Posts made in April 2017

Freeman’s Barbershop Is Closing Its Doors And A Cultural Chapter Of American Lives

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Black barber shops in the U.S. represent a unique and significant component of African American culture. It’s a place similar to a church where folks gather to share stories, strengthen community bonds all while getting their hair cut and styled as needed. The black barber shop is more than its namesake and Freeman’s Barber Shop in Utica is right in line with this cultural designation. Even so, times have changed drastically and the closing of Freeman’s Barber Shop is a sad reminder that the people have to. Freeman sufficiently captures this shifting cultural change when he says, “The people at that time, their words were their bond. What they said, they meant it. And, I didn’t have to worry about putting what they owe me in the book or anything because on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, they was here, taking care of business…it’s a lot different from now.”

Henry Freeman was born in Alabama but has called Utica, NY home since 1960. And, after 57-years in business, he’s closing his long-standing barbershop. He says, “Everything is beginning to come to a close…I’m retiring this year. Age is telling me to retire.” Freeman moved to Utica because he had family in the area. He says he’s had many ups and downs  during his years in business and living in upstate, NY but attributes his longevity to his spirituality and faith in God. When he was held at gunpoint and robbed in his barber shop he remained resolute in his determination to continue his work, which he calls “a gift from God.” He said, “God was on my side. He put me here and he took care of me. I had ups and downs but I know having downs is part of life, it’s part of the learning process. That’s what I figured it was.”

Freeman didn’t set out to be a barber. He went to school to be a mechanic but due to an illness had to readjust his life’s path, which led him to becoming a barber, but not just any barber…Freeman became a fixture and pillar of strength and support in the lives of many black families in Utica. “Sometimes it gets hard for me to talk about because I get emotional,” he says. One of his loyal customers, George Gaston says, “He’s always been part of the community that we’ve all cling to. We come here and we have our conversations, we laugh, we talk, we have a good time. We look out for each other, we look after each other and that’s why he’s been a pillar of the community.”

Freeman says he worries about the future of black barber shops and the legacy attached to them and it being carried on by the next generation. “Each generation has a certain part they have to play…if they don’t play it, we’ll fall. So, I try to set an example for the younger people to come around because somebody’s got to take my place. They might not say they want to but each generation has to step in to take somebody else’s place because we’re not going to be here always…so, we got to have somebody else come along and carry on what we started. If they don’t, it’ll be lost.”

Freeman had hoped to pass along his shop to his own children but says the real fear of getting robbed again remains a deterrent. In the meantime, this chapter in the lives of three generations of Uticans is inching to a close. During this interview with him at his barber shop he shared many stories of his engagement with the community he has served for nearly sixty years. “Parents would drop off their children and come back to pick them up in a couple of hours or so and they expected them to behave while they waited their turn to sit in my chair and I never had any problems with unruly children.”

Freeman’s Barber Shop is one of the last remaining reminders of a long gone era. The Project’s that sat behind his building near the train tracks have all been torn down and the community dispersed. And, until now, Mr. Freeman has remained in his spot cutting hair for generations of people that have come through his doors. He says it’s with a heavy heart he’s closing his shop but the time to retire is upon him. His last day of service is May 27. The closing of his barber shop is a stark reminder of an ever changing American culture and that the only certainty in life is change. With any luck, the inevitability of change won’t negatively impact black barber shops that remain a culturally significant part of African American lives, especially in Utica, NY.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Habitat For Humanity Plows Ahead In The Shadows Of Looming Budget Cuts

Habitat for Humanity

 

 

 

 

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

This may be hard to believe but affordable housing is a reality for many families across New York City. Since its inception in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has transformed the lives of numerous families across the country. And, since its separate grouping in 1984, Habitat NYC has done the same in all five boroughs of NYC. In a partnership with New York City Housing Authority, (NYCHA) Karen Haycox, CEO, Habitat NYC is helping families achieve the dream of homeownership in one of the wealthiest places on the planet. “While we do that, we are also busily building multifamily homes in and around the city and we’re very close to what will effectively be the largest multifamily homes, a series of homes ever constructed under one roof across the habitat universe.”

