Whose Bed-Stuy is it?

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The Slave Theater on 1215 Fulton Street is scheduled to be sold in a court auction in early November

Depending on who you ask – and where you do the asking – the people on the forefront of the fight to save Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Slave Theater are a noble band of do-gooders, or an unwelcome group of outsiders trying to usurp the neighborhood’s legacy.

The first view was captured last Saturday night, as people filed into the mezzanine at the Flatiron Hotel for a fundraiser. Seven floors above, a theater director named Jonathan Solari took a break on the penthouse balcony and described his plans for the Slave Theater, a historic venue on Fulton Street. The property recently went into foreclosure and is scheduled to be sold in a court auction in early November.

Solari’s recently formed nonprofit organization, New Brooklyn Theater, is attempting to raise $200,000 — the amount required by the estate that owns the property to pay the tax liens and avoid the auction.

“There is a very short timeline,” Solari said.

New Brooklyn Theater launched a Kickstarter campaign on August 5 to raise the funds. The campaign ends on Thursday and is currently more than $160,000 short of its goal. If the goal isn’t reached in time, the organization will not get the money. Still, they remain confident, and say they’re in talks with developers – whom they are reluctant to name while negotiations are ongoing — who are interested in working with their organization.

“We’ll see how tonight goes,” Solari said. “But I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The Slave Theater was the vision of the late John Phillips, its original owner. Phillips was a community organizer and a Brooklyn Civil Court judge who purchased the building in 1982; at the time, it was called the Regent Theater. He renamed it to remind the community of the history of slavery, and regularly organized lectures by historians and activists. In 2004, when Phillips was growing old and living in a nursing home, his friend, Clarence Hardy, became the theater’s caretaker.

After a tangled legal battle following Phillips’ death in 2008, the court appointed his nephew, Rev. Samuel Boykin, as administrator of the Phillips estate – and with it de facto ownership of the theater. In August 2010, The Brooklyn Ink reported that Hardy had been evicted from the building. The eviction notice had come from Boykin, who lives in Ohio and, in a recent telephone interview, said that he hears little from his lawyers about the current status of the theater. Meanwhile, the Phillips estate owes $190,000 in liens on the building, and five groups have made formal offers to buy the property from the estate. Boykin said he’d prefer to sell to New Brooklyn Theater, but isn’t confident they’ll come up with the money.

Several formal purchase offers have been made to the estate that owns the Slave Theater

In the mezzanine at the Flatiron Hotel, people in blazers and evening dresses who paid $25 apiece to support New Brooklyn Theater’s endeavor had a more positive outlook.

“I love it. I mean, I actually live in the neighborhood and it’s an amazing thing,” said Michael Tartaglia, a 25-year-old theater director. “That whole neighborhood is sort of turning over right now and revamping and it would be an amazing transition for the art scene there.”

“It’s just really exciting,” said Meaghan Sloane, a 25-year-old actress who lives in Astoria. “All my friends live in Brooklyn and somehow all the theaters are in midtown. I think it makes the pool of actors more excited.”

The scene stood in stark contrast with one that took place in Bedford-Stuyvesant two nights earlier. There, at a community forum convened by New Brooklyn Theater at Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street, residents condemned Solari’s group, accusing it of failing to involve the community.

One woman asked Solari if they’ve talked to the existing cultural institutions of Bed-Stuy.

“Yes,” Solari said.

“Which ones?” the woman asked.

“The Brooklyn Children’s Museum. We have a partnership with them through our…”

“That’s not in Bed-Stuy.”

“But they serve this community.”

The crowd grew loud, repeating that the museum is not in Bed-Stuy.

“The Billie Holiday Theater,” Solari said. “The Billie Holiday Theater, OK?”

Among those in the audience was Clarence Hardy, the theater’s former caretaker, who rose to talk about Phillips’ founding vision.

