New York Transit Museum reopens in Brooklyn

After a nearly 18-month temporary closure for the pandemic, the New York Transit Museum finally reopened its doors to the public on August 14.
The museum first opened in 1976 to celebrate the country’s centennial, and has since become a favorite among locals and tourists who love its unique collection of vintage cars, photographs, and paraphernalia.
Located underground in Downtown Brooklyn’s old Court Street station at 99 Schermerhorn Street, the New York Transit Museum’s varied exhibits celebrate the stories of construction workers, transit workers, and commuters who created and sustained the city’s transportation system.
Museum director Concetta Bencivenga discussed the continued significance these stories hold during the pandemic, as well as the museum’s own experience over the past year and half.
“Not all museums are designed equally,” Bencivenga said during an interview. “We may not have the square footage of the Met or even the Brooklyn Museum, but more importantly we don’t have the same constituents.
“We have been part of our downtown Brooklyn neighborhood for 45 years, so for a lot of folks we’re the museum around the corner,” she added. “We are also a de facto children’s museum and are very well known in the international community.”
The museum stayed closed longer than many other museums in the city, yet as Bencivenga explained, this was a conscious decision.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody, our staff and visitors alike, had ample opportunity to get vaccinated,” Bencivenga said. “I am 100 percent fine with waiting as long as we did, because we did the right thing for our institution and the communities that we serve.”
Like any institution in New York City, the Transit Museum was fundamentally challenged by the pandemic. While museum leadership was successfully able to keep its entire staff intact for a full year, they finally had to lay off a number of employees earlier this year.
However, the pandemic has also proven just how vital and contemporary the Transit Museum’s work is.
“We have been very, very cognizant of the fact that we’re actually living in an historical experience,” Bencivenga explained. “So we actually have been collecting the mask verbiage, the signage, the social distance markers that have been produced by the MTA. We are basically saying everybody don’t throw anything out.
“The Transit Museum believes that you experience New York the way you do because of mass transit, you just don’t know it yet,” she added. “This is a historic experience for the entire world, but it certainly has a significant impact on mass transit.”
In addition to expanding the collection, the pandemic has also presented the museum with an opportunity to reflect on the larger history of mass transit in New York.
Some stories that museum staff tell on tours have found greater meaning, such as the Malbone Street Wreck of 1918 — the biggest subway accident in history — which was caused in part by a grieving motorman who had recently lost relatives to the Spanish flu.
Many of the other stories, however, are more familiar to the museum’s current visitors.
“We have the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coming up,” Bencivenga said, “and one of the most remarkable stories is that transit workers continued to show up. Whether it’s figuring out how to do it during the two world wars, the Spanish flu, the demise and resurgence of the system in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, or even Superstorm Sandy, transit workers are there. They are truly some of the most unsung heroes in the city of New York.”
The Transit Museum honored these dedicated employees during the city’s recent “Hometown Heroes” parade for essential workers, rolling out cars from its antique fleet to travel down the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan.
Yet on any given day, the museum is consistently dedicated to celebrating the way mass transit has shaped the ways New Yorkers work, play, and live.
“One of my favorite pictures in our collection is of Willets Point,” Bencivenga explained. “Queens is the way we know it because of the 7 train. That relationship between the people who live there and mass transit is so clear.”
The New York City Transit Museum is currently open Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. All visitors, including members, must reserve tickets online in advance. Proof of vaccination and masks are also required for entry.
“If you’re interested in the artistic inspiration that people have derived from the subway or mass transit since its inception, we have a show for you,” Bencivenga said. “If you want to just come and sit in a car that maybe your parents or grandparents or you yourself used to commute or go to the World Fair in Queens or get to school, then we have a fleet for you.”