That project is called Sydney House; a 57-unit co-op in the Bronx. Haycox says, “For me that’s really one of the most compelling things about Habitat for Humanity. It’s that how we do what we do, is very much in context with the city that we call home.” Haycox says the construction of the co-op differs significantly from Habitat for Humanity’s typical construction of single family housing and it’s this very evolution that allows Habitat NYC to make affordable housing a reality for many in the city, which in turn helps to slow and perhaps reverse the process of gentrification, and also preserving a unique culture.

A major barrier to homeownership in NYC according to Haycox lies within the prospective homeowners themselves. “The first time you go through that process it can be frightening.” She explains her own experience as a first-time homeowner and the fear that came along with it. “When I bought my first home I honestly, practically and intellectually knew that everything was fine but for the first year I lived as if somebody was going to knock on my door and tell me there’s been a huge mistake.” She says many families don’t apply for the program because they don’t think they’ll qualify for reasons like credit indiscretions, criminal history or they may think the program is for those in worse economic conditions than what they find themselves in. “They will self select out of the process,” she says. Nonetheless, Haycox explains that although the organization works like any other conventional lender would, Habitat for Humanity is mission, not business driven. “It is our mission to find an opportunity for these families and we don’t just look at the numbers, we look at the whole package.” As far as legal issues are concerned, Haycox says the organization believes in “leaving the past in the past.” On the other hand, she says, “As long as there are no pending legal issues that could be problematic for the neighbors… because in effect we’re building families and their success in the future, but we’re also building neighborhoods and communities.” She says the organization does its best to ensure there are no pending charges with a family that would put their neighbors and other members of their community in any danger. “We believe in social justice and restorative justice so if they have committed a crime in their past and paid their due then that is none of our business. We look forward not backwards.”

Those interested in a Habitat NYC home can fill out an application on line. They will then be contacted by Habitats’ Housing Services Department for a review of their application. “They ask a couple of clarifying questions around the standard elements that you might expect like income, debts, challenges, and who will be in the household and we also look at credit history.” Haycox adds that if families don’t clear the initial hurdles the organization can still work with them to overcome them through various programs. “So that they can actually work on those things if they’re willing and come back and reapply.” Pathways To Partnership, (P2P) is one such program that can keep a family on track to achieving homeownership in NYC.

Haycox explains that achieving homeownership is possible through partnership with a prospective family. She says it’s similar to a self-help housing model. “Meaning that the families must be involved in our organization. They must dedicate 250-hours of sweat equity toward the construction of our homes or other programs.” She says families can volunteer at different build sites, work in the office licking envelopes or doing other volunteer jobs. “And that time is logged toward their willingness to partner.” Thus, it’s need, willingness to partner, and the ability to pay a low interest mortgage Haycox says are the essential elements to achieving homeownership in the city.

Despite all these efforts gentrification is real and taking shape across all 5 boroughs of NYC, making the possibility of homeownership for struggling families an optical illusion. Unless you’re a member of the wealthy elites flocking to the Big Apple, the mere combination of the two words, NYC and homeownership, is an oxymoron. And, Haycox says the problem is an extremely serious one because the city is in danger of becoming the largest moated community in the nation. She says homeownership in NYC is at 31-percent, which is less than the national average and the demand for affordable housing stock isn’t keeping up, “We’ve lost more than 330-thousand affordable rental units to the open market and we know that more than a third of families pay over 50-percent of their monthly income towards rent… homeownership must play a role in the city and although homeownership can’t be available for everybody, it’s strictly a numbers game; it really needs to have a place at the table. She says Habitat NYC sees that as a core function of the organization, “To leverage and to strengthen the voice for affordable homeownership as part of the city’s plan and the state’s plan going forward.”

Leveling the playing field is made possible through partnerships with organizations like NYCHA, Housing Preservation and Development, (HPD) and other state and city programs that help the group with subsidies and other affordable mortgage products. However, proposed budget cuts under the administration of President Trump is threatening to slash much of the funding that has been possible through the various partnerships Habitat NYC relies on for its mission driven work. “Those kinds of programs are important to our ability to thrive. To get these units built we depend on the pre-unit subsidies that we receive from the city and the state, and we also depend on the proceeds of the sale because families get an affordable mortgage and we sell the units and get the proceeds from the sale.”

