year in prison, and no more than two and a half years), but some jurors are now pushing for assault in the third degree (a misdemeanor, though again, this information is not given to the jury during deliberation), the difference being whether or not the harm inflicted was "serious." We bicker again, and this time the exhaustion of the trial seems to dissolve opposing arguments, with one juror simply throwing up her hands and saying "yes, I suppose it was serious." We knock on our door, the court officer outside hears us, and we are led into the courtroom to deliver our verdict.

The defendant is there, dressed in a clean gray suit and green tie. His mother and sister sit behind him, dressed casually but modestly. Behind the prosecution's table sit the three women who have come for justice for Steven Ingram, his niece, sister, and mother, his mother dressed for church, a large hat in her hand. Our forewoman rises and the court clerk reads out the counts.

"For the charge of manslaughter in the first degree, how do you find?"
"Not guilty." Nothing really happens. The courtroom is as tense as ever.

"For the charge of manslaughter in the second degree, how do you find?"
"Not guilty." This is news. The defendant's mother leans over until her head nearly touches the bench in front of her. She appears to be praying. The Ingrams sit ramrod-straight, unmoving but not unmoved. The mother's expression darkens noticeably. The defense attorney nods, while the prosecuting attorney pursues her lips and stares at the table in front of her.

"For the charge of assault in the second degree, how do you find?"

Three things happen at once. The defense attorney and the defendant's mother lean forward and put their heads in their hands, like puppets on the same string. The prosecutor flashes a grin, composes herself, and then glances back to the Ingrams, giving them the thumbs-up. Tears in her eyes, the mother nods. And juror number twelve bursts into tears.
The judge asks the attorneys whether they will waive the individual juror confirmation of the verdict. The prosecutor does, but the defense attorney, who has regained his cool and noticed the crying juror, does not. Now it is our turn to be tense - we will each be asked in turn whether or not this is our verdict. All we must answer is "yes," but should one of us answer "no," we have no idea what will happen. In turn, we are asked, in turn, we say yes, and when juror number twelve is asked, she says, through tears, "yes." The judge turns to us, thanks us for our service, and we are dismissed.

Juror number twelve walks out of the courtroom, grabs her things, and leaves without a word to anyone. We are more than a little troubled by this - no one wants to feel as though our deliberations were unfair - though perhaps she was just overcome by the moment, as many of us were. Ours is something of a compromise verdict - the young defendant is not guilty of killing someone, but he will do time for his violent crime - but we did not intend it that way, and none of us are completely satisfied. Has justice been done? No one has been convicted of killing Mr. Ingram, and yet he was most surely killed.

On the way out of the jury room, I hear one juror remark to another, "I can't believe his best friend snitched on him! No wonder he left the state - he should've left the country! If someone asks you about this, you say you didn't see nothin'. You didn't see NOTHIN'." I don't say anything, but this bothers me, bothers me to the point of distraction, to the point of storming clear out of the courthouse and down the street before I've realized that I walked clean past my subway stop. "Snitch" is a word any educator loathes, a word that demands silence in the face of cruelty, violence, misbehavior, a word that is not so much "tattle" on steroids as a way of life, one that opposes authority in all its forms and shows up on t-shirts ("Don't Snitch") and in chants ("Snitches get stitches!") by the time kids are in third grade. It is a word for a world in which police, above all, cannot be trusted. Perhaps they should not - this trial did not leave me with a glowing view of the NYPD - and yet, if they never are, then justice for Mr. Ingram, or for anyone else killed in a place like the Albany Houses, will remain denied. A "snitch?" I shout to myself in my head. "A snitch?" Somebody died. Somebody was killed for no reason at all. Someone should say something.

Thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Akhil Reed Amar have argued that serving on a jury is an essential component of American participatory democracy, more so even than voting. By bringing a diverse group of citizens together as equals to decide the facts of the case, the jury educates them about the intricacies of the law and the judicial system and gives them a better appreciation for the challenges that attorneys, judges and enforcers face in applying the law. More broadly, jury service is a reminder that this government is our government, that ultimately, we are responsible for the laws we live under, the punishments meted out for their violation.

Most days, I can steer clear of crime, or take a detached, sociological view of it (oppositional cultures reproduce themselves, etc etc). When I do encounter crime, it is as a bystander, sometimes enraged, but never a part of it. On this jury, I, and eleven others, were responsible for justice in the senseless death of a homeless man. I will stand by our verdict, as I did under oath, and I do not think we should have found differently, but I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied with police cameras that watch walls while people are beat to death. I am not satisfied with police investigations that rely on threats and luck. I am not satisfied with a culture of "don't snitch," in which twenty people observe a violent crime and do nothing. I am not satisfied, but jury service has reminded me that I am part of this, that these are my laws and my culture, these are my taxes paying police salaries (as much as they are anyone else's), and that if I am not satisfied, it is up to me, to us, to do something about it. I want to live in a world where Steven Ingram (a homeless Vietnam Veteran) is not beaten to death for being a convenient target. Surely there is a way to build a society in which this is a reality.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Art, Drinks, and Music at the Breukelen Coffee House Friday Night!

