by Bill Batson
Major gaps in my ancestry explain my fascination with family, local and black history. I was born in the interval between the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, where four little girls lost their lives. I was also immediately put up for adoption. Spoken History, an exhibit that I created and that opens on Friday, February 2 at 95 1/2 Main Street in Nyack, explores the value of preserving and reconstructing personal narratives.
America was at a perilous crossroads in September 1963. This was a time of great uncertainty for our nation: would we embrace Dr. King’s enlightened vision of interracial cooperation, or descend into the anarchy of violence motivated by racial animus. Having been born to an unwed mother as the result of an interracial union and placed up for adoption, my fate was unclear as well. Fortunately, I was adopted by a wonder family with deep roots in a beloved community like Nyack.
As my life has proceed, decisions made to conceal details of my past, and the very illusive nature of a narrative obscured by secrecy and shame, has produced an artist that is always asking questions, with an unquenchable desire to explore and comment on the aspects of our nation’s history that revolve around race and civil rights. I am driven to weave together the threads of the narrative of the family that raised me, but am always being summoned by the siren song of the stories of a sub-Saharan African family that I have only barely met.
My art, and at times, my day job, has been the practice of storytelling and searching, making art and organizing events, using words and images that seek to unearth hidden facts or heal racial divisions. Spoken History embodies both pursuits.
In Spoken History, and the Nyack Record Shop Project that I recently directed for the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center and the Historical Society of the Nyack, I employ words, uttered and recorded to affirm the existence of Nyack’s African American community to assert its equality. When words spoken so purposefully are heard, they can arouse in us a reaction, like the call and response of a sermon.
It is tragic when a life has no words to accompany it, no song to serenade the survivor, no annotation to measure the pain and pleasure felt. No spoken word or oral history given. That missing narrative has the quality of a black hole, where even light can’t escape.
In my exhibit, Spoken History, I specifically celebrate two figures, one alive and one dead: a blues legend, singer, lyricist and band leader Sam Waymon, and a spectral like figure, Cynthia Hesdra, that escaped oblivion and lives today, thanks to journalists, scholars and several artists that I assembled and directed.
Sam Waymon writes notes and lyrics that illustrate the guts and glory of the African Diaspora. Performing since the age of three with his sister, Nina Simone, Waymon has been at the center of the creative dialogue that captures, in excruciating and exalting detail, how much black life matters. As a neighbor and citizen of our village, Sam’s journey is a living text book that should be required reading. To ease that assignment, and yes, there will be a test, a passage from his oral history has been writ large for all to see.
Artists like Sam are public servants, who often toil without steady income or benefits. Supporting Sam’s art is a way to live the dream of a freedom and equality that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King died to establish when he was killed 50 years ago this April. It is no small irony that Sam and his sister sang at Dr. King’s memorial service.
Were it not for scholar and product of Nyack public schools Dr. Lori Martin, Cythina Hesdra’s name would not exist. Hesdra almost died the third death portrayed in the Pixar film coco, when ones name is finally forgotten. Thanks to Martin and others, Hesdra has a street named after her, and a Toni Morrison Bench By The Road monument erected in her honor as permanent tribute. Her heroism as a female African American abolitionist and entrepreneur in the mid 1800s would inspire no one. But evoking her memory has been complicated by the lack of a photographic image of her.
Sam Waymon Needs Our Support
As the result of a recent housing emergency, Sam Waymon needs your support. Please visit the Sam Waymon page on gofundme established by his colleague and bandmate Dylan Kelehan, to find out how you can help.
Read Nyack Sketch Log: Sam Waymon Makes Historic Score to learn more about his life and times and talents.
When I directed the Bench by the Road project, there was an palpable tension as many minds sought to conjure up a likeness for a somewhat recent historical figure who had not been photographer or even, as is my preference, depicted in a sketch. I never felt comfortable arbitrarily giving her life and substituting my imagination for her actual countenance. Now, thanks to a team that I assembled that includes Fabric Artist Sara Bunn, Actor Bev Mitcham, and Photographer Luis Bruno, Hesdra has been given form.
As powerful as these names ring out, there are two window installations that are part of Spoken History, that represent the radical egalitarianism that must exist if we are to be the democratic society of our conceit. Every life story, every improvised verse, matters. And if given voice, and patient ear, you will find that each is as compelling as the story or testimony shared before it. So take the headphones and listen to the 25 stories of African American life given during the Nyack Record Shop Project, an oral history initiative that is an homage to the work of photographer Carrie Mae Weems. Or take the microphone and give a three minute song or soliloquy that captures this moment in time for you. Your words will be recorded and a copy submitted to the Nyack Library.