Another element of affordable homeownership is keeping the homes affordable in perpetuity and Haycox says Habitat is looking at the community land trust model and currently responding to a land trust offer from the city, which would effectively keep the units of housing Habitat NYC develops affordable for the next generations of homeowners. “There are mechanisms that extend the affordability of the units in place but many times after the first sale those protections burn off, so what we’re looking to do is extend the length of time that the units remain affordable.” Preservation is another piece to the low income housing puzzle. Haycox says her group is developing a new preservation program that will intervene with the existing low-income co-ops to update and strengthen the buildings and bring them into compliance. Additionally, Habitat is also forming a Community Development Financial Institution, (CDFI) to keep mortgages affordable for Habitat for Humanity families, “Which would allow us to lend them money to be able to complete some needed repairs, etc.” She says it makes sense to preserve existing units as needed, rather than build new ones. Albeit, the proposed program is facing an uncertain future if Trump’s budget is adopted.

With so much on the line for the future of affordable housing in NYC, Haycox says the proposed budget cuts and tax reforms lurking like a frightening shadow and anticipated this October have them on “pins and needles” about the outlook of Habitat for Humanity. “We are focused on being poised to react and act depending on how the federal budget comes down. I think there’s a great deal of unrest and uncertainty about how that might impact us directly or indirectly.”  She says what her group can control is philanthropy. “Philanthropy always and forever will be at our core and trying to change the hearts and minds of volunteers and funders to value and prioritize housing and the important role it can play in the community we serve.” Haycox also acknowledges that a significant tax reform to the current system could negatively impact how non-profits operate in the future if donors loose tax breaks that encourages giving. “We are in a very uncertain time…so, we’re all scanning the news sources vigorously looking for some sign or indication of what the future might hold.”

Habitat NYC raises about $5-million a year Haycox says. One fund raising avenue beneficial to the group is through its ReStore, “It’s like a thrift store for building materials,” she says. The ReStore is located on Northern Blvd in Queens. “You can buy donated or gently used furniture and furnishing… you can also buy building materials and contracting materials and high-priced items like appliances at a greatly discounted price.” The supplementary to the ReStore is the environmental component that diverts material that would otherwise go to a landfill.

Homeownership is a commitment and not for everybody. The application process can be somewhat intimidating and it can take about 24-months from filling out the application to moving in to your new home. Nonetheless, Haycox says housing is fundamental to the long-term success of a family and despite the challenges ahead Habitat NYC will continue to do what it has done since its inception; helping families achieve a fundamental American dream; homeownership.

LA’s Gay Men Of Color Are Tackling Discrimination Within The LGBTQ Community

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Anthony Emeka is an accomplished gay man of color who’s had it with the stereotypes, the club scenes, the intolerance, and the preconceived notions of the gay community. And, he’s doing something about it. He says in addition to dealing with societal pressures and the tribulations affecting the gay community, there’s something else that persistently rears its ugly head within the LGBTQ world; bigotry. “There’s a lot of racism within the gay community and we have to create our own space outside of White gay men,” he explains.

The new space he’s referring to is called The Baldwin Gentlemen, a social organization exclusively for professional gay men of color, defined as Black, Latino, Asian, South Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern men and also those who racially or ethnically identify as being a man of color. “Essentially, any man who has been on the receiving end of racial discrimination or bigotry within the LGBTQ community,” and who identifies with the prolific author, civil rights icon and powerful orator James Baldwin. Emeka says the aim is not just to host social events but to raise awareness about what gay men of color experience specifically in LA, but also across America within the gay community. “I’m really hoping that not only are we able to educate people and tell them the specifics and anything in between of the professional gay men of color but also to let individuals know that we are far, far from solving the societal situation. We’re dealing with issues like homosexuality and race and we don’t have a handle on either of these issues so we hope to raise awareness while also simultaneously developing and educating people what this community of Baldwin will look like moving forward,” he says.

So, what’s it like being a professional Black gay man in LA, and perhaps all across America, within the LGBTQ community? Emeka compares it to being invisible.  “I’m clearly invisible. I’m not a White male. And that’s what Baldwin is here to address…often times we are not received in the community because we are gay and often times even within the LGBTQ community we aren’t received because we are of color. That’s what we want to address; the intersection of what it means to be a gay male and what it means to be a gay man of color.” He says it means seeing the world and experiencing the world in a unique way because often times it’s lonely, especially when he finds himself being the only Black male in a professional setting or role, but also the only gay Black man in that professional role or setting. “I feel a sense of loneliness; I feel a sense of indirectly being represented negatively of this community that is still so foreign to people. They’re like, ‘oh we know Black people, we don’t know gay Black people’ and so often times I did find myself feeling alone.”

