Six Miles Apart
By Irene Hao & Lauren Vespoli
In the socially distanced era of six feet apart, two Brooklyn-based writers celebrate the beauty and history of their everyday worlds in this visual diary.
Under the Yellow Light
In the tunnel walkway of the Fort Hamilton F train station in Windsor Terrace, I stumble across four sheets of music, blown up and plastered on the left tiled brick wall; titled the “Polka Redowa” by William Dressler in 1852 to be played by a solo piano and dedicated to a Miss Jane Anna Fellows. The polka redowa features a colored lithography front cover of two steamships, small sailboats, and masted tall ships in Fort Hamilton, Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Historically, Fort Hamilton is one of many U.S. army installations in New York that leaves its legacy behind in the streets we walk. The polka redowa is a mid-19th century couple dance, interweaving the polka dance to 3/4 time, introduced in America by the Czechs and Bohemians. Interestingly, there existed a polka redowa (done in 3/4 time) and a redowa polka (done in 2/4 time) then as well.
The official exhibit on Dressler’s “Polka Redowa” can be found at the NY Historical Society, and a video example of the polka redowa can be found here.
Encountering two pieces with historical legacies brings a specific Hamilton scene to mind, particularly when Aaron Burr speaks of General Mercer’s legacy in a street name to Alexander Hamilton. Then, in “The Room Where It Happens,” he sings the following: “God help and forgive me / I want to build something that’s going to outlive me.” Legacy is prevalent in the musical, and often is in the control of those who outlive us, handled posthumously. It’s very likely that Hamilton itself will be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s legacy. What artists and musicians strive for when they make art and music is to be remembered, to be seen and heard, and to not be forgotten, to create something memorable. It’s a selfish desire and the life-binding curse of all creators and makers. And to think Dressler’s legacy, Fort Hamilton’s legacy, and polka redowa’s legacy can all be found in an empty subway tunnel. But here its memory lives on, in an Instagram post made by a high school senior.
– I.H. 🐘
The morning after the snowstorm, I walked from my apartment to Prospect Park. It’s just over a mile, which I learned feels much longer when clomping through the snow in heavy boots. By the time I arrived at the park I was drenched in sweat. But as I trundled across the snow-covered Long Meadow, I felt like I’d entered a different world. Kids bombed down the small hills on plastic sleds. Dogs in little jackets and booties bounded through the fresh powder. Cross-country skiers glided past. I felt like I’d been transported back to my childhood in the woods of New England, when a big storm meant no school and hours of sledding. From beneath the masks and warm layers, I could feel a communal joy emanating onto the lawn that made the “Keep This Far Apart” signs feel out of place, relics from a past dystopia, rather than our current one.
On my way home, I stumbled upon the recently rehabbed Endale Arch. Built in the 1860s, it’s one of the park’s oldest structures and was designed by its original architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The arch was intended to transport park visitors from the chaos of Brooklyn’s streets into the tranquil wilds of the park. I was going the wrong way; the arch was ushering me back from the winter wonderland to the gray reality of already-slushy streets and cranky shovelers clearing the sidewalks. In the middle of the passageway, I stopped for a moment, savoring this cozy cocoon of warm wood and echoing voices. -LV 💬
Across The Station I Met Your Eyes
The closest I have ever been in a movie is when I met eyes with a stranger across the platform of a MTA station. The rumbling of an approaching train; the passengers stepping back from the yellow line; the prolonged stare we shared as the metal procession whizzed between us. There should’ve been that moment, when soulmates meet, when deja vu hits, when the sun sets behind their silhouette and gives their hair an illustrious glow. But all I cared about was standing clear of the closing doors.
Julien Gardair’s 2018 sculpture, “We are each others” is stationed in the Kings Highway and 18 Avenue F train station, an art piece I stumbled upon as I made my way home from a doctor’s appointment. Made out of stainless steel, with seating features and whimsical surfaces, this piece depicts the founding of the Culver train line in the 1900s by European settlers during the expansion of South Brooklyn. Its positive and negative spaces mirror each other across the Manhattan-bound and Coney-Island-bound platforms, with themes of family life and resourcefulness.
Perhaps the next time I sit on the bench waiting for the next train, I’ll meet eyes with the stranger across the rails and see that mirroring, that unreachable yet familiar reflection, that moment of deja vu.
– I.H. 🐘
I was walking through SoHo one winter morning with time to kill. On a whim, I decided to sit for a moment in the Elizabeth Street Garden. I’ve walked by probably hundreds of times, but had never stopped in; was always on my way to somewhere else. For many years, I thought it was a cemetery, with its lichen-flecked statues and uncanny stillness.
The garden might be quiet, but outside its walls, it’s the flashpoint in a fight between green space and affordable housing. This precious acre, formerly a turn-of-the-century school playground, had become a vacant lot by the 1970s. In 1990, it was leased to an art gallery. The owner transformed what had become a downtown junkyard into a sculpture garden, with pear trees, perennials, and an eclectic display of pieces from his collection. By 2012, the garden had become a popular refuge, meeting place, and hideaway. That same year, city councilmember Margaret Chin got permission from the city to use the site for a senior affordable housing development, believing that the land could serve a more urgent need. The garden’s supporters felt differently, and formed a nonprofit and filed a lawsuit against the city to preserve the space. The suit is currently making its way through the state supreme court system. Last year, fashion brand Neighborhood Spot released t-shirts emblazoned with “Save the Garden,” for $35 a pop.
