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Five Myles Gallery: Creating Community Out of Loss

The photographs that Hiroki Kobayashi take of the people of Crown Heights tell a story of sorrow, pride and change – much like the gallery in which they are exhibited.

Hanne Tierney sounds matter-of-fact about the shocking loss that led to the creation of the Five Myles gallery.

On the hottest day of this year, she is in the gallery with photographer Hiroki Kobayashi, together covering a couple of old boards in black paper for a backdrop, one of the many tasks of a gallery owner. On the walls around them are the people of Crown Heights, photographic portraits that are part of Kobayashi’s exhibition, "Crown Heights Memories Project," one of two related exhibitions this summer about the neighborhood.

But Crown Heights residents are not just on the walls. Despite the weather, they visit in a steady stream, just to say hello, or rest on the bench outside, or to look at the photographs and get photographed themselves. (“Any day is a good day for art,” says one of the visitors, Carolyn Jones, explaining her presence when the temperature is over 100.) Kobayashi plans to put each of these new photographs of visitors on one of the walls of the gallery, next to the old photographs of residents.

In-between the visits, while busy with the boards, Tierney tells the story of her gallery.  She is an avant-garde theater artist who calls her work "theater without actors," a form of puppetry with costumes manipulated on a series of pulleys. Her performance pieces have been presented everywhere from The Kitchen and Franklin Furnace to the Whitney Museum and the Queens Museum, from the Jim Henson Festival of International Puppet Theater and the Toy Theater Festival at St. Ann's Warehouse to the .

A dozen years ago, Tierney found “a broken-down garage” on St. John’s Street in Crown Heights that she envisioned as a workshop in for her shows and a studio for her son, a video journalist, who needed space for his video-editing equipment to put together a documentary he was working on about Africa.

“But he was killed in Sierra Leone,” Tierney says, as she sticks some black tape along the edge of the board.

Working for the Associated Press, Myles Tierney was shot dead on January 10, 1999 in Freetown, Sierra Leone by child soldiers. He was 34 years old.  His mother had already acquired the garage for his use, but he never used it. Soon after, she decided to turn the front of it into a gallery and performance space. She called it Five Myles, because her son was the fifth Myles Tierney in his lineage – technically Myles Tierney V. “He was always proud that he was the fifth,” his mother says.

The first exhibition at Five Myles, in 2000, was a tribute to Myles Tierney. The gallery, which Hanne Tierney prefers to call a space or a garage, offers exhibitions and performance pieces throughout the year.  During the summer, the focus is on the local community. “From the beginning, everybody from the neighborhood was part of the gallery,” Tierney says.

It is in keeping with this community connection that on August 6th, the day that the photo exhibition ends, Erin Gleason’s installation/performance piece “To Gather” will begin.  Gleason will install various “artifacts” from the neighborhood -- a stoop, a barber chair, a pew -- and invite neighbors to do what they do frequently anyway, to hang out.

Hiroki Kobayashi became part of the neighborhood just four years ago, arriving from Japan after ten months in Florida.  “A guy told me artists live here. And it’s cheaper than Manhattan,” he said. He was struck right away by the neighborhood. “I was talking to my neighbor, a sculptor from Ireland, about the strong culture of the neighborhood, the tight-knit communities: Jews, Caribbean, Yemenis, Koreans. Every day, there are new people coming,” says Kobayashi. “He said ‘you should photograph them.’”

Anthony Ervin one of the people photograhed for the exhibition, recalls Kobayashi walking back and forth in front of his barber shop, ABC on Nostrand Avenue, for months before the photographer talked to him. “He said he wanted to photograph my barber shop – it had some authenticity. Then he said he wanted to photograph me; I struck him as an original or something. He was very shy and humble-like,” he said. Ervin’s portrait, in a Yankees baseball cap, is one of the dozen or so to make the final cut for the show.

Kobayashi doesn't know the names of the people he photographs – he doesn’t ask – but he knows them in other ways. “People say Crown Heights used to be very dangerous. It’s changing a lot.” He recalls a man who would carry a gun and “was very bad” and saw that he had changed. “I saw it in his eyes.”

Henne Tierney is not happy about all the changes in the neighborhood. “There were lots of families, lots of kids. Now there are no kids. Everybody’s being evicted; people can’t afford the rents.”

Suddenly, the phone rings. “The fire department?” Tierney says. “No, this isn’t the fire department. I don’t know where you got my number. The fire department is down the street.” But, some of might say, Five Myles is just as much of a neighborhood fixture.

 

“Crown Heights Memories Project” will be shown through August 6, Thur., Fri., Sat. Sun, 1 to 6 p.m. or by appointment: 718-783-443. “To Gather” from August 6 to August 13 at Five Myles, 558 St. Johns Place in Crown Heights.

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