He says there is a lot of emotional trauma that goes along with being gay, whether it’s coming out to your family, or living a life that isn’t necessarily easy to come out, or coming out and being rejected.  “Losing friends, losing family because of coming out.” He says even having to put on a facade when applying for a job, going to school, or simply being in a room full of people can be stressful. “It’s all about how am I going to present myself to not be scary, to not be foreign, to not be other.” Adding to the emotional trauma many Black gay men experience is the conservative stance within the Black community on the subject of homosexuality. “It’s not something we really talk about because it’s not very comfortable. I think as it relates to racial equality and racial equity, that’s something that Black people wanted, but anything outside of that specifically there’s a lot of contentious thinking within the Black community and it stems from the role of Christianity within our community,” he says.

The Baldwin Gentlemen is a member’s only club exclusively for gay men of color and Emeka says it’s specifically designated as such to combat the racism many of them experience within the LGBTQ community. He says, “We talk about gay rights but that doesn’t necessarily include me.” He says even with California’s leading status in the push for gay rights with groups like Log Cabin Republicans the concern was “about these White gay men in San Francisco. They weren’t concerned about Latinos, Asians or Blacks who were also going to benefit from that.” He says even gay women often times don’t feel welcomed in the spaces supposedly designated for the gay community because it’s all about the gay White men. “When we talk about LGBTQ, we’re not talking about anything other than the G.”

A June 2016 article by Queerty aptly titled, “Is This The Brutal Truth White Gay Men Refuse To Hear?” addresses this very issue. The article also highlights a report by Matthew Rodriguez, a gay Latino man who talks about the blatant racism he experiences on dating sites like Grindr. The messages shared on some of these dating sites explicitly express a disdain for mainly Black and Asian men. “Not Into Black or Asian” or “Let’s keep it White or Latin, Thanks,” are just a couple of examples on these dating sites of the blatant rejection Emeka is describing and hoping to combat by creating a space exclusively for those on the outside of the gay community that touts itself as accepting and inclusive of all gay people. It’s one thing to have a certain preference in lovers but it’s another thing all together when these preferences are hurled like Molotov cocktails at people already dealing with a cruel and intolerable world.

“We have to create our own space. We have to tell our own stories. We have to be able to come together as a collective, as a group of people who are outside of the LGBTQ community, which are typically White gay men. And, we have to do things for ourselves and this is what it’s about,” Emeka said. In addition to raising awareness about the plights of gay men of color within the LGBTQ community, the group says the club is also about developing organic relationship that are largely missing from the social media space, the bar and club space and the app hook-up culture. “We’re creating an alternative base for professional gay men of color to get together and be amongst people like themselves.”

There is an annual cost to join The Baldwin Gentlemen including a smaller cost to attend events. The official launch of The Baldwin Gentlemen is taking place on Thursday in LA. The View From Here: Experiences of Gay Men of Color in LA kicks off at 7:00 pm in Santa Monica with a panel discussion with the following prominent and accomplished speakers: Yolo Akili Robinson, Nijeul X. Porter, Dominick Bailey and Thornell Jones, Jr. “The event itself is really just to get the word out about Baldwin; who we are, what we stand for, and how we intent to develop our community,” Emeka says. The event is sponsored by Philosophie, Revry, and Alloy Wine Works. Additional Baldwin groups led by ambassadors will be opening up in Oakland, Montreal and Toronto.

Wrestlemania Represents A Symbolic Trait Of Many American Men

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

Tough, massive, strapping, powerful men, (and some women) ready to rip your head off…that’s essentially what Wrestlemania is in a nut shell. All of these characteristics are wrapped up in the WWE world despite it being a highly choreographed and strategic performance complete with moves like the Pile Driver, The Peoples Elbow, Leg Drops and Rock Bottoms. The wrestlers and the folks running the show already know the outcome before the frenzied fans do. Nonetheless, many people, particularly men, just about foam at the mouth trying to be a part of the action that is Wrestlemania.

