‘Brooklyn Superhero’ Writing Center Celebrates 10 Years
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
While tutoring centers are no rarity in New York City, Park Slope’s 826NYC — also known as the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company — is unique in its quirky setup and programming. On Wednesday, the nonprofit community center that emphasizes student writing, celebrated its tenth anniversary at Town Hall in Manhattan with “One-On-One Chat Spectacular,” an event featuring a star-studded lineup of entertainers. In keeping with its whimsical nature, 826NYC presented a hilarious series of conversations, featuring comedian Fred Armisen; musician and journalist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; John Oliver, correspondent for “The Daily Show”; and Brooklyn-based author Kurt Andersen, among others.
Since its inception, 826NYC — modeled after the San Francisco chapter, which writer Dave Eggers founded in 2002 — has encouraged thousands of local students to write by connecting them with professional writers, publishing student works and offering programming such as one-on-one tutoring and free field trips. The organization also functions as a space where students, volunteers and professional writers can convene and work together after school. Its superhero storefront invites students to use their imaginations and the store serves as a unique source of funding that enables 826NYC to provide its programming for free.
New York Times bestselling author Sarah Vowell and Brooklyn-based comedian Eugene Mirman organized and co-hosted Wednesday’s event, which was a perfect manifestation of the organization’s ideals. Vowell, who has been the president of the 826NYC board since its inception in 2004, told the Brooklyn Eagle that these events, in addition to serving as fundraisers, are effective in publicizing the program and attracting volunteers.
Kurt Andersen on Wednesday told the Eagle how he became involved with 826NYC and this particular event. A 24-year resident of Carroll Gardens, Andersen said, “I’ve known Dave Eggers a long time, so I’ve been a supporter in various ways over the years, and I’m friends with Sarah Vowell — so [it was] the combination of liking Sarah and thinking 826 is a great thing.”
Mirman added that this event was distinct from other 826 fundraisers in its one-on-one chat theme, which was inspired by the one-on-one drop-in tutoring that 826 offers. And while the organization’s main goal is to provide a free service that helps students finish their homework, Vowell explained that its functions extend beyond academic learning. Many of the students who participate live with parents who work multiple jobs, and oftentimes the kids’ interactions with tutors are the only individual attention they’ll get in a given week, Vowell told the Eagle. “That was kind of the spark of the interview format [for Wednesday’s event].”
826NYC’s eccentric arrangement sets the organization apart from other community centers. “It’s basically a toy store...but then there’s a secret door through a bookcase, and that’s how you get into the tutoring center,” Vowell said. Mirman, a Park Slope resident, said that he lives down the street and whenever people visit him he brings them to the center.
The imaginative storefront helps to engage and “hook” students, but the organization operates as a serious program that has produced serious results. Mirman spoke to the Eagle about the program’s commitment to mixing education with fun activities. “For instance, there will be a workshop where you build a robot, and the writing component is that you write an instruction manual for the robot. It appeals to kids’ creativity […] the fun of it is learning and enjoying learning,” he said.
Vowell told the Eagle that one student, Alex Casimir, has been with the program since he was five and has participated in its summer filmmaking program for numerous summers. “Now he’s a volunteer and he’s helping us run the program,” she said. “He wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up and because of our programs, he already is a filmmaker.” Speaking to the audience about Casimir on Wednesday, Vowell was teary-eyed.
The father of a student who was accepted into New York’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts contacted 826NYC to say that he believed a film his son created at their film program was what got him in.
Just as the 826NYC programs and storefront can enchant students, the uproarious conversations on Wednesday held the audience captive. Author Jon Ronson interviewed actor Chris O’Dowd, who will soon make his Broadway debut alongside James Franco in “Of Mice and Men.” O’Dowd told the Eagle he arrived in New York this past Tuesday, just in time to be able to participate in the event.
Following Ronson’s and O’Dowd’s hilarious chat session was a more serious conversation between journalist Anand Giridharadas and Russian author Masha Gessen, who spoke about her writing and views on Russian President Vladimir Putin and dissident punk-rock group Pussy Riot. “What do you do with a country that’s been so damaged?” Gessen asked, speaking poignantly of Russia’s “trauma” and expressing that her dream is that Russia will one day “be a country my kids can go back and get to know.”
After a brief musical interlude by English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchock, comedian John Oliver spoke to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who, at the end of the chat wondered aloud, “Did we talk about anything?!” The multitalented musician, record producer and writer, best known as the drummer of The Roots and for directing the in-house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Questlove happened to have had dental surgery on Wednesday morning and joked about listening to Pink Floyd on “dental gas” rather than on acid.
To change up the pace, comedian Fred Armisen interviewed audience members, including celebrity couple Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis, after which the evening concluded with Kurt Andersen interviewing Ken Burns, who spoke about his Academy Award-nominated documentary “Brooklyn Bridge” and his 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five.”
Vowell explained that all of the people who participated on Wednesday are those who have made a career in the arts, whether through writing, filmmaking, comedy or music. “The arts are a pretty significant part of this country’s economy and the world’s economy and I think […] we don’t need our students to grow up to be artists, but if they have that inkling, they can see that maybe it’s possible.”
To further promote this idea — that students’ creative work holds value in the community — 826NYC not only encourages students to write, but it publishes their work. Similarly, the student films that are created are shown at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
On Wednesday, Vowell said, half-jokingly, “Our students are around all these Bohemian weirdos who pay their rent and their taxes.” In all seriousness, she added that she’s glad 826NYC students are around these people. “They know if [the arts is] something they want to pursue, it’s an option.”