If you do not speak, on the record, and secure that your words have been archived, the narrative of our time and place will be written without you. And tragically, the stories of people who have struggled the most, and whose suffering and survival and triumph might be most useful to the masses of people are those that are not being collected. When the aids activists of the 80s said silence is death, they could have continued the observation and included oblivion. Speak to history or history will forget you.
I am still filling in the blanks of my story. I have yet to fully embrace the history of the maternal line that is known to me, or been able to engage with an African lineage that I am separated from my calculus of distance and custom. But through my words, individual and collaborative art projects and research, I am weaving together my story and the stories of others. It’s a satisfying sojourn that has become the manner of my service and my art form. Through my columns and exhibits like Spoken History, I hope I can inspire others to travel along.
Special thanks to Ed and Susan Bonni, Kris Burns, Marisol Diaz, Katie Elevitch, Kerri Lee Green and Bonnie Timm.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Scholar Puts Local History on Global Map” © 2016 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.
by Bill Batson
The Reverend Owen C. Thompson has led the flock at Grace Episcopal Church since September 2013. You may have seen the man who prefers to be called Owen around town; sitting in on the bongo drums for a set at GraceMusic, riding a motorcycle or hitting the gym. Father Thompson can also be found rallying for LGBTQ rights or speaking at vigils for black lives silenced by police bullets. Grace’s rector is keeping the beat for a congregation that has a rich tradition of community and creativity.
Father Thompson is the son of the late Right Reverend Herbert Thompson Jr., Bishop of Southern Ohio and the late Ruselle Thompson, a former operatic soprano. Father Thompson has adopted his father’s ministry motto as his own, “To reconcile. To heal. To Liberate. To Serve.”
Father Thompson’s wife, Jonna, is a holistic health practitioner, and they have two young sons, Ridley and Carter.
Father Thompson succeeds the Reverend Richard Gressle, who retired as rector on January 1, 2012. The Reverend Alon White served the church as Interim Rector during the transition and search process.
Grace Episcopal Church was founded in 1861 by Franklin Babbitt. When Babbitt crossed the Hudson on a sailing sloop from Tarrytown, some considered Nyack “an old Dutch place about fifty years behind the times.” At 32, Babbitt swiftly cobbled together a congregation. Two weeks after his arrival at the Burd Street dock, he held his first service and by the end of the month, he presided over a formal meeting where the parish was incorporated.
Babbitt was as much a creative force as a spiritual one during his 56 years as rector. In the early years, he played the roll of organist and choirmaster in addition to his duties as rector and sexton. The greatest legacy to his artistry however, and the enduring symbol of his organizational genius is Grace Church itself. The building functions like a hymn or a painting, elevating those who behold the exterior or experience the acoustics of the interior.
During the course of two interviews, one in 2013 just as Father Thompson arrived in town and an oral history taken as part of the Nyack Record Shop Project interview, here’s he speaks his truth on music and art and the cultural community that is Grace Church and Nyack, coming to Nyack and some of the churches programs.
“There is truly something ethereal and transcendental about music and art.”
“My mother was an operatic soprano who sang on a few occasions at Carnegie Hall, as well as leading roles in off-Broadway musicals such as Carousel, South Pacific, and Porgy and Bess. Our home was constantly filled with the sound and presence of music. When she would sing in the choir at the church we attended during my youth, I, as a toddler would wander up to the chancel and curl up at her feet just to hear her sing.
“It was my mother’s inspiration that led me to join the boys choir at our church and continues to fuel my love affair with music to this day.”Part of what drew me to Grace was its vibrant music program. I was thrilled when I learned that Nyack is a town that is filled with musicians and artists. Call me biased, but I view music and art as that which is rooted in the spirit and brings us closer to one another and points to the mystery that is God, as there is truly something ethereal and transcendental about music and art.
Prior to being called to the priesthood, I was involved in the performing arts (actor) and in the visual arts (video production). The arts are a big part of my identity. I envision the Church hosting a variety of music concerts, spoken word poetry events, and art exhibits. It is therefore my hope and prayer that music and other forms of art can be a vehicle to build lasting and meaningful relationships between the church and the rest of the community.”
