Freedom’s Corner

Posted: November 19, 2007 in Anthropology, Art, Business, Development, History, New York City, Queens

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By Damian Ghigliotty

Surrounded by uniform sterile brick buildings, a rickety cab pulled up to the corner of 97th Street and 57th Avenue in LeFrak City.

A small group of men in their late-40s and 50s came over to see what Freedom had brought for the day. An old friend, Black, had come to help him unload several brown boxes from the trunk. Duke and C. were the first customers of the morning. The rest had stopped by simply to chat with familiar faces congregating on a familiar street corner.

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom with a smirk of self-satisfaction as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

Freedom’s goods ran the gamut — framed posters of southern blacks on porches, portraitures of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, religious proverbs encased in floral designs, and scenes of a disgruntled Scarface holding a smoking tommy gun. Most cost $8 a piece, or $15 for two, but Freedom was apt to bargain with nearly anyone who asked, bringing more people from the neighborhood over to browse as the day went on.

“This helps the neighborhood,” said Duke, a retired hotel management employee from Ghana, as he paid for two framed posters of silhouetted jazz musicians blowing on yellow saxophones. “Children see the pictures of historical blacks with familiar images from the movies and they ask their parents, ‘what’s that?’ It opens people’s eyes.”

Freedom, who has walked with a wooden cane since he fractured his hip in 2002, decided to sell posters after retiring from the LeFrak City Maintenance Department. Surrounded by several take-out restaurants, an income tax office, two beauty salons, and two sportswear stores, he said he had found the perfect place for cheaply priced artwork; an outdoor market overlooked by other vendors in the neighborhood.

“I’m doing something new and positive here,” said Freedom as more customers showed up to his corner. “This is for the five generations of LeFrak,” he added in reference to everyone living in the community — small children to the elderly.

LeFrak City had always needed a stronger sense of identity, Freedom said, a place where people could stop and chat as they went about their day. One effort was to have the side wall of Fluffy’s Salon on 57th Street painted with a mural of local and historical figures: LeFrak City native, Al Blake; Jackson Heights native, Sen. John D. Sabini, Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan; and local hip-hop artist, Noreaga. Freedom and several community activists, including Al Blake — now the chairman of the LeFrak City Tenants’ Association — organized the project in the summer of 1994.

As the new mural attracted more and more people walking by, Freedom soon thought of commerce in art as another way to bring disconnected neighbors together.

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Outside of LeFrak City, city planners, historians and academics looking in have shared Freedom’s dissatisfaction with a community that lacks an identity despite its racial and religious diversity.

“On a visual level, LeFrak City has always been rather depressing,” said Architectural Historian Barry Lewis. “It’s like being in the middle of nowhere.”

When Samuel J. LeFrak began development along the Horace Harding Expressway in 1960, he and his investors envisioned a self-contained community with the basic essentials — a local grocery store, a local pharmacy, and a few nearby restaurants, surrounded by parks, playgrounds and private homes. In his view, Manhattan was close enough for those who needed to purchase luxury items.

Lewis said that in an effort to suburbanize parts of New York City, the movers and shakers behind community projects like LeFrak City and Stuyvesant Town failed to predict the shortcomings of their developments. Suburbanization never came to fruition as those “progressive thinkers” expected, he noted in a tone of sarcasm. Especially once New Yorkers realized what a neighborhood without bustling streets would actually look and feel like.

“People in the city gravitate to where the shopping streets are,” said Lewis. “Shops attract social activity. They’re the microorganisms of the city people love — older folks chatting, young kids hanging outside of candy shops.”

After LeFrak’s vision of a prepackaged suburban community in Queens began to collapse in the mid-80s, the area become notorious for gang violence and drug deals, a reputation the neighborhood still carries today, even though crime has dropped with the rise in Eastern European and Muslim immigrants.

But with a continual lack of interest among landowners and private investors to diversify the neighborhood’s commerce, individual efforts have only amounted to small accomplishments on small scales.

Most days, when Freedom isn’t offering framed posters for sale, he sits outside of Fluffy’s Salon, helps sweep up, and sells packs of Newports for $4, which he buys in bulk for far less.

“I get frustrated sometimes, because everyone around here has their own agendas,” he said, gazing across the street at a group of young teenagers. “One day I’m going to get myself a big stage right on this corner, and then everyone will see what I’m trying to do.”

After the sale of his last poster, Freedom’s spot to one day run his own flea market became encompassed by the slumped shadow of an unemployed community member struggling to get by. With no financial support from the LeFrak Organization since his injury, it has been hard for him to support a family, let alone a community.

“I guess that’s it until the next batch comes,” Freedom said with a sigh as he picked up his cane and headed home.

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Comments
  1. Craig says:

    Lefrak needs more community members like Freedom

    Nice piece

  2. A. Sheff says:

    It’s interesting to see how gentrification can be a blessing and a curse…

    The problem with NYC these days is that as soon as the ball gets rolling it doesn’t stop.

  3. Laura says:

    I agree, but Lefrak needs a small dose.

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