This just in from curator Candice Chetta - I'm off running around the Midwest with the lady, but if you're in town, go check out this great event tomorrow night!

A Tree Grows In Breukelen
August, Friday the 13th, 8pm.

There's a grand revealing in the back at 8pm of the ALL NEW extension of the coffee house, and the brand new stage for a grand future music venue!

NO cover, FREE custom cocktails by Aaron Cotler, and a special mix for the night and theme by our favorite DJXPANS. Click the flyer (above) or click here (facebook invite) for more info.

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part III - The Trial

(Author's note: Earlier this year, I served as a juror in Kings County Supreme Court. The crime was the killing of a homeless man at the Albany Houses in Crown Heights. What follows is the third installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here and Part II here. All names have been changed or omitted by authorial decision with the exception of the victim's. He identified by his real name, Steven Ingram.)

The prosecution's case hinges on Paul's testimony. They are thorough, of course - we hear from what starts to feel like an endless parade of expert witnesses confirming the most basic of facts: yes, Mr. Ingram died of blunt force trauma to the head, yes, the blood on his clothes was his, yes, the detectives questioned the witnesses before the trial, yes, they said the things they said to us - but without Paul, there would be no case at all. The Assistant District Attorney is an intelligent, extremely competent young woman, but this seems to be one of her first cases. She is painstaking to the point of boring, and when she does attempt courtroom theatrics - raising her voice, pointing, feigning surprise - they are forced and distracting. Nonetheless, she has a gold nugget in her pocket, an eyewitness account of the assault that, if we are to believe the state, kills Mr. Ingram.

The defense attorney is a seasoned veteran, a former Kings County ADA who is now the managing partner of a successful firm. He is relaxed and in command throughout the trial, and he knows how to keep all eyes and ears on him. His eyebrow raises, exclamations of shock, and probing questions all feel genuine, the ol' razzle-dazzle at its best. After watching his first cross-examination, one of the jurors immediately dubs him "Joe Pesci" on account of his conversational, incredulous style, reminiscent of Pesci's Vinny Gambini in "My Cousin Vinny." Nonetheless, he is playing defense, not contesting the facts of the case but doing his best to muddy the waters, to highlight the inconsistencies in testimony, to find the gaps in the timeline and holes in the state's narrative and to constantly suggest alternative possibilities. It is a gadfly's strategy, one that requires constantly tapping the wall for weak spots with objections, questions, comments, and procedural tricks.

Before we can get to Paul's testimony, however, we hear from Tom, the original source of the connection to John, our defendant (for those picking up here, John is the defendant, Paul is one of his closest friends and the star witness, and Tom is an acquaintance who first gave the police John's name in connection with the killing of Steven Ingram). Tom is 20 years old, serving his second stint in jail, and has no desire whatsoever to be in the courtroom. He has been through this before, having been a witness in the grand larceny trial of his friends, Dick and Harry, who kicked Mr. Ingram, jokingly put his unconscious body in a wrestling hold, and stole money from him. With the ADA, he keeps his eyes down and speaks so quietly that the microphone on the witness stand does not pick up his voice. Their interactions approximate a teacher lecturing a poor student, and Tom is as laconic as possible. As the prosecution cannot ask leading questions, it takes her nearly three hours to get to Tom's key point. Along the way, he asserts that his friends, Dick and Harry, did not use any force in kicking or wrestling with Mr. Ingram, and that Mr. Ingram was already bloody and unconscious when they first came upon him. This is important to the prosecution's case because it suggests that John did most of the damage that killed Steven Ingram, but it is not the crucial point. Finally, after an excruciating exchange that lasts nearly 20 minutes, Tom speaks the words the prosecutor wants to hear - the day after Mr. Ingram was beaten, he walked past the tower where John lived (pictured above) and heard him say "People around here ain't gansta enough to kill somebody with their bare hands." It sounds incriminating.

The defense sets out to impeach the witness by reading out his rap sheet, which is longer than one might expect for a man of twenty. A funny thing happens as he does this, however - whereas the young female ADA was a teacher to Tom, the defense attorney, a bigger, older man who is asking his questions more aggressively, is not. To Tom, this man is a cop, and Tom comes alive, his voice rising and his eyes flashing as he is questioned about prior misdeeds. In one telling exchange, the defense asks about Tom's arrest for robbery, the one that led to the interrogation in which he revealed John's statement. Tom later plead guilty to 3rd-degree robbery, a felony, but when the defense, leading to a question about the interrogation, leads with "So, you commit this robbery at Kingston and Dean . . .", Tom cuts him off, nearly shouting, "I wasn't ever NEAR Kingston and Dean! I wasn't part of no robbery! They just picked me up!" Stopped short, the defense replies "You plead guilty to a felony you didn't commit?" and Tom snarls back "I already had warrants, and they told me I'd get city time [meaning he wouldn't serve his prison sentence upstate]." Tom rejects two other accusations the defense makes, both regarding crimes he plead guilty to, by saying that he did not commit them and was just picked up for them. By the time they get to the substance of the defense's cross examination, the mood in the courtroom is downright hostile. The point, however, to which the defense has been leading, is a valid one - Tom, walking by John's building, remembers hearing John speaking, but he did not turn his head to verify that it was indeed John. The two were not close friends, and when the defense asks "could someone else have said this?" Tom replies with something to the effect of "I don't think so, but I don't know." The defense turns to the jury, raising an eyebrow that says "reasonable doubt?"