Fond memories of a diverse background
“We started our journey as a family in Brooklyn, Fort Green, Willoughby Avenue. I remember playing on the block with this diverse group of kids from all walks of life. We had Jewish and Greek and Italian and Polish and African American, clearly. We would all go to each others’ homes and get acclimated to all of these different kinds of foods and cultures. Every woman was our mother. You’d often hear the clarion call in the neighborhood beaconing everyone in all of these different languages. Even if it wasn’t our mom, we would heed the call and go to their house tell our mother would come home.”
On coming to Nyack
“I longed to go back to the days of Brooklyn and having that community dynamic, so when I heard there was an opening at the church called Grace I said why not. Coming here, I fell in love with the diversity within the community. There arevsome elements that remind me of Brooklyn and to see my kids running around the neighborhood with a diverse set of friends, that’s just icing on the cake. So I love Nyack, I love the social involvement, the social activism.”
Practicing what we preach
There are many cultural and community programs contained within the stone walls and stain glass windows of Grace Church. The music program has four choirs. GraceMusic produces events and festivals, including the annual Welles Crowther Concert of Remembrance , a performing arts tribute to a member of the congregation who sacrificed his life saving others on 9/11.
Amazing Grace Circus, a youth art and fitness program, is another response of the Grace community to the emotional abyss that followed September 11th. The youth circus has now touched the lives of thousands of students and families through programs in public and private schools throughout the region. Father Thompson describes some others and the underlying motivation.
In his Nyack Record Shop interview, Thompson elaborated:
“Grace is a church that responds to the needs of the community. With so many programs and offerings, people can find their place at the table whether they are a seeker, hard core believer, or atheist. They can find solace and find meaning as part of a church that is involved in the community. That is the legacy that I have inherited.
We have Midnight Run, which is a food program. We have a great youth program where our kids every year will go abroad or domestically for service trips. For example, last year we went to West Virginia, this year we are going to Nicaragua, then will go again to West Virginia and then we’ll go to the Dominican Republic. It all began with responding to Hurricane Katrina. What I love about this is that it attracts kids from all over the community, regardless of religion or belief they can come and get plugged in.
And what we’ve had since the 1950s are 12 step groups. The church is seemingly open all the time, but seriously seven days a week and 16 hours a day.
We have a lot of support groups for LGBTQ and trans-families and individuals and we just started Grace’s kitchen a year ago, which is a breakfast program. We are part of the Nyack Hunger Coalition, which we started, all the feeding programs came together and said, what are the holes when it comes to food insecurity, what can we do. We asked about breakfast and boom, we were plugged in. That’s what I love about the church. We are not just sitting back and waiting. This has made my work much more meaningful. It gives me street cred in the community, because we are not some proselytizing, pious, detached, religious institutional group, but a church that practices what we preach.”
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Grace Church” © 2018 Bill Batson.
by Bill Batson
Elegant hats have become the symbol of local civil rights icon Frances Pratt. But when she arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City 62 years ago, she wore a borrowed dress and shoes too tight for walking. On Thursday, April 19, Pratt will officiate the 59th annual Freedom Fund dinner for the Nyack branch of the NAACP at the Pearl River Hilton. From head to toe, France Pratt’s personal story is as bold and compelling as her sartorial style.
Pratt grew up with her mother, four sisters and two brothers in rural South Carolina. An incident from her early childhood shaped her future activism. “I walked into an ice cream parlor with my mother and the clerk said, ‘You can buy the ice cream, but you have to eat outside.’ I had never seen my mother demeaned in that way. If she had spoken up, the clerk would have called the police.”
In May, 1955, Frances, who was attending Friendship College in Rock Hill, South Carolina, learned that she would not be returning to school. “My mother sat me down and said ‘you are going to have to go to work for a while,’” Pratt recalled. “My brother Billy Powell and my mother were not well.” With the support of a teacher, Pratt found a potential employer in New York who would pay her $40 per month that she could send home to support the family. She first had to travel to Clover, South Carolina to pick peaches to raise the $17.50 for her bus fare.
Two years after arriving in New York City, Frances moved to South Nyack into the home of new husband Marshall Pratt. “I met Marshall in Mount Morris Park in Harlem while I was on a field trip with a group of children,” said Pratt. “I was working for a nursery school founded by Dr. Thelma Adair, the first women to serve as an elected Moderator for the Presbyterian Church. Marshall declared that he wore out four tires circling the park trying to see me again. When he found me, we made a date.”
When Pratt came to Nyack, she dreamed of attending the missionary program at Nyack College. “I wanted to go to Addis Ababa in Africa.” But responsibilities to family required that she find a way to serve the world closer to home, so she enrolled in Rockland Community College where she obtained her degree in nursing. Pratt went on to work at Nyack Hospital for 53 years, holding titles including Head Nurse of the Emergency Room and the Office of Employee Health.
This week’s sketch is based on a photo that currently hangs in the emergency room lobby of Nyack Hospital. The lobby as well as a scholarship and a Peace Rose Garden were named in her honor when she retired.
With her typical combination of candor and comic timing, Pratt remarked at the dedication ceremony, “What I appreciate most about this recognition is that it is not about the late Frances Ethel Powell Pratt. I can actually read the plaque and smell the roses!”
In 1981, Pratt was elected President of the local branch of the NAACP. On Thursday night, April 19, Pratt will host the organization’s annual fundraising gala at the Pearl River Hilton. While all eyes will be focused on this year’s keynote speaker, Pastor Stephen A. Green, Pastor of Heard AME Zion Church in Roselle, NJ, people will find it difficult to turn away from Pratt, who always appears in a hat more spectacular than the one she wore the previous year.
Pratt credits her husband Marshall, who passed away in 2002, for her memorable hats. “My husband designed all my hats. He was a talented artist and would always design my hats and coordinate my outfits.” Pratt’s collection of 250 chapeaus were on display at RCC in 2005 for a fundraising event for the NAACP.
One of Pratt’s greatest legacies might be the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. program that has taken place at Pilgrim Baptist Church for the last 31 years. The interfaith, racially diverse event is consistently a standing room only affair.
Nyack Record Shop Project
The Nyack branch of the NAACP joined with the Hopper House and the Nyack, Rockland and African American Historical Societies to collect oral histories of the African American community. Once recorded and transcribed, these stories will be permanently available at the Nyack Library.
Our project was inspired by Carrie Mae Weems, an African American photographer who is one of the most celebrated artists in the nation. Weems interviewd the black community in Beacon, NY in a record shop in 2003 for an exhibit that is currently on display at the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center through Feb. 25.
You can give an oral history by visiting Kiam Records between Tuesday and Saturday.
Tues, Wed, Thurs: noon – 7.
Friday and Sat. 10a – 10p.
“Frances Pratt is one of the most decent, thoughtful people I have ever known. Her fight for the rights of all and her clarity and fairness in pursuing those rights is astounding,” said Nyack Mayor Jen Laird-White.
Pratt’s organizing style is as subtle as her fashion sense is striking. Most people who organize large public events always include themselves on the program, but that is not Pratt’s predilection. But even as she reserves the limelight for others, for many, Pratt’s aphorisms are as memorable as her accessories. When Pratt sets the agenda, her guests get the last word. Today, however, this Nyack Sketch Log will end with a few classic Prattisms:
If you see a turtle on a fence, you know he didn’t get there by himself. None of us got to where we are without help from someone else.
Your pennies you got to watch, the dollars take care of themselves.
You ain’t never seen a U-Haul following a hearse.
Public remarks should be like a lady’s dress…short enough to be attractive and long enough to cover the subject.
Special thanks to Doria Hillsman for the hat photo and Dr. Lori Martin and Paul Adler for sharing some Prattisms.
Hat collecton photo credit: Lloyd Stansbury
France Pratt photo credit: Paul Adler
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: NAACP President Frances Pratt” © 2017 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.
by Bill Batson
When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago this April, the assassin was not just trying to silence a man, but a people. A people who believe in freedom, and who will not rest until it’s achieved. A people who are proud of their ancestry, despite being called inferior and indolent by the dominant culture in America and Europe. But ultimately, it will not be the infamous act of a murderer with a fire arm that might silence the voice of the generation who endured and overthrew the tradition of Jim Crow racial discrimination in America. We could be the culprit – if we fail to record the life story of our elders before they depart.
Would you ever throw out your cell phone without down loading all the memory: phone numbers and photos, password and personal information? That’s what we do when we let our elders go to sleep without down loading their memories.
In some communities, Martin Luther King Jr’s national holiday is commemorated through public service. Starting on January 15, 2018, the Nyack Record Shop Project is hoping that our collective story-telling summit will elevate the practice of recording the personal history of our elders to the status of an essential and routine civic undertaking here in Nyack and other places. I am serving as the director of the project.
We are inspired to preserve the memories of our elders by the work of Carrie Mae Weems. Weems’ work is currently on exhibit at the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center at 82 North Broadway in Nyack through February 25. She is the first recipient of the The Hopper Citation, a legislative award that was authored by New York State Assembly member Ellen Jaffee.
Weems collected oral histories in a record shop in Beacon that informed her large scale photographs. In Nyack, we will spend several days conducting interviews at Kiam Records as homage to her. The use of a store front window on Main Street is a powerful symbol that the stories of a community that were once marginalized are now taking center stage.
The African American community is being asked to consider telling their stories, or reaching out to family members, and neighbors, co-workers, who have lived a life of struggle and substance that deserves to be preserved. Let them know about our project.
Participants are invited to give oral histories at Grace Church at the corner Franklin Street and First Avenue on January 15, at 4pm. Many of the organizers and participants will be attending the Interfaith Commemorative Martin Luther King Service first at Pilgrim Baptist Church at 80 North Franklin at 2p. Grace Church is directly across the street.
If you can not attend the session on the 15th, oral histories interviews will be conducted at Kiam Record Shop at 95 Main Street from Tuesday thru Saturday. The hours from Tuesday – Thursday are noon – 7p. On Friday and Saturday some one will be there from 10am – 10pm. A typical oral history will take 30 minutes.
To register visit edwardhopperhouse.org
Working to make the historic records representative of our village’s demographics will insure that when future scholars write the history of Nyack, the black community will be one of the main character. Every January 15, let’s make mass oral history collection a new way to commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Oral histories will be transcribed and archived by the Historical Society of the Nyacks and made available to the public.
The Nyack Record Shop Project is an initiative of the Edward Hopper House and the Historical Society of the Nyacks, supported by the Historical Society of Rockland County, the Nyack Center, Kiam Records, Rand Realty, Alex Cabraie of Planet Wings, Clare and Bill Sheridan and South Mountain Studio.
This week’s sketch is a drawing of a sculpture entitled Non-Violence by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd that is on display on the grounds of the United Nations in New York. Reuterswärd made this piece afterJohn Lennon was murdered by a gun.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: A New Way to Commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King” © 2018 Bill Batson.
by Bill Batson
In 1884, Nyack, NY was a bustling river community and the commercial heart of Rockland County. This sketch is from a widely circulated map made by L. R. Burleigh. The bird’s-eye view rendering depicts a jumble of homes, businesses and churches. When you take a closer look at this historical document you’ll discover that our 19th century republic on the Hudson was not as indivisible as the promise made in our pledge of allegiance.
The 1884 map has a legend that designated 42 places of interest including ten churches. Eight of the churches are identified by denomination; the last two are listed by sect and by race. When I noticed this detail for the first time, it took my breath away. St. Philip’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which stands today on the corner of North Mill and Burd Street, was listed in the legend as “Zion’s M.E. Church (Colored).” The church now known as Pilgrim Baptist and located at the corner of High Avenue and Franklin Street was identified as “Second Baptist Church (Colored).”
Twenty Five years ago, I travelled to rural Georgia to help a legal team exonerate a death row inmate named Curfew Davis. Needing the exact street address of a Baptist Church where we were expected for a meeting, I called information. When I asked the operator for the listing, in a deadpan drawl, she surprised me with her own question: she wanted to know which Baptist Church. I said I didn’t
Bitter background of sweet bag
My drawing of the L.R. Burleigh map adorns one of my first pieces of Nyack mechanize. Every time I see the tote bag, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. I loved this map, was pleased with my drawing of it, and the tote it inspired, but I can’t shake the ice-water-in-my-veins-feeling I got when I saw that the map’s legend constrained the religious choices of the people of Nyack in 1884 by race. Sometimes I see a sweet drawing. Sometimes I see the old Jim Crow.
know. She asked again and I got her drift. Even though it was 1990, the ghost of Jim Crow ran through the phone and down my spine. When I replied, “the black one,” she gave me the phone number.
I felt the same chill when I noticed the legend of the 1884 map. Was the distinction “colored” made as a boast; a proud assertion that the village accommodated two black churches? Was it a warning to prevent someone from walking into a congregation of clashing complexion: or something more ominous?
I was more saddened than shocked when I confronted the legacy of segregation in the South in the 1990’s. I knew that the removal of overt signs of discrimination, like those posted on water fountains and bathrooms in the 1960’s hadn’t ended racism, but it was sobering to consider that members of the same religious denomination still required separate houses of worship for each race.
When I observed a Jim Crow distinction on a map of Nyack, it was the geography that stunned me. I adopted the hubris of many Northerners, believing that the sins of human bondage were relegated to the South. Nyack should feel proud of our role in the 1800’s Underground Railroad network that helped slaves escape to the North. But if we believe that our landscape is not stained by slavery and segregation, we would be wrong.
As you uncover the more sordid aspects of a particularly contentious period of history, it is easy to think of the people of that era as characters in a period movie. But when the events took place where you live and the characters that navigated the social turbulence were your ancestors, each new detail is like a faint body blow.
My great-grandfather, George T. Avery, was a spokesperson for the black community and a member of Zion’s M.E. church at the time this map was drawn. From our vantage point today, the notation “colored” is an awkward relic of past discrimination. For the members of these two churches, the fact that the distinction was made in such a public fashion was of enormous social and material consequence.
A more noble aspect of our democracy is that we keep these ugly details of our evolution in our documents. We do not pretend that the abhorrent customs of American apartheid never existed. We resist the temptation to destroy the evidence of our troubled past.
You do not need to read far into the Constitution to be reminded that when apportioning congressional seats, black people were counted as three fifths of a person. It would be a profound injustice if some well-meaning printer sanitized copies of the Constitution, or the map of 1884 and removed these examples of racial discord. We honor the progress our society has made, the burdens of people like my great-grandfather and the members of St. Philip’s and Pilgrim, when we publish the unvarnished map of 1884, warts and all.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Warts and All” © 2018 Bill Batson.
by Bill Batson
On Thursday, December 21, outgoing Mayor Jen Laird-White will swear-in Mayor-elect Don Hammond at 6:30p at Village Hall. In a time when democratic norms and constitutional necessities, like an independent judiciary and the freedom of the press are under attack, we need to celebrate the smooth transition of power from one administration to the next. The public is welcome to witness Nyack’s changing of the guard.
During 8 years in Village Hall, (six as Mayor and two as a Trustee), White proved to be a natural as a candidate and public servant. She was also familiar with the topsy-turvy dynamic that incoming Mayor Hammond recently described this way: “first they’ll swear me in. Then they swear at me.”
As a former broadcast journalist, Jen White has been as champion of the arts throughout her tenure. As Mayor, White was instrumental in the founding of the Nyack Art Collective. She helped founding Collective President Tracy Anders-Kachtick establish the First Friday Arts Festival, locate meeting space at Village Hall and manage the growing pains of a nascent non-profit.
When I organized a Flash Sketch Mob of over 100 artists in 2012, Mayor Jen yelled the magic words “Veni, Vedi, Sketchi” into a bullhorn to strategically deploy the art makers along Broadway to create a crowd-sourced portrait of the village.
One of Jen’s first visions for Nyack was a plan to have artists adorn vacant storefronts. Now three year’s into its run, Holiday Windows invites world renowned and local artists to transform a dozen windows into pop-up street level exhibit spaces.
Jen helped welcome Toni Morrison to the village to install one of the author’s Bench by the Road monuments in Memorial Park in 2015, honoring 19th century abolitionist and entrepreneur Cynthia Hesdra, she worked with multimedia artist Kris Burns to create a drive-in movie theatre in the Main Street Municipal artist, supported Paulette Ross through Art Walk’s continued growth as a Father’s Day cultural destination for over a decade and, just last week, she appeared at the Edward Hopper House to support their collaboration with The Historical Society to collect oral histories, the Nyack Record Shop Project, a companion piece for their Carrie Mae Weems exhibit.
Kris Burns produces
a video tribute
Working with Melody Partrick, the village’s Recreation Director (a position created by Mayor White), multimedia artist, Burns edited together short video farewells from Jen’s constituents. The video was recently projected ala Burns, on the side of a building off Main Street. Enjoy the hearfelt goodbyes here.
Before her tenure, Nyack’s reputation as an arts center rested on the laurels of past achievements. Now, Nyack is a mecca for artists and art lovers, a trend that Mayor Elect Hammond can work to cement.
In 2016, Nyack Sketch Log spoke with Mayor White during Women’s History Month. Here are some of the thoughts of Nyack’s third female Mayor on the eve of her departure. Farewell, Jen Laird White and thanks for your service to the village and your support of the arts.
