The Brooklynites

The Brooklynites

Everyone knows someone who lives in Brooklyn or who has lived in Brooklyn. Fact: one in seven, apparently. So if everyone knows about BK, what’s the point of writing a book about it? Seth Kushner and Anthony LaSala – true Brooklynites – are here to stir up the butterflies that lay dormant in your belly from the last time you were in America’s fourth largest city. If you don’t know what I mean, you will after reading this and you might actually feel them firsthand if you check out the photos in The Brooklynites, their debut authorship.

From Bensonhurst to DUMBO (short for “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”) to Coney Island to Bed Stuy (short for Bedford Stuyvesant) to Dyker Park, the only thing separating Brooklynites are the ways they abbreviate the neighborhoods in which they inhabit.

“I figured, the worst-case scenario would be Steve Buscemi getting a restraining order against us.”

Format: What was the origin of inspiration that drove you to dedicate a book to BK?
Anthony: I had wanted to work on a long-term project about something I love for a while. Growing up in Brooklyn and living here my whole life – with the exception of four years spent away at college –, I have always wanted to explore the borough through writing and photography. I have known Seth since high school – we both went to Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway – and when I approached him with the idea, I knew we could really create something special. The design was to capture the words and faces of the people of Brooklyn within the varying neighborhoods of the borough.

Seth: Yeah, it really started with Anthony. I also had been looking for a long-term project to work on for a while, but couldn’t find anything to hold my attention for long enough. So, when Anthony mentioned Brooklyn, I thought, that’s it. Of course, I didn’t think it was going to go on for this long. It’s been over three years.

Format: Was there a common thread you discovered between all (or most) of the Brooklynites you interviewed?
Anthony: Attitude. Almost every one has an attitude, but in a good way. Also, people from Brooklyn feel like they always have an advantage no matter what the situation. Whether they are dealing with difficult circumstances here in the city or traveling in some far-flung destination. Brooklynites always seem to have an ace up their sleeve.

Seth: Yeah, attitude and pride. People from Brooklyn generally seem to want to brag about it as if it’s a medal; ‘I’m from Brooklyn; wanna make something of it?’

The Brooklynites

Format: Do you think you would find the same Brooklyn pride as Brooklynites, in another borough?
Seth: I’ve lived in Brooklyn all of my life and it’s a place I love, so I’m biased. I know everyone thinks their hometown is special, but mine really is. For some reason Brooklyn has been the home to countless actors, politicians, musicians, writers, athletes and noble prize winners – I don’t think someone from Boise, Idaho, for example, could say the same. Why did so many people of note come from Brooklyn over the years? I don’t have the answer, but that’s part of the mystique of this place. It’s a mystique that, in my opinion, is not shared by Queens, for example.

Format: How did you decide who made the cut for the book?
Seth: It really came down to deciding who were most interesting to us. And, who best represents Brooklyn. We went after our favorite authors, actors, artists, etc. But also, regular people, people whose stories and faces were interesting and inspiring to us. We really tried to show the variety of people who live in Brooklyn – people from all walks of life and social standing. We wanted to get subjects from every neighborhood, every race, religion and culture.

Anthony: We began going around to some of our favorite spots in Brooklyn and meeting people on the street. I would interview them about their experiences living and working in Brooklyn and Seth would photograph them on the spot. Eventually, we started making appointments with various people. We were trying to meet with every type of person in every neighborhood of the borough. This led to us meeting some famous people from here: Spike Lee, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, John Turturro, Fischerspooner, etcetera. We also covered every major institution in Brooklyn: The Aquarium, B.A.M., Brooklyn College, The Prospect Park Zoo, The Botanic Gardens, Peter Luger’s, Greenwood Cemetery, The Brooklyn Museum, etcetera.

