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Rusty Zimmerman

Oral history interview conducted by Candace Thompson

March 09, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.2.08

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THOMPSON: Today is Thursday, March 9 at 11:00 a.m. I am Candace Thompson working on behalf of Brooklyn Movement Center. And I am with Rusty Zimmerman, and we are here at his place on Bergen Street between Bedford and Franklin Avenue. This interview is for the Brooklyn Historical Society's Voices of Crown Heights project. So Rusty, now if you would please, again, introduce yourself, giving your full name, birthdate, and where you were born.

ZIMMERMAN: Good morning. My name is Rusty Zimmerman; Russell Avery Zimmerman on a birth certificate issued on [date redacted for privacy], 1979 in Englewood, New Jersey.

THOMPSON: Fantastic. So I thought we would start at the beginning, kind of like we did the other day. And if maybe you could just tell me a little bit about your background, and how you landed here in Crown Heights.

ZIMMERMAN: I was born in New Jersey, shipped off to Mexico, raised early on in 1:00Louisiana. Child of an itinerant single father who worked a lot, and had a penchant for-- a disregard for authority. So he got fired a lot, and so we just kept moving. Took us to California. Did some schooling in Oregon, double-backed to Oakland, California. And then I came to New York City on August 11, 2005 with dreams of being a professional freelance illustrator, making pictures for books and magazines, posters for theatre, painting for reproduction and publications. Yeah, everything from movie posters to the man on the Quaker Oats box, was done by a woman named Nancy Stahl. Seven and a half 2:00years ago, I want to say, on November 29, 2009, I landed in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I came here because this was, as so many people say, the place that I could afford at the time-- being roughly 30 years of age at the time-- and wanting to have my own apartment, and a place where I could paint these pictures for books, and magazines, and anything else in my own home since studio space in New York City was even more out of my reach as a so-called working artist.

THOMPSON: And what -- How would you describe your perceptions of Crown Heights when you first arrived here?

ZIMMERMAN: When I first arrived in Crown Heights, I think it was actually a year before I moved here. I was looking for an apartment with my then girlfriend and dog. And we looked at a place about five houses down to the 3:00right at 988 Bergen Street in a building called "the Rexbury," says the concrete engraving on the front of the building. And I decided I don't want to live here. And my rational was there's too much broken glass and chicken bones on the sidewalk. I had a dog at the time, and my dog was peculiar in that he would eat anything that he found on the ground. And I used to have to pry broken glass out of his mouth because he would just pick it up because he was raised in an environment of food scarcity before he came to me through a shelter. And just the, the physical concentration of: To try this on the street, that I 4:00would have to pry out of my dog's mouth as-- like, this is not the place. But a year later, that dog had bit enough people that I had to put him down, and me and that lady had split, and it was time for me to have my own place. And so I did. And I, as chance, universe, [unintelligible], whatever it is, kismet brought me right back to the very same block by a realtor over at Rapid Realty, formerly on Franklin between Dean and Pacific. And they had what they called "a no fee apartment hunt," which meant that the landlady would pay the broker's fee. And I didn't meet the landlady right away, but I met her niece-- who I call "Yvette" because that's her name-- and she showed me the apartment. And I walked in, and I offered as I had like a lump sum of money that I had inherited 5:00from my grandfather when he passed away. And it gave me the wherewithal to just say, "If you'd like, I can pay a year's rent in advance if you'll consider taking the asking price from $1,200 a month down to $1,100 a month." And they said, "I think that'd be okay." And I didn't even have to, like, hand over the money; they just dropped $100 off the asking price. So now I had a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment on Bergen and Franklin in 2009 -- which was not, you know, the Franklin Avenue that you see today in 2017 -- for $1,100 a month which included utilities, gas, and electric, which is relatively uncommon. So I haven't paid a Con Ed bill or a National Grid bill in quite some time, and 6:00I like it that way. I try to be conscientious to my landlady, whose name is Margaret Joan Hussein. She lives in Trinidad now, but she used to live with her dear departed husband, Mr. Jay, Johnny Hussein, downstairs. But to this day, I still cut my rent check between the first and the fifth, put it in an envelope, and I write it to Auntie Joan. And I just -- The other day on Facebook, of all things, my landlady accepted my friend request from all the way in Trinidad. And I wrote her to say, "Auntie Joan, we miss you." And I realize when you have that good of a relationship with your landlady that you genuinely miss her, you got a good thing going in New York City.

THOMPSON: I agree. Yeah, that's pretty rare. And in this building, you still live with her children? Is that correct?

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. So I live in this building at 972 Bergen which I believe was 7:00purchased in the '70s by my landlady, Margaret Joan Hussein for something like $68,000. There's a website somewhere where you can go online, and it's sort of like Google Maps and property information had a baby together. So you can click on any address and it will tell you what the building is zoned for, it's estimated retail value, who the owner is, what the square footage is inside and outside, and maybe even contact information for that landlord. It's a city website. That famous ex-girlfriend of mine used to work for the city, for the Department of Health, so she pointed me to this website back when I first expressed an interest in the hypothetical property ownership in Brooklyn, New York, which appears to have eluded my grasp. At the time that I moved in in 2009, this building that I live in with Yvette and her daughter Missy upstairs 8:00-- was, I believe, a niece of my landlady -- and her other daughter, Rhonda Elliot, and her husband, Lukal Powell, and their kids Savion, Candace, and Daniel. So I basically fell into this family. When Savion Stevens first walked into my apartment, he said, "This is my apartment" because he had grown up in my bedroom. And he was about ten years old. He found out I was an artist. He said "Yeah?" and he ran downstairs. And then he brought back this eight and a half by 11 pencil drawing of Bugs Bunny and he said, "Bugs Bunny," and he held up this piece of paper. And he threw up his hands as if dropping a microphone and said, "What?" And I was, I was so enthused to meet this kid who almost made 9:00it up to my shoulder. And I would later give him chess lessons and painting lessons as a way of deliberately ingratiating myself to my landlady so that my rent would stay low. Thankfully, it has; only risen about $150 over the course of seven years. So now I pay $1,250 with all utilities included and that's fantastic, far as I can tell. Comparatively, I'm told that the place next door, a similar sized apartment, now goes for about $2,100 a month. And I can't fathom that. I would literally not be able to afford to live in Crown Heights if I had to move here today. But yeah. This house, when I moved here, was roughly valued -- I found from this website -- at about $385,000, if I remember 10:00correctly. And recently, Missy -- who's my neighbor's adorable misanthropic 12-year-old, now going on 21 -- she said that she gets bothered by people who come to the door and offer $1.4 million cash if we'll just sell the house, so they can presumably tear it down and put up a four to six unit condo as has been done at like three or four other places on this block. Walter Wilson -- may he nearly rest in peace, he's in convalescence right now -- he's lived all 84 years of his life on this block. He would point to this condo over here -- I want to say 955 -- and he'd say, "I remember when that building was a horse stable. It 11:00was before the war, of course." And I'd say, "Which war?" And he'd say, "Well, World War II." And he used to run errands for a nickel on his bicycle and had to watch out for the trolley tracks that ran down Bergen and down Franklin. So it's been a treat to have access to oracles of living history on this block. And you know who else used to be on this block was a big fellow named Aaron, and his cousin Tony, and a man named William Me-Roc Lilley ran an ice-house. A lot of people thought it was a front because they're like who sells ice? Turns out he sells ice, and supplies ice for a lot of local bars and restaurants 12:00throughout Brooklyn. And I got to know these folks through the portrait project after we were all neighbors, and the ice house got torn down so that they could build this condo at 955 where the horse stable used to be. And now the Hailstone Ice is on Franklin and Saint Marks, just one block over.

