The Brooklyn Ink Local Brooklyn News and Feature Stories Wed, 01 Jun 2011 23:01:44 +0000 en hourly 1 VIDEO: Manuel’s Ride Wed, 01 Jun 2011 10:00:43 +0000 Amaris Castillo By Amaris Castillo

Manuel Feliz chose to work as a taxi driver eight years ago – weary from working for years in a bodega. Feliz soon learned that being a taxi driver comes with its costs.

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Prospect Park: An Unexpected Birders Haven Mon, 30 May 2011 10:00:35 +0000 Joseph Deaux A Hooded Warbler (Photo: courtesy of Tom Stephenson)

A Hooded Warbler (Photo: courtesy of Tom Stephenson)

by Joe Deaux

After more than an hour of searching, they finally spot the Yellow-throated Warbler. “I found the Yellow-throated Warbler,” Tom Stephenson, an avid birder and member of the Brooklyn Bird Club, cries out to the remaining bird seekers. The group rushes over to one large tree in the southwest section of Prospect Park, right next to the lake. Stephenson calls to two men who had left only seconds ago to go to work. They spot the bird from afar, wave and leave. Others peer through their binoculars to get a close view of the beautiful golden color that shines on the bird’s chest. This is a rarity, because Yellow-throated warblers do not fly this far north during migration. Grins stretch across each person’s face as they look at each other to signify that they have spotted the bird. The group quietly celebrates its victory.

The Brooklyn Bird Club was founded in 1909 by Dr. Edward Vietor. The current president, Peter Dorosh, says their present enrollment hovers between 100 and 150 people. Membership costs $20 a year, but they encourage non-members to join their weekly walks in the park for free. Birding, or watching birds, is not an uncommon hobby. Dorosh says that approximately 47 million people bird in the U.S, about one in every six people.

Prospect Park is a popular destination. “Prospect Park is one of the best places to go birding, not just in New York, but the whole Northeast,” Dorosh says. Birds typically migrate at night and eat all day to replenish energy for the next night’s migration. A bird that finds itself over Brooklyn before dawn looks down and sees nothing but lights, which the bird registers as human areas and a no-go for landing. But there’s also a humongous dark spot amid the lights, which means trees, grass and food. So they dive toward Prospect Park and hunt for sustenance.

Late April to early May is the best time to observe northern migration. Depending on the species, birds could be coming from Florida, or as far south as the tip of Argentina. Dorosh says that on an exceptional migration day, one might spot about 100 species of birds. Glenn Phillips, Executive Director of New York City Audubon, says this is because the park marks a major half-way point for birds flying up the East Coast, a bottle-neck where the coast suddenly turns east.

What a bird eats depends on the bird. Some birds, like the cardinal, feed on seeds that they find on exposed ground. Seedeaters also do not migrate as much because seeds thrive through most seasons of the year. Other birds, like some warblers, require insects and worms. These birds prefer densely treed locations, because trees are home to most of the insects they devour. Some birds, like robins, can eat seeds or insects, and thus have odd migration patterns. These types of birds inhabit Prospect Park.

There are also birds of prey in Prospect Park. Red-tailed Hawks claim three nests in the area, in the highest trees. The Red-tailed hawk typically preys on rodents, hovering directly above its victim before dropping into a sudden and vicious free-fall. The Peregrine falcon, which can attack at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour, hovers above an unsuspecting bird (yes, they hunt other birds) and dives at it with its talons, strip off the meaty breast of its prey and discards the worthless carcass that remains.

Dorosh, who is thin and has a white-stubbled beard with striking blue eyes, says he got “hooked” on birding in 1975, when he was about 14-years-old, in the back yard of his mom’s house, which used to be next to the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. A measure of his obsession: A few years ago, he says he heard about a Snowy Owl that had temporarily stopped in New Hampshire. This was uncommon, Dorosh says, because Snowy Owls usually stay in the open frozen tundra of Canada and above. He knew that this was a “lifer” – similar to a birder’s version of a bucket list, something he had to see. So he planned an impromptu trip from New York to snow shoe and ski in New Hampshire, but mainly to see the owl.

*        *        *

In the late morning, the club spots a Great Blue Heron perched upon a tree branch above a small pond. It is a rather large bird that is a beautiful shade of grey that effervescently turns to a pale blue, or sometimes green. It has a pointy bill, yellow eyes and whitish feathers below its head that look like a long-hanging beard. Suddenly it drops to the water; it is hunting for fish. At this moment, someone exclaims, “There’s the red tail,” and the group turns its attention to a beautiful hawk floating back and forth, forth and back above the pond, without ever flapping its wings. The movement is hypnotic. The hawk winds left to right over and over again, but it does not pace the same area; each turn furthers the hawk along his journey.

Tom Stephenson (right) and Brooklyn Bird Club during peak migration season in Prospect Park (Photo Joe Deaux/The Brooklyn Ink)

Tom Stephenson (left) and Brooklyn Bird Club during peak migration season in Prospect Park (Photo Joe Deaux/The Brooklyn Ink)

A few joggers zip past the birders. Both parties are incredibly kind and accepting. Someone usually remains aware of the group’s position, and calls for them to mind the sidewalk when a pedestrian swoops through. Likewise, runners often squeak, “Bird watchers? Cool,” or give tips about a bird they spotted further up the path. Dogs also scramble past, but the birders have mixed feelings about canines. They loathe dogs without leashes, because as Stephenson says: “they stress the environment.” The dogs playfully chase birds, but this sends many birds into frenzy and forces them to scatter from a spot that may have been a fertile feeding ground. One man in a blue jacket jokes about the people who tell him “Don’t worry, my Pit bull is much friendlier than all the other Pit bulls.” But others do not seem fazed by the animals; when an unusually pudgy French Bulldog runs past with its owner, three or four of the birders begin to giggle with amusement, and say that he looks like one happy dog.

Around this time, the group loses several members who have to go to work. The group is not too diverse. Stephenson is a retired keyboard technician; the leader of today’s walk, Rob Bate, is also retired. One woman in the group who just left has been retired for ten years, and got into birding when she took a trip to South America. Another man, Stanley Greenberg, works as a freelance photographer and freed his morning so he could get out for the early northern migration spotting. That’s when Stephenson spots the Yellow-throated warbler. Though immersed in conversation, he has an incredible ability to multi-task.

His bird obsession involves sound more than sight: Birds have two types of sounds – a song, which is a long chirp, and a call, which is a shorter chirp, and in preparation for a birding trip to Bhutan, Stephenson memorized about 450 songs and calls. While he was there, the government had hired a group of researches to identify birds. Stephenson tagged along, and eventually the researchers became aware that he knew more than they did. The Bhutanese government asked Stephenson to come back to help research birds in the country. He returned with the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology and aided in the University’s research, which was funded by Bhutan’s government.

Glenn Phillips, of the New York City Audubon, says that the Brooklyn Bird Club makes it clear that they are “fiercely” independent from his nonprofit organization (and any other birding organization). New York City Audubon runs programs that encourage and enrich people on the advantages of birding, but they are also hugely active in conservation. They have a tight relationship with the city’s park service and advise them on matters that concern park forests (trees contain insects that feed the birds) and human impacts (like a shopping mall that Brooklyn borough wants to build next to Four Sparrow Marsh in Mill Basin). But he says birding is important because it raises awareness and increases knowledge of surrounding ecosystems. “[Birds] really do matter, they’re not just pretty things. They’re critical to our ecosystem.” The New York City Audubon and the Brooklyn Bird Club, though independent of one another, share the same goals, he says.

A week after they spotted the Yellow-throated warbler, the Club stands at the water, directly across from Terrace Bridge in Prospect Park. They are quiet and seem exhausted. Suddenly, a beautiful Black-crowned Night Heron – the back and the crown of its head are grayish-black, and it has a white under-belly and deep red eyes – swoops over the water in front of everyone. It glides east across the water and makes a smooth 160 degree turn and soars west as if to show off its grace and wingspan. The heron repeats this twice more. As it floats west the final time, it approaches a low-hanging tree that sprawls slightly above the water; simultaneously, the Red-tailed Hawk materializes by the same tree. The heron wails at the hawk, and the sound reverberates off the surrounding trees and water as he jerks westward beyond the tree line. The hawk shoots vertically and lingers above. Tom Stephenson turns and chuckles.

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In DUMBO, Cachet Trumps Convenience Fri, 27 May 2011 10:00:21 +0000 Elisabeth Anderson Independent shops and cafes, like this one, abound in DUMBO where there are no chain stores. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

Independent shops and cafes, like this one, abound in DUMBO where there are no chain stores. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

By Elisabeth Anderson

Phil Li, an executive from Park Slope, has a longer commute to his current job at a non-profit in DUMBO than to his previous one in midtown Manhattan.  And not unlike a mountaineer preparing for a climb, he always checks his gear before beginning the trek.

“Accessibility is an issue and that dovetails with convenience,” explained Li, 50, who is chief operating officer of the Brooklyn Community Foundation.  “For restaurants, retail options and the like, my worst nightmare is forgetting something that I need.  Running out to grab a birthday card or needing to fill a prescription become major endeavors up the hill into Brooklyn Heights.  Depending on what you’re looking for, you can be a 15 minute walk away from a Hallmark store or Duane Reade.”

It isn’t that DUMBO is lacking for retail business.  But it’s the oddball mix that has intrigued Li since he moved into his office at 45 Main St., in the heart of DUMBO’s historic district, two years ago.  “DUMBO does have an abundance of home furnishing and pet stores,” he said, “but that’s not really so helpful on a daily basis or for the average person who works here.

“From multiple pet supply stores and a veterinarian to a doggie day care center, you know who the ‘kids’ of DUMBO really are,” he continued.  45 Main is a dog-friendly building, and Li often observes pooches riding elevators along with suits.  He’d never seen anything like it in his 20 plus years of work in New York.  “The first time I saw it, I scratched my head and was wondering what was going on,” Li said.

Retail options in the neighborhood are limited. Peas & Pickles, the largest market in DUMBO, is one of the few places to carry greeting cards. Aliza Moorji/The Brooklyn Ink

Phil Li says retail options in the neighborhood are limited. Peas & Pickles, the largest market in DUMBO, is one of the few places to carry greeting cards. Aliza Moorji/The Brooklyn Ink

It’s just one of the head scratch-worthy realities for those who work or live in DUMBO, a neighborhood where a resident can pay upwards of $900 per square foot for the privilege of facing parking nightmares and having no proper supermarket, pharmacy, or school within its borders (DUMBO parents generally send them to school in neighboring Brooklyn Heights).

It isn’t all bad news.  Trains are okay – DUMBO is accessible by the F line at York Street and the A/C at High Street.  And the area boasts a post office plus two banks, Chase and Sovereign.

DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, stretches from Hudson Street to Fulton Street and from Prospect Street to John Street (the East River).  The neighborhood is situated between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and includes the area east of the Manhattan Bridge towards Vinegar Hill.

It originated as a transportation and manufacturing hub in the 1600s, and began to decline during the industrial downturn of the 1930s and ‘40s.  The private sector started to reinvest in DUMBO when artists moved in during the 1970s and early 1980s.  Developers began converting warehouses into residential lofts and commercial spaces, and independent small businesses soon followed.

A critical demographic shift began in the late 1990s, according to Michael Brown, a 29-year-old Brooklyn-based city planner who runs his own agency, MLB Planning.  The city, formerly reluctant to rezone the area for condo development, relented.  A residential rezoning was enacted in 1998, and 1 Main Street became the first development.  Warehouses and lofts got converted in droves, prices went up, and artist residents were squeezed out.

“I don’t know how much more expensive DUMBO can get,” Brown said, citing the ubiquity of condo listings in the $1-2 million range.  “I don’t know many artists that can afford those prices.”  DUMBO ushered in a young, yuppie crowd.  Some are young families, but many have no kids.  Brown calls what’s happened in DUMBO “the typical cycle of gentrification.”  He thinks the same process is underway in Gowanus, and that Red Hook may be next.

Old and new have merged in the past decade, as highrise condos have risen throughout the neighborhood. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

Old and new have merged in the past decade, as highrise condos have risen throughout the neighborhood. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

With gentrification in DUMBO has come a huge population surge.  According to new census estimates, New Yorkers seem to be favoring neighborhoods that offer French pastry shops, funky clothiers, and waterfront and recreational amenities (Brooklyn Bride Park’s final renovation stage will end this summer) over the basics.  DUMBO’s population has more than tripled in the past decade, to more than 3,600 today.  “You’ve got to look at market forces,” Brown said.  “The reason the demographics have changed is because it’s become a desirable place to be.”

Oh, and there’s one other factor keeping the DUMBO real estate market hot.  “The most coveted amenity you get in DUMBO is a great view,” explained Eric Fleming, a vice president at The Corcoran Group who negotiates many sales in the neighborhood.  “If a unit has a protected river and city view, you can expect that unit to command a much higher price than a unit without,” he said.  Condos in established buildings typically sell for around $800-900 per square foot, and “the trophy units can go for much higher.”

Fleming added that the converted loft layouts of many units are also appealing.  “You don’t see as many typical one-bedrooms as you would in Manhattan,” he said.  “Proportionally, the units are much larger.”

He also says that prices are stable but “inventory is in extremely short supply.”  There are only about 10 or so condominiums to choose from, and “there’s not a lot being constructed in the DUMBO historic district aside from the Two Trees Dock Street project which has been on the table for a few years.”  Development is spilling over in adjacent Vinegar Hill, where one new condo just opened and three more are in the works.

Rentals are few and far between. “I’d say the ratio is about two to one condo to rental,” Fleming said.  According to city planner Brown, the cost of construction and tight lending environment make it undesirable for builders to develop rental properties.

Dogs on leashes and babies in strollers are a common sight. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

Dogs on leashes and babies in strollers are a common sight. Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink

Amanda Butler, a 32-year-old footwear designer for Cole Haan, has lived in the neighborhood with her husband Darren for five and a half years.  They were among the first residents to move into their building, 70 Washington St., where they own a one bedroom condo.  “In 13 years of living in several different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, this, more than any other, feels like a true neighborhood,” Butler said.  Even though the artists have largely left, she loves the “artsy feel,” enjoying First Thursdays gallery walks and the fall DUMBO Arts Festival.

Still, she conceded, “The lack of a true supermarket is a challenge.”  While the two biggest grocery stores in the neighborhood, Peas & Pickles and Foragers generally have what she needs, “that comes at a price.”  And when she throws a dinner party, she usually needs to order from FreshDirect or rent a Zipcar to get to Fairway in Red Hook.

City planner Brown said upwardly-mobile DUMBO residents don’t mind sacrificing convenience for cachet.  When home is a DUMBO apartment with a panoramic view, they are willing to pick things up in Manhattan on their way home from work, or pay to have groceries and prescriptions delivered.

Butler said she doesn’t mind using a mom and pop drugstore on Jay Street in Brooklyn Heights, which delivers.  In fact, she’d rather support them than a chain.  Still, she does dream of the day a proper supermarket comes to town, though she’s not sure DUMBO residents would provide the volume to sustain one.  “It would be amazing to have a supermarket like Whole Foods or Trader Joes,” she said.

Pricey groceries are available at relatively small grocers like Peas & Pickles. Aliza Moorji/The Brooklyn Ink

Pricey groceries are available at relatively small grocers like Peas & Pickles. Aliza Moorji/The Brooklyn Ink

When Ellen Salpeter moved to DUMBO in 1986, you could barely get Chinese takeout, let alone organic produce.  Residents like Butler have replaced ones like Salpeter, the 50-year-old director of Heart of Brooklyn, a partnership of cultural institutions including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Brooklyn Museum.  Salpeter, who lived in an unrenovated DUMBO loft from 1986 to 1997, recalls a very different neighborhood.  “There were no chocolate shops or dry cleaners,” she said.  “You could get rice and beans and the Post.”

Salpeter remembers a neighborhood brimming with artists like herself, and factory workers.  In the late 1980s, she said nobody rode the subway after 9 p.m., and car services were afraid to go to DUMBO.  There was just one takeout place, a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, that was willing to deliver dinner to her door.

But for her the grit was part of the appeal.  “It was great because it was isolated,” Salpeter said.  “Very Dickensian feeling to the streets.”

Today those streets are no longer gritty, but the cobblestones are in need of repair.  According to Alexandria Sica, the 31-year-old executive director of the DUMBO Improvement District, the city hasn’t kept pace maintaining the streets.  Two streets have been restored, and the District is advocating for the $60 million needed to take care of the rest.

Sica’s proud of the work her group is doing to restore the neighborhood’s historic elements, manage community spaces and programming, and encourage digital and creative businesses to set up shop.  In five years, she envisions DUMBO as a “bigger and better version of what it is now,” she said.  “I actually think we want more people.”

Perhaps she’ll be one of them.  Asked whether she lives in the neighborhood, Sica replied “I don’t.  But of course I’d like to.”

According to city planner Brown, the increased flow of residents is likely to cause significant changes in the next five years.  On the commercial front, he foresees a lot of turnover among older businesses, as landlords squeeze out small firms using shared workspaces in favor of larger, better established companies.

Among residents, Brown thinks they may well drum up demand for a school, and for a supermarket.  “People are going to want to stop grabbing a Zipcar everytime they go pick up a gallon of milk,” Brown mused.  Of a big market, “I think it’ll take away from the character of the neighborhood.  But that won’t stop it.”

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VIDEO: Growing Cigarettes Wed, 25 May 2011 10:00:47 +0000 Amaris Castillo By Amaris Castillo

The process begins with seeds – microscopic in size. Audrey Silk, a retired police officer, plants the tobacco seeds in trays inside her Brooklyn home. “If you want a good tasting leaf in the end, it needs to be done properly,” she says.

Growing tobacco to make cigarettes was something Audrey Silk did for herself. Only a few people knew. “I didn’t advocate it or publicize it,” she says. She planted her first crop in 2009. Silk says it’s really not much to take care of the plants.

“Just water them,” she says. “Watch them.”

Within six weeks, the tobacco plants are about two inches high and ready to leave Silk’s home. They’re planted in buckets in her backyard. Once the leaves turn yellow, Silk picks them and washes them in her kitchen sink. They’re then hung to dry in her dog Bingo’s bathtub – downstairs.

Creaky wooden stairs lead to Silk’s basement, a dim room where she hangs the tobacco leaves after they’ve dripped dried. The leaves hang on wire lines that run across the basement ceiling.

“What you do is you string it like popcorn on Christmas, for a Christmas tree,” Silk says.

After the leaves have been dried and stored in a dark place, Silk says she needs to return them to a pliable state. You don’t crumple a leaf. “It’s like ‘Ok, once a leaf is dry, you make a cigarette’,” she says. “No – it won’t work that way.” A cigarette will not stay lit with just crumpled leaves.

She removes the main vein from each tobacco leaf and stacks them into a brick mold. The leaves are compressed into a brick shape and cut into quarters for shredding. That way, she adds, the cigarette will have a constant burn.

Earlier this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a ban on smoking in city parks, beaches, public plazas and boardwalks. That was the piece of legislation that pushed Silk to go public about her tobacco growing. No law prohibits New Yorkers from growing tobacco for personal consumption.

“It’s so much work I don’t have any intent on selling it,” she says. “I need it for my own.”

Silk believes that the increased taxation on cigarettes in recent years is being used as a coercive method to try to get smokers to change their behavior.

“We’re not saying people should smoke, we’re just defending the rights of people who’ve already chosen to smoke,” she says. “We don’t encourage people to smoke, we don’t encourage them to quit.”

Silk doesn’t deny there’s a risk for smoking. “I think it’s been exaggerated but there is definitely a risk,” she says. She just wants people to make their own decisions.

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Brooklyn Brides United Wed, 18 May 2011 10:00:33 +0000 Elisabeth Anderson Gowns line the walls at Monica's Bridal in Sheepshead Bay (Photo: Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink)

Gowns line the walls at Monica's Bridal in Sheepshead Bay (Photo: Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Elisabeth Anderson

This October, Mike and I are getting married.

Our ceremony will take place at a sweet, old church on Long Island, and will be performed by an equally sweet and old Irish priest who comes complete with an out-of-central-casting brogue.  Then, 180 of our nearest and dearest will descend upon a former Guggenheim estate overlooking the Long Island Sound for the requisite feast and merriment.

It will be the wedding of my mother’s dreams.

But lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the sisterhood of brides-in-waiting that exists not in the world where I grew up, but in the place where I work—Brooklyn.

I have begun to imagine a prototypical Brooklyn bride—if only as a counterpoint to the sort of bride I am about to be.  No such bride, of course, exists.  There a lot of married women in Brooklyn—more than 400,000 in 2009, or 36.8% of the adult female population—up from just shy of 388,000 four years before.  Multiply the newlyweds in that group with the myriad options for vendors and services, and you get a sum nearing infinity.  Brooklyn weddings come in many shapes and varieties.

Still, I began to wonder what all those many Brooklyn brides had in common, what experiences they shared that made being a Brooklyn bride different than a bride like me.  In picking a caterer alone, a bride has more than 300 Brooklyn-based choices.  Same goes for florists.  A venue?  The options go on forever, especially if you include “my friend’s loft” and “my favorite restaurant” among the options.

But as I was about to discover, there are things they share—caterers, gown makers, florists. And possibly something more: a mindset. If I couldn’t be a Brooklyn bride, I could at least explore what that means, and imagine the possibilities.

The Brooklyn Bride Blog is a one-stop-shop for vendors and information. (Image: The Brooklyn Bride Blog)

The Brooklyn Bride Blog is a one-stop-shop for vendors and information. (Image: The Brooklyn Bride Blog)

Boerum Hill-based Vane Broussard, an interior designer by day, sees brides of all stripes frequenting some of the same high-quality vendors.  Vane, who edits the Brooklyn Bride Blog, says Prospect Park Boathouse and Brooklyn Bridge Park are classic choices for venue.  Blossom & Branch and Quatre Coeur for flowers.  Kiss the Bride Films for videography.  Cakes from Sweet Melissa.  Invitations from Lion in the Sun.  Catering by Cobblestone and Abigail Kirsch.

Local wedding planner Carmella Dellaporte said her brides love Brooklyn-based Ethan Hernandez’s photography, along with J’Adore Photography.

She also said she’s seeing a common trend in how Brooklyn brides approach their weddings. “You don’t see a lot of the frill,” explained 49-year-old Carmella, who owns Crown Jewel Events, which has an office on the border of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.  “With the economy, it’s been going to a DIY trend,” she said.  Many of her brides are doing things like making their own favors, or even giving donations to charity in lieu of favors.

Brides-to-be can get lots of DIY ideas over on Vane’s site.  Which leads me to one of the big common threads among Brooklyn brides…

They study the Brooklyn Bride Bible—I mean, Blog.

Vane started her site in April 2007 “as an online scrapbook of ideas for planning my own wedding,” she said.  “I did notice that there was very little in the way of modern inspiration out there, so I figured maybe some people could use what I’d collected over the years for their own weddings.”

It struck a cord with all sorts of Brooklyn brides.  Her blog currently gets as many as 40,000 unique visitors a month.

Vane thinks her readers appreciate the hyperlocal Brooklyn lens she puts on her content.  They know she gets it, and shares their mindset.  “I think you can tell a Brooklyn wedding from miles away because Brooklyn couples really seem to love using Brooklyn vendors, and overall the aesthetic is a bit edgier,” Vane said.  “We are fiercely loyal to our borough.  We love our landmarks and want to feature all the hidden gems our area has to offer, whether it be an amazing florist or little-known favorite restaurant.”

Vane likes Brooklyn weddings that “incorporate bits of the borough in different ways.”  At her wedding, she had Brooklyn Bridge-shaped cookies for her out-of-town guests and packs of Brooklyn gum to hand out.

The biggest trend she sees right now is vintage.  “We’re lucky because we have places like that vintage subway car down in Red Hook or the gorgeous townhouses of Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene to have photos taken at,” she said.  She sees grooms “looking very Mad Men-ish” and brides wearing stoles and vintage dresses.  “It’s all very romantic,” she said.

Vane’s number one piece of advice for Brooklyn brides is to figure out wedding priorities before doing anything else.  “Are the photos going to be most important to you?  Or serving crazy good food to your guests?  It will help you establish what you’re willing to spend and where you can cut corners,” she said.  “If you want to stay really true to Brooklyn, find great Brooklyn-based vendors and ask for their own recommendations of other vendors and locations they’ve worked with before.  If you can get a great team assembled that you trust, you’ll be golden!”  Vane has an extensive list of Brooklyn vendors on her site.

They go to Monica’s.

I learned that you have not planned your Brooklyn wedding until you’ve taken the Q train to Sheepshead Bay to go dress shopping at Monica’s Bridal, a glittering palace of bridal bliss.  Of course I had to check it out, for research purposes.

As I pushed through the grand, brass-handled double doors, I was greeted in a reception area fancy enough to host a cocktail party in.  Gold and green plush sofas and chairs dotted the marble floor.  A flat screen TV airing bridal runway shows hung over the antique reception desk.  Two bridal gowns on mannequins decorated the back corners of the space, until a consultant removed one—a sparkly, corseted ballgown—for a client to try on.

A mother and daughter, waiting for their appointment, approached the desk.  The daughter wanted to know if she could print out a picture of a dress she liked, to show her consultant.  Co-owner Monica Nikchemny, 24, appeared and said, “of course.”

Monica sells thousands of bridal gowns every year.  Prices start in the $1,200-$1,500 range, and go up to “the sky’s the limit,” Monica said.  Fall and winter are the busiest seasons for sales.  The average dress takes six to eight months to come in after being ordered, and spring and summer are the most popular seasons for weddings.

Syrians, Moroccans, and Lebanese girls from the Ocean Parkway area make up a considerable amount of the clientele.  Of course, Sheepshead Bay Russians are a given.  But Monica also sees Italians from Bay Ridge, and “a lot of Manhattan brides who can’t find what they are looking for in the city,” she said.  She’s even had international brides from Spain, Italy, and Russia who learned about Monica’s on the internet.

One of Monica’s most important roles at the salon is designing a private label of gowns, approximately 20 a year.  The FIT fashion design graduate says using the finest materials is a must-do.  “We use the best fabrics, the best crystals – all Swarovski.”

But Monica’s job extends far beyond the private label.  “I do everything.  I talk to the brides, I do orders,” Monica explained.  “Managing, designing, everything A to Z.”

“But I’m not alone in this, I have help!” she continued.

Monica Nikchemny poses with her grandmother (left) and mother (center). (Photo courtesy Monica Nikchemny)

Monica Nikchemny poses with her grandmother (left) and mother (center). (Photo courtesy Monica Nikchemny)

That she does.  Monica’s is a three-generation family-owned and run business.  Her grandmother Simona runs the alterations department.  Her mother, Liliana, is in charge of the custom department. Her father, David, a builder and developer, built the salon’s new 10,000 square foot boutique space three years ago.  Her older brother, Lawrence, takes care of technology and marketing.

Referral business is big.  “My mom is now doing weddings for people’s grandkids,” Monica said.  “With my parents emigration, they are the first Russian Ashkenazi bridal business in the area in Brooklyn.  The fact that we’ve stood while so many places have opened and closed, it says something.”

The Monica’s story began in Odessa, Ukraine.  Simona was a designer and seamstress there, and Liliana attended design school.  Simona, Liliana, and David emigrated and settled in Brooklyn.  Simona and Liliana started working for McCalls and Vogue Patterns in the 1980s, and opened an Italian clothing store two storefronts down from the current Monica’s location in 1982.  The business took a hit when the stock market crashed in 1987, and the family decided to reconceptualize it; their expertise in Ukraine had been bridal and eveningwear, so they decided to go back to what they knew and loved.

“At the time my mother was pregnant with me,” Monica explained.  “And they hoped I would join them one day, which I eventually did.”  Liliana and David named the new boutique after their newborn daughter.  Monica says her family would have been supportive no matter what career she chose.  But the petite, pretty brunette knew fairly early that she shared a passion for the family business.  She attended a specialized art middle school and the fashion program at Edward R. Murrow High School before attending FIT.

Monica understands why finding the right dress is so important for her Brooklyn brides.  “Every girl, whether they want to admit it or not, has that fantasy about her wedding,” she said.  “The dress basically sets the tone.”

Right now, Monica is seeing two extremes as far as Brooklyn bridal looks go.  “Either huge and over the top, the biggest dress you can find with the most glitz on it, or a lacy, mermaid or trumpet style,” she explained.  “There’s no A-line,” she said of the style with a modestly-full skirt.  “Basically go big or go home.”

As for accessories, earrings and bracelets are outpacing necklaces. For Brooklyn brides doing headpieces, tiaras are out.  “If they do a headpiece, it’s short and flat.  And everyone loves a cathedral veil,” she said of the long, floor-sweeping design.

Monica has a knack for predicting trends; a Brooklyn girl herself, she knows what her counterparts like.  “I became very sick of drop-waisted gowns,” Monica said.  “I needed natural-waisted,” and she started designing more gowns in that style.  “Now everything is natural waisted!”

Sometimes, Monica says, one dress isn’t enough.  Many brides are buying a dramatic gown for their ceremony, and a short or mermaid party dress for their reception.  Her Syrian customers have a traditional send-off at their weddings, so they often buy a going away outfit—either a skirt suit or little dress; these are usually accompanied by “a hat and gloves, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Monica said.

The reporter poses in a St. Patrick mermaid-style design at Monica's. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

The reporter poses in a St. Patrick mermaid-style design at Monica's. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

Monica’s prides itself on customer service, and lets brides-to-be take an hour and a half to two hours trying on dresses.  And on the day of my visit, I got to be one of them.

Monica first brought me a bestseller that she said would flatter my petite frame.  The $1,200 mermaid style gown by St. Patrick featured a strapless, sweetheart neckline, a beaded, lacy bodice, and ruffled bottom.  She described the dress as “simple for our store.”

I always get bashful at this point, getting down to my skivvies.  “This is where we become friends,” Monica said with a smile.  She helped me step into a petticoat and then into the dress, clipping the back for a snug fit.  She added a beaded, sparkly hair clip to complete the look.  I felt very va-va-voom, the silhouette hugging the curves I have and adding a few new ones.

Next Monica put me into another petticoat and then one of her private label designs, a full silk ballgown with a strapless, sweetheart bodice made entirely of crystals.  She helped me carry the skirt as we walked out of my fitting room and onto a pedestal surrounded by mirrors.  She clipped a billowy, cathedral-length tulle veil into my hair.

The reporter wears a ballgown from Monica's private label. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

The reporter wears a ballgown from Monica's private label. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

I had transformed from me, to a mod Marilyn Monroe, to Cinderella, back to me again.  It’s these transformations, happening throughout her salon each day, that keep Monica’s appointment calendar full.

They pay homage to the borough they love – no matter where the wedding is.

The Brooklyn bridal mindset didn’t fully click for me until I spent time with Justina Lopez, a 24-year-old attorney from Prospect Heights who met, fell in love with, and got engaged to her fiancé Sam in Brooklyn.  She’s throwing the ultimate Brooklyn wedding, except for one detail—the wedding itself will take place at Chateau Briand on Long Island (on October 22nd – the same day as me!).

“I joke around with people that until I went to law school I never really left Brooklyn,” Justina said.  “And I wanted my reception in Brooklyn.”  But her dream venue, the Brooklyn Museum, was out of her budget.  She found a similar vibe for less dough on Long Island.

“A big part of my Brooklyn experience has been my community of faith,” said Justina, who is Protestant.  “We’re literally transporting that there. My wedding is Brooklyn in that it’s going to be ‘you’re at a big, fabulous feast with your community.”

I made a mental note. Part of being a Brooklyn bride means not being afraid to break the rules.

To wit, Justina helped Sam, a 24-year-old corporate lawyer she met on the first day of freshmen orientation at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College, to get out with his proposal in October 2010. Sam surprised Justina after work on a Wednesday with a tour of his childhood neighborhood, Williamsburg, where he still lives. “I found out he was stalling me because he had made reservations,” Justina recalled.

They showed up at Bino on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens to find the restaurant completely empty and candlelit. “We ordered appetizers, the main course, and still nothing,” Justina said. “Then I basically blurted out ‘are we getting engaged tonight?  What are you waiting for?’”

Sam proposed.

Justina & Sam: A Brooklyn love story (Photo courtesy Justina Lopez)

Justina & Sam: A Brooklyn love story (Photo courtesy Justina Lopez)

Justina went into turbo-planning mode, putting together her wedding in three months flat.  After booking a venue in October, she bought her dress and booked her band in November.  The bridesmaid dresses were purchased in December.

This type of get-it-done planning is common among busy, career-focused Brooklyn brides.

“I’m super-organized,” said Justina, who graduated with an honors degree from St. Francis College before going on to Fordham Law School.  Now she prosecutes abuse and neglect cases as an attorney for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  Like her self-aware fellow Brooklyn brides, Justina said  “I know what I want, what I’m looking for.”

She was looking for, among other things, a chuppah, the canopy beneath which Jewish weddings are performed.  “I am not Jewish,” Justina explained,  “But I was obsessed with the idea of having a chuppah.”  And so the bride, whose mom is African American and dad is Dominican, will have her chuppah.  Her dad, an associate pastor at the church she grew up in, will officiate at Chateau Briand.

Justina is also defying tradition by having a morning wedding.  “The vibe for the reception is going to feel like a jazz brunch,” she said.  “Our wedding is focused on our family,” she explained, and the earlier timeframe will make it more enjoyable for those among her relatives who are elderly.

Before the wedding, of course, comes the bridal shower.  Justina’s three Brooklyn-based bridesmaids are planning a September women’s-only tea party at the Brooklyn Marriott.  “It may or may not include hats,” Justina mused.  “I haven’t decided yet.”  Because her wedding cake comes included with her venue, Justina wanted to pick a Brooklyn bakery to do her shower cake.  Angela’s in Bushwick will make a Dominican cake with tres leche filling.

Like other brides-to-be in the borough, Justina is amazed at how localized her planning process feels.  Her wedding photographer lives around the corner from Angela’s Bakery, and Angela’s owner’s daughter went to school with the photographer.  The photographer introduced Justina to her videographers, a husband-and-wife team who also live in Brooklyn.  “It feels,” Justina said, “like I am planning my wedding in the neighborhood.”

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Letter From Canarsie: Choosing to Stay Mon, 16 May 2011 04:59:24 +0000 Lillian Rizzo By Lillian Rizzo


The Beneduces bought out Kenny's on Avenue L 15 years ago and turned it into Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

Three weeks ago John Beneduce had a stroke and his son was faced with a choice: to sell the family business or not. In 1997 the elder Beneduce, who is now 59-years-old, had bought Kenny’s, a Woolworth’s-type store in Canarsie, and renamed it Big John’s Department Store. Although the sign out front changed, the store, on Avenue L and 93rd Street remained the same.

Beneduce, his wife and son, also named John, have lived in Canarsie all their lives. They lived on Rockaway Parkway and Avenue M and walked to work. The younger John Beneduce, 30-years-old, a personal trainer and professional fighter, had no intention of running the store. He’d work there two days a week just so his father could have a few days off. Otherwise, he had little interest in what inventory to order, where to stock goods, or his customers.

But now, with his father ill, he is left to run the store, alone. He is glued to the front counter. He had thought he would sell the place. He said he would. In fact, outside, next to the Big John’s sign is a bright blue For Sale poster.

But then one night after closing, he took a walk around the 6,000-square-feet and had a change of heart. He decided he would keep the store alive. But it would not be his father’s Big John’s. It would be different.

You could see the difference as soon as you walked in. “You notice there aren’t any chairs up here, right?” he asked. There are no chairs at all — just different products strewn about in the front of the aisles and a newspaper stand with the Canarsie Courier posted up and the New York Daily News and New York Post underneath. Although the chairs are absent, the store still looks relatively the same. The aisles are wide and on the right of the store there are lots of tools and household goods, to the left are some clothes, hair products and cosmetics. The ceilings are high and the store is big and spacious.

The chairs were for the elderly Italian and Jewish people who would come into Big John’s everyday to sit and chat with his father. They never bought anything; they just reminisced. But now if they want to sit and schmooze they have to go someplace else.

Like Big John’s, Canarsie is a different place than the neighborhood when Beneduce grew up. Its population, once largely Jewish and Italian, is now made up mostly of African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean. Unlike many of their older neighbors, the Beneduces did not move to Staten Island, Long Island or New Jersey. They stayed, like the customers for whom he no longer provides seating. Unlike his older customers, Beneduce isn’t preoccupied with the past.

“I don’t do that, I only reminisce about when business was better,” he said. Between the economy woes of the past three years and the neighborhood’s changing demographics, Big John’s has taken a real hit. Beneduce says that many of Canarsie’s newer residents shop elsewhere.

“They don’t buy anything here and they send a lot of their money back to the islands where their families still are,” he said. He also noticed that many are gravitating toward the shops on Rockaway Parkway, near the L train station.

“Where do you normally shop?” Beneduce asked a customer at the counter. She had long black braids tied into a ponytail and was handing over three dollar bills for the hair product she bought. She admitted she went to Rockaway Parkway more often because the L train was there. Beneduce handed her the change and asked about the products she would like to see in the store.

Then again, just a few weeks ago Beneduce had no intention of getting to know his customers or asking their opinions about what new products to carry. His family owns this property as well as the store on the corner of 94th Street, adjacent to Big John’s. It used to be a pizzeria but was closed shortly after opening.

Then, he said, recalling the night he walked around the store, “I fell back in love with it.” He decided against selling. He would try to revive Big John’s. His decision mirrors the way he feels about Canarsie. Whenever he has doubts about the neighborhood he walks a few blocks and knows he doesn’t want to leave.

The corner of Avenue L near Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

The corner of Avenue L near Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

And though he has taken away the chairs at the front, he cannot keep the old timers away. One of them, a towering man in his mid-60s named Freddy, walked in the other day and loudly asked Beneduce how his father was and about the store. He gossiped for a bit about another store regular and nodded his head when Beneduce said he wouldn’t be the same as his father. Freddy lingered for a few minutes before heading out the door and across the street to Country Butcher, which used to be Meats Supreme. He hadn’t bought anything at Big John’s.

Soon after an older woman with dry blonde hair walked into Big John’s, wheezing and walking a small dog. Beneduce petted the dog and she scanned the store.

“I am so tired, I wish I could sit,” she said before pulling out a bag of 20 quarters, ready to exchange them for bills.

Beneduce told her he didn’t keep seats out in front anymore but would get her one if needed it.

She declined and asked for the cash, telling him she had 20 quarters and he could count and check.

He took the coins but told her he didn’t need to count them – he trusted her.

“Your father would have counted,” she said, and then asked about his father’s health. She left with her cash and told Beneduce she was going to walk all the way back home.

These are the routines that now shape Beneduce’s days: the same people stop in everyday, chat and don’t buy anything.  There are even days when his old friends who moved away come back to talk about old times.

“A lot of people come back and say they miss it here, but I’m not a big fan of that,” said Beneduce. “Don’t leave then if you still like it. Or don’t come back and say you miss it.”

Big John’s is not the only older establishment on Avenue L. Original’s Pizza is between 95th and 96th Streets and has been there since 1970. What used to be a small pizzeria with a lot of local competition is now one of the few places to grab a slice. A few blocks away, Sunshine Scizzors has been standing just as long. But now it’s only open two to three days a week now. “Whenever they are open you see all the white people come back to Avenue L,” said Beneduce.

He works with only two other people at Big John’s — Tito who’s worked there for about 15 years and Janet has been there since it was Kenny’s. They work the floor mostly and help the customers out but they also have friends who often stop in to talk.

Even though most of his childhood friends don’t live in Canarsie anymore– he can count the remaining few on one hand– Beneduce still sees himself in the neighborhood in the future.  About 10 years ago he met his wife, Tami, while working at the store. She walked in and spilled some coffee but helped clean it up.

“We were together seven years after that and then three years ago we got married,” he said. “There’s no other place like Canarsie in Brooklyn, it has that suburban feel that no other place has.”

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Brooklyn’s Fading Catholic Churches Fri, 13 May 2011 12:34:20 +0000 jbw2134 By Gonzague Leroux

By Gonzague Leroux

By Jeremy B. White

On Good Friday, churches across Brooklyn vibrated with activity as clergy prepared for what would be perhaps the busiest weekend of the year. But not all of them.

The Church of St. Edward the Confessor had the closed-off, forbidding look of a medieval castle. Overcast skies hung low over the Fort Greene church’s twin spires, both topped with rust-green crosses. The church’s gate was locked. Beneath a flowering tree in front of the church sat a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, its paint cracked and chipped, with what was once a beckoning hand snapped off. A handwritten sign noted that “We Are No Longer Accepting Clothing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses both Queens and Brooklyn, is in the midst of a sweeping remake as it struggles to cope with plummeting attendance and depleted coffers. So far, six parishes have been folded into neighboring parishes in an effort to pool resources, and two churches have been closed outright. St. Edward is one of those two.

“I don’t know anyone who went there,” an Ingersoll Houses resident said, skeptically glancing up at the church. Behind him rose the glittering glass skyscrapers of a new apartment complex, a sign of the gentrification that is helping to replace the old base of parishioners as they migrate out of Brooklyn.

But St. Edward’s is not totally abandoned. A woman in red sweater and grey slacks answers a knock on a small side door. Her name is Laetitia Palluat, and she is part of a small group of French missionaries from the Heart’s Home order.

“There’s still a presence of the Catholic church here,” she said softly, perched on a chair and fingering a small string of rosary beads. Her tone was hushed, almost reverent, matching the silence reigning in the small quarters where she lives with seven others. Palluat said that a few of the faithful still come, though their visits are rare. She does not dispute the bishop’s decision to close St. Edward’s.

“The church is falling apart,” she said. “It’s obvious we could not stay open.”

Our Lady of Montserrate, the other closed church, is a far simpler structure than St. Edward. The Bushwick church is a small red brick building that, if not for crosses on the door and a small Virgin Mary in a glass case, would be indistinguishable from the homes on Vernon Avenue. At 2:10 on Good Friday only one of six parking spots labeled “priest” was occupied. A sign on the locked door redirected people to 115 Throop, the location of the All Saints Church.

There, the entire block bordering All Saints was closed off. A solemn procession moved slowly down the street, singing mournfully in Spanish. Priests in flowing robes walked alongside women with canes, baby strollers, and teens in hooded sweatshirts.

All Saints must absorb the former parishioners of Our Lady of Montserrate, and it seemed capable: the interior featured a church huge vaulted ceiling supported by green marble pillars, and ornate stained glass windows lined the walls. A small sign near the entrance greeted the new flock, and posted next to it was a sign with a quote from the Bible:

“I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and no disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.”


“I lead the diocese in mergers and acquisitions,” Father Bob Vitaglione said. “I call this mergers and acquisitions because they merge the parish and I acquire more work.”

Vitaglione, a large man with a swoop of grey hair and a throaty growl of a voice, was sitting in his office at Sacred Heart church. Sacred Heart and St. Edward comprised a parish that merged with another parish after St. Edward closed, and Vitaglione is in charge of the new parish.

The moves to shrink the diocese and consolidate resources, Vitaglione said, have been a long time coming. Traditionally Catholic populations are moving out, replaced by people who do not tend to be churchgoers — “pardon the ethnic reference, but they’re yuppies,” Vitaglione said — and by first generation immigrants who tend to be less affluent and have less money to donate to the church, which relies heavily on such largesse.

“It’s just going to be a lot more work,” he said.

Diocese leaders cited closely intertwined demographic and financial trends in announcing the reconfiguration of the diocese, which is examining all 198 of its parishes. Mass attendance decreased by about 43,000 people between 1999 and 2009, with parishes using about 35% of their seating at the average mass. This was propelled in large part by Catholics abandoning Brooklyn for the New York suburbs or, increasingly, the South.

In 2000, the diocese forgave $119 million in debt owed by parishes in schools, but since then they have accumulated another $21.8 million in debt as the diocese’s total assets declined by $111.6 million. Much of these financial woes stem from a decline in local contributions from parishioners, a key source of revenue for the church.

While the scale of the plans to shrink the parish are unprecedented, its financial struggles are not new. Paul Moses, a professor at Brooklyn College who reported for years on the Catholic church in New York, traced the decline back to a 1957 decision to make Nassau and Suffolk counties, then part of the Brooklyn diocese, into their own diocese. The Brooklyn diocese is thus completely urban, lacking the support of wealthy suburban parishes.

“The current Bishop of Brooklyn Diocese, Nicholas DiMarzio “has made a radical decision, which is that the diocese cannot afford to subsidize other parishes,”  Moses said. “Before that the diocese always found a way to assist the parishes in the poor neighborhoods.”

The church remains rich in one type of asset: property. Moses noted that many churches were originally built exclusively for different ethnicities, leading to a surplus in churches. Maintaining these churches can be expensive — someone familiar with the diocese restructuring said people had floated the idea of parishes letting some churches go dormant to avoid having to pay utilities.

But the vacated churches can be lucrative, as well. Moses said he has already seen a “a lot of movement of real estate,” with parishes leasing land to secular institutions like charter schools who could use the space in a city where real estate is coveted.

“They don’t want one of their buildings to be used to do something scandalous,” Moses said. “They wouldn’t want one of their buildings to be used for something that would contradict church doctrine, like distributing birth control.”


St Edward the Confessor occupies a large plot of land, but, as Vitaglione points out, the church building has limited uses beyond its religious function. He said Steiner Studios explored a deal to rent the land but eventually backed out.

This means that the Hearts Home mission remains there, conducting daily mass in a tiny chapel and reaching out to Brooklynites. Father Gonzague Leroux, a mild man with small wire glasses, explained the order’s work in a small room furnished with a couple of chairs, a couch and a large television. A bookcase contained DVD’s running from Passion of the Christ and What Dreams May Come to Little Ms. Sunshine; the book collection encompassed C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen.

Fifteen years ago, Leroux had just completed a master’s degree in biology and was preparing to work as a biologist when, he said, he was “called by Christ.” He was ordained and moved to Kazakhstan, one of the 21 countries where Heart’s Home has a presence. In 2005, he moved to the Bronx, where Heart’s Home’s New York branch was located before it migrated to St. Edward’s in 2008.

“We heard Mother Theresa telling us that New York City is a city most in need of compassion,” Leroux said. “The suffering here can be deeper than that in a very poor slum — it is the suffering of loneliness.”

Most of Leroux’s work occurs outside St. Edward, visiting homeless shelters, housing projects and nursing homes or traveling to pray over the elderly. He said the church closed partially because the parish could not pay for direly needed repairs — for three years, they had been forced  to hold mass in the basement — and partially because the 50 or so parishioners who would regularly attend service were not enough to sustain the church.

“I believe truly the bishop tries to do the best with factors we don’t control,” Leroux said. “With 50 people in the community you can’t make a living.”

Leroux glanced at his watch and announced he had to visit someone before the 12:15 mass. He grabbed a small ziploc bag containing a bottle of yellow liquid labeled “Oil of the Sick.” In an adjoining room, the table was set for lunch with simple white plates.

“The neighborhood has changed tremendously in three years,” Leroux said as he walked, noting an influx of Asian and white residents. He was going to visit a woman named Sixta Rivera, a 72-year-old Parkinson’s sufferer whose husband had died a few years ago. He arrived at the woman’s apartment complex and rang the buzzer.

“It’s Father Gonzague,” he said.

“What?” a voice responded.

“It’s the church,” Leroux said. The door opened.

Leroux greeted Rivera and an aide in Spanish, noting that her hand was shaking less than the previous time he had visited. He donned a white alb as Rivera settled into a yellow chair encased in plastic wrap.

Leroux began reading prayers in alternating English and Spanish, explaining that the oil was blessed by the Bishop and that Rivera was partaking of the suffering of Christ “to assure you that all your suffering, all your disease is not meaningless.”

Rivera gazed at him raptly as she listened. He touched the oil to her forehead, then did the same for her upturned palms- — she began to convulse violently, then subdued herself after a few seconds. Leroux finished his prayer, then begged his leave. Soon, he would need to lead mass. Rivera rose and accompanied him to the door.

“Muchos gracias, padre,” she murmured.

Front page photo: AP

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Brooklyn’s Battle of the Drumlines (Video) Tue, 10 May 2011 13:15:21 +0000 Aliza Moorji By Kim Chakanetsa, Aliza Moorji, Melanie Brisbon

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Blogging about Brooklyn’s Natural World Mon, 09 May 2011 18:51:01 +0000 Audrey Yoo

Meet “nature proselytizer” Matthew Wills, who runs the blog Backyard and Beyond.

Produced by Ivana Kottasová and Audrey Yoo.

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Businesswoman by day, blogger by night Mon, 09 May 2011 18:50:19 +0000 Muhammad Bilal Lakhani Jenna Park with her two daughters.

Jenna Park with her two daughters.

By Aliza Moorji and Bilal Lakhani

This is a story about a Brooklyn mother discovering a digital solution to the age-old problems of loneliness and economic reinvention.

Jenna Park, a mother of two girls, runs a bakery with her husband Mark. But her true calling lies elsewhere: Jenna is also a prolific Brooklyn blogger with an audience of 3000 readers a day.

“I definitely don’t hold back,” says Park, who was caught off guard when readers began stopping her on the street just to say hi. “I write what I feel. It’s very honest. And it’s very personal.”

Jenna started her blog, Sweetfineday, in April 2008, after her husband lost his job as a chef in the most punishing recession of a generation. It was then that both of them decided to venture out on their own and start a new business. Her blog was supposed to document the journey of their reinvention, both economic and personal.

“In the beginning, I had no idea how the blog would turn out,” says Park. Initially, the blog focused on her “experiences about living in Brooklyn, raising two kids in Brooklyn and starting a business.”

Somewhere along the way, she struck a chord and found an audience.

“I still write for me and not necessarily for an audience,” she says. “It was never my intention to get so many readers.”

Park believes that the reason she has managed to attract so many readers is because she is honest about discussing subjects like raising multi-racial children, loneliness in New York and the pitfalls of starting a business. She feels her audience is able to relate to her experiences.

Incidentally, their new business has also benefited tremendously from her blogging.

Mark in the Kitchen

“Our business was built almost entirely on social networks and word of mouth,” she says. “And the blog has become a very important part of our marketing, not necessarily intentionally but it just has and we’ve gained a lot of customers in that way.”

In many ways, Jenna’s economic reinvention is nearing completion as her business settles down. You would expect someone in her position to celebrate her success. But Park feels otherwise.

“I’ve been feeling restless again,” she wrote in a recent blog post. “Oh, you know me…it’s nothing new, but I’m feeling like I need to do SOMETHING. A change – and I will be the first one to admit that this feeling is cyclical – but here it is again, for the umpteenth time. I have lost count. That feeling. Perhaps I am fickle. Or bored. Or unchallenged. Or restless.”

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