Clarence Hardy speaks at the New Brooklyn Theater community forum on Fulton Street

“His original plan was to bring cultural excellence and history coming out of the Slave Theater,” he said. “At one time we had some of the most dynamic historians the world has ever known, until the white power structure and the Jews…”

He trailed off. A few eyebrows raised at the comment, but no one responded vocally. Hardy went on. “Ya’ll plan is full of crap,” he said. “It’s not going to benefit the people that’ve been here for the last 20 years.”

Claudette Brady, a member of New Brooklyn Theater’s board of directors, responded, saying she’d like to see cultural education programs in the theater. She then explained the need for profit-generating entertainment events.

Several people questioned the background of the members of New Brooklyn Theater who were there. None were lifelong residents of Bed-Stuy, and only two were African American, and residents were concerned about who was taking ownership of the theater.

“I’m determined to keep it in black ownership,” said Kazembe Butts, a Bed-Stuy resident. “Not just some black people on the board. And that’s what is going to happen, it’s going to stay as a black institution.”

“We wouldn’t own it,” said Brian Kushner, the educational director of the group. “It’s a nonprofit organization.”

When the issue came up again, Solari stepped in. “The board of directors is not complete. How about that?” he said. “I’m open to that, I would love to hear that. This is why we’re gathered here today, to address those concerns. And I can say that we are not solidified and closed with our board of directors.”

Claudette Brady fields questions at the New Brooklyn Theater community forum on Fulton Street

Some in the audience remained unsatisfied. “If you want to help us navigate so that we can get the finances to do what we need to do, then be a support,” one woman said. “Don’t come in like missionaries.”

Other residents expressed dissatisfaction with New Brooklyn Theater’s intention to change the name of the venue to match its own.“Have you spoken with the community?” asked another resident, Shaheed Muhammad. “You already changed the name from ‘Slave.’ You don’t own it! But you changed the name. Why did you decide to change the name?”

Solari said the group came to the decision “in speaking with individuals within the community.”

Outside the meeting hall, as the forum came to a close, a resident named Atim p’Oyat, 27, said that she’s also unhappy with the proposed name change.

“I think the name they want to use is just another way of hiding the history behind slavery,” she said. “They say that people who don’t know their history can never move ahead. This is just another way to backtrack our race, in a sense, and to shun what’s taken place.”

Two nights later at the Flatiron Hotel fundraiser, the sentiment over the name change was altogether different. Lori Mannette, a 26-year-old Bushwick resident from North Carolina, said she thinks it is a good idea.

“I don’t know that you’re going to get a lot of Brooklynites going to a place with ‘slave’ in the name. But I don’t really know anything because I’m a poor little white girl,” she said. “I think ‘slave’ has no good connotation. I mean, maybe Britney Spears gave it a slight thing with [her song, ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’], but ultimately that’s only a negative connotation. Particularly for the African American community, which is thriving in Brooklyn.”

Supporters of New Brooklyn Theater fill the mezzanine at the Flatiron Hotel in Manhattan

An artist named Ryan Schneider, 35, said that he used to have a studio in Bed-Stuy, and that when he first saw the theater, he thought, “Whoa. That’s like anti-white shit,” he said. “I was always intimidated by the building. It’s called the Slave; it’s in deep Fulton. Have you been there?”

On the penthouse balcony, Solari said that he’d soon be contacting the people who came to the forum in Bed-Stuy to further explain what New Brooklyn Theater hopes to do. “Passions got the better of some people,” he said of the meeting, “and I respect that.”

Solari still intends to change the venue’s name to New Brooklyn Theater. He said that when he goes to the theater and talks to members of the community, he often finds support.

“The majority of people that we’ve spoken to, who are long-standing members of the community, are troubled by that name,” he said. “And I think that Judge John Phillips’ intention of reminding people where their roots are was noble and accurate for the time. But before African Americans were slaves, they were African, and that should be celebrated.”

Outside the theater on a recent afternoon, Jerry Garrett, a 51-year-old lifelong resident of Bed-Stuy, said he’d like to see the theater restored, and isn’t concerned about the name. “I mean, the Slave, I remember when it was the Regent,” he said. “It was the movie theater. I remember way back then. I’ve been around here forever.”

Garrett also said he’s happy to see the neighborhood changing. “Everything is up and coming; it’s a whole different thing,” he said. “Everything is new now, so it’s good. My property value went up like crazy. I love it.”


8 Responses to “Whose Bed-Stuy is it?”

  1. chrisgee
    October 2, 2012 at 11:27 AM #

    it sucks there’s so many people who want to save the theater but can’t get it together to make it happen. i get the sense the quotes from the people at the fundraiser were cherry-picked to get the most provocative statements possible but it sure doesn’t help NBT’s case. I wonder if there is any similar group organizing from within bed-stuy. most of the comments from the forum are well-founded but unfortunately unless they can turn these points into action i can’t see a positive outcome here.

  2. Marcus
    October 2, 2012 at 5:02 PM #

    I congratulate NBT for doing what they are doing. The Black population of Bed-Stuy loves to trash talk Whites that come in and do things that should have been handled by Blacks long ago. Move over and give someone else a chance, you had yours.

  3. gershwin
    October 2, 2012 at 7:58 PM #

    If we actually take the time to support Hardy in court, we won’t have issues opening the doors again.

  4. Gloria
    October 2, 2012 at 9:41 PM #

    I have tried for the longest to get the theatre. I work with youth and thought that this theatre will help get youth doing something positive in the neighborhood. I was willing to have neighbors and communities to help build the theatre for their children. I have been working with youth for 19 years and see a drastic change in what are youth are becoming. It may bring property values up but what have we done for our future. The future are the kids, and they seem to not have anyone to teach them values.

  5. Arvid
    October 3, 2012 at 12:24 PM #

    Could you get any more quotes from people who exemplify white Brooklynites? Jeez.

  6. Theodore Jones
    October 3, 2012 at 10:03 PM #

    I wish the best for this plan.

    As for those few quoted at the community board meeting, they are racist. Flat out racist. If he were a black man they would be applauding. Why would anyone keep the name of the theater “Slave”? That’s just stupid and all about wallowing in self-pity. If you want to be the victim, keep playing the victim.

    This is really the best idea for this space possible. It’s a beautiful building in desperate need of care and restoration and will be wonderful as a theatre again. If it doesn’t become “New Brooklyn Theater” it will probably become another Baptist or Pentacostal church. Please. Will that really serve the community better?

  7. Andrew
    October 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM #

    I think this is a really well-written article. The quotes from the fundraiser are definitely provocative, but also fairly representative of how casually oblivious young white folks can be these days. And I say this a a young white man myself. The level of political awareness in Atim p’Oyat’s quote stands in sharp contrast to all of the quotes taken from the fundraiser, including the one at the end from Solari.

    That may be the result of cherry-picking, but it’s also what I’ve observed in my own experience.

  8. km
    October 4, 2012 at 11:15 PM #

    I take issue with some of the quotes in this article. Particularly the “poor little white girl” whose concern for the “thriving African american community” outweighs the positive connotations from Britney Spears lyrical spin on slavery. Also, “That’s like anti-white shit” needs to be reminded that this country has an ugly history of anti-black shit, particularly slavery. I think that sometimes white people don’t realize they are being racist because they have good intentions. Barbara Bush probably didn’t think she was being racist when she stated that people left homeless from Hurricane Katrina were underprivileged, so the astrodome was working out well for them. There is definitely some paternalism and ignorance in the attitude of some of the white people quoted in this article. I am white myself, and I live in the neighborhood, and I would prefer to see a business run by well meaning misguided outsiders than a boarded up vacant building, but I think if this renovation is intended to benefit the whole community,which is what it’s claiming for the sake of kickstarter, than the New Brooklyn Theatre group need to acquaint themselves more with the community and educate themselves on it’s history.

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