One July Sunday, just off Newkirk Plaza in Brooklyn — between the yellow facade of a laundromat and the red awning of a bodega — the mellow strains of a saxophone floated over a crowd of about 150. The Haitian jazz guitarist Eddy Bourjolly introduced the song “Complainte Paysanne,” and the band serenaded the street.
This was a kickoff event for Open Streets, a series of Sunday concerts that will run through the end of August in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. It is hosted by 5 p.m. Porch Concerts, one of a handful of groups that have taken root around the Ditmas Park neighborhood since the pandemic began. Operation Gig, which connects local musicians to paying gigs, began last July. Artmageddon, an art and music festival on the porches and in the gardens there, saw its first installment this June.
As to-go cocktails — and (hopefully) outdoor birthday parties in frigid January — become a thing of the past, some rituals that have developed during the pandemic are here to stay in the city. The nascent arts and music scene around Ditmas Park — a neighborhood nestled in Flatbush, below Prospect Park — appears to be one of them.
Robert Elstein, an artist and public-school teacher who organized Artmageddon, plans to hold its next installment in October. Last time, paintings and sculptures from groups like Flatbush Artists and Oye Studios were on display in yards and in the Newkirk Community Garden. The neighborhood has always counted artists and musicians among its residents, but because of the pandemic they were suddenly staying put, Elstein said.
“Our world went from being the entire world to just our local community, no matter where we were,” he said. “And because of the neighborly spirit and creativity of the residents of Ditmas Park, we saw what we saw.”
The quiet, leafy area of Ditmas Park is known better for its Victorian houses than concert venues (in fact, there’s a dearth of them), but it became a musical destination in the city in 2020 thanks in part to the wiry 70-year-old saxophonist Roy Nathanson.
Beginning in April of last year, he played “Amazing Grace” from his second-floor balcony in Ditmas Park every evening at 5 sharp — a soothing change from the constant wail of sirens then. Soon a motley crew of local musicians — including the pianist and composer Albert Marquès — took shape, and they joined him in playing that hopeful hymn for 82 days straight.
Last May, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and New Yorkers took to the streets to protest police brutality, Marquès did too.
“I was playing for the community, we were doing all those things,” he said in a video interview from Spain this month. “And I was going to the protests. So in my mind, both things had to connect somehow.” That connection took shape as Freedom First, a series of jazz concerts around New York he organized around a cause, raising funds to support Keith LaMar, a death-row inmate in Ohio who is fighting to be exonerated for a crime he says he did not commit.
Last summer, 5 p.m. Porch Concerts pivoted to hosting mostly jazz performances, and began offering outdoor lessons to young musicians in middle and high school in June of 2020. After going mostly dormant over the winter, they started “porch jams” in April; this series, held on Sundays at 5 p.m. on East 17th Street, will resume in mid-August.
Another group, Operation Gig, founded by Aaron Lisman in July 2020, has been bringing live music to Ditmas Park, and paying local professional musicians for their work, for a full year now. Especially during a pandemic, he said, musicians should not be expected to play for free.
There’s no overhead for shows like these, and no booking agent or venue. Each concert averages between $300 and $500 in crowd funding (think Venmo), by Lisman’s estimate. The record collected for a performance was around $1,000 — more than some music clubs in the city pay. At a recent event, they announced a suggested donation of $10 per person, $20 per family. Many young families attend, as do older people.
“They’re not going to be going to Manhattan, period, let alone to clubs,” Lisman said. “So they are sort of an untapped market, and it turns out that doing music on porches — which turns out to be really beautiful and special — is a perfect way to tap that market.”
On the same Sunday in July, music, folksy and bright, could be heard down Buckingham Road, an area lined with beautiful old Victorians. A stroller brigade was parked on the grass. Through the trees emerged a Japanese-style, bright red stucco-covered box of a house, trimmed in forest green and built at the beginning of the 20th century. Below the porch, a white-haired couple held hands. Toward the fence, Amy Bramhall of Copper Spoon Bakery presided over a table of free cupcakes, macarons and cookies.
Gloria Fischer, the homeowner for 40 years, listened to the four songwriters in-the-round at the Operation Gig event — Scott Stein, Andi Rae Healy, Jeff Litman and Bryan Dunn — from her porch. Sporting teashade sunglasses with purple-swirled frames, Fischer said that over the past year alone, she estimates she has hosted around 50 Operation Gig shows.
“I think that it actually gave me an emotional lift,” she said. “Because it was obviously such a dent” during the pandemic.
Operation Gig has sprouted offshoots: The fiddle player and singer Melody Allegra Berger has taken charge of a weekly Operation Gig Bluegrass Sesh on Sundays at various locations. On Saturdays, she runs her own Stoop Sesh nearby in Park Slope.
“When you’re a hustling creative type in New York, you just get used to having to adapt and having many things going on at once,” she said. “So it was like, ‘Oh, well that whole revenue stream is gone.’ And we made this happen instead.”
Last summer, 5 p.m. Porch Concerts started a program of outdoor lessons, pairing professional musicians from the neighborhood with kids aged 10 to 18. At the Open Streets event, which will make Newkirk Avenue a car-free zone on Sundays through the end of the summer, the Multigenerational Playing for the Light Big Band performed, featuring teachers alongside their students.
Aaron Scrimgeour, a melodica player, said that inspiration for the lessons came from “knowing the amount of musicians doing different and interesting things that live in the neighborhood, and the amount of kids who could have access to what I think is really a cool opportunity.”
Among Scrimgeour’s students is the pianist Rhonasha George, 15. At the Open Streets event, she sang a song she had written, “Outside My Window,” her fire engine red braids matching her dress. The song comes from a poem George wrote with the informal music school last summer. Over Zoom, teachers asked students to visualize what happened in the neighborhood around them during the pandemic.
For George, that meant writing about an old man outside of her window caught in a summer storm, with no coat and no umbrella. But like the city itself, “he was OK. And he was actually stronger and healthier than anything,” George said. And like the city, she added, “He knows how to come back.”
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