Photographer Kit Kaplan’s mission is to capture Brooklyn neighborhoods on film. From abandoned buildings to a man in pink alligator shoes resting on a stoop, her work documents lives and places that make Brooklyn Brooklyn.
Take the Sunview Luncheonette on Russell and Nassau Streets, one of Kaplan’s most recent discoveries. “The woman who runs it knows what everyone orders and claims she hasn’t had a day off in 47 years,” Kaplan laughs. “The prices are incredible. A soda is 50 cents and a burger $1.75.”
The Michigan-born, Florida-reared artist combs borough streets looking for what she calls “little gems.”
“I look for pockets of gold on streets you thought had nothing on them,” she says.
Weeksville to Williamsburg, Greenpoint to Gerritsen Beach, DUMBO to Dyker Heights, Kaplan is there with her digital camera. Her favorite neighborhood is Crown Heights; she, her partner, daughter and grandson live in a renovated carriage house in the area’s Crow Hill section (between Franklin and Bedford Avenues, from Atlantic Avenue to Eastern Parkway).
“Go one way and there are Hasidic Jews. Go another and there are island people. People do every manner of worship here. There can be three churches on a single block. There are revivals and Yoruba priestesses and women in large hats walking around on Sunday mornings. You’ll sometimes see evangelists screaming on street corners,” she says. “I love it so much.”
Kaplan moved to Brooklyn in 1995 after 10 years in Manhattan and several months in Sag Harbor. “I didn’t want to be in the city anymore,” she says. “The pace was getting to me. So I asked myself where I could live and access every subway line. I found Brooklyn Heights. At first I took pictures of old people and old places. The sense of community thrilled me. I eventually bought a motorcycle and started driving up and down, taking pictures. But I’d come back to a spot six months later, with a beautiful framed print, and the scene would be gone. It had been sold or turned into a condo.”
Kaplan responded by starting 718Brooklyn.net, a website that showcases her work and gives present-day and former Brooklynites a place to post their thoughts about the changing borough. Alfonso writes about College Bakery, a Court Street institution that closed in early 2005, after 74 years. Another contributor recalls the MauMaus, a Puerto Rican gang prominent in the 1950s. Others reminisce about Eastern Parkway, Bushwick, the F train, and Coney Island.
Although Kaplan caters to nostalgia, she knows that change is inevitable and sometimes beneficial. Still, she fears a loss of gathering places. “Brooklyn will always be Brooklyn,” she says. “There will always be a Benny’s Barber Shop. But I think that hi-rises are in poor taste. They don’t fit in.” She cites the care that people on her block put into renovating their homes. “Their work reflects love, time and craftsmanship. A building that goes up in three months doesn’t. Sure, it has an elevator, but it has no character.”
Wherever she travels, Kaplan finds that people share her enthusiasm for the borough. “The neighborhoods all look and feel different,” she says,” but the people are the same. No matter where you go, they love Brooklyn and take pride in their communities. It’s so consistent. Whenever I’m away, once people hear I’m from Brooklyn, someone always comes up, tells me where they used to live, and says how much they miss it.”
Honoring Brooklyn’s people and preserving its history drives Kaplan’s work. “I see things that people overlook,” she continues. “I sold a picture of a coffee shop on Union and 5th to a guy at a street fair. He asked me where the place was. I said, ‘Turn around. It’s right behind you.’ He’d lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and never seen it.”
Kaplan sells her photos online and at festivals and fairs throughout the city. She also sells tee-shirts. “When my grandson was born in 2003, my daughter asked me to heat-press a picture onto a shirt for him. Before you knew it we had 15 retailers, including the Brooklyn Museum. I didn’t try to market them. Tamia would walk into a shop with the kid in a tee-shirt and people would say, ‘This is so cute. Where can I buy one?’” Tees depicting Tom’s restaurant, the F train and a fire station are particularly popular.
Looking, seeing and photographing daily life pleases Kaplan. “As an artist,” she says, “I’d rather sell 60 photos for $20 than one for $300. I know that people who buy my work are going to look up and smile when they see it. It’s my way of leaving a piece of myself on this earth when I die. This makes me very happy.”
ContributorEleanor J. Bader