The Brooklynites

Format: Arthur Wood, a.k.a. Master of Broken Angel, was featured in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. He’s a strange dude, but I’m sure you ran into quite a few interesting characters. Who stood out the most to you?
Seth: Some of the most interesting characters we met on the street – and we wouldn’t know what they were going to say – they would surprise us by basically spouting poetry. One such time we were in Bed Stuy and an older black gentleman in a suit danced up on us and said, ‘You know you wanna take my picture.’ He was right, because I did. After the shoot, Anthony went into interview mode and asked his name, which was Billy T. Thomas, and his age, to which he responded, ‘I’m older than cold water and sweeter than salt.’ We had no idea what that meant, but it struck us as beautiful.

Anthony: Billy T. was great. The list is really endless, though. The gritty, somewhat crazy guys in front of the O.T.B in Bensonhurst, the sword swallowers, the burlesque dancers, the champion handball players. We could have made a 10,000 page book and it still wouldn’t have come close to capturing the personalities we encountered.

The Brooklynites

Format: How was it roaming around the streets of BK with Mr. Steve Buscemi?
Seth: On the list of prominent Brooklynites we wanted to include in the project, Steve Buscemi was easily at the very top. He’s definitely one of our favorite actors and someone I always wanted to photograph. We attempted to contact him through a variety of different ways, starting with contacting his publicist, who immediately informed us that Steve wouldn’t have time and couldn’t do it. We knew he was obviously very busy, because look at how many films he appears in every year, but from everything we’d read about him we also strongly felt he would be into our project if he heard about it directly.

I had an idea. My 15-year-old cousin went to camp with Steve’s son the year before and they were still IM buddies. I called my little cousin and she got me Steve’s home address from her friend. Anthony and I debated back and fourth for a while as to whether contacting him this way would be appropriate, and, finally, I decided to take a shot. I figured the worst-case scenario would be Steve Buscemi getting a restraining order against us. I wrote him a very polite note and included a bunch of the pictures, so he’d see what the project was all about. We waited, and waited, but we never heard back. It was disappointing, because we really wanted him.

We moved on, and months later, when we worked with Terence Winter, a producer on The Sopranos, we asked him if he knew any other interesting Brooklynites to recommend to us. He said, ‘How about my friend Steve?’ We knew immediately who he was referring to. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, obviously. He gave us Steve’s personal assistant’s number and within a few weeks we found ourselves in East New York with Mr. Pink, himself.

We always ask potential subjects to choose a location to be photographed that means something to them. Steve picked the neighborhood where he grew up. We loved that he thought about our request and picked a pertinent locale and that he made the time to go out of his way to do this for us. I shot him in front of the church he went to as a child. It all was going well and then something really interesting happened. While we were talking in front of the building he once resided, the man who currently lived in his old apartment stuck his head out of the second story window. Steve yelled up to him that he used to live there and asked if it would be all right if we came up and took a look around. The man came down and opened the door for us. Anthony and I were super excited, because we knew we were witnessing a special moment. When we got up to the apartment, the man said, ‘You’re an actor, right? I think I recognize you. You were in that movie Fly?’ He was making his hand mimic the movements of an airplane. Anthony and I were both thinking he had mistaken him for Jeff Goldblume, but Steve knew what he meant and said, ‘Yes, I was in Con Air.’

Anthony: Steve then gave us a quick tour of the small apartment, showing us where his bed was, the window where his mother would call him up for dinner, the skylight where his father would climb through when he forgot his keys and the corner of the kitchen where he would perform for his family – the actual place where he did his first acting. It was like we were invited to view a truly personal moment with one of our favorite actors. You could tell this was emotional for him. It was a great experience for us, too. On the drive home, we talked about how this was symbolic of what the project has been all about for us. It was really a magical event.

The Brooklynites

Format: It seems like everyone has experienced Brooklyn first hand or knows someone who has lived in Brooklyn. It’s like the six-degrees of separation.
Seth: In many ways the project was made through this six-degrees of separation process. Every time we worked with a subject, they would recommend five more people they knew who would be perfect. There’s this huge chain of Brooklynites we moved through over three years.