Are there any particular blessings or burdens for women in public office?
Holding public office is no different for men or women today. It’s equally tough for everyone because there has been such a breach in the public trust. This is, however, an exciting moment to be in public life because everywhere you look women are taking on leadership roles in business and government.
Are there any women in politics that inspire you?
Recently, I have had a chance to work closely with our member of Congress, Nita Lowey. I am amazed by her work ethic, passion and fearlessness. She is a total inspiration and we are lucky to have her representing us in Congress.
The Village Board recently passed a resolution in support of Governor Cuomo’s gun control legislation that drew some loud criticism from some people. Were you surprised?
Our gun control resolution seemed important to pass. Doing nothing was no longer acceptable. I have been to Newtown. It is a place much like Nyack. I know families that knew some of the children killed in Newtown. I watched them head off in deep grief to funerals for seven years olds.
It is complicated and difficult to safely own and operate a car and there are many requirements that must be met to do so. It should be that difficult to own and use a gun. So when you consider that in 2015, gun fatalities are predicted to surpass deaths caused by traffic accidents, there is a clear need for responsible policy reform. As a Village Board, we all agreed to support our Governor’s attempt to stop the escalating violence.
The backlash has been quite depressing. My office voice mail was filled with profane vaguely threatening statements about our homes and our children. It made me wonder if people who call a municipal office to make profanity laced threats should have unfettered access to automatic weapons.
Ironically, I grew up in a family of hunters; I am a reasonably good shot myself. I am not opposed to guns. I am opposed to guns whose only possible purpose are mass casualties. I am opposed to guns being in the hands of those who are not qualified to keep them from causing harm and I am opposed to criminals who use guns not being prosecuted to the full extend possible.
Was that the low point in your term so far?
No. The low point was Hurricane Sandy. The devastation was stunning, we still have twenty families without homes. In the immediate aftermath, relief was not easy or forthcoming. During the storm and in the horrible days right after, we lost power, we sustained substantial damage as a community and we lost a life. It was a terrifically difficult time. But our community spirit and resolve was kept afloat by our first responders who tirelessly and without complaint went about saving lives and working to maintain order and restore services.
What has been the high point?
There were actually many high points during those bleak days. The Village Hall steps provided a gathering spot for everyone. One neighbor was more generous than the next. There were guys from Georgia who left their homes and families to patrol our streets to restore power. Even as people suffered their own loss and anxiety, they reached out to others during those meetings. The selflessness was incredible.
How is your family surviving your public responsibilities?
Patiently. My rather quiet husband Richard has had to learn to gab a bit more and my boys Jack and Luke can’t really get in trouble because everyone knows their mother. It’s awesome!
by Bill Batson
Maria Luisa Whittingham is a civic seamstress. She weaves business, social responsibility and family into a garment of retail longevity. From the durable and colorful threads of a matriarchal tradition and her own raw talent, she has created a popular business and brand: Maria Luisa. Here is the global back story of a local fixture.
Where did you learn the merchant tradition?
My first experience with the merchant tradition was very early on in my life. My mother, Carmen Mercedes Colon de Perez, had a bazaar in Cayey, Puerto Rico. I grew up exploring the back rooms and looking under the cases of her general store.
She started the store when she was in her 20s. She had an eighth grade education. When her mother died, she had to go to work and help the family as the eldest. She worked for a department store as their bookkeeper and manager.
When she opened her own store, she carried everything from soap to thread to handbags to dresses.
So your mother was your mentor?
She was my hugest supporter. She was definitely my mentor. For someone with little opportunity, she really maximized what she had. Later in her life, as a stay-at-home mother, she sewed. She was also a great seamstress.
I would sit under her sewing machine and take her scraps and sew. No lessons. I would just get a needle and thread and sew clothes right onto my dolls.
When we moved to the states in 1967, I was in fifth grade. I started sewing my clothes and by middle school, classmates were paying me $15 dollars to embellish their jeans. There was no fashion program at Hillcrest High School in Queens, so they combined art and home economics for me. I was able to produce products as part of my program.
At the end of my senior year, one of my teachers, Mrs. Clara Steiner, was so supportive, she scheduled a fashion show with students as models. I went on to the Fashion Institute of Technology.
What was your first job in fashion?