Filmmaker discusses time, change & COVID-19

Catalina Kulczar has always made sense of life’s difficulties through the visual arts.
Born to Hungarian parents in Venezuela, Kulczar moved from Caracas to South Florida and then finally to North Carolina, where she went to school and began working as a photographer.
“I started documenting everything as we travelled,” Kulczar explained during a phone interview this past week.
While in Charlotte, Kulczar met her life partner Juan Miguel Marin, a musician and member of the Brooklyn-based band LEGS, and the two decided to move to New York to pursue their passions. They eventually settled in Greenpoint, a neighborhood that felt like a natural fit for the aspiring artists.
“Greenpoint used to be warehouses and graffiti everywhere and I loved it,” said Kulczar. “It was one big art gallery.”
However, the area has changed greatly since Kulczar arrived, as the warehouses gave way to new development and the artist community slowly moved elsewhere. Then last year the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, dramatically altering life for Greenpoint and its artists once more.
“Everything had to pivot with the pandemic, including the art,” Kulczar explained.
To make sense of COVID, Kulczar turned, as she always does, to the visual arts. This past March, she released a short film titled “When We Paused” on Vimeo. The project documents the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Greenpoint and was shot using 16 mm film to highlight the timeless quality of the neighborhood’s landscape.
“I started the project with film so it would feel natural,” said Kulczar. “Digital can’t compare with how analog film feels, and I wanted this project to show how I felt and how the community felt.”
Kulczar recorded the footage for the film during a series of walks last April. Throughout its entire runtime, only three other people are shown on screen, a far cry from the usual vibrancy of Greenpoint.
“I remember seeing no one,” said Kulczar. “You could hear the silence. I remember only hearing the birds.”
Despite the empty streets, “When We Paused” shifts in its second half to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and the social action that came to Greenpoint in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May.
Kulczar’s camera captures BLM murals as they seamlessly integrate with the timeworn Greenpoint landscape, a stunning visual of resiliency and compassion that inspired the artist.
“The art in Greenpoint became political, which I absolutely loved,” said Kulczar. “People really started taking action. Just look at the McCarren Gathering. They are the perfect example because they still haven’t stopped.”

“When We Paused” was released this past March as a retrospective on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. However, more time has passed since the film’s release, bringing with it even more change.
Vaccines are now readily available and New York City is slowly opening up, bringing hope after such a difficult year.
“It’s remarkable to believe that I lived through that,” said Kulczar, “A few days ago New York had no new COVID deaths for the first time since the pandemic began. We have come a long way.”
However, the sobering memory of all those lost in the past year remains. Kulczar is currently working on another film about the pandemic, a personal documentary that will detail her own experiences.
As more time passes though, “When We Paused” will continue to bear witness to Greenpoint as it was during the pandemic and to how resilient the neighborhood and its people have always been.
“It was a time capsule,” Kulczar explained of the film. “It was my love letter to Greenpoint. We lost a lot during the pandemic, but we still had so much.”

To see more of Kulczar’s work, go to catalinakulczar.com or to Instagram @catalinaphotog.

Return to school the right call

The de Blasio administration made the right call this week announcing that when the new school year starts on September 13, all learning will take place in person.
No more remote or hybrid learning. Pods will be gone. (On a side note, one good thing for kids is that with remote learning a thing of the past, snow days will return!)
Even with the city’s gradual return to in-person learning, over 50 percent of students still don’t go to school at all. Many of the city’s youngest students go to school five days a week, but many of the high schoolers who opted to return to classrooms are only allowed in one day out of five.
The city will still require masks, try to keep students, teachers and faculty three feet apart while indoors, and continue to track COVID outbreaks. Currently, the seven-day positivity rate is well below 1 percent.
Students lost a lot over the past year.
Even under the best of circumstances – and by that we mean a parent or parents who have the time to help with their child’s learning, the technology and Internet access to take part in remote learning, and the ability to stay focused and on task – the education of the one million school kids in the city no doubt suffered over the past year.
But the pandemic didn’t just affect their education, it affected their emotional well-being and set them back socially. That’s especially true for high schools students, who missed out on competitive sports and events like prom and graduation.
For the many students who relied on free school meals, some were even set back nutritionally.
Now that vaccines are readily available, it’s time to get our kids back on the track to success.

Adams thanks diocese for COVID relief efforts

Standing in front of Borough Hall this past Friday, Borough President Eric Adams honored the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Emergency Task Force for its year-long effort to assist first responders and frontline workers.
The task force consists of volunteers who worked closely with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Diocese leadership to distribute food and equipment.
Since the pandemic began, the group has delivered over 500,000 masks, 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, and 40,000 gloves to police and fire departments, hospitals, nursing homes, and other entities in need throughout the state.
Additionally, the group delivered iPads to students throughout the borough to assist with virtual learning.
“When we were out there criss-crossing Brooklyn, we saw the borough president out there criss-crossing as well,” said task force member said Vincent Levien. “He has always been there helping us help the people most in need.”
Adams awarded citations to all of the members present before offering his own brief remarks.
“We want to thank all the members of the organization for being the COVID heroes we expect,” he said. “Even during these challenging times, we should acknowledge how our faith-based institutions played such a vital and critical role in getting our city up and moving.”
“We are able to hope to get back to normal life because of dedicated people like them,” added Councilman Mathieu Eugene. “They put themself in danger to help of those in need. If it weren’t for them, the crisis would be worse.”