THOMPSON: Great! So that was a great segue. So can you--? Can you tell me--? I was going to ask kind of about your artistic training that you kind of covered that, but what made you decide to make--? What is and what made you decide to make the Free Portrait Project?

ZIMMERMAN: The Free Portrait Project is a thing that developed organically from a selfish place wherein I wanted to be a better painter. I would like to be a 13:00professional portrait painter. I'm currently pulling that off right now, so that feels kind of dumbfounding and amazing. But it was born from me wanting to be better at what I do. I used to sit with friends and neighbors as free models, essentially, to take four hours out of a given day once or twice a week, maybe, to say how fast can I paint a portrait? Can I -- What can I get done in four hours? How much information can I put onto a canvas? And what I found in this practice is that I was slowly, steadily getting better, doing maybe like 60 portraits in a year. And that felt great, and I could watch the development, and I could watch my style -- if you could call it that -- begin to take shape. I was finding my voice, essentially. But I needed more practice; once a week 14:00wasn't enough. I knew that, you know, to follow that Malcolm Gladwellian in principle of knocking out your 10,000 hours until you can qualify as genius in your craft, I need to work harder, and faster, and more disciplined. But it's difficult to get one person to come and sit for you in New York City where everybody has their full-time job, and their part-time job, and their dream job that they're pursuing at night, and their significant other, or their pet. So there are people who you live right alongside in a, say, a six-block radius who you might not see in three months, and you call them friends, and you yearn for quality time with those friends. But everybody's so busy living their New York life that it's really tough to get quality time. So what I found is that when you sit down with a person, and you stare them in the face for four hours, and you both decide to turn off your telephones, and your other devices, and your 15:00screens, and you just talk, it's like quality time concentrate. And I found out things about people who I had regarded as friends, but I was like, "I didn't know you had a twin brother. I didn't know you went to Boston College. What did you study there? We've never discussed these things. You were once married before? Wow!" And so I got to know the people around me in a much more bracing and intimate way. And that was only magnified when the portrait project started in earnest because I realized that I couldn't afford a model every day, being a non-paid portrait painter. And I could give these things away, but how would I make a living? I said, "What about crowd funding?" Everybody's crowd funding 16:00everything now from, you know, self-powered bicycle lights to devices that tell you how far you've walked. I don't worry about these things, but I know that if my friends can put together the production costs for their forthcoming EP by asking all their friends for $10, then maybe I can raise, I don't know, $6,000 so that I can have $3,000 to live on for two months and knock out maybe 40 portraits. And who knows what I'll earn by the end of that. And I talked to a friend who works in crowd funding and getting projects off the ground. I always endorse talking to people who are smarter than me. I said, "Do you think I could raise $6,000 to do this?" He said, "You could raise $26,000 to do this. Like, you could do this for a year if you wanted to. You just have to -- If 17:00you're going to crowd fund it, you have to make it impactful to an audience outside of your network. You have to reach people who don't know you and convince them that what you're doing is a worthwhile endeavor." "How do I do that?" He was like, "Document a community. If you're going to paint pictures of people, like paint a whole community. Is there a community around you that you think is worthy of documentation?" I was like, "I don't know. I mean, like, trans-folks are all the rage in the news right now. Maybe I should, like, document trans-peoples. I heard people are doing that. You know, put a human face on this frequently otherized segment of the population. Or you know what else we've got going on is like a nasty nationwide rash of unarmed Black men being shot by the police with little or no repercussion on the officers who are perpetrating these acts of violence and, in frequent cases, murder, as a technical term. How about I do portraits of Black folks who have been killed by 18:00the police, along with the people who shot them, and then put a human face in a historical narrative of both of those people side by side to further complicate the issue of, like, what if we had to approach both of these people as people and not just cartoon character of victim and villain, really get to know people at a nuanced level?" And my buddy was like, "Oh, that's cool and all, but what about Crown Heights? Don't you live in Crown Heights?" I said, "Yeah." And what I always tell folks is that Crown Heights, at the time, was the most-rapidly changing, rent-risingest neighborhood in New York City, fabled and famed for its cultural diversity. But folks don't actually interact as well as 19:00they could across cultural boundaries. The Chabad-Lubavitch set that settled here-- just prior to 1946 when the rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, came to town-- tend to stay in their own pocket closer to Kingston Avenue. And the rapidly gentrifying set around Franklin Avenue tends to keep towards Franklin Avenue. And it's just now, like, bleeding towards Nostrand and beyond. One young rabbi, Mordechai Lightstone, told me, he said, "I saw a photo -- I saw young White girls with little dogs taking Instagram selfies on the corner of Albany and Eastern Parkway, and that's how I knew this neighborhood was over." [laughter] But how did this whole project get started? That's kind of how the whole project got started. I crowd funded. I ended up raising $50,000 or so to 20:00give 200 portraits to people in my neighborhood of Crown Heights, regardless of their ability to pay for such a thing. At the time, I think I was charging, like, maybe $300 for a four-hour oil sketch -- At the time, I think I was charging maybe $300 for a oil sketch portrait from life that I used to give away free. But once upon a time, I was a married person and to raise money then for my wedding, I had a sale on these things that I'd been giving away, announced on Facebook. Back then, you could make a promoted post, circa, you know 2013, 2014. And any individual could spend seven dollars to make whatever they had to say go to the top of all their friend's feeds. And I had about 1,200 people 21:00that I was connected to at the time. And each one of them saw Rusty was having a sale for $200 to paint a picture to pay for his wedding. And I was able to raise $10,000 that way, which I thought was pretty incredible. And that's when I realized, like wait a second, this could be my job. Like I was just doing this for fun, really. But in the process of painting everybody in the neighborhood -- doubling back to the origins of the project -- I kind of had to talk to everybody in the neighborhood. And, you know, the first time I met Mordechai Lightstone, it was on Twitter and he was talking about, "You're going to do what? You want to, you want to document Crown Heights? I hope you're not going to leave out the Jews." I said, "You know what? Can you introduce me to 'the Jews?'" And sure enough, he did. He took me over to 770 Eastern Parkway, 22:00which is the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch, and gave me a tour of the building, and the archives, and showed me pieces of parchment. And I always mention this fellow Gutenberg who made a printing press in, like, 1520s-ish. And they were like, "Well right down the right, there was this other Berg who was a nice Jewish boy, and he had a printing press, too." Anyway, so these are from his press, and they're old Torah passages on crumbling paper, under glass, from like 1530. And I'm like, "This is just here, and anybody can just walk in and see it?" And he's like, "Yeah!" And I'm like, "I know some tattoo artists who would lose their mind to see this, like, ink on parchment that's nearly amber and translucent." And there are treasures in this place that we walk 23:00past every day because we walk past doorways that we feel don't apply to us. Lynette Joy Arthur is about 43 years old now, and she had a daughter that grew up with her in their place for 20 years on the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, right across from the Jewish Children's Museum, which unfortunately -- to time-stamp our, where we are now -- just received a bomb threat yesterday and had to evacuate because we've had a nasty rash of anti-Semitic bomb threats going around nationwide since our forty-fifth president was elected. But she didn't bring her daughter to this children's museum because she said, "I thought that didn't apply to us. I thought we wouldn't be welcomed there because we're not Jewish, we're from Trinidad." And I thought that was so sad. And by chance, the next week I painted a portrait of Devorah Halberstam, who is the 24:00founder of the Jewish Children's Museum, and I told her about her neighbor across the street who had never been in there in 20 years. And Devorah Halberstam, back away from the microphone, said, "That's crazy! Everybody should want to come in here! Everybody should be welcome!" And sure enough, she's right. So I asked Devorah if she would allow me to bring in the people who had been painted for a day at the Jewish Children's Museum. We still have yet to put that together, but she's a woman of good faith and a wonderful lady. So now that I have some free time on my hands, now that I'm done painting 200 pictures, that's-- I'm glad we had this talk. I think I'll go ahead and put that together. So yeah.