Now it is Paul's turn. He shares much with Tom, and with John - they grew up in the Albany Houses, they have had prior run-ins with the law, they were teenagers when all of this happened and are only just twenty or twenty-one. Paul's best friend growing up was John's older brother, and he has known John since elementary school. Despite this, Paul's testimony is a world away from Tom's, and as we learn the details of his life, it becomes clear that Paul is a survivor, someone who knows how to keep his head above water. He has been arrested a few times, but has never been convicted of a crime or done time, having successful negotiated pleas, counseling, and other second chances. He has a wife and son, and works a part-time job at his home in Florida, where he moved after the incident (more on that in Part IV). Unlike Tom, who describes himself as "a smoker," he rarely partakes of either alcohol or marijuana. He speaks quietly but clearly to both lawyers, referring them as "sir" and "ma'am," and looks to the judge for guidance before speaking when an objection is raised.

Paul is sworn in, and the ADA asks her first question as to whether or not he knows the defendant. Paul answers in the affirmative, and then turns pleadingly to the judge. "Can I just say something?" he asks. The judge, doing his best to explain, says "Well, it's best that you just answer the questions you are asked . . . " but Paul continues. "It's just that the man sitting right there is one of my best friends in the world . . ." He trails off as the judge raises his hands in alarm, and looks beseechingly at John, whose eyes are fixed on the table in front of him. For a moment, a pin could drop, and then the judge, recovering first, says simply "your question?" and we move on.

Paul looks defeated and frustrated, but he does not sulk, and the ADA takes us quickly through the events of the evening of September 28, 2007. Paul met John at a house party in a first-floor apartment in the Albany Houses. John was a little drunk and dancing aggressively with a girl whose boyfriend was nearby. The girl complained to her boyfriend, who decked John, and a fight spilled out into the hall before friends held the boyfriend back and Paul dragged John away. Infuriated, John stormed out, Paul right behind him, and saw Mr. Ingram idling by the building entrance. Inexplicably, John swung and missed, crashing to the ground as Mr. Ingram ran away. His rage only rising, John got up and chased Mr. Ingram down, swinging for his head as Ingram did his best to dodge and block the blows. In short order, John knocked Ingram down and knelt over him, battering his head and face, at which point Paul felt he'd seen enough and started trying to drag John away. John, however, would not be stopped, and shoved Paul, who was screaming at the other people in the courtyard for help, away. At this point, Paul turned and ran into John's building, taking the stairs to get to John's apartment, and his brother, whom Paul hoped could dissuade John. The last thing he saw of the scene as he ran inside was John standing over Steven Ingram, swinging for his bloodied head. By the time he and John's brother returned, the ambulance had arrived.

In cross examination, the defense tries again to impeach the witness, but he is far less successful. Paul is consistent, calm, and frank about his past mistakes and the efforts he has made to put them behind him. We hear about his interrogation at the 77th Precinct by the detectives, and he tells us that he was told that he could be charged with killing Mr. Ingram by the detectives. Nonetheless, he stands by his story.

As to the night of September 28, there isn't much the defense can do - question after question only reveals that Paul's account is consistent, that the force of the blows John threw was sufficient to cause real damage, that Paul was close enough to see blood on Mr. Ingram's face and on the ground beside his head. Nothing is working, until finally the defense attorney strikes a boxing pose and asks "at the very least, was the man covering up?" He holds his arms up in defense of his head. Paul nods, and the the ADA's eyes bulge. This is something to work with. "When he was on the ground, with my client hitting him, as you allege, was he covering up?" Paul nods again. "And when you left, going up to get his brother, was the man covering up?" Paul nods a third time. Yes. Mr. Ingram was covering his head when Paul left. Mr. Ingram, therefore, was still conscious when Paul left. This is something. The ADA probes this question in her re-direct examination, but Paul sticks to his statement - when he left, Mr. Ingram's arms were still raised to his head.

