– Carl Westbrooks
My dad has lived in the same ten block radius in Waukesha, Wisconsin–the town I grew up in– his whole life. When I was a kid, we’d drive around and he would point out buildings or locations in our neighborhood and talk about their history, and would tell us about some specific memory he had associated with it. As a result of that, I obtained all of these second-hand associations and the added context made my local area a lot more interesting to me.
I didn’t really realize that I was essentially recreating this experience with Carl through this $100 project until after the project was done and I had finished transcribing the interview. Carl Westbrooks–who I commissioned to drive me around Bed Stuy and talk about his memories–is my boxing trainer, and he’s like a father figure to me. We spend a lot more time driving around together now than we did before COVID, because we train mostly outside at different parks in Brooklyn. Carl and I met in 2017 at the same gym he boxed at as a teenager– the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center, in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, where Carl was born and raised.
My perspective of the Bed Stuy neighborhood has been largely informed by the people I know who have lived there for decades, and who have significant connections to the community. I’ve learned a lot from Carl, and I thought this project might be a way for other people to learn from him, too.
[Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” playing]
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh child, things will get brighter…
Carl Westbrooks: It was times when I was wild and crazy. I learned to be calm. I think Cheryl (1) calmed me down and helped me out too. Cuz I didn’t need to be that way in this world. I probably wouldn’t have been here.
My family used to live right here in this building here.
Nolan Hanson: Which one?
Carl: This one right here. This white one.
They changed a whole lot of these houses, you know, it used to be a little bit more different, you know. As time went they changed things, you know. That’s how it is, everything gotta be upgraded, nothing can stay the same, otherwise it’ll fall down and decay and hurt somebody.
This right here used to be one of the worstest neighborhoods right here, because everybody was in on some type of drugs or something, and it affected the whole community.
Over here, this was another rough spot. You had to watch where you come down here certain times. I remember my uncle and them used to carry around straight razors. Right down there on Nostrand and Gates my uncle cut a cop in his hand.
He went to Attica and did time. And when they had this thing they called Attica Riots, my uncle was in there too. He had to throw dead bodies on top of him with blood in order to survive, cuz they was coming in there, killing up everybody if they wasn’t butt naked or if they didn’t like your aura. They were shooting up everybody.
I remember my aunt used to drive there on the weekends to see him. She’d take his kids and take me, cause she was kind of scared to go there by herself, so she used to take me. Like, “What I’ma do?!” [Laughs] “I’m a little kid!”
But they felt secure with me. So there’s nothing you can do about that.
I remember I was little. My sisters was older than me! They used to get me out of the bed, like if I was going to get up there and do something. But I guess they knew I did know to do something because I did go get the butcher knife and went up to my stepfather when my mother and him were fighting and tried to poke him.
And then my stepfather said, “Karen,” —my mother’s name was Carie, he used to call her Karen— “You better get this little motherfucker, ‘fore I throw him out the window!”
My sisters and them still joke about that today… Yep… [nods head]
“Get that little motherfucker ‘fore I throw him out the window!” That’s what he said. [Laughs]
He the one that stayed with me in this gym right here. Bed Stuy. Mmmhm.
Every day he used to see what I was doing and how I was learning more. When I sparred, he told me when I did good. You know, he said, “Everytime when you spar with somebody, you dominate them.” You know, he said, “You learning how to slip good!”
One day I went to hang out with some girls, right? The same girls that Johnny Boy told me not to bring to the gym ‘cause they was a distraction. I went ahead and hanged out with ‘em, and Charles came to the gym and he seen I wasn’t there.
And he went home on Gates Avenue, and I guess he drank, and he fell, then he died.
Nolan: Oh man.
Carl: Yeah. Normally I’ll be there, you know, and things would work out. He’d go home and he’d control himself. Just that day, he fell and died.
All of these gates used to be open at one time.
Nolan: So everyone could see right?
Carl: Yeah, exactly.
Carl: See this park right here? These wasn’t here, these swings and kid rides. They just put these here. The courts was over here on that side…
This was where this group they call the Five-Percent Nation(2) was at. They would come here, and they would start building on the lessons that they learned about who they are, where they come from, their origins and so on and so on. And if you ain’t know your lesson, you’d get in a fight, and they’d beat you up.
One day I came through right here and this dude seen my Universal Flag on, and saw that I knew what they knew. I just came from Bed Stuy, and this dude—I just seen him fighting the 52 style beating somebody up bad—I just seen him. But he seen that Universal Flag right on me and he said, “God, come on in here.” They used to call people God. So I came in there and he asked me today’s mathematics. (3)
I told him today’s mathematics, boom, boom, boom. Then he looked at my Universal Flag and said, “You ain’t got your name on it!” and snatched it.
So… We got into a fight. He just came out of jail now. And I just came from Bed Stuy Boxing. And we start fighting.
Bam bam bam bam!
Then I started remembering, you know, lemme jab on him. Pop, pop, bam! Then he felt that power. Pop pop! Bam!
So he kinda like, calmed down and got in his perspective. And I got my Universal Flag back and started building with the other Gods and everything came in order. But he tried to bogart me, he tried to take my flag.
And then one day, I was in Bed Stuy and this dude with a beard came up to me and said, “You don’t remember me do you?” I said, “Nah.” “You remember when we was young? And, and the God tried to take your Universal Flag?” I said, “Oh yeah, Knowledge was with me!” He said, “I’ve been in jail for 30 years.” He said, “I did 20, and then I did another thing in there and did another 10 years” So when he did the 10 years, you know, he came back. I guess his family still live in the neighborhood.
He was walking all diesel and whatnot. He talked to me over there for a while that day. I ain’t see him no more, but he probably in the neighborhood.
Nolan: This was just a few years ago?
Carl: Yeah this is Bed Stuy! This is when I came and met you in there.
Nolan: He wasn’t the guy you fought though, right?
Carl: Right. He was just—there was one of my friends, you know. He was one of the peoples that used to come with me in the neighborhood and watch me fight. He was one of the Five Percenters. And that day we were actually going to see the fight.
Nolan: What fight?
Carl: There was always fighting. Right here!
Nolan: And people would watch?
Nolan: Like boxing, or street fighting?
Carl: Fifty-twos. (4)
I lived right down the block right there, right there. I lived right there between Lewis and Monroe. Right on the corner, that apartment right there. There with my mother. She had ten kids and her sister’s kids used to live there with the boyfriend and my cousin and them. It was ‘77, I remember it was the blackouts and when the blackout came, everybody was going to Broadway to steal everything. But this happened before the blackouts.
This is called 44 Park, this was 44 Public School, you know, it was rough over here.
Nolan: What do you think about it now?
Carl: It’s neutralized now, I like it now.
Over here it was kinda rough, you see these buildings right here? They was dark. That means they was dirty from years and years and decades of filth and pollution and car dust. And now they cleaned them and you come down here and it’s so light and clean. It’s different now.
Yeah, it used to be you come down here certain times, you don’t ever come back home.
[Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” playing]
I ain’t mad, at cha (I ain’t mad at cha)
I ain’t mad (hell nah I ain’t mad at cha)…
Carl: This place right here, this used to be the church. I got baptized in this church.
Nolan: Oh, really?
Carl: Mhhm, mmhm! See it ain’t no church no more.
Nolan: What was it called?
Carl: Baptist… something. My sister’s boyfriend Troy brought me over here and I got baptized. And Troy died because one of his friends, Donald his name was, he couldn’t see out of one eye, and he had a 38 snub on the bed, a chrome one, and a bullet was still in there, and he picked up the gun and pointed at him and shot him in front of my nephew. Yep. Yep.
Nolan: It was accidental?
Carl: Accidentally, but he did that.
Nolan: Oh my god.
Carl: Yep, picked it up, thought all the bullets was on the bed. You know, that’s what happens when you get high.
Nolan: There was one in the chamber?
Carl: Yeah, one in the chamber. And, bam! Yep. Shot him dead.
And it’s funny, right? Cause that same gun I took and tried to, when I looked young, I took out the house and I tried to sell it. [Laughs] When I was little I tried to sell it. I actually tried to sell it!
Nolan: [Laughs] When you were how old?
Carl: I was like, no more than 11 years old, like that. And if I had actually sold a gun, my brother-in-law would have still been here today, but the gun was registered, so I couldn’t sell it.
Carl: This part is Tompkins Projects. I used to go to that school right there, 33. That’s when the gangs used to come around here, you know, and they try to bogart you and draft you in the school. Mark Breland(5) and my brother-in-law lived in this building over here.
Nolan: This one right here?
Carl: Oh, at the end, over on Park. Mark Breland lived on the same floor with my brother-in-law.
Nolan: Oh really?
Carl: Yeah. That’s how I ended up meeting him. He brought him to my hallway in Brownsville, I lived in Brownsville. He brought him there. And Mark was boxing, and I ain’t knew nothing about boxing. All I knew they used to teach me the 52. And when he came… shhh..
Now this right here is Marcy Projects over here. Over here was no joke. You see this park? This park was here for a long time. This where Jay-Z from… and Meph Bleek. You know more rappers are from here, they just didn’t make it like Jay-Z and A and Meph Bleak did.
Over on the other side, over there, the entrance over there. That’s where this dude they called Eric Tweety used to have fights and call peoples out.
But all over here, they know about him, you know? Cause he was that type of person. He’ll fight anybody that come over there to fight him.
Yep. If I would pull up over there and ask those dudes back there, do they know Eric Tweety? They’ll tell you. Eric Tweety is like, this dude who liked to show off cuz he knew how to fight.
Yep, he could fight, so he’d show off. I heard he went to jail and one of his friends was in jail with him and they was supposed to be friends, but he embarrassed him in jail. So the dude waited till he came home and Eric Tweety was home and shot Eric Tweety in the hallway and killed him.
Yeah you ask anybody over here about Eric Tweety (6) they’ll probably know.
[Tupac’s “Ride or Die” plays]
Carl: This is the part right here where they’d have all the fights.
When they had fights, they had fights. I lived on Pulaski down there, and I’d come all the way down here—and I wasn’t supposed to be down here—to watch Eric Tweety fight.
Nolan: That’s not the same guy they called “Mother Dear” (7) is it?
Carl: No Mother Dear was treacherous. Mother Dear was Bed Stuy too, but he was treacherous. Yup. He wasn’t nothing to play with. He’d catch your fist and actually kiss it [kisses fist] and bam!
And he was so good, even in jail he was notorious. He was nothing to play with.
See, every time you have an open space like this, they’ll set up the fight. See, they didn’t want to be on a busy avenue, if you on a busy avenue you know the cops will stop it.
This used to be a transit hall where the transit people used to come and party.
Nolan: On the corner?
Carl: Yeah right here this building, (8) so I used to sneak up there and party with them.
Carl: This the school I used to go to, PS 54. I remember I had a teacher named Mr. Greenspan. He used to bring them records, them white records, [sings] “Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree.” This is Mr. Reverend Dinkel. He was a gay preacher, so-called. He was always a closet person. This is the building that I lived in here. I lived right there on the second floor. My puppies used to come out this basement right here and they used to steal them. [Laughs]
My man Mark used to live right here. He was in a smart class at our school, PS 54.
One day I was hungry and I was waiting for my grandfather and them to fix me something. So I went down to go to the store and I see him Mark, and I start picking at him about his mother. [Laughs] I couldn’t do nothing with Mark, I had to hold him right there on the fence until he got tired. And when he got tired, you know, that’s when I let him go. [Laughs]
And my grandfather, he was steady up there and watching me fight Mark, and I came up, I ain’t had no more appetite. He said, “That boy, that boy gave you a hard time, didn’t he?” [Laughs]
This place right here was where my brother-in-law lived. Mr. Lawson. 18 Pulaski. Right here. This where he got shot and he ran out here. My nephew was right there and whatnot. We used to all sit here on this bench right here.
And you know, now they sold it. She just moved, you know. Like two years ago. They sold the house. Yeah. This used to be our house. Yeah, this has to be one of my friend’s house.
Carl: Yep, they all moved and died.
I used to hang out on this block all the time. Right here. When they built this house over here, we used to hang out right here.
I used to go with some girls over here and Ms. Heartfield’s house burned down, completely. Yup burned down completely.
I used to go to the store right here. You know, we used to buy Heroes and whatnot. This Lucky Wine and Spirits place was a candy store. I used to go there and buy penny cookies.
Nolan: What are those?
Carl: Just little cookies. Yeah, that was good though. When you a little kid? You get a quarter, you get 25 cookies! Shit… man they was good!
Marcy Pool, when they opened, people coming over the fence drowning because they didn’t know how to swim. I remember when they built it.
I had a bunch of dogs, so we used to walk them around there.
Nolan: You had the mostly Doberman Pinschers, right?
Carl: I had German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Shepherds. Oh, they get big. But when they get old they get arthritis in the back of the legs for some reason. They’re smart though. They’re good with kids. You can’t chastise the kids and yell around them. Yeah, don’t do that. Yup. We used to get whoopings, so my mother used to have to lock the dog up. Yeah. We had one dog, we had that dog since we was little, until we got big and she was still alive. Her name was Queenie.
See all these new houses. It wasn’t there. I have friends that went to 54 and they all lived around here.
Nolan: You went there all through elementary school? 54.
Carl: Yeah I went to 54. I went to, uh, 33 for junior high and, uh I went to a lot of schools around here. I got kicked outta schools.
Nolan: Oh yeah. How come? Fighting?
Carl: Yeah I was bad.
Carl: This right here? Myrtle Avenue was notorious for gangs, drugs, the whole thing done changed. Yeah, you would never see me down here at a certain time, because you would get beat up and the gang peoples was down here. Yeah. I would only come down there when it was light, you wouldn’t catch me down here at night. Not at all.
We passed um, Marcy and Myrtle. Used to be a place called Cascade (9) over there, where they used to clean sheets, and a lot of things from restaurants, cloth, napkins, a lot of stuff. The Cascade used to actually pick them up from all the restaurants.
This right here was all like almost Jewish neighborhoods, you know, Jewish on this side, Lee Avenue, you know, Black and white, and Jews and Spanish. We all lived together over here.
Nolan: Yeah. Do you feel like it’s more segregated now?
Carl: Well, down here by the Jews it’s segregated.
Nolan: Yeah. But even like Brooklyn in general, you know, like, do you feel like it used to be more diverse or it’s more diverse now?
Carl: It’s more now. It makes the neighborhood a little bit more better too. You get more aid when it’s mixed. You know, you get took care of a little bit more better. [Laughs]
Nolan: Yeah. It’s so different now. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve always felt safe. Nothing’s ever happened to me, you know?
Carl: Yeah. Cause see, time changed so much. What year you moved to New York?
Carl: 2014? The year my son died? (10)
Yeah it even changed since then Nol.
Things had to change.
Carl: Nothing could stay the same.
[Follow up phone call, Friday April 30th, at 9:12pm ]
Nolan: Hey Carl.
Carl: What’s up Nol how are you?
Nolan: Good, good. Hey, I wanted to ask you–you remember that project we did? The $100 project?
Nolan: So remember how I told you the concept of the project? Like how it was a commission?
Carl: Yeah—so how it turn out?
Nolan: Well, good. There are a couple of components to it, and one of them is the interview part, and my instructor wanted to have us include in the interview what the person we commissioned thought about the project. So I wanted to ask you a little about that, like what you thought about the whole concept, and what you think about that being an art project.
Carl: Lemme tell you somethin’ Nol…those are like, they suspended in time. So for you to put it on paper, I think anybody and everybody that was there fighting and went through them changes would be proud of that. Cause back then they ain’t have peoples to talk about it and represent them and things like that. It was just like hearsay.
So it’s a pleasure that somebody making a report out of it, like a project.
Nolan: Yeah, that’s what I was curious about, like when you think of art, do you usually think about people exploring history?
Carl: When you hear “art” right? It’s like it’s frozen in time. It’s outstanding to me.
Nolan: Yeah, and part of what the art is for me is the social part of it too, you know? Like the drive we took, and you talking about your memories, and the relationship we have that makes that possible. And I consider the photographs and the interview the documentation of that.
Carl: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was beautiful though, doing a project on it. ‘Cause that’s how they keep living, by people keep talking about them and keep reminding that this how it went at this time, and so I think that was really beautiful.
Nolan: Well I’m glad we were able to do it together. You have such a rich archive of stories and such a vivid memory—so for this project my role is really just helping make that available to other people, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to learn about it.
Carl: If it was on film people would love it. They would love to see how it went down and how it happened. But even just writing about it, it’s beautiful.
Nolan: Well when I finish it up I’ll send it to you.
Carl: Definitely, definitely.
(1) Cheryl was Carl’s wife of 35 years, who passed away in April 2020.
(2) The Five Percent Nation—also referred to as the Nation of Gods and Earths—is a social movement influenced by the Nation of Islam, and founded in New York City in 1964. The movement has been affiliated with hip hop since it’s initial development, and has been referenced in the music of Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Erc B and Rakim, AZ, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, and others.
(3) In the Five Percent Nation, “mathematics” refers to a numerical system which correlates with core ideological concepts of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Practitioners were often asked to “show and prove” the day’s mathematics, demonstrating that they had studied their lessons.
(4) The “52’s”– also called the 52 Blocks– is an American martial art developed in correctional facilities in the 1960’s and 1970’s and most prominently used in New York City. The name refers to the blocks the discipline employs, which consists of western boxing defensive techniques, as well as offensive elbows, knees, and headbutts.
(5) Mark Breland is a retired world champion professional boxer, and five time New York City Daily News Golden Gloves amateur champion. He was trained by George Washington, Carl’s former trainer, and the founder of the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center.
(6) Eric “Tweety” Steele was a member of the D-Nice Enterprise gang (AKA “The Family”). He was shot and killed in 1998 by rival gang members from the Little Jus Crew.
(7) “Mother Dear” was the nickname of a man who was a well known practitioner of the 52 Blocks fighting style, and a serial perpetrator of sexual violence. Mother Dear spent time in Rikers Island and Clinton Correctional Facility, and was killed by a fellow inmate in the 1990’s.
(8) The Transit Hall building, at 442 Willoughby Avenue was built in 1931. The building is now a housing complex, and a 2 bedroom unit recently sold for $800,000.
(9) The Cascade linen complex closed in 2010, after 112 years in operation. The building was sold in 2013 to a group of investors from the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, and was redeveloped as a residential complex. Condos in the building are currently priced at 1 million dollars.
(10) Carl’s son Keith was killed in 2014, at age 22. Carl often talks about him, and tells a story about a time when Keith was a toddler. They were watching a scary movie together. Keith shouted out, “Can somebody hold me?” Another time, Keith was hitting the bag at New Bed Stuy, and punched it so hard that all the sand fell out of it.
Nolan Hanson (they/he) is an artist and one of Carl’s fighters. In 2017, Nolan started Trans Boxing—an ongoing art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people—and works to pass along to their boxers what they learn from Carl.
Carl Westbrooks (he/him) is a boxing trainer, father, grandfather, and lifelong resident of Brooklyn. He has trained hundreds of kids in Bed Stuy, East New York, and Brownsville. Carl trains kids and adults in East New York on Saturdays at the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, on Sundays at Gershwin Park, and on Thursdays at the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center. Carl works with several members of Trans Boxing, and is a passionate advocate for trans inclusion in sports. IG: @_coachcarl
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
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