ZIMMERMAN: But enough about me.

THOMPSON: So, [laughter] nope, nope, nope. There's still more. So how many people overall did you have -- How many people overall did you have apply to sit 25:00for you? Or how did you source your 200 subjects?

ZIMMERMAN: In order to source my subjects of who would be painted, who would be documented, who got to sit for a portrait, I had to do a lot of outreach. I had to notify the 125,000 people between Washington and Ralph, and Atlantic and Empire, and that little corner of East New York Ave that bind, boxes this neighborhood in, that this opportunity would be available to them. And that, you know, if you feel like sitting for a picture, if you feel like owning an oil painted portrait of yourself or you know somebody who would like such a thing, it will be available to you free of charge. I needed people whose voices were bigger than mine, who-- I realized quickly that when I went to see Pastor Robert Madison over at the church, Washington Temple, on my own block, which I 26:00had to freely admit to a deacon there: I'd been living here across the street for six and a half years and I've never come to say hello, I've never been inside this building. I had to do a lot of uncomfortable admission at the outset. But I realized that if I wanted to talk to all 300 people in this church right now, one by one, I wouldn't be able to. People would just walk by faster than I could get a hold of everybody, even just to hand them a flyer. But if I paint a portrait of a pastor and I get him to come sit for me, he has a mouthpiece to all these 300 people. Then, then I can, you know, have Pastor Robert Madison get up on stage in front of all these people, and speak on my behalf, and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I met this young man. Here's what he's doing in the neighborhood. And he would like to invite you all to sit for a portrait, so I'm going to invite him up on stage for a moment." And so that's 27:00what I ended up doing with Senator Jesse Hamilton, and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, and sending tweets to be retweeted by Assembly member Walter Mosley, and so on, and so forth. Council members Eugene, and Cornegy, and Mealy, and meeting with all of their reps who handle constituent services so that I could at least get the word out in their newsletters. And then, like I said, I always ask advice from people who are smarter than me, and usually that's bartenders because bartenders know everybody and everything because everybody tells bartenders everything. And I asked my bartender, Scott Mason, who lives in Chinatown, but worked four days a week at Catfish on the corner of Bedford and Prospect. I brought him a brief, a two-page statement, about the project before it had started, to say, "What do you think? Do you think this can work?" He said, "What did the community board say?" And I said, "What's a community 28:00board?" And he told me, and he introduced me to somebody on the board. And I started going to community board meetings every month, and m-- getting up during the open comment segment where anybody could make an announcement. And I'd say, "Hi everybody. My name's Rusty Zimmerman. I'm a portrait painter. I painted the governor's portrait for his campaign posters and now I want to paint you, if you'll have me. You can pick up a flyer at the back of the table, or I'll be on-hand to answer any questions you might have." And that's how Irwin and Marta Tanenbaum approached me and said, "That sounds like a lovely project. Yeah, we'd-- please keep us in the loop." So I got to paint both of them. And the stories that Marta Tanenbaum had; no idea. And she's the reason why I brought a microphone, really, because I knew that people would have really amazing things 29:00to say. I was told there was a woman in the neighborhood, 94 years old, named Yolanda Clark who had stood one back and four to the left of Dr. King on the steps in Washington during his famous "I have a dream" speech. And having been a married person at the time, I didn't want to come back and tell my wife, "You should have heard the things this woman had to say. Oh my God." Nor my friends and family. I was like, "Oh people are, people are going to benefit from hearing each other's stories and finding out that such rich experience has been living right next to them if they would just walk in the door and say hello. Even if they're afraid that they will be otherized or that they'll be viewed as unwelcome. Even if they are unwelcome at first. That's how the service component of the project got started, by hearing about two women who felt like 30:00they couldn't talk to each other from across the street. I would ask Devorah Halberstam will you let Lynette come in free of charge with her daughter. And she said, "Yes, of course." It's a simple thing I can do. And I asked a young yeshiva boy, "Will you go to this Black barbershop who first pointed you toward 770 Eastern Parkway when you came here from Florida to study the Torah? Will you go sweep the floor at their place once a week on a Friday before you go down for Shabbos?" He said, "Yes, I will." And I asked, you know, a young Black tattoo artist, "Will you go see the archives at 770 Eastern Parkway? Will you meet with this rabbi? He'll walk you in. Will you just walk in the doorway? 31:00That's all I'm asking you to do." So that's kind of how that came about. I might have deviated from the initial question.

THOMPSON: You're reading, you're reading my script here.

ZIMMERMAN: I try, I try. I can't read upside-down.

THOMPSON: [laughter] Oh, good. I just want to check.

ZIMMERMAN: How are we on battery life?

THOMPSON: Oh, I'm plugged in, so that's not the issue. I was just checking the noise floor -- Oh, boy.

ZIMMERMAN: Speaking of noise and floors.

THOMPSON: Let's see. Okay, great.

ZIMMERMAN: I'm just grabbing a quick sip of coffee. Can I offer you one?

THOMPSON: Yeah, get your coffee. No, I'm okay. Thank you. Man, you've done a very good job so far of answering all the things I had written down.


[Interview interrupted.]


THOMPSON: Oh, thank you.

ZIMMERMAN: What's next, boss?

THOMPSON: Okay. So next, I was hoping you could walk me through what a typical -- When we'd spoke before, you had talked to me kind of -- You had said there was always two clutch moments in one of your interviews. Talk me through, kind of, how a typical portrait session went for you.