We hear from one other witness, of sorts, an older resident who looked out his 12th-floor window and saw kids gathered near his car. He ran downstairs, saw them kicking an unconscious man (in his statement, he said he saw them punching him, too, but he does not recall this at trial), and told them to get lost. He called 911, but may not have been the only caller. He too has a checkered past, about which he readily laughs, and he freely admits that frequent marijuana use has left him with an impaired memory. He is, for the most part, irrelevant, though the defense argues that his testimony suggests that others should be held responsible for Mr. Ingram's death. Nonetheless, to be guilty of manslaughter in the 2nd degree, you need only be a contributing factor in someone's death, so the actions of others notwithstanding, John may still be guilty.

This is what we, the jury, have to work with as we decide the case - the testimony of two young men who, like our defendant, have grown up running from and occasionally into the law, and who share a profound distrust of the NYPD. One of them has broken a very deep bond to testify against his close friend, and both have revealed their information under duress, in a police station, arrested, at risk of being charged with killing someone. Both testify that many others saw these actions take place, but these individuals will forever remain nameless and silent. We are asked to believe them by the prosecution, to doubt them by the defense. The defendant does not testify, and no alibi is offered. He was there, he did these things (unless we believe that these others have perjured themselves). All that is left to decide is whether, beyond a reasonable doubt, he is guilty of killing Steven Ingram.

Tomorrow - Part IV: The Jury and Their Verdict

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part II - The Investigation

(Author's note: Earlier this year, I served as a juror in Kings County Supreme Court. The crime was the killing of a homeless man in Crown Heights. What follows is the second installment of my report and reflections on the experience. You can read Part I here.)

The first responder on the scene of Steven Ingram's assault was a beat cop from the 77th Precinct working the graveyard shift. He noted the time of his arrival (but later changed it twice, hampering the investigation), confirmed the presence of an unconscious man, called Emergency Medical Services to confirm that they were on the way, and stood watch. This was all he was required to do, and it was all he did. He did not cordon off the crime scene with police tape to preserve evidence. He made no notes on the evidence or the scene. He did not speak with anyone at the scene to inquire as to how Mr. Ingram ended up lying bloodied and unconscious on the sidewalk. When questioned at trial, he remembered only that he found Mr. Ingram unconscious in a pool of blood.

An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter, and the paramedic who treated Mr. Ingram observed that he had sustained serious blunt force trauma to the head. He did not observe or treat any other injuries to Mr. Ingram. The doctors who treated Mr. Ingram (and later performed his autopsy) confirmed that the source of fatal injuries was blunt force trauma to the head.

The following afternoon, a detective from the 77th Precinct was assigned to the case. He visited the scene, where he took a photo of what appeared to be a dried bloodstain, too far removed from the event for DNA testing. He spoke with a few local residents, none of whom knew the assailant's identity. Finally, he sought and obtained the tapes from the closed-circuit cameras that monitor the Albany Houses for a 45-minute period during which, he thought, the crime took place (as mentioned previously, the original officer on the scene was unclear about his time of arrival). The tapes were recorded and managed by the NYPD's Video Interactive Patrol Enhancement Response (VIPER) Unit, which has most often come under fire as a storage locker for problem cops. In this case, the problem was more elemental - the tapes were utterly and completely useless, the lenses of the cameras dirty and their placement and rotation laughably non-functional. One of the cameras that was supposed to cover the parking lot area where Steven Ingram was assaulted spent nearly half of its panoramic sweep covering the brick wall it was attached to. The detective was unable to see anything on the tapes he watched, which consisted of 90 minutes of film (two cameras during a 45-minute period). He watched no other tapes.

At trial, the detective assured us that he canvassed residents after the initial investigation described above, but that these conversations yielded nothing. The matter was essentially put on hold until December 18, 2007, when Mr. Ingram died and the case became a homicide. At this point, another detective from the Brooklyn North Major Crimes Unit was assigned to assist the 77th's detective, and the two returned to the case, sending Mr. Ingram's clothing to the forensics lab for testing. No DNA other than his own was found. The police did not request that forensic tests be performed on hair and fiber recovered from Mr. Ingram's clothes nor on a small metallic fragment found in the skin of Mr. Ingram's cheek, and these tests were not performed. Renewed canvasses yielded nothing.

In March of 2008, officers arrested a minor (call him Tom) in connection with a robbery. While he was in the station, officers questioning him wondered aloud whether he might have been involved in Mr. Ingram's death, as he was a resident of the Albany Houses. He had seen the man unconscious, as he told police, and had seen two other young men (call them Dick and Harry) kick his body to see if he would respond, put his legs in a wrestling hold, and then rifle through his pockets and take his money.

A few weeks later, an older resident of the Albany Houses was arrested on a separate charge, and revealed when questioned about the case that he had chased off a group of young men for kicking and punching an unconscious man next to his parked car. Nonetheless, Tom, Dick, and Harry all swore that they came upon Mr. Ingram when he was already out cold, and Dick and Harry were later charged with grand larceny for taking his money.

Tom remembered one other thing - he had walked by one of the buildings in the Albany Houses the day after the incident and heard someone brag that "people around here aren't gangster enough to kill someone with their bare hands." Call that someone John.