The first job I had was with London Fog. I was doing rain coats. One of my professors, Mary Ann Ferro, worked there and recommended me. I went to work at 512 Seventh Avenue, the coat building.
The Coat Building?
Yes, it was the coat building, outerwear, coats and suits.
I was the first employee hired out of college. I was there for two or three years. I was the assistant designer. Two of the coats I worked on made it big in the line. One became a best seller, the Freddie. It is so cool when you are standing on the subway platform and you see the coat you designed. It is really exciting.
My next stop was an independent company that designed and produced ice skater outfits. It was interesting and fun. I met a lot of good people there.
Then I went to College Town, a company that was similar in scale to London Fog. It was a big company out of Baltimore. At around this time, I had my son Christopher, and my division at College Town folded so I started working freelance.
Around this time, I went for my physical. My doctor got very serious and he said, “I want you to go have this test, it’s probably nothing at all I concerned about a lump on your ovaries. It’s probably nothing at all, but I am concerned.”
That was the first time I felt mortality, as such; not as a document that says I am going to live a long time, and I can turn in when I am old and it’s time to go. I saw that death can happen at any time. It turned out to be nothing. But it shook me to my core. I had a little baby.
So I went out and bought life insurance. I respected my parents, but I didn’t want to live their lives of always wanting more and having less than I needed. I realized I couldn’t wait.
Is this when you launched Maria Luisa?
I had been writing business plans that went nowhere. But after that appointment, I jumped at it. I saw a little spot when visiting Nyack from Monsey, where I lived at the time.
Where was your first store?
I started downstairs in the mall next to the YMCA in 1987. I started with $2k. I was 30 years old. Everything I sold, I made. I fashioned ribbons into belts, I made silk blouses, lace lingerie. It was half the size of my current back room. I had a friend who I used to ride the bus with. She had beautiful jewelry from France and fabrics that I bought to make my line.
After two moves inside of the mall at 37 South Broadway, I took the leap and opened on the corner of Burd and South Broadway where I stayed for 21 years, until I moved to my current locations at 77 and 75 South Broadway.
What was the business climate like in Nyack in 1987?
I started at the bottom of a business cycle, right after a market crash. I had no major money to lose. I still had a job. At the time, I was freelancing for Putumayo. I was doing all of their technical specifications for India.
Talk the talk
Walk the walk
Bag the bag
For your convenience, Maria Luisa will be open 7 days per week during the holiday season and late on Thursday. But don’t ask for a bag to haul away you social responsible spoils. When it comes to ecology, Maria not only walks the talk, she also engages her customers, employees and fellow merchants in collaborative action.
In 2014, Maria started the “Say No To The Bag Campaign.”
Here is the pledge she invites us to join:
If you agree with me about the need to reduce our disposable-bag consumption, will you join me to “Say No to the Bag”? By choosing to, as a consumer to bring a bag with you not just when at the food market but when heading out for supplies, take-out food or fashion shopping. Please go to our ‘SAY NO TO THE BAG’ and take the pledge.
-As a merchant, employee or volunteer in a retail setting, I pledge that I will always ask “Did you bring your own bag today?” If the answer is no, I will then ask “Will you need a bag today?”
-As a consumer, I pledge to bring a bag when shopping.
Since I started at the bottom, I have always enjoyed growth. I had growth through a good number of years. Then came 9/11. It was a wake up call.
How did things change?
After that tragedy, I had to become smarter about how I bought, how I did business. When things are good you can afford to do a little of this, and a little of that. Today, there is no margin of error. You are already leaning on the negative. You can’t make mistakes.
In the business climate of the last five years, you have to be constantly on the go, on the move. It’s like being on an obstacle course. Everything is in flux.
I hear that you are participating in trade delegations to other countries.
I went to Peru in 2013 for the first time. A representative of the Peruvian government walked into the store and invited me to join a trade delegation.
There have been two trips to Peru. My work is with communities in Lima and Ayacucho. I have developed a group of bags that arrived in September, 2014. They look like pillows, but are interpreted as bags. I use one all of the time.
Some of my vendors are not-for-profit companies like Malia Designs, that use the profits from their sales to reduce human trafficking around the world. The products that they make use already existing materials that are made by communities that are getting empowered also by crafting the product. One example is a bag made from recycled cement bags made in Cambodia.
Maria Luisa Boutique and ML by Maria Luisa are located at 77 and 75 South Broadway in Nyack. You can learn more by visiting marialuisaboutique.com