ZIMMERMAN: In a typical portrait session, it began with a sequence of emails first. Before anybody walked in the door, there was an email that I would send out to people who had applied online through the portal where people could sign 33:00up. And I would send out an email to everybody who had signed up. I think there was 376 people online, and then another just pile of people who had just personally petitioned to be like, "How about me? Pick me! Pick me!" And I'd be like, "Please go to the website and sign up. And then you'll get the emails. This is how to do it." "What about my mom?" "Please have your sign up." "My mom doesn't use the internet." "Please sign up on your mother's behalf so that when I send out an email announcing available dates, you will receive it and it'll be first come, first serve at the outset," just so that I can get people onto my calendar because I committed to doing 200 in a year, and I j-- needed to stack my calendar ASAP. And then people would say, "Can I get Monday the twelfth at 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.?" And I'd say, "Yes." And then I'd get a 34:00nice Jewish lady who said, "How come you don't do on Sundays?" And I was like, "Well, I want a day off." "Well, you should do Sundays so that we can participate." And I was like, "You know what, you're right. I hate when you're right, but you're right." So I would send these emails. People would book and say, "Can I have?" And then I'd say, "Yes, you have." Then I took a sticky note from my computer desktop and I wrote out "How to Prepare for Your Portrait." I had sequences of correspondence algorithmically set out on sticky notes because I didn't want to have to write the same back-and-forth emails to 200 or so people. And so I wrote a story called "How to Prepare for Your Portrait Sitting" since most people in the world have never and will never do 35:00this, sit for an oil-painted portrait from life, that is. People don't know what to expect. They're like, "Do we talk the whole time? We talk the whole time? Should -- What should I -- What should I wear? Will I look at you or do I look over there?" I'd say, "It's your fucking portrait. You can wear whatever the fuck you want. We're only going from the sternum to the top of your head. If you happen to keep your hair in a tall, kind of gips and girlesque bun, and that's your signature look. That's what you want to preserve right now. This is you right now. This is who you are. You put forth whatever you want. You are the author of your own fucking story right now. So just show up how you want. But before you do, get a good night's rest because if you're sleepy, you're going to look sleepy forever in this painting. And if you're thirsty, bring a beverage. And if you're hungry, bring a snack. And if you're a nice person, bring a snack for me, too, because I'm living on donations here. 36:00And I'd like to get to know you better. So if you're the type of person who only eats kosher and, like, says, 'I know the best bagels at Bunch-O-Bagels over on Kingston,' I'd love one. It would be an educational experience for me. Or if you're an old Black woman from North Carolina who digs on fried chicken skins shook out of a bag, I want to eat that, too." So Evangeline Porter brought me a bag of fried chicken skins, and Yankee Pearson brought me like the best bagel from Bunch-O-Bagels. And each person walked into my doorway as a stranger. So, in a given day-- how this would work is-- people would walk into my office at 1000 Dean number 416, which conveniently rhymed. Took the elevator up to the fourth floor. Followed the signs that said, "The Free Portrait Project, this way; down the hall", to my door that said, "We are Crown Heights" in chalk on 37:00the front of it. And into this 666 foot-- square foot-- place that was graciously, heavily subsidized by Don Capoccia and the folks over at BFC Partners who were one-third owners at 1000 Dean. And Council Member Cumbo had told me I could ask this man for $10,000 and he wouldn't blink. And so rather than that, I asked him for free studio space for a year and $10,000, just in case he would say yes. He ended up not saying yes to the money, but-- and instead of free studio space, he gave it to me for $500 a month including utilities with no broker's fee, kind of like my apartment. And for a place that they would normally charge upwards of $2,000 a month for. So that was, that was a huge blessing, and it drastically reduced my overhead so that I could pull all of this out for $50,000 in a year. People would come and they would, they would 38:00sit in this chair that I'm sitting in now or an old blue one that has since fallen apart from people rocking back and forth in it, and laughing, and just having a good time in my chair. But after a while, there were enough like nonagenarians like near to the chair that I was like, I can't afford for that thing to fall. Let's switch to the more stable one. I'd set up a microphone attached to a laptop between the two of us. We would crack open whatever beverage that people had brought to share, whether it was green juice, or Starbucks coffee, or a bottle of wine, or a bottle of bourbon. One gentlemen brought a weed pen. I thought that painting was amazing at the time. That painting is now pretty okay. [laughter] But it was, but it was a great time that he and I had. David Segal told me about jerking off and playing PlayStation, 39:00which is a funny thing to say out loud because it sounds like you're outing somebody. But, to answer the question of "what's a day in the life like?" People would sit in my chair. I would paint their face while we talked. And they would tell me about jerking off and playing PlayStation. Or they'd tell me about their religious practice. I learned to ask certain staple questions because I had a vision of: What if I were to collage all of the audio recordings of asking 200 people, "How do you define wealth, comfort, and security?" Or, "What would you change about this neighborhood if you could? What would you earnestly fight to protect, and what do you wish would hurry up and burn to the ground? And since we're engaged in a memorial act of saying this is you right now, how do you want to be remembered for your time here in this place?" And 40:00it's a borderline dickish way of instigating folks to embrace a sense of agency to say, "Okay wait, I'm going to be remembered here? What if I am? Well shit, what if I've been a jerk? What if I haven't said hi to my neighbors? What if -- What if there's a community garden and I've just been walking past it because I don't know how to raise kale from the earth because I was raised in the suburbs? And what if, you know, there's gun violence and I was just walking past it because I felt like that didn't apply to me? What if there were doorways I didn't walk into?" Now I-- Nobody wants to be remembered as a schmuck, so it's a way to say like, "Well, if I am going to be remembered, well, how do I want that to be?" And, and then I'd say, "Do you feel like you're on 41:00track to reaching your goal?" I was raised with certain principles of social justice that came to me by way of Jesuits in a all-boy's college prep school in San Jose, California during my high school years that I was fortunate enough to attend, thanks to my grandfather -- may he now rest in peace -- and I'm not content to just hold those principles to, for myself. I think it's worthwhile to ask other folks to play. So we would sit, and we would talk in the chairs. And I'd invite people to pick out a record. And we'd put on a record, whether it was on the iPod or on the actual record player, or in the books of CDs, or the little blue box filled with mix-tapes from my youth. And the mix-tapes are 42:00an interesting point because they're a piece of me. They're a portrait of who I was when I was 12, and 16, and 20, and 25. And so-- as I told a lot of people-- when you reveal a piece of yourself, it invites other people to do the same. So when I say, "Here's what I was listening to when I was 12," people are like, "Oh, that's hysterical. My first concert was New Kids on Block. Oh man, my first concert was Jodeci and Keith Sweat on prom night, and I had sex in the limo twice. And then we got chicken and beer." And I was like, "That's awesome." And other people are like, "One of my first concerts was seeing Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young at Woodstock when I was 19, and I'd never heard 43:00of these people before. And I just sat there on my blanket by myself since I lost my people in the crowd at Woodstock. And I was like, 'These guys are really good at harmonizing. Like they're really good! And they're like nearly a mile away, but the speakers are stacked so high that I can hear them clearly. This is amazing!' Here comes a sandwich being passed down a line of blankets and everybody takes a bite of a sandwich, and then passes it along. And it turns out Wavy Gravy was way over there making sandwiches for 50,000 people. And then passing joints as well, and then passing acid. And then somebody would, like, get to the microphone and be like, 'Just everybody, don't take the brown acid. Bad batch. Our bad, sorry. Keep eating the sandwiches.'" And these are some of the nice things that people would share with me when I share 44:00my mix-tapes, and they share their stories. And same as I got to do with my friends when I was young-- er-- just a few years prior, in my own home-- now I got to do it with all these strangers, who, many of whom have now become dear friends. And, I love my job.

THOMPSON: Nice. So, let's see. Well, you've already done a lot of that. Yeah, you did all that, you did all that, you've done all that. So, I listened to some of the snippets you had online yesterday. And, I found, I found it very interesting that you had a subject who did not want to be recorded. And I don't want to out her for that, but I also -- Okay so, here, I guess here's my 45:00question. So, you know, are there certain people's stories who you feel kind of changed the way you perceive your world, or surprised, or challenged you? You know, you had some older people who sat with you. You had people who refused to be recorded. You had people whose stories perhaps were not what you expected. Anybody like that?