Land is a scarce resource in New York City; to me, the fight over Elizabeth Street is a reminder that what you see as its optimal use depends on who you are and where you sit. As K. Webster, a supporter of the affordable housing proposal told Curbed: “I think it has to do with what people perceived as beauty without any sense that that’s … determined by your culture, your class, you race sometimes, what you consider beautiful.” -LV 💬
I wait outside of the Brooklyn tenement building, wondering: Is a new apartment, a new life on the other side? At my back, the bustle of Myrtle Avenue, which grew from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and its hunger for workers to fuel war. They built battleships, while less than a mile away, at the center of Fort Greene Park, stands a column built to honor victims of another bloody conflict: American revolutionaries who died prisoners of war on ships docked where the Navy Yard stands today. I’m still waiting outside in the bright afternoon sun, wondering, how many have stood on the other side of this door, in hope and anticipation? How many lives lived at this address, and will I be one of them? Every building in this city is a monument for someone. Will this Myrtle Avenue tenement become one of mine? -LV 💬
The aftermath of the interlocking grid-locked pattern of urban streets, the triangular intersections of southern Brooklyn have often been revamped into playgrounds and green spaces, from the Ketchum Triangle to Greenstreets. Often they’re sandwiched between streets, and occasionally span less than a block. Named in commemoration of fallen heroes and figures, these parks carry the legacy and memory of those who came before. Amidst the gray concrete and bustling highways, it’s an oasis of grandmas throwing bread crumbs to pigeons, hidden chirping among the bushes, and unoccupied benches too chilly to rest on and but you still do it to admire the autumn leaves.
But the hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of these relatively obscure parks comforts me, like that joy of belonging to an exclusive club; only you know that this place exists, and it’s your place to relax. It’s the place you can bring someone special to and say, “This is my secret place,” and watch the people and cars zoom by. Or perhaps that’s a highly romanticized perspective on an architectural accident.
But it’s a happy accident, and my safe space.
– I.H. 🐘
You never know what you’re going to find on the streets of Brooklyn. Books, old shoes, furniture, a toilet seat, a valuable family heirloom discarded vengefully or by sheer accident. Especially in the springtime—moving season—it feels like the streets come alive, not just with people emerging from their hibernation period, but with the old stuff they want to shed along with their winter selves. This book, in Park Slope, made me yelp with laughter as I passed by—who hasn’t, sometime over the past year, wished they could give themselves a metaphorical lobotomy? Later googling revealed that the author was only using this sensational title to talk about opening one’s mind for creativity, for the purpose of… advertising, of course. I left the book and kept walking. – LV 💬
Hand-Pulled, Heart Warmed, Stomach Filled
The slap and thud-thud of the dough against the wooden board prompts me to watch more. Over the counter I peered at the magician, twirling and banging and pulling two, then four, then eight, then sixteen strands of noodles. He grabs a fistful of flour and claps his hands as the dust sprinkles across his station like confetti. His performance is an ample appetizer to the heartening broth; a dinner and a show packed in one.
Along the border of Borough and Sunset Park, this stand is one of many tucked away in the back corner of the Fei Long market and food court. From its colorful selection, a childhood favorite has always been the hand-pulled noodle dish, dunked in a spicy soup with pork belly and bok choy. Each loud slurp was a treasure, a jackpot if you manage to uncover a particularly thick strand. Human hands spun these strands, food made from the heart and traveling from hands to mouth to my stomach.
I revisited this place a few weeks ago to witness an empty sea of tables and a few food stands open in what was once a bustling center. No doubt the pandemic has taken its toll. But for such hidden troves to stay when we will all be able to eat out together in restaurants, we must do our best to support local businesses, so that we can all enjoy cheap and hearty meals on the go.
Their hands have made for us fine meals; now it is our turn to lend a hand to them.
– Irene 🐘
A Park in the Sky
Despite its goofy name (an homage to Brooklynite Dr. Edward Robinson Squibb, who founded the pharmaceutical company that would become Bristol-Myers Squibb), and the fact that it’s nestled against a triple-decker highway, Squibb Park feels like a glorious secret. To reach it, you have to either descend from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, or walk up a winding wooden bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park. But when you arrive, the contrast of where you are—a rectangle of crumbling asphalt beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—and what you can see—the sun setting over the East River, the Statue of Liberty and her ever-burning torch—is nearly breathtaking.
On a spring Friday night, I met some friends there, to play pickleball (a mashup of tennis and paddleball). At sunset, the park was full of teen boys: tossing a frisbee, chatting on benches, sipping something out of brown paper bags. When darkness fell, they left, probably home to dinner with their families. We stayed until we could no longer see the ball and, out over the river, the sunset’s embers glowed pink. -LV 💬
We both live in Brooklyn, six miles apart, but in the time of quarantine, six miles felt much farther. This project was our way to bridge the distance when we couldn’t see each other in person. We wanted to experiment with a less conventional medium, and Instagram made it easier to collaborate outside of our pair sessions. We alternated our posts, in order to balance the point of view. When we couldn’t travel much beyond the confines of our immediate setting, Six Miles Apart encouraged us to observe and research our communities, and to go outside more!
Irene Hao is a high school senior, aspiring writer and designer. Since middle school, she has written reviews on the latest novels and albums in addition to covering the lives and reflections of her classmates and herself. A lover of Studio Ghibli movies, Chipotle and Canva, Irene is prone to laughing at the dumbest jokes. She has immensely loved the years she’s spent with her mentor Lauren, whether at Whole Foods, Sunset Park or Zoom meetings, and hopes to stay connected in the future. On the threshold of graduation, Irene eagerly anticipates her college years and whatever comes along her way.
Lauren Vespoli is a freelance journalist and editor based in Brooklyn, NY who has covered everything from karaoke to Coney Island. A lover of baked goods, bike rides and New York City history, she feels incredibly lucky to have worked with her mentee, Irene Hao, for the last three years, and is both sad and very proud to see her graduate.