Format: What’s your favorite part about growing up and living in Brooklyn?
Seth: I think growing up in Brooklyn has helped to make me a well-rounded person. I think people who grow up in the suburbs, for instance, have that safe existence with their manicured lawns and barbecues, etcetera. And that’s it. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay on a small street with a lawn and a white picket fence and barbecues, but three blocks away it felt urban. That’s how Brooklyn is: it’s the best of all worlds. We have the culture of New York City at our disposal, but also the benefit of a quieter life.

Anthony: I also think that growing up here just gives you a mental edge in dealing with the world and the people around you. Because of the multitudes of personalities and backgrounds that you deal with everyday – not much surprises you when you come from here.

Format: What are some qualities that Brooklyn has instilled in its inhabitants?
Anthony: There is definitely a Brooklyn sensibility. That is what we tried to convey with our project. It’s this unique mix of bravado, frankness and sincerity that you really don’t find anywhere else. I felt it was very important to convey the true emotions and stories of each and every subject. With some people it was easy to pull out their feelings about Brooklyn and their tales. With others it was a little tougher. But I think we did a good job of portraying each of our subjects.

The Brooklynites

Format: I’ve heard that Spike Lee is pretty difficult to work with. How was your experience with him?
Seth: I had photographed Spike once before, for a magazine. Although he has the reputation of being difficult, I found him friendly and easygoing. I contacted him early into the project and he immediately agreed to be involved. He was the first celebrity who supported us and I’ll always be thankful to him for that. But, on the day we met him, Spike was not in the best of moods – obviously a bad day. I didn’t know what kind of photo of him I would get. We did the shoot on the street outside his office. I worked quickly, not wanting to take too much of his time and left not feeling entirely confident that I had gotten something good. Later, when I picked up the film from the lab, I discovered Spike’s mood had translated into a look of Brooklyn attitude. Perfect.

Format: Why should people from other cities pick up this book?
Seth: I think Brooklyn represents America in so many ways and so many people from around the country have roots here, the rumor is one in seven, so the book should have wide appeal. It’s for anyone who is interested in society, anthropology, writing and photography.

The Brooklynites

Format: What did you learn about yourself?
Seth: The main thing I think we both learned about ourselves is how much really love Brooklyn. Sure, we already knew that, but in spending three years completely absorbed in all that is this place and meeting hundreds of people who shared their overwhelming love of Brooklyn was a truly inspiring experience.

Format: What’s your advice to people whom have never stepped foot in the fourth largest city of the U.S.A.?
Anthony: Cross the bridge from Manhattan and experience it – if just for the pizza alone. So many visitors ignore this place for the glitzy borough across the way. They will be pleasantly surprised when they do come here.

Format: What can readers expect from you and Anthony in the near future?
Seth: We both have ideas of other projects, some of which we would do together and others could be solo efforts. It’s difficult to find something to work on that can hold one’s attention for, potentially, several years. It’s also hard to let go of Brooklyn. For so long we’ve been firmly entrenched in everything Brooklyn, so we still come across subjects and places which we’d like to do something with. It so difficult to ignore that we’ve been compiling a list and every time something comes up, we joke, ‘Put it on the list for the sequel, Brooklynites 2: Electric Boogaloo.’

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The Brooklynites

Michelle Cavanaugh

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  1. how lucky we are to have grown up in brooklyn. how lucky you all are for stilling living there. i am not there anymore but in my heart, brooklyn is home and not a day goes by that i don’t feel my longing to come home. i guess one can leave brooklyn but brooklyn never leaves you. never. happy days to you all, elena burge

  2. It’s the best city in America—and, probably, the whole world. Hell, it *is* the whole world. Long live 356 Highland Boulevard; I miss you so much.

  3. Brooklynites love to smell their own farts! Meanwhile, Buscemi spent his formative years in Valley Stream, Long Island, not Brooklyn. Where do you think he got the idea for Trees Lounge…

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