ZIMMERMAN: There were a number of people who surprised me by what they had to say during the four-hour sit and talk while I painted their portrait. That number was roughly 200, which is to say everybody had something surprising to say. And one of the theses or hypotheses that I've developed in the course of 46:00my work is that each of us walks around with what we'll call a healthy amount of prejudice; whether it's healthy or not remains to be seen. But we all carry some degree of prejudice, which is to say we think we know things based on people's external opinions. So, people might look at me in my Timberland boots, and my jean pants, and my trucker jacket, and be like, "Oh, he's probably woodsy." When in fact, I've only hurt myself when trying to wield a sledgehammer, or a hatchet, and I look terrible doing it. And wood just doesn't get chopped well because I was raised in the suburbs with Nintendo, but I just happened to have some sturdy boots. And one of the nice people I painted gave me six pairs of blue jeans that her ex-wife left behind. And since her ex-wife was butch, they were all men's pants that were my waist size. And that was 47:00great because my waist was fluctuating. However [laughter] -- For the record, my waist was fluctuating. [laughter] Everybody had surprising things to say because I was prejudiced; because I thought that I could have preconceived notions of what a person was about based on their wardrobe, their age, their race, their hairstyle, their physical appearance. And when a young Black man named Vincent Brown came in with sleeve tattoos and plug earrings, I said, "What kind of record would you like?" And seeing this 25-year-old Black man with sleeve tattoos and plug earrings, I was like, "I wonder if it's going to be like rock, or hip hop, or what?" you know, in my head. And then he said, "How about 48:00Billy Joel, like 'Honesty'? That ballad is my jam." And I was like, "I did not see that coming." So, I admitted it out loud to him because the second part of my thesis about people being prejudiced is that we live in a culture where it's been so stigmatized to be prejudiced that it's no longer okay to admit like, "Hey I just, I had some like preconceived notions of you based on your physical appearance. I hope that's okay." They're like, "No, it's not okay, Rusty. You're not allowed to be prejudiced." Well, we all are. And the sooner we can cop to it, the sooner we have a safe space to freely admit, to uncomfortably admit, a thing that we thought to be true and later or soon find out not to be true. The sooner we can let go of these prejudices and find out that some young 49:00Black men with sleeve tattoos really dig Billy Joel ballads. And some old Black church ladies really dig the movie Deadpool about a foul-mouthed, sexy assassin with lots of blood and, you know, fluids everywhere. And that surprised me. And young rabbis who are really into the Wu-Tang Clan surprised me. And old Black men who grew up as sharecroppers -- like literally picking fucking cotton as a seven-year-old in South Carolina -- are currently voting for Donald Trump, and that surprised me. And Nesha Taron put it really well. She was a 24-year-old doula, mother of a two and a half year old named Ezra. And I asked her, you know, "What would you like everybody to know about you?" And she said, 50:00"When you see me with my headphones in and you're like bumping Kendrick Lamar down the street, I'm bumping Kendrick Lamar, too. I'm not what you think I am." So, there were two clutch moments that happened in each session. One was this thing I call "the hour of uncomfortable admission," where, when I noticed something that somebody presupposed about me or vice versa, I would just call them on it or call myself on it and create-- forcibly create-- that safe space. When Lynette Joy Arthur asked me, "Is it true that Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet? Is that a real thing?" I said, "I don't know, but I know a guy who does. And that's when I referred her to retired rabbi, Irwin Tanenbaum. And I just paired them up to, like, go get a glass a wine or a coffee, and I said, 51:00"You can ask this man anything and he will tell you because he's that kind of open guy, and he's very funny and approachable." But I asked Lynette at the time, I said, "What makes you think that I would know the answer to that question based on my bearded face, and pronounced nose, and name: Zimmerman? So maybe you got this idea that I was some kind of Jewish-ish, just from my face." The other clutch moment was finding the commonalities between each person. So when Yankee Pearson-- who was a rabbi, realtor, Trump-voter-- sat in my chair, I remember thinking like how am I going to get through this talk with somebody who 52:00seems so different from me? But then he told me that he started a company called iKippah.com in which he sells colorful and festive yarmulkes; plaid, and polka-dot, and tie-dyed even-- maybe-- very smart, good-looking, festive things. And I said, "Well, why'd you do that?" And he said, "When I was a boy, all the girls at bat mitzvahs and things got to wear like brightly colored ribbons in their hair and like fancy dresses. And all of us Chabad boys, we basically just got a plain colored shirt, and a plain colored jacket, and black slacks, and black shoes, and a black yarmulke. And we never got to like doll ourselves up in any way." I'm paraphrasing here, of course. But I remember feeling a very similar thing when I was 12. I noticed that girls had shirts that were called tops, and girls had shirts that were called blouses, and camisoles. And I 53:00didn't, I didn't understand. I was like, how come boys, we just have, like, shirts? We don't have as much diversity of expression in fashion available to us. And this stricture of outward expressions of masculinity became a commonality between Yankee Pearson and I. And I was like, this is where he and I are twins. And so that always happened. And sometimes-- in the case of Lula Staton-- it happened all at the time same time, in which I didn't expect her to really enjoy Deadpool. But I did, too.


THOMPSON: Great. So, let's -- So, through this process, I mean you've already kind of talked about in order to kind of find your subject, you ended up going to community meetings. But from what I understand, you've kind of inserted yourself or become a kind of one-man connector, one-man network here. Can you kind of talk to me about the work you're doing in your community now, how that started, and what you're doing?

ZIMMERMAN: Since the inception and the completion of the painting process, I found myself with the opportunity to be a conduit. I was telling somebody the other night that I'd meet somebody who sells hammers, and they were just looking for somebody who sells nails. And I'd meet somebody else who said I make this artisanal, small batch, Brooklyn-born nails, and I'm just looking to source a 55:00hammer purveyor. And I'd say, "Well, I know a guy, and I'll just send an email intro. And it turns out you guys live like around the corner from each other, so you're welcome." And I've been able to connect people to jobs, and resources, and, you know, whether it's somebody saying, "I don't know where to go to be useful." And I'd be like, "Well, there's a food pantry there, there's a senior center there, there's a community garden there. And here's some people who are already working on tenant's rights and keeping the rent from getting any higher. And here are things that your city council member makes available to you; whether it's free tax preparation through Laurie Cumbo's office, or a complimentary turkey dinner through Senator Hamilton's office, or a chance to go to a Ramadan feast at a Nigerian mosque." Turns out it's free and open to the 56:00public; pretty cool. But since then, a lot of people just kind of tap me now. A young man working for the Democratic Socialists of America said, "We're, we're having all these meetings and there were like 500 people there, but they weren't all from the neighborhood. And most of them were like 21 to 35-year-old White folks with fiberglass glasses. And so like, can you make working class people of color over 45 years of age come to our meetings just to, like, flesh out the room a little further?" And I was like, "You realize, look at my face and what you're asking of me." But they're like, "No, it's not because of your face. It's because you know everybody by now." I said, "Yeah, okay. I do. And I can call elder Black folks, like just 16 people on quick dial, and say, 'Hey, can you go to this thing? Can you bring a friend? Why am I going? I don't know, 57:00but I'm going to go, too, because I don't know. And that's why you should go, because you don't know what it is, so let's just go and find out. And afterwards, I'll buy you a cup of coffee.'" That's all the lure I can provide on my working artist's budget, but this is the thing I can do. And then the Brooklyn Community Foundation tapped me and they said, "Hey, you know everybody. Would you sit on our advisory board while we decide how to spend $500,000 over the next five years on community strengthening initiatives in Crown Heights?" I said, "Yeah, I'd love to. I'd be honored and privileged." And then Repair the World-- which is a Jewish youth volunteer corps, kind of like a Jew-merica Corp, Jew-mericorps-- they said, "Will you sit on our advisory council and tell us how we can best perform outreach and social justice as a representation of young 58:00Jewish values in Crown Heights?" I said, "I'd be honored and privileged." And they're like, "We'll be serving sushi and beer, as well." I said, "I'll be there." And then the Crow Hill Community Association said, "Would you be our liaison at large since you seem to know everybody?" And I said, "Yeah." And so, I've joined these three board slash councils to just say in a sort of consulting way, like, "Here's what I heard. Here's what's happening. Take that -- Take that and run with it. And if you need anything else, I'd be glad to put you in touch with so and so."

