2015-2016 Hine Fellow Nicholas Pilarski will present his ongoing collaboration with the Brownsville Community Justice Center at Duke University today!
By Brenna Cukier
“Here, that’s Fu Manchu…you know him? And that’s Spock from the Starship Enterprise…just came out of my head. This one I didn’t get to finish…”
Two tan and weathered hands flick through a stack of pen drawings on printing paper.
“This is our co-worker…she doesn’t work with us any more. This is Wonder Woman. This is Hot Stuff…I used to love Hot Stuff, you know the comic books? Oh, forget about it. Here, that’s supposed to be New York City. See the twin towers there?”
The hands and drawings belong to Wilfredo Pedrero, or “Freddie” for short. The drawings span more than a decade of his work, and nearly every single one is dated in the corner with the exact time and geographical location of its completion. While Freddie provides me with a detailed explanation of every drawing, it’s almost unnecessary. His pictures are like carbon copies of his muses, the majority of whom are characters from his beloved comic book collection. Freddie never leaves the house without at least half a dozen comic books in his backpack.
“I’ve been collecting since I was eight years old,” he tells me, flipping through the pages of his most recent addition. Freddie is now fifty-five. He points out his favorite characters, the details in their costumes, and explains to me again why Superman has the best powers. “I love the stories; I love drawing from them. That’s the only reason I read my comics…to get ideas to draw.” Freddie places the stack of comics on the shelf beside us, right next to a box full of peanut butter jars that need to be stocked.
Freddie is the Superman of the Center for Family Life (CFL) food pantry.
The food pantry is just one of many services CFL offers. CFL is one of the original settlement houses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and it serves the neighborhood’s predominantly Mexican and Chinese immigrant community. Once every two months, any Sunset Park resident can come in and receive an emergency package of food that is meant to supplement their family’s diet.
It’s been twelve years since Freddie started running the show at the pantry. Not only is Freddie responsible for placing orders and handling donations, but once the food actually arrives, he is also in control of organizing it. This work is an exact science for Freddie. Every type of food has a particular place on the shelves and an even more specific way in which it must be stacked. More precise yet is the way in which the food packages must be assembled.
Freddie takes each client into consideration, and after reading over their identification sheet, makes specific food choices based on the ages and culture of the individual and their family members. The pantry operates Tuesday through Thursday, when residents are welcome to collect food between the hours of 11am-1pm. The rest of the time Freddie spends manning and preparing the pantry. When he’s not doing that, he’s doing custodial work.
“This place is clean,” Freddie tells me. “I do this. I keep it clean.”
Freddie and I are outside of the CFL main office on 39th Street. The thoroughfare is crowded, like always. The fire station across the street provides a constant soundtrack of sirens and hustle, along with all the noise from cars and passersby on the corner at 5th Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street. Freddie sweeps the pavement in front of the office thoroughly, pushing upheaved gravel over the curbside and back into the road.
“I try to tell people you’re supposed to think of this place as your home,” he says. “We try to make them think that this is their house, because everything we do here is for them.”
* * *
In his real home, Freddie is no less responsible. He lives in Coney Island in a neighborhood called the Marlboro Projects. He and two of his brothers, along with their girlfriends and children, live together in their mother’s old apartment. This is also where his mother single-handedly raised Freddie and his six siblings.
But Freddie spent his early childhood in Puerto Rico, where he was born.
“We lived in these little projects called Canales. It’s still there, but it’s bad now,” Freddie recounts to me. We’re sitting in his bedroom. Behind him on the wall is a huge bulletin board with pictures of his family, a few of his drawings and a certificate for perfect attendance at his job. “It’s so bad that the police don’t even go in there,” he continues, “but when we lived there, it was pretty nice.”
Freddie tells me he used to spend his mornings as a child asking for money on the streets; no shoes, just shorts. “No one’s gonna deny a little kid when they’re begging,” he says. He’d come home with pockets full of change and hand it all to his mother, who was raising their household on $21 a month through public assistance.