American men, and perhaps men around the world who have come to love this unique part of American culture, identify with this symbol of strength and might. The image of the strapping man making his way towards the ring is the epitome of might and American men eat it up like candy because that’s what many of them see themselves as. Nothing else seems to matter except the display of strength and all that is perceived as manliness in the wrestling world. Wrestlemania fulfills the dreams of millions around the world but especially American men whose identity is wrapped up in that symbol of might.

Wrestlemania 33 took place at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida this year with record number crowds, and the wrestlers didn’t disappoint. Even John Cena decided to propose to his long-time girlfriend, one of the Bella twins also of the wrestling world, during the hyped event. Manhattan bar and restaurant Legends is known for hosting monthly viewings of wrestling shows and today’s crowd surpassed the 700 reservations they received. A group called, YEP! I Like Wrestling (YEPILW), are the organizers behind the monthly events. Sir Wilkins is a member of the organization and was in full Randy Savage costume corralling wrestling fans to their seats in the packed establishment. Justifying its significance as part of American culture, he says, “Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of wrestling; it’s pop culture, it’s been around for over 20 years. It’s on ESPN, it’s on MTV, it’s on everything, even sneakers.”

The line outside the establishment was a long one full of cheering men and women ready for the showdown. They chanted and cheered whenever another reveler showed up in a costume or some other artifact of the thing they love the most; wrestling. To many, Wrestlemania is part of what it means to be a tough and strong American man, keeping its popularity high and steadily growing. It was certainly pandemonium across the country as folks ushered in one of America’s favorite pastime. Wrestlemania is here to stay.

 

 

This April Fool’s Day Was No Laughing Matter

 

BY JEANETTE LENOIR

 

This April Fool’s Day hundreds gathered in the streets of New York City to protest the President’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act with help from Republicans now in control of the House and Senate.

The jokes and hoaxes usually designated for this day have taken a serious tone that reflects the mood of the country under this new administration. Anna Theofilopoulou immigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1976 and is an active member of the Village Independent Democrats. Braving the cold weather to lend her voice to this cause, she said, “We’re concentrating on all kinds of issues. One of the key ones, since the healthcare one is on hold right now, is the environment, which seems to be the next danger, we decided that we are going to do a petition drive and we will deliver them to Senator Schumer.” By her side was her fellow VID member, Elizabeth Mann who says she was traumatized by the presidential election and the events that have unfolded since the inauguration of President Trump. “I feel like I can’t do nothing at this point. I feel like we are on a very bad path in this country and anything that I can do to shift politicians, to shift elections, I’m going to do,” she said. Mann says she remains active to counter the despair she feels since Trump won the election.

Theofilopoulou says simply waking up in the morning and making her way around the city and talking to people makes her feel desperate. “It’s such a prevailing feeling after the election. I mean, it was a state of disbelief in the beginning, but it did happen. And, it’s meeting our worst expectations. As far as I’m concerned, it cannot get worse than it has gone. And I sincerely believe that there is so much to come out of the Russian connection…it’s a matter of time.”

Standing at the Grove stop of the Path station in Jersey City, NJ Rob Trucker with the Northern New Jersey Democratic Socialists of America raised the issue his group came out to protest; the minimum wage hike. Speaking in front of a crowd of roughly 20 to 30 people he said, “In a time of unprecedented income inequality and unprecedented corporate profits, the bare minimum that we should be demanding is $15 an hour for our low wage everyday workers. We have to come together to fight the managerial and corporate class and fight for our union and fight on behalf of our own interests.” He urged people from different backgrounds, affiliations and orientation to form a union to combat corporate greed.

From town hall meetings, the Women’s March in DC, protests at member offices and the streets of America, people are not taking lightly the changes shaping a divided country under this new president. And the Republican agenda to overturn Obama era policies that impact healthcare, the environment and even law enforcement is not going to be taken calmly as these on-going cries seem to suggest. Mann says even Schumer, “has developed much more of a spine than he had 3 or 4 months ago,” in his role to combat Trump and the republican agenda. As we near the 100 day mark of Trump’s presidency, Americans of all walks of life remain determined and perhaps hopeful that something will give way and force arguably the most hated man in the world out of the White House. In the meantime, the people will protest and gather to voice their opinions and demand that they be heard. After all, isn’t that how Democracy works?