THOMPSON: Great. Great. Awesome. So, from that work, I guess, I just wanted to -- What would you--? Well, from both that work and from all of the 59:00interviews you did, is there any kind of prevailing--? Like, when you asked people if there was something they could change or -- Is there that something that rose to the surface across the board?

ZIMMERMAN: Everybody's pretty concerned with rising rents. I was comforted to find out that nobody was really in favor of broken glass and chicken bones. But at the time same, there's a dichotomy there; in which, the moment that you pick up the chicken bones and the broken glass, the rent goes up. As soon as you make the place a more desirable, safe, happening place to be, the rent goes up. One of my big beefs with my benefactor Don Capoccia, who gave me the studio space, is that-- I think on one of his websites for BFC Partners-- they listed a neighborhood they were doing some developments in as an emerging neighborhood. 60:00And I took umbrage at that because my first thought was that place has been here this whole time and there have been people. It wasn't like a pimple of deliciousness that had risen to the surface. It was a place where people were living their lives prior to your arrival and noticing. So when you say emerging, you mean emerging on your radar or emerging as a viable economic opportunity; a thing that you can make money off of. But Don and I can have that talk at a later date, hopefully over coffee, especially if he's buying. Other common threads, included but are not limited to; nobody's really into gun violence, everybody's pretty keen on safety and cleanliness, and everybody wants 61:00to say hello, everybody's curious about each other. People would like to not be judged by how they look. Paul Petoriano said, "Don't think I'm a hipster just because I'm a clean-cut Asian man with sleeve tattoos and a western-wear shirt. I mean, maybe I am, but I'll still help an old lady up the stairs with her groceries. Don't mistake me for somebody who's not going to be polite or neighborly." Alex Laterro said, "Don't think I'm just one of these young White girls who just moves in here and doesn't contribute. I actually work at City Hall and I'm very knowledgeable about what's happening in our neighborhood, and I can even share some information with you. And I'm not white.


[Interview interrupted.]

THOMPSON: They're going in on it. We're doing great. We're getting close.

ZIMMERMAN: All right. Do you want to take a chat break while the, the dogs are barking?

THOMPSON: While the dogs have their chat? They'll stop here in a second, won't they? I mean, it's not like a dog fight or anything. They're too small to be like--

ZIMMERMAN: One can only hope. My neighbor Donovan Barham, two doors over, used to have these two great big dogs named Max and Bart, and they would just hang out in the yard and bark. And it's a sort of thing you think, like, could undo a friendship between me and Donovan, but I quickly learned -- after having trained my own crazy dog -- how to talk to dogs, and how to, like, bark bigger 63:00than them, essentially. And I would just go to my window and I would yell, "No. Max, up, up. Bart, up. Good. Shh." So that's how I got that story. But Alex Laterro would say, "Don't judge me for being a young White girl who doesn't contribute because I actually work at City Hall and I know a lot about a lot of stuff that I can share with my community, and I'm glad to share those things because I go to community board meetings. And P.S., I'm not White; I'm Colombian." She's kind of pale. Yeah.

THOMPSON: Great. So, let's take this little last bit of this to bring it around to what we're supposed to be talking about most which is police 64:00involvement and the engagement between police and the community. I thought we would start with your own personal experiences with that, before we kind of speak about what else you may know about it. So, if you could share with me kind of your -- And let's kind of keep it to here. This is the seventy-seventh precinct, right? So, kind of, can you share with me your personal experiences with the police in the seventy-seventh precinct?

