Stories & Portraits from the Heart of Bed-Stuy – A Bailey’s Cafe Presentation On View Through August 19, 2023
By Marienne “Yen” Thomas,
Pia Monique Murray, and Stefanie Siegel
Photography: Kadeem Alston Roman
Often openings are strictly a social occasion; a chance to network, perhaps schmooze with celebrities and politicians, to take advantage of the free wine and appetizers and see some great art. The March 4, 2023 artists’ reception and opening for Bailey’s Café’s As Quiet As It’s Kept, We Thrive: Stories & Portraits from the Heart of Bed-Stuy, a multidisciplinary installation, was different: the participants in the portraits and the documentaries set the stage for conversation and for the importance of the moment. (Bailey’s Café is a stalwart cultural mecca for families, residents, and artists founded by Stefanie Siegel, who also is cultural producer, and Bailey’s Executive Director. It is located at 324 Malcolm X Blvd, between MacDonough and Bainbridge Streets.)
That Saturday afternoon was magical. The magic came through our eight participants who saw their beautiful portraits, lovingly painted by popular portraitist Marienne “Yen” Thomas, Bailey’s Café Director of Youth Programs and watched the accompanying documentaries, brilliantly created by Pia Monique Murray, artistic producer, interviewer, documentarian and Bailey’s Artistic Director. They were surprised, honored, inspired and with these feelings came the desire to do more and to activate the hopes and dreams they have for Bed-Stuy and the world.
As Quiet As It’s Kept, We Thrive: Stories & Portraits from the Heart of Bed-Stuy brings visibility to the residents of Bed-Stuy whose voices are seldom heard, and celebrated. The portrait and mini-documentary series comes out of a larger community-based movement to offer alternatives to the violence that continues to erupt in our neighborhood, which has been centered around the Jackie Robinson Housing Complex and the Park Playground. The focus is to bring positive, life-affirming activities to those who may not feel that they are normally included.
The gallery exhibit includes interactive activities as well as additional information about the participants and Jackie Robinson, who had intended for the Jackie Robinson Housing Complex to be built specifically for Black people, previously left out of the housing market. Robinson died before the complex was built, although his name remained attached to the buildings until the late 90’s when the owners at that time changed it to Fulton Park. In this project we intentionally refer to the complex as the Jackie Robinson Houses in honor of his legacy and his dream for Bed-Stuy.
This summer, with the support of Photoville, Bailey’s Cafe will bring the portraits and words of the residents into public view through an installation of 4-foot banners in the playground adjacent to the housing complex. Our mini-documentary and portrait project is one of a series of steps, along with the other life-affirming activities, towards building a more trusting, interconnected community that works together to create an environment that does not push out or leave out anyone because of race, economic status, formal education or lifestyle.
The current participants are: Antoine Cassidy, Barry Cooper, Valerie Ferguson, Donna Heyward, Ralph James and his daughter Quelinda, Nequan McLean, Pastor Renee Sheffey, Justine Warren, range in age from 11 to late 60’s, and either live in or have connections with the Jackie Robinson Houses.
Antoine and Ralph are former drug dealers who have turned their lives around and now run organizations that give back to the community: No More Gun Smoke School Tour and Urban Dad.
Barry turned his expertise as a transformational educator into B.R.O. Experience in 2020 so he could continue to have a life changing impact on the lives of young Black men.
Nequan, the president of the District 16 Community Education Council, has made it his life’s mission to bring quality education to the young people of Bed-Stuy.
Donna and Valerie are giving back to the community in less formal ways; Donna by bringing a variety of events to the residents of the houses and Valerie through her organically created summer program for the children who live at Jackie Robinson (Children of Grace) and by her presence on the block sharing her beautiful voice and encouraging us all to be better neighbors.
Justine, a young mother and emerging poet, shares her art with the community to bring joy and laughter, while Pastor Sheffey spreads her love, wisdom and service through ministry. The interactive activity, a papier mâché building with foam figures on which visitors can write their hopes and dreams for Bed-Stuy, recorded the desire for a place that is filled with love, joy, peace, respect for everyone and “that we realize all the greatness that is here.”
Michael Hill, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist and Kevin Hill, bassist and composer, also known as The Hill Brothers NYC, provide a musical backdrop for the documentaries, intentionally acknowledging the dual nature of the stories in It’s Never Quiet, the more upbeat We Thrive and the melodic Moments of Grace.
The overarching goal for We Thrive is to focus a spotlight on strivers at Jackie Robinson Houses who are struggling to make the situation, there, better; who love their neighborhood; and who want to stay there despite the challenges. Just like all of us they want control over the quality of their lives, to be taken seriously and for their humanity to be valued. The situation at Jackie Robinson Houses is duplicated all over our city, our country, and the world. We hope by shining a light on this small corner a change for the best will begin to grow.
The installation will be on display in Bailey’s backroom gallery until August 19, 2023 when we will, simultaneously, close the exhibit and gift to each participant their portrait as we open the public installation–life size banners that will be installed on the exterior fence of Jackie Robinson Park Playground.
Currently, open hours are: Mondays, 1 PM to 4 PM; Wednesdays, 2pm to 7pm; the first Friday of each month from 5pm to 8pm and the second Sunday of the month from 3pm to 6pm. Viewing the installation is also possible by appointment. Contact Stefanie at firstname.lastname@example.org
AQAIK, We Thrive will be archived, along with all of our other AQAIK projects, at asquietasitskept.space.