When the family arrived in the U.S. in 1968, they settled in Coney Island. Freddie has never lived anywhere else since. Today, he’s more than comfortable with this fact. But as an adolescent, the neighborhood proved to be more than troublesome for Freddie and his friends.
“We always did stupid things outside in the neighborhood,” he tells me. We’re still in his bedroom. He’s staring out the window through the gap between the shade and the sill. The wind is howling against the pane, it’s the coldest day of winter yet. Nowadays, you’ll rarely find Freddie outside of his apartment after 8pm.
“I don’t hang out like I used to,” he tells me. “I used to go to Alphabet City at three or four in the morning. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with a friend. Now I won’t even go out of my neighborhood.” Today, a good night in Freddie’s opinion is one spent catching up on his favorite TV shows (almost all of which feature superheroes) or flipping through his comic books. But the peace is often interrupted. Specifically, it’s interrupted by gunshots, which Freddie says he can frequently hear coming from the other side of the projects in the early hours of the morning.
“That’s the young kids…they stay out all night selling drugs thinking it’s the fast money. They don’t realize that when you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with death. They don’t listen. Sooner or later, they’ll learn.”
While Freddie’s days dabbling in these same neighborhood activities may be long behind him, his status as a neighborhood hero is not. During the waking hours of the day, Freddie takes it upon himself to interfere when he witnesses activity like this in the projects. He will stop kids on the street – even ones he doesn’t know – and try to steer them in another direction. It’s his attempt at preventing them from taking the same road he did, which ultimately led him to multiple rehab stints.
Freddie has no difficulty talking about rehab. In fact, he speaks about his stints as if they were as commonplace as going to college.
And he almost did go to college.
At eighteen, Freddie was offered a full ride to Pratt Institute to study art. He made it through the first week of classes, then he got arrested.
“I threw away that scholarship,” he says as we skim through more of his drawings. He’s pulled out boxes of them from his closet and they’re scattered across the bed, which is bare save for a beige bottom sheet. “I was too young. If I could use it now, I’d go. But I guess I’ll just develop art in my own way.”
I ask Freddie if he’d ever consider using his art professionally. He explains that while he often draws things with tattoos in mind, he doesn’t see it panning out. His work day is demanding, and when he gets back to Coney Island, his other responsibilities kick in.
Freddie has helped his ex-girlfriend – who lives in an apartment just a few buildings down – raise her two sons since they were five years old. The boys are now grown and have children of their own, whom Freddie refers to as his “grandchildren.” When he gets back to Coney Island in the evenings, Freddie heads straight to the family’s apartment. He first walks the dog, Maxi. Then he takes care of the three grandchildren, the responsibilities for which can range from cooking dinner to playing Barbies.
Not everybody in Freddie’s life is supportive of his unconventional situation. His brother often gives him grief for spending so much of his life with kids that are not his.
“I tell him a father is not the one who makes, it’s the one who takes care of,” Freddie says. “It’s easy to make kids. But if you’re not gonna take care of them, what kind of father are you?”
Freddie never met his own father. His one connection is a single photo taken when his father was seventeen. It’s black and white, his father is standing and looking straight into the camera.
“People tell me I look like him,” Freddie says. “I don’t see it.”
* * *
Back at CFL one day, I ask Freddie who his favorite superhero is. He launches into an explanation about why it’s Captain America. It has to do with a particular encounter Captain America has with Iron Man, in which Iron Man accuses Captain America of not being a “real” hero due to the fact that his powers are all thanks to a special serum.
“The serum is what gives Steve Rogers his power,” Freddie explains to me. “Without it, he’s just a regular guy. But it’s not just the serum that makes him a hero.”
Freddie is about to elaborate on this when Gladys walks in. Gladys is the other food pantry attendant. She’s ten years older than Freddie; she also has ten years on Freddie as a CFL employee. She has six sons of her own, but Freddie is her seventh. He refers to her exclusively as “Ma.” This has held even more significance since Freddie’s mother passed away three months ago.
“It’s his whole persona,” he says about Captain America/Steve Rogers. “He always wants to help people out. That’s what makes him a hero, not the…”
Gladys interrupts him.
“Yeah, Ma? What happened? It’s raining? Alright let me go get that for you…can we take a break?” Freddie asks me. “I gotta go get her something from the store…”
By Nicholas Pilarski
I bike twenty-four blocks from my apartment in Flatbush to the housing developments of Brownsville. While riding, I watch the sun slowly rise, back-lighting the monolithic buildings that lay to the east. As light passes through the nation’s largest network of affordable housing developments, shadows divide the streets into a complex crosshatch of light and dark. This is not unlike the geography of the landscape itself, where invisible lines have divided the community from prolonged affiliated conflict, forcing many youth in the neighborhood to choose what side of the street they walk. The origin of this rivalry is a mystery to those who call Brownsville home, yet everyone is forced to abide by specific rules born from a painful history. This history predates the lives of young people walking in the streets of this community. Each housing unit is either red or blue, with the police often adding a third color into the complex negotiation of power.
The complicated, geo-political environment is not justly articulated in the stereotypes often applied to Brownsville. There is community here. There is a certain potent quality to its residents, aptly described in conversation by a young resident. Knocking on the wall with the back of her hand, she reflected: “These [buildings] are tall and made of stone. We are tall and strong like them. But people don’t see this from the outside. You come from Brownsville, people have assumptions about you. They think you are something you’re not because you come from this place. But we have a lot. It might not be like other places. But it’s our place. And a lot of us are proud of it.” Made in Brownsville shirts, namesake tattoos, and verbal affirmation exemplify this pride. Daily exchanges of proud residents greeting each other in the streets as their day begins make this sense of provenance, and community, ever more evident.
Arranged literally and figuratively as an anchor within the community is The Brownsville Community Justice Center (Center), part of the Center for Court Innovation. The pride and strength of the residents seen in the streets is reflected in the ethos created by the Center. There, a philosophy of youth-led innovations works to reconfigure relationships between community and the justice system.
Working in conjunction with the Center, I engage with five young men in a project titled “Opportunity Youth.” We explore documentary practice, from animation to the audio doc., and work to develop technical skills as a way to identify each individual’s unique, artistic voice. Currently the young men are defining their body of work, which is taking the form of photo-essays and a small group-created script that has parallels to the afro-futurist movement of the mid-1970s.
Another young man involved with the Center, Ray, is a natural community leader, taking a role in anti-violence initiatives in Brownsville. Together, Ray and I will develop a documentary video game. The medium will allow us to create proactive dialogue across divided houses and navigate Brownsville geographically, both currently not possible given lines of conflict drawn throughout the community. In a virtual environment, youth will have the freedom to explore Brownsville without these political or physical borders. Established gamers will be able to explore individual narratives of the community that they would not have access to otherwise. The primary hope of the game is for users to transcend literal and figurative obstruction of an ongoing rivalry, one in which both sides hold similar dreams and struggles. As multiple real-time users navigate a virtual Brownsville, they must work together to complete various missions, which are rooted in the shared viewing of interviews and narratives. By the end of the “docu-game,” when all missions are complete, it will be revealed that the real-time users, or “avatars,” in the game are comprised of individuals living in buildings across the whole of Brownsville. Built into the gameplay is a mechanism that theorists and practitioners Augusto Boal and Sanjoy Ganguly would call instruments to “rehearse a better reality through play.” Their interactive theatre work has led to peaceful solutions to violence in India and Brazil, where the idea of finding empathy through play is foundational to spread peace through communities in conflict. These models will be used heavily throughout development.
In order to attempt to translate Boal and Gaguly’s theatrical concepts to our virtual environment, we are excited to announce a partnership with Brooklyn-based experimental artist, Alexander Porter. Alex has generously donated an unreleased Alpha version of his 3D motion scanning software. Using this, we will record and interview participating Brownsville residents and place them in our constructed virtual world. This project still remains in its planning stages with many details and technological harnessing yet to be finalized. Images of this technology in motion are included below.
With both the five young men involved with “Opportunity Youth” and Ray, I am excited to move forward with these talented Brownsville youth. We look forward to sharing updates moving forward.
Brenna was born in Tempe, Arizona but moved to Auckland, New Zealand at age ten. She received her B.A. in journalism as a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she reported for the student newscast for two years until she became the executive producer. During her sophomore year, she participated in a component of the Robertson Program known as the “semester switch,” when scholars spend a year in residence at their sister campus. In an effort to find a way to combine her newsroom skills with her passion for creative storytelling, she enrolled in three CDS courses. From that semester onward, she simultaneously pursued these programs at both universities.
By combining videography with her love for travel and her interest in NGOs, Brenna spent her summers documenting the work of various education-focused non-profits around the world, from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Azores Islands to Bali, Indonesia. This summer, Brenna will utilize support from the John Hope Franklin Award with the AJC Goldman Fellowship to make a connection between the work she will be doing at her internship with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations in Warsaw, Poland with the story of her own family’s history. By re-tracing the steps of her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, she hopes to fill some of the gaps in her identity that she has been curious about since childhood.
Regarding the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship, Brenna says, “My past documentary experiences have validated that I thrive in new and challenging environments, and the Hine Fellowship is a new challenge in which I hope to produce meaningful and provocative work. If I have learned anything as a videographer, it’s that we don’t stop looking through a lens when we put the camera down, and I am excited to see how the Fellowship will contribute to my perception of the world and how my perception of the world will contribute to the lives of others.”
Brenna will be working with the Center for Family Life.
To see some of Brenna’s work, please visit her YouTube channel.
Nicholas aims to create art that facilitates a space for development and growth through documentary practice. His work focuses on issues that surround social and economic marginalization He uses collaborative art-making approaches that engage with individuals and communities to create dialogue through self-expression.
With experience working in music, theater, and film, Nicholas uses a multidisciplinary approach to inform his work. He has performed in a range of theatrical productions that include acting as a Blue Man with the Blue Man Group in both Chicago and New York City, and has played percussion with various Grammy nominated artists. As an educator he has facilitated master classes on theater methodologies, and most recently, documentary theory. After finishing a degree from the University of Michigan in theater and film, he traveled to West Bengal, India, to work with and learn from the world’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed movement, Jana Sanskriti. There, he concentrated on how theatrical and social techniques developed by the group could influence new-media and documentary.
This experience was fundamental in Nicholas’s decision to obtain an MFA from Duke University in Experimental and Documentary Arts. While at Duke, he worked to connect performance methodologies, Theatre of the Oppressed practices, and computational media to create his thesis project, I, Destini. This animated film explored the poignant and imaginative perspective of a youth grappling with the effects of having an incarcerated loved one. The documentary came to life through a series of creative workshops with Destini (the film’s main character/co-creator) and her family. This process ultimately focused on how documentary practices could foster reciprocal and creative dialog while advocating for social reform. Nicholas hopes to continue to build upon the collaborative documentary process he began developing while working with Destini and her family.
Recent film screenings include Meet the Press at The Indie Grits Film Festival, Columbia, South Carolina; Of Remnants at The Cinedans Film Festival at the National Film Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Semi-Winged at Abstract Currents at the MoMA and MoMA-PS1, New York, New York.
About the Lewis Hine Fellowship Nicholas writes, “I am excited and honored to be a Lewis Hine Fellow. While supported by the fellowship I hope to help create a space where ideas can be shared freely and personal history can be documented through the process of collaborative self-expression. I can think of no greater privilege than to create work through the optic of activism and education that Lewis Hine helped pave almost a century ago.”
Nicholas will be working with the Brownsville Community Justice Center.
To see some of Nicholas’s work, please visit: http://www.nicholaspilarski.com