ZIMMERMAN: Certainly. My experiences-- I'm trying to dial back to my very first experience with the seventy-seventh precinct here in New York City, and maybe I'll get there. But my most pronounced experience with the 65:00seventy-seventh came from showing up to seventy-seventh precinct community council meetings, which occurred monthly at different locations, and you can call Detective Laverne Green and she'll tell you where the meeting is. And then I'd run into Rachel Holliday Smith from DNAinfo, who was always just there to be the community reporter for the hyperlocal news source, and Miss Evangeline Porter and Detective Pierre-Louis, and Mr. Caldwell-- who's the Precinct Council President-- and Deputy Inspector Eddie Lott. And that's how I got to know the precinct on a personal level; was just by showing up to these meetings and saying, "Hi everybody. My name's Rusty. I'm painting these pictures. If anybody wants to come sit for a picture, you can come see me about a thing in 66:00the back. And I brought a mobile hotspot in case you don't use the computer, so I can sign you up online right now." And that was cool. But my favorite experience with the police was when I called Mr. Caldwell the day of our parade. We had a parade on September 25, 2016 of everybody who had been painted with their friends and family; walking down Eastern Parkway together with a marching band and bicycle rickshaw carriages, peddled by volunteers to cart the seniors who'd been painted, so that they could be in the parade. And that was easily one of my favorite days of my whole life. But my friend who had come to California to see the whole thing through with me, she said, "You didn't get a permit for your parade?" I was like, "No." "What are you going to do for, 67:00like, safety at the intersections down Eastern Parkway?" I was like, "That's a great question." So that morning, the morning of the parade, I sent an email to Detective Green, Detective Pierre-Louis, Precinct Council President James Caldwell, and just across Eastern Parkway, the other Precinct Council President Karl Cohen. And I said, "I'm concerned for these 200 people who are going to be walking down Eastern Parkway together. Are you able to send a representative, some-- maybe the neighborhood coordination officers, Lynch and Garcia, so that we can have some police presence both in the parade and just shepherd everybody safely across? And I also called like 12 friends to be like, we've had parades together -- which is another story for another day -- but will you help me shepherd everybody through? And Mr. Caldwell sent over Lynch and Garcia to 68:00march in the parade, and two giant police SUVs blocked every intersection all the way down the road so that all of us could get across from, you know, Bedford, Nostrand, Rogers, and all the way down to Kingston. And every intersection, they'd just pull right up and then block the whole thing. And once we got to Kingston, they just blocked off Kingston and let all of us walk down the road. And we just got to take the road with the marching band, and the carriages, and everything. And watching people step out of the Boeuf and Bun -- it's a Orthodox, kosher, hipster, artisanal burger bar -- to just watch everybody walk down the road was just about the best. And I'm so glad I was able to forge a relationship with my local precinct officers after -- And then 69:00this is coming from me, who, like, the first time I was tackled by a police officer, I was like 15, for truancy. I was behind in my reading, and so I decided to take my book to the park instead of school. That was awesome. By the same token, on the flip side, part of my work also involved the minor-est form of vandalism; which involved taking full-size, full-color reproductions of some of the portraits and learning how to weed paste, like you do with posters and things. And I weed pasted them onto the green construction fences because I wanted the work to be hyper ubiquitous. I wanted it to be a thing that people saw everywhere. I wanted people to be waiting for the bus and say, "How did a 70:00portrait of my barber end up on that fence over there with a spray-painted, art-deco frame around it? A, how cool is that and b, what the fuck is this?" You know? "And I know that guy." That's what I wanted. So I did it. But while I was doing it, on a Saturday night at midnight in a black hoodie with punk rock in my headphones to keep me all juiced up for it -- my very first act of weed paste vandalism on the corner of Bedford and Eastern Parkway -- I got stopped by a car from the seventy-seventh precinct. And they pulled up and, you know, woop woop! "Do you have a permit for what you're doing?" I said, "Yes, I do." I did not. They said, "Can we see your permit?" I said, "Sure." So I had strategically stacked my pocket -- because I thought this might happen -- with a business card from our Forty-third Assembly district leader, Geoffrey Davis, whose 71:00mother I painted along with his portrait. And I said, "Here's our district leader's card, you can ask him all about it. He'll tell you we're-- everything's kosher, above board." And I saw they were 77 and so I said, "Actually, as chance would have it, I'm painting your superior officer, Detective Sacha Pierre-Louis this Friday afternoon," which was true. And I said, "You can call Sacha. I have his cell number if you don't. He'll tell you this is on the up and up. I have to finish this. So I'm just going to finish this right now, but please, like make any calls you need to square everything." And so in lying to my local police officers, I found out a, knowing people helps. Being able to name drop is very useful in avoiding jail time. And I 72:00also found my White privilege, in that I was able to talk to police officers at midnight on a Saturday while performing an illegal act, reach into the pocket of my black hoodie, and not get shot, essentially. So that is, that's a, that's a very clear point of privilege that I found myself to have. And I share that with folks, again, in the hopes that if we can all just be honest in a safe way then, then dialogue can be a lot more constructive. So those two things happened. And since then, I mean, the neighborhood has undergone any number of changes. I think they used to call it an impact zone where the city would 73:00designate certain places to be high density of crime. Corner of Franklin and Lincoln used to be famous for drug deals and the gun violence that went along with them. And so, there used to be like a shooting on Franklin and Lincoln, like, every week. Maybe not when I was here, but enough f-- folks have told me about it, and there was still some when I showed up in 2009. But when the city instituted an impact zone, officers were walking in threes and not just pairs. And there was that whole eye in the sky, Jean-Michel Foucault panopticon looking thing in which nobody's up there, but everybody feels like they're being watched. So everybody just takes their drug dealing indoors which drastically reduces gun violence, and people still get to get high. But, since then we've 74:00switched to what they call an NCO program; just rolled out last year. And our new captain, Isa Abbassi, is overseeing all this. And now I've got Detective Lynch on quick dial, so anytime I have a question, I can just give him a call. I don't have to call 311, and I don't have to call 911, and I don't have to flag an officer down. We have two dedicated officers whose purpose as NCOs is to be, essentially, the mayor of their block, so that, than any-- everybody knows their face, knows their name. You've got a person who you can talk to on a person-to-person level. It humanizes the face of the police department which I really get along with because I, like I always say, the moment that we can stop 75:00other-izing each other, all the more constructive relationships we can have. And so I share Detective Lynch's phone number with anybody who's got a question. And I invited him, since I became the Crow Hill liaison, to come to our meeting. And all of the sudden, six officers flooded our meeting. And I was nervous because I've been tackled by police officers before, and because I've committed acts of vandalism, and I might have had marijuana on my person at the time. But, I spoke to the officers and I shook their hands, and I introduced myself. And they said, "Nice to meet you." And they passed out, you know, Detective Lynch's, you know, cell phone number for everybody who wanted it. And I think it's a step in the right direction. I've also been privy to the explorer's program, which is a program in which it's, like, a mild 76:00indoctrination into the police force. But it's a youth volunteer program where young people can go to the precinct, volunteer with an officer on, you know, certain community service tasks, but also get to know police as people. And maybe even consider being a part of the police force as a prospective job opportunity which, when you get to retire after 20 years at the tender age of 40, it's kind of appealing. I even thought about it when I moved to town and found that out. But I had also been raised with the notion of, you know, police equals enemy. So that's a prejudice that I've had to break down. And it's more challenging for other people than it is for me. Frank Esquilin has had n word bombs dropped all over him throughout the course of his nearly 70 years on this 77:00planet, growing up in the Bronx and Harlem, and now 30 years in Crown Heights, until they find out that he is the president of the Crow Hill Community Association, and also has Deputy Inspector Lott on quick dial. And then he's watched people's tone change when they find out who he is and not just his outward appearance. But, he finds those transgressions harder to forgive, and has reminded me on numerous occasions that other people's experience is vastly different from mine.


THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah, so I guess the last thing I would say or ask is, you know, like you say, you've interviewed and have formed relationships with police officers. You've forged relationships with -- Let's just wait for this siren to pass. This is going to be kind of a real hypothetical kind of question. So kind of like what everyone in the neighborhood kind of feels. What rose to the surface as things that people wished would change? You've spoken with police officers. You've painted homeless people. You've painted people who have experienced extreme prejudice at their hands. If you had to, right now, invent a thing that could help, right, that could help this un-other-izing or not even 79:00a thing. If there was -- Like what would be the pie in the sky thing that we could do, that would help this un-other-izing happen? Do you have any ideas?

ZIMMERMAN: It's funny you should ask, because I always used to ask -- Well, if there was a thing that could un-other-ize everybody, a few things come to mind. I used to try to get people to come to my events. I would have ten concurrent exhibitions around town so that these portraits of everybody would be at an ice-cream parlor, and a yoga studio, and a café, and a gun violence interruption center. So everywhere you went, you'd see these portraits. And 80:00once a month, there'd be a reception, and there'd be food and drink. And I'd try to get everybody to just show up. How do I get everybody to come together and just talk to each other as people? Food helps. Food, as Devorah Halberstam is what bring [sic] said, she said that food is what brings people together. And then, you know, kosher dietary restrictions are a hitch. So I would always have kosher food. I remember one time, I sent a friend to go fetch grapes, and he was gone for like 45 minutes. It was on a gallery on Nostrand called happylucky number one; it was not a Chinese restaurant. And he was gone for 45 minutes. I was, like, the grocery store is across the street. Where the fuck did he go? And he came all the way back with a receipt from Raskin's Fruit and Vegetable Market on Kingston. And he had walked all the way to Kingston. He 81:00said, "Well, you said make it kosher." Turns out all fruits and vegetables are kosher. But the hechsher, that little k in a circle that declares it's kosher, that's what was important to him. And then young Mendel Yaffee brought hipster, kosher barbecue from Izzy's-- Sruli Eidelman's place-- on Montgomery and Troy. Well, on Saint Patty's Day, they were serving corned beef and cabbage. And I asked him to, so that we'd have something for everybody. So food helps. Drinks also help. Shia Hecht is, hopefully, going to be interviewed for this because he was, you know, reputed to be one of the leading figures in the post-riot reconciliation efforts. And when I asked him the very same question, you know, 82:00how do you get everybody to get along after three days of rioting, he said, "You know, I asked across the table to Richard Green, 'You guys like sweet wine, right? We like sweet wine, too.'" Coincidentally, I think, a year before Rodney King's trial, essentially asking, "Can't we all just get along?" Free t-shirts; silly as it sounds, when you create incentives for people to come out, humans are famously crazy for free t-shirts. In my case, it was, you know, small, locally screen-printed tote bags that said, "We are Crown Heights." It's 83:00really tough. I don't know. I don't know the best way to make people stop other-izing each other. I don't -- Part of me is, like, defensive; almost to be like I've done so much already! I've done what I can. You know, I try to just showcase people's faces and say like -- And here's their voice, too, so you can find out that they're not what you'd expect. And you can find out that, you know, Detective Pierre-Louis, apart from his badge, is a religious man, and a father of, you know, four daughters. You know, everybody, I noticed -- in another common thread -- has somebody who thinks that they're the bad guy. You know there's, you know, without naming names, there's, you know, one Orthodox 84:00mother who said, you know, "It's the Blacks who cause all the crime, you know, in the housing projects. And that's what causes all the crime." And then there was an old Black woman who said, "Well the Jews, they're pushing us out." And then there was a young Jewish man who said, "I'm not pushing anybody out. I don't own property. I'm getting pushed out. Nobody's talking about it because they talk about gentrification like it's some black-white issue." And then there's young people who say, "Well, it's the cops, like, killing unarmed Black men." And then there's a cop who comes to me and says, "I didn't kill any unarmed Black men. I'm just trying to get these kids to stop like popping wheelies on motorbikes in the middle of the street and endangering the kids of the neighborhood. And everybody looks at me like I'm the bad guy because I have a badge, and a gun, and I look like that guy who choked out Eric Garner on Staten Island because I wear the same clothes as him. And that's fucking ridiculous." And it's fucking ridiculous that people look at Mordechai 85:00Lightstone like he's a landlord, just because he has a wide-brimmed hat and a black jacket and tallit. You know? It incenses me, the prejudice that we all carry. It's just going to require a little more talking, I think, or a lot more. Yeah, just-- Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rebbe, when they asked him after the riots how do we heal tensions between, you know, these two communities in Crown Heights? He said, "One community in Crown Heights. Say hello to your neighbors."