In putting together the case against Dick and Harry, the detectives learned that John had a friend, Paul, who had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on an open container summons. In June of 2008, they picked Paul up at 7AM in the Albany Houses. After a few hours at the station, during which time they told him he could be charged with Mr. Ingram's murder, Paul wrote out a pair of statements describing the details of the night of Mr. Ingram's death (covered in Part I). Paul was deeply distraught as he handed these statements incriminating John over to the NYPD. John was arrested soon thereafter and charged with first-degree manslaughter, the only individual charged in the death of Steven Ingram.

The quality of the investigation was a focus of John's defense. John's lawyer derided the work of the first responding officer, pointing out that we never truly learned when the crime took place and that despite ample evidence of an assault, that the officer made no effort to conduct any preliminary investigation. The defense took the 77th's detective to task for failing to comb through available video more thoroughly (at no point in any videos watched by the detectives - or jury - could any assault be seen in progress), and for failure to produce any corroborating testimony, despite Paul's assertion in his statement that nearly 20 people witnessed John's attack. John's lawyer demanded to know why hair, fiber, and metal fragments went untested, and why Dick and Harry were never charged in connection with Ingram's death, despite evidence that they to may have assaulted him.

The jury shared the defense's frustrations with the investigation - some things seemed left undone, and much of the process seemed left to chance, based purely on the willingness of those arrested for other reasons to talk. After the trial, I took my concerns to a friend and veteran of the force. Where many others had listened solemnly as I described the case, he shrugged. "A homeless man found beat up in the projects? They weren't working too hard on that one." Besides, he told me, residents of the Albany Houses and NYCHA sites in general were tight-lipped - no detective was going to learn anything from canvassing them. Ingram's death, which made the case a homicide, was a headache, but still, my friend added, "this wasn't their first priority. This is the kind of case where you need to find a suspect, charge him, and move on." These guys have so many other cases to deal with, he added, that they wouldn't have had the time or motivation to devote beyond the work they put in, particularly as the victim was a homeless man with a record. I expressed no small amount of frustration about this, and he shrugged again "This stuff happens all the time."

Tomorrow: Part III - The Trial

Work for the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center

The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center is looking for three full-time Americorps volunteers to start this October. For those who don't know the Mediation Center, they do some of the most innovative community work in Brooklyn, targeting a wide variety of issues including poverty, education, violence, and immigration. In the past few months alone, they've developed Save Our Streets Crown Heights to combat shootings in the area, offered legal aid to people seeking citizenship, and hosted the Eat Healthy/Eat Local Fair. If you're a young, community-minded person seeking gainful employment, this is a great place to start.

You can find more information and the complete job postings on the CHCMC blog here. Contact Amy Ellenbogen at director {at} crownheights {dot} org with any questions.

A Crown Heights Homicide: Part I - The Crime

Back in June, I was selected as a juror for what turned out to be a three-week-long criminal trial in Kings County Supreme Court. By pure coincidence, the crime took place at the NYCHA Albany Houses in Crown Heights where the victim, the defendant, and multiple witnesses lived. I explained to the judge and attorneys during the selection process that I was a local resident and blogger, but they felt this didn't disqualify me and they kept me on the case. The experience was unlike any other I've had, and one that I'm thankful for despite the sense of profound frustration it left with me. After kicking it around my head all summer and talking it to pieces with friends and family, I feel I've finally got enough perspective to tackle it here. I'm also out of town this week, which makes a short serial on the trial a convenient way to keep writing. Here goes:

Sometime in the very early hours of September 29, 2007, a 911 call was received from a cell phone stating that a man was lying unconscious in a pool of blood on a sidewalk in the Albany Houses. When police and EMS arrived, they found Steven Ingram unresponsive but alive, his clothes stained with blood and his face swollen and disfigured from what appeared to have been an assault. Mr. Ingram was taken to Kings County Hospital, where he lay in a coma for over two months before succumbing to his injuries on December 18, 2007. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, and the case, hitherto an unsolved assault, became a homicide. The sidewalk where Mr. Ingram was found is pictured above.

Who was Mr. Ingram? He was an African-American man in his fifties, slightly built at 5'4" and less than 130 pounds upon his admittance to KCH. He was a Vietnam veteran and a native of Brooklyn, as we learned from his niece at the trial. He was not married and had no children, but he had lived with extended family members on and off and came around to see them at holidays. He was homeless, a sufferer of alcoholism and drug addiction with a long criminal record, as we learned during cross-examination, and someone whom locals referred to as "that crackhead Stevie," which we heard the defense lawyer say but which was stricken from our official record, as the court does not conscience the besmirching of homicide victims. He was a collector of cans and bottles, and frequently seen at the Albany Houses, according to the residents who testified, and he was never known to be aggressive or violent.

So why was Mr. Ingram killed, and by whom? Despite his past substance abuse, this was not a drug-related crime, nor was it a crime of passion, a gang initiation, or vigilante justice. According to eyewitness testimony, Mr. Ingram passed the evening of September 28, 2007 collecting cans and puttering around the Albany Houses. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers and young adults gathered at a party in one of the housing project's six 16-story towers, where they partied, as partygoers do, with a little booze and a little weed. One attendee was dancing with a girl, who turned out to have a boyfriend, who in turn had a problem with the first guy dancing with his girlfriend and decked him. A scuffle ensued, and the unwelcome dancer left the party in a rage, accompanied by a good friend. When the two got clear of the party, they came across Steven Ingram, and the angry teenager took a swing at him, hard enough to miss and fall down. Ingram turned and ran, but his assailant chased him down, hit him again, knocked him to the ground, and continued swinging. His friend tried to pull him clear, failed, and ran to get help.

Eyewitness accounts are scattered beyond this point - it is unknown how long this young man, a teenager at the time, hit Ingram, when or why he stopped, what condition he left Ingram in, or where he went afterward. A group of people was seen gathering around the victim, punching and kicking him, and another group (or perhaps the same one) was seen stealing money from his pocket and performing wrestling holds on his unconscious body, but by the time the police arrived, Ingram was unconscious and alone. He would never wake up.

The Albany Houses are a New York City Housing Authority complex that sits between Albany and Troy Avenues, Bergen Street, and Park Place in Crown Heights. Completed in 1950, the original project houses 1,965 people, and an additional three buildings built in 1957 adjacent to the original site house another 944. The New York Times Homicide Map shows 32 violent deaths within a quarter-mile of the Albany Houses since 2003. NYCHA's Fact Sheet states that the average family in one of these units gets by on $23,187 a year, and that nearly half (49.5%) are below the federal poverty line ($22,050). Over half of NYCHA families (52.6%) do not work, and minors under 21 account for 36.8 of the public-housing population (29.7% are under 18). Those under 18 at the Albany Houses attend Paul Robeson High School, which was one of 19 failing schools nearly closed last year and where a student shared an ugly tale of neglect and criminal behavior last year (the Post has made Paul Robeson a cornerstone of its campaign to close failing schools, but in the school's defense, it produced the four eloquent, brilliant young women who participated in the Crown Heights Oral History Project). Crime in the 77th Precinct, where the Albany Houses are located, is down from where it was 20 years ago, but remains higher than the city averages. Numbers are hard to come by for specific areas, but across the board, homelessness is high in Brooklyn, and the risk of being the victim of a crime is much higher for the homeless.

In subsequent posts, I'll explore the ways in which a case like this is handled by the executive and judicial branches of New York State, from the police investigation to the trial itself. Many parts of the process were maddening, but the core of my disquiet lies rooted in the facts of the case, and the facts of the Albany Houses, as detailed above. The young people who live in the Albany Houses comprise over a third the project's residents. They are unlikely to work and even less likely to graduate from the failing school they attend (Robeson's graduation rate is 40%). Their families live on or below the poverty line, and violent crime is a constant threat. Does this last fact, do perhaps all of these facts, cheapen life? They must, or how else would one (or more) of these young men have been able to beat a helpless, homeless man to death and walk away?

A final note on Steven Ingram, whose death was not reported anywhere. He was killed, as are many homeless people, for being homeless, for being an easy target in a world that did not value him. Deaths like his are a major reason the National Coalition for the Homeless is seeking to have the homeless protected by hate-crime laws. Hate, however, may be too narrow a concept to describe what killed Steven Ingram, for while a quick flash of hatred may have animated his young assailant's mind, it is our collective apathy, a crime of disinterest, that allows this hate to find expression so easily and so frequently.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Reading Series TOMORROW!

Tomorrow is going to be hot. Again. And it's a Monday. Again. But unlike most Mondays, there's a light waiting at the end of this one, a cool, dark, well-air-conditioned bar serving $4 dollar drafts all night where you can cozy up in a big booth and listen to the most interesting new authors and comedians from Brooklyn and beyond.

I'm speaking, of course, of the latest edition of the Franklin Park Reading Series, "Hilarity and Heartbreak Night," which kicks off tomorrow at 8pm. There's more on the readers below, and it's worth mentioning that the Series is yet again a critic's pick in New York Magazine, Time Out, the Village Voice, and the Daily News.

ARYN KYLE (Boys and Girls Like You and Me, The God of Animals)
JON FRIEDMAN (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Rejection Show)
OLENA JENNINGS (KGB Bar Lit, The Millions)
JUSTIN MITCHELL (Fawlt Magazine, Neverlands and Otherwheres)

Whether the subject is romantic yearning, thwarted ambition or an absurdist dystopia, our August readers find humor in life’s most poignant moments.

ARYN KYLE was born in Peoria, Illinois, and grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado. She is the author, most recently, of the story collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me. Her debut novel, The God of Animals, was an international bestseller and the winner of an American Library Association’s Alex Award, a PNBA Award, an MPIBA Award, and others. The God of Animals was chosen as a Book Sense Pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title, and was named by Amazon as the Number One Fiction Debut of 2007. Aryn’s short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Best American Short Stories 2007, Best New American Voices 2005, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Award and a National Magazine Award in fiction. She lives in New York City.

JON FRIEDMAN is a writer, comedian and producer living in Brooklyn and currently writing/blogging for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for which he won an Emmy. He is the creator/producer and host of the popular variety show, The Rejection Show, and many other unique live events, including The NYC Beard and Moustache Championships and New York’s ECNY Awards. Jon’s first book, the award winning Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped & Canceled, a humor anthology of rejected works, was released in 2009 with Villard (Random House). He performs regularly at literary events and stand-up comedy venues throughout New York City and beyond. His solo show, Bear With Me is currently running at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York.

Jon's projects have been featured on NPR, The Today Show, The LA Times, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, The Sound of Young America, ABC News, The Dennis Miller Show, The Howard Stern Show, and other media outlets.

OLENA JENNINGS completed her MFA at Columbia University and her MA at the University of Alberta. Her translations from the Ukrainian have been published in Poetry International, Poetry International Web, Chelsea, and the Wolf. Her feature articles and book reviews can be found on KGB Bar Lit, Fanzine, and the Millions. She works in various capacities at Yara Arts Group.

JUSTIN MITCHELL was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theatre. He has also lived in Connecticut, Portland, Prague, Cambodia, and Korea, and traveled in China, Mongolia, Chile, and Argentina. He enjoys writing both literary and speculative fiction, and has had work published in Bewildering Stories, Diet Soap, Cantaraville, and Fawlt magazine, often under his erstwhile pseudonym, Maxwell James. His story "The Forms" was also featured in Susurrus Press' Neverlands and Otherwheres anthology. For links to his speculative work, visit www.maxwelljameson.com. A Crown Heights resident, Mitchell is also the author of the novel The Most Perfect Version.


Subway: 2/3/4/5 to Franklin Avenue

Saturday, August 07, 2010

LaunchPad Taking Off

Editors Note: The folks at LaunchPad have built their "gathering place" into one of Franklin Avenue's most interesting attractions, as well as a hub for community life. Many of you probably receive their email updates already, but for those who don't, check out their great slate of offerings below.

Hello from LaunchPad!

As the weather continues to heat up, so does the LaunchPad calendar - we have a lot of great events and activities happening (and we have AC to keep things cool :-). The best way to stay in the know about LaunchPad happenings is to check the calendar on our website. Sometimes things get added just a few days before they happen, so we suggest you check the calendar often. You can also find LaunchPad happenings on Facebook and Twitter.

Some new regular happenings at LaunchPad....pilates class every Sunday at 2pm, sewing workshop every Tuesday at 8pm, Brooklyn Food Coalitionmeetings every 3rd Wednesday at 6:30pm, Kings County Cinema Society film night every 4th Wednesday at 8pm.

There are a few new writing groups and book clubs starting up. If anyone has an interest in joining a writing group or a book club, send us a note and we'll introduce you to the existing groups. As existing groups reach their capacity, we'll help organize new groups.

Do you have a suggestion for a new event? Do you have a skill or talent you want to share with others? Does your organization need a place to hold meetings? Let us know, we'll help make it happen. There is no fee to use/attend LaunchPad, only your participation is required (donations for instructors and performers are always appreciated).

Some upcoming events at LaunchPad:

Saturday, August 7 at 2pm
Summerfest Party!

Live music, art, BBQ, drinks, great people, big smiles, lot of laughing. Now THAT'S a party.
Click here for more info

Monday, August 9 at 6:30pm
Capoeira Class

Come learn about Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, music, and dance. This will be an introduction so Capoeira, all levels of interest and experience are welcome. See it, learn it, do it.
Click here for more info

Tuesday, August 10 at 5pm
Composting Workshop

Compost in your kitchen! Learn how to build your own worm bin at this composting workshop led by the Crown Heights CSA.
Click here for more info

Thursday, August 12 at 6pm
"SHOW and PROVE" Art Exhibit Opening
This is more than an art exhibit. This is about the commitment of two artists to enrich their communities and others around them. The idea behind 'SHOW and PROVE' is to provide emerging talented artists with an opportunity to showcase their work, while at the same time giving something back to the community that has inspired and supported their collective growth.
Click here for more info

Saturday, August 14 at 8pm
Second Saturday Songs & Sounds
A collection of musicians who perform in duos each month, pairing a singer/songwriter with an improviser to explore the boundaries of expression through words, music, and improvisation.
Click here for more info

Sunday, August 15 at 6pm
CouchSurfing.org Workshop & Potluck BBQ

If you don't know about CouchSurfing.org, you should. If you do know about it, good for you! Either way, come hang and meet some people.
Click here for more info

Wednesday, August 18 at 6:30pm
Brooklyn Food Coalition Potluck Dinner

Come by, have a bite, and get to know some of the people in your neighborhood who are working to grow a strong community alliance for food justice in Brooklyn.
Click here for more info

Friday, September 3 at 8pm
'NYChoro' Music Performance

Live music with lots of style and energy. You won't be able to resist dancing!
Click here for more info

Wednesday, September 8 at 7:30pm
Meditation Session
A cosmic meditation session with live drone music.
Click here for more info

Be well, we'll see you soon.

721 Franklin Avenue (between Sterling and Park)
Brooklyn, NY 11238
info [at] brooklynlaunchpad [dot] org

Friday, August 06, 2010

Q & A: Wood Oven Pizza

I caught up with Ron, the latest entrepreneur to bring his great idea to Franklin Avenue, by email yesterday, and asked him a few questions about his new Neapolitan pizza place. Here's what he had to say:

When do you hope to open up?

We are hoping for late fall if the stars align.

What's going to be on the menu (pizza, of course, but anything else?) and what will an average entree/personal pie/whole large pie with one or two toppings cost?

We will serve an incredibly delicious Neapolitan pizza. These are individual pies cooked quickly in a wood-burning oven at super high temperatures. The result is a delicious crust that is light and airy with just the right amount of "chew" and toppings that are not overcooked, so their unique flavors can shine. We will have a simple pizza menu as it's my philosophy that simplicity makes people feel comfortable. The menu is still being developed but I am guessing there will be about eight pizza choices, with perhaps a daily special. Prices will start at about $9 for a Marinara, perhaps $10 for a Margherita, and more for the others, but we will do everything we can to keep the prices low and still run a business that can afford to pay its bills.

The salads will be organic and locally sourced wherever possible so that a pizza lover can bring a dieting friend. We will have several choices; again, still in development.

There will be a few other appetizers, all cooked in the wood burning oven -- think warm octopus, or shrimp.

Will the bar offer anything in particular? Cocktails? Wines to match with pizza? Beer on draft?

Yes, yes and yes. We will have a full liquor bar. We want this to be an option, not just for dinner, but for people just looking to have a beer, or cocktails after work and late at night.

What will the hours be? Lunch and dinner? Open late? Serving food late? Brunch on the weekends?

We will start with dinner only, and roll out from there. I imagine, because of the neighborhood, we will expand the dinner hours late first, so that those drinking at the bar can have a food option, even late into the night. From there, I imagine weekend brunch hours. Down the road ... lunch if it seems called for.

Will you have a menu for pick-up/delivery?

We will offer pick-up very soon after opening, if not right at the beginning, and, when all systems are go, we will do deliveries.

Will you occupy both of those storefronts at 781, or only one?

We will be in both storefronts, which actually connect in the back in what will be an amazing seating area. There is a small backyard, and we should have that up and ready by the time the warm weather comes in Spring 2011.

Will you be hiring locally?

Yes, preferably! I really want this place to be a community restaurant -- by and for!

Do you have any other restaurants in the NYC area?

I have 20 years of experience in the food business. Early on, I launched Minter's Ice Cream Kitchen, on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Minter’s was a Best Bet in New York Magazine for being the first ice cream parlor in New York to mix candies, cookies, and nuts by hand on a marble slab into fresh ice cream - a preparation now made popular by Coldstone Creamery. I then opened Minter's second location at the South Street Seaport. I also started and ran Minters Fun Food and Drink, a full-scale restaurant and bar in the courtyard of the World Financial Center across the street from the World Financial Center. At the same time, I owned a coffee catering company that ran espresso bars on the trading floors of Merrill Lynch's NY headquarters.

Tell me more about this wood-burning oven--how'd you get it, where in Italy it's from, what inspired this particular endeavor, etc.

It's a handmade oven made in Naples by a family that has been making ovens for over 100 years. The Italians are best at making these ovens, which burn much hotter than typical pizza parlor ovens, and that is why the pies cook so quickly. It also is what makes it so difficult to master. I am lucky that I have been trained in Italy by members of the same family that makes the ovens. It is a pizza enthusiast's dream to have this knowledge and skill ... and few can say they do.

Why Franklin Avenue? What do you think of Crown Heights and the area in general?

I love the mix of people in this area! I looked at so many parts of Brooklyn (I knew I wanted to be in Brooklyn, because I believe that Brooklyn now IS New York ... the Manhattan I knew as a much younger man has become too corporate and decidedly uncool ... !) and when I saw the space, I really flipped because of it's special architectural qualities. I could really visualize an amazing restaurant in the space. And then, I spent a few months just getting to know the area, and it is the people in the area that had me sold. It is a neighborhood with all kinds of people -- I want this to be a social place for all of them. I want it to be an important part of a lot of people's social lives.