Adams thanks diocese for COVID relief efforts

Standing in front of Borough Hall this past Friday, Borough President Eric Adams honored the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Emergency Task Force for its year-long effort to assist first responders and frontline workers.
The task force consists of volunteers who worked closely with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Diocese leadership to distribute food and equipment.
Since the pandemic began, the group has delivered over 500,000 masks, 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, and 40,000 gloves to police and fire departments, hospitals, nursing homes, and other entities in need throughout the state.
Additionally, the group delivered iPads to students throughout the borough to assist with virtual learning.
“When we were out there criss-crossing Brooklyn, we saw the borough president out there criss-crossing as well,” said task force member said Vincent Levien. “He has always been there helping us help the people most in need.”
Adams awarded citations to all of the members present before offering his own brief remarks.
“We want to thank all the members of the organization for being the COVID heroes we expect,” he said. “Even during these challenging times, we should acknowledge how our faith-based institutions played such a vital and critical role in getting our city up and moving.”
“We are able to hope to get back to normal life because of dedicated people like them,” added Councilman Mathieu Eugene. “They put themself in danger to help of those in need. If it weren’t for them, the crisis would be worse.”

Queens to remember, mourn those COVID took

As of this week, Queens has lost 9,659 residents to COVID, a tragic loss of life for our borough. That’s 9,659 lives cut short, and 9,659 families dealing with the heartbreak of losing a loved one and being confronted daily with the cause of that pain.
This coming Saturday, May 1, some of those families and their friends will gather in Forest Park to remember all of those that have been lost.
The Queens COVID Remembrance Day will take place at the Forest Park Bandshell and be open to the public from 2 to 8 p.m.
Portraits of many of the victims will be on display, filling the empty benches of the bandshell. The portraits were created by 16-year-old artist Hannah Ernst, who started drawing COVID victims after her grandfather Cal passed away from the virus.
There will be a Floral Heart ceremony by artist Kristina Libby at 4 p.m. and a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m.
One of the faces that will be represented in the empty benches will be Woodhaven’s Jeffrey Cohen. I met Jeff just the one time, at a Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society meeting at the Avenue Diner right before our world turned upside down.
It was nice to meet him. We were friends on Facebook for a while, but hadn’t met in person until that night. He was interested in our neighborhood’s history and enjoyed the presentation. I have a feeling he would have come back to another meeting.
But we never met again. He passed away on April 16, 2020, at the age of 57.
Had I gotten to know Jeff better, I would be able to tell you more. Instead, I asked family and friends of Jeff to tell us a little bit about him. This is from Jeff’s father and his sisters, Rayna and Bari:

Jeffrey Cohen was born March 3, 1963, in Booth Memorial Hospital in Flushing. He grew up in Forest Park Co-ops in Woodhaven and ended up living there with his wife and daughter.
Jeffrey was a loving son, brother, husband, father, uncle and a great friend to all.
Growing up in Woodhaven in the 70’s and 80’s, you could always find Jeff in Forest Park with his friends with his long red rocker hair, which he was famous for and so proud.
As his sisters, we shared hair care products with him and took notes, but we were never allowed to touch his hair.
He made lifelong friends in Woodhaven and loved calling it home.
Jeff always had a smile on his face and was always kind and respectful to others. Everyone that knew him said, “Jeff was just a nice guy.”
“Even during bad times, you would never know because he would still greet you with a smile and without a care in the world.
You can’t plan life, and as his family we are devastated by what COVID took from us. Someone we loved, someone that still had so much life to live, someone we were not done with yet.
The night Jeff passed away, it happened so fast that we are still in disbelief. There is a huge hole our hearts.
Jeff, you are missed so much by all of us and we hope that you are with mommy watching over all of us.
Love,
Daddy, Rayna and Bari

Longtime friend Annette Frank wrote:

Jeff was my friend for 45 years. We grew up together, sharing happy times and sad times and every holiday possible.
Over the years, we became more like family than friends. Often I would describe Jeff as my “brother from another mother.”
It’s rare to have a lifelong friendship like ours. I will always cherish our memories. I miss my friend and brother Jeff.

We have all lost something over the past year due to COVID. But most of our losses and problems seem small when compared to the loss of a loved one.
And since the vast majority of the victims’ families were denied the ability to mourn their losses at wakes or funerals, this weekend’s remembrance ceremony is so very needed.
Needed by the Cohen family, mourning their loss of Jeff, and needed by the 9,658 other families mourning their own losses.
And if you are not one of those families, you are very, very lucky and can count your blessings while saying a prayer for the souls of those that COVID took from us all.

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