THOMPSON: So what is next for the Voices of Crown Heights Project?

ZIMMERMAN: The voices?

THOMPSON: Oh, no, nope. [laughter] I know what's next for that. What is next 86:00for the Free Portrait Project?

ZIMMERMAN: Next up for thefreeportraitproject.org, I get to post the latest articles that have come out in the Atlantic City lab and some cool kid, hipster magazine in Japan. And I tell you, it's really funny to see a picture of me in a Japanese magazine. I did not see that coming. I want to -- I want to go forth and document other transitional communities where people could benefit from learning how to say hello to their neighborhoods. I realize that I'm dangerously approaching like a zealotry in just trying to get people to talk to each other, to cure everything from violence to just plain old misunderstanding and, you know, non-neighborliness. But there are people in Berlin who are scared of the one million new and exciting brown neighbors that they just got 87:00from Syria and Afghanistan. And apparently, there's a shelter on the neighborhood equivalent of the Upper East Side. I was told that there's department stores and old women in furs. And somewhere nestled in there, there's a decrepit old senior center that's been turned into a makeshift refugee shelter for 300 folks, 164 of whom are kids between the age of five and 17. And I have been invited to go out there, and interview, and make portraits of these kids to broadcast their stories back to say, "Some of these scary brown people you've been afraid of, turns out they're just kids, and they're just people like you." And then, 58 years ago apparently, we stopped talking to our neighbors in Cuba because we were afraid that they were communists. And we were told communists are bad people. They're bad people. And 58 years later, fast 88:00forward to the present. Now everybody's rushing over to Cuba to be like, "What's it like over there?" And a lot of folks are in it for old cars, and cigars, and mojitos, and you know, a chance to like sit their ass where Hemingway sat. I don't give a shit. I want to get to know people as people. I want to help us get to know our neighbors in Cuba who we haven't talked to in so long. Why? I don't know. We were told that they were bad people. Turns out they're people. And maybe they've got a thing or two to say about waiting in line, or being a taxi cab driver even though you have a mandated four-year college degree. And what's universal healthcare really like, since we're trying desperately right now to figure out anything better than Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, as it's commonly referred to. And I was just talking to Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about this this 89:00morning. And by talking to, I mean trolling them on Twitter and telling Paul Ryan to stuff his cockamamie excuse for a healthcare plan back inside Mitch McConnell's neck wattle. And that's mean of me to say, but I'm angry. I'm just learning now how to be angry in a healthy way. Yeah, I want to go and document other places. I'd like to do three-month stints in making 50 portraits of places with a camera crew to send video back because people watch videos. And people watch videos faster than they look at still pictures. And people look at still pictures more than they read paragraphs of text. And I've accepted that if you want to reach a mass audience that you have to speak in a language that everybody can easily understand. So that's, that's what's up next. And then I've got a grant to take the 900 hours of recorded audio from last year and edit 90:00it, and publish it into something like a podcast. So I'm inviting some of my favorite podcasters, of which there's currently one because I've only listened to one podcast in my life, because I'm a self-proclaimed Luddite trying to reform myself. So while I'm learning how to update a website, and use a camera, and a digital audio recorder, and forcing myself to adopt Snapchat, and a make a YouTube channel. As silly as some of these things might seem to me, like I realize I need to know these things. So, I listen to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast called "Revisionist History." And today, I'm writing an email to Malcolm Gladwell to invite him to sit for a portrait, and tell me everything I need to know about podcasting. And if he likes the painting at the end, he can keep it, 91:00free of charge. Same with Jake Turx, who is a Orthodox Jewish White House press correspondent who was recently shouted down by our forty-fifth president. But since I know a whole gang of rabbis on quick dial now, I said, "Anybody know Jake Turx?" They said, "Yeah, here's his number." And I said, "Jake, would you like to sit for a picture?" And he said, "Yeah. Yeah, I would." So now I get to meet this nice guy and be like, "What's it like to be shouted down by the president?" So those are, those're the fun things in my future.

THOMPSON: Awesome. Well, I think you've done a great job. Thank you so much, Rusty Zimmerman. I'm going--

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you so much, Candace Thompson.

THOMPSON: I'm going to conclude this interview. But I'm going to then -- Then, we're just going to sit and do a little room tone, so that I can -- So--

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Rusty Zimmerman

Rusty Zimmerman, thirty-eight at the time of the interview, is a White male who was born in Englewood, New Jersey. He and his family moved often during his early years, but Zimmerman relocated to New York City in 2005 in order to establish his trade as a freelance illustrator and painter. In 2009, he moved to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and in an attempt to further hone his craft and engage his community, he began the Free Portrait Project in 2015, in which he interviewed and painted portraits of over 200 residents in Crown Heights over the course of one year. The culmination of the project was a series of exhibitions and community events, and Zimmerman received grant funding to edit and distribute the 900 hours of audio interviews he recorded while conducting the four-hour portrait sessions with each of his subjects.

In this interview, Randy Zimmerman discusses his personal background as well as the impetus for and timeline of his Free Portrait Project. He describes a typical portrait session, and some of the things he learned while doing this work. He shares anecdotes about several of the people he met throughout the process, and how he has become a liaison of sorts between disparate parts of the community. Through his network of community members he has found the goal of encouraging his neighbors to find commonalities where they assume there are only differences. Zimmerman speaks openly and candidly about the preconceived notions and prejudices that we all carry within us, and how his work on the Free Portrait Project has helped him accept and freely admit to those perceptions in a hope of openly and honestly grappling with them. Lastly, he talks about his personal experiences with the police and the 77th precinct, his run-ins with the police, and his realization of his "White privilege" during those moments, and his perceptions about what could be done to further improve community relations. Interview conducted by Candace Thompson.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the Brooklyn Movement Center series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Zimmerman, Rusty, Oral history interview conducted by Candace Thompson, March 09, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.2.08; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Congregation Lubavitch (Crown Heights, New York, N.Y.)
  • Free Portrait Project (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • New York (N.Y.). Police Department
  • Zimmerman, Rusty


  • Activism
  • African Americans
  • Art
  • Artists
  • Community activists
  • Community organizing
  • Crime
  • Gentrification
  • Housing
  • Jews, American
  • Multiculturalism
  • Neighborhoods
  • Police-community relations
  • Race relations
  • Racism


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories