Best Feature Stories

Heart of Glass: Suzanne Glass

By Jaillan Elgallad
Brooklyn College

On a Monday morning, Suzanne Glass walked into her class room at Brooklyn College, where she teaches an Arts in Journalism Seminar, and asked her students if they were interested in "ripping her story apart," before it was to be published in the Financial Times.

The 17 students, who had been told she was writing a profile on Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), went all out to find grammatical and typographical mistakes.

Almost everyone had a comment to make on Glass's article, whether it was to point out an error or to suggest a change in subtitle. They were not afraid to express their opinions.

Glass is always correcting her students when they mispronounce a word or speak vernacularly, to improve their way of speaking. And she welcomes her students' criticism of her.

"I'm not letting you get away with speaking sloppy English anymore, I'm done with it," the tiny and delicate professor told her students after someone pronounced a word incorrectly.

After Glass's students pointed out the mistakes in her piece, one of them suggested that she should change a controversial subtitle that her editor had put in the story. Glass agreed with her student and, on the break of the class, phoned her editor and told him to change the subtitle as her student had suggested.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, she earned a bachelor's degree in education and French at Cambridge and a master's in simultaneous interpretation at the University of Zurich.

She had a column in the Financial Times called "Through the Looking Glass" from 2000 to 2004, and occasionally writes for them now.

Her first novel, "The Interpreter," was later used for a film starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Its main character is an interpreter who overhears confidential medical information that jeopardizes her career. Glass herself was an interpreter for over five years for the European Economic Community and quit interpreting when she felt "sick of being a parrot."

Her second novel, "The Sculptor," is very close to Glass's heart, despite the lack of publicity it suffered. Ramsey, an Egyptian sculptor who falls in love with Sarit, an Israeli artist, turned to a plastic surgeon.

The main character of the story was inspired by an Egyptian surgeon Glass had met on a vacation in the Caribbean Islands. He had walked up to her in a gift shop and told her she was a beautiful woman, but would look better if he had fixed her nose.

Glass calls her second novel "a mature book," compared to her first.

After the critical success of her first off-Broadway play "The Milliner" in 2006, Glass decided to write a novel version of the play. Glass wrote the play from the heart and soul of a German-Jewish hatmaker in the post-Nazi era of Germany.

The British author's grandfather was her inspiration in creating Wolfgang, the protagonist in the play. Both Glass's grandfather and Wolfgang were German Jews and, in both cases, felt significantly more German than Jewish, but had a hard time from their milieu to accept and respect their identity. Glass managed to crawl into Wolfgang's skin - the German, the hatmaker, the lover stigmatized by his fellow German citizens and, later in the play, by his British neighbors when he flees Nazi Germany to live in Britain with his wife.

Glass's precise depiction of the milliner's work is also very visual for the reader. In the script, she provides details that only a hatmaker, designer and artist would be familiar with. She has actually traveled to Berlin and done research on the era and watched hats being made by milliners, so she could write the play with authority and bring the character to life for her readers. Regardless of the amount of details Glass incorporates into her work, the reader finishes the play yearning for more. And this is why Glass decided to write an adaptation of the play in a novel form. So far, she has written a few chapters.

The publishing company, Samuel French, published the play in October 2008. Like her grandfather, Glass has a taste and admiration for fashion. She has a certain sense of style; her love for shawls, accessories and matching colors is easily seen in the way she dresses. Every accessory she wears gives her outfit a touch of vibrancy, and every word she says adds color to her vivacious character.

Her passion for the arts has transferred over to many of her students who were influenced by her. "I've learned I can be a better arts journalist than a news journalist," Cherrise Raghoo said at the last-day-of-class party.

"Overall the class had taught me to raise expectations of myself," Rebecca Felipe said. "It's another place where you can practice your creativity," Felipe added.

"Ballet wasn't on my agenda," Elijah Dunn said to his classmates, whose beat was dancing in the seminar. By the end of the semester, Dunn was keeping up with special publications on dance, and came to every class with something to say about dances. "I've learned that reading is very imperative in the world of journalism. This is something I will take with me after this class," Dunn added.

"I've learned in this class to be a good writer, appreciate art, and read, read, read," Jazmen Greene said.

"This class confirms that if I couldn't be creative, I'd probably die," Lara Mondrus said to her professor on the last day of class.

Glass's last words to her class were her feedback to them on the whole semester. She compared one of her student's writing to an artistic work of Michelangelo. "It was like watching a sculpture came out of Michelangelo's work."

"She brings to the classroom the kind of broad classical background and experience of the world that enliven debate and spark the mental fireworks that form the basis of journalistic excellence, creative thinking and scholarship," said Anthony Mancini, head of the journalism department at Brooklyn College.

"I first met Suzanne about two years ago when my wife, Maria Cellario, acted off-Broadway in her play, ‘The Milliner.' As we became friendly, she began to express an interest in teaching as an adjunct. Since she seemed highly intelligent and enthusiastic about the prospect and had a solid background in both journalism and the arts, I decided to employ her. As a teacher, she far exceeded my expectations. She combines compassion for the students with the ability to inspire them by holding them to high standards," Mancini added.

"Language is my passion," Glass says to me as she enjoys a bowl of fruit salad. She speaks seven languages and is working on her eighth, Mandarin. Growing up in a family rich with language, she learned German from her grandparents, French from her father and, at school, Hebrew when she was living in Israel, Spanish in Madrid, Italian in Florence and Portuguese "from my cleaning lady."

"Language is in my blood." French is the language she feels most comfortable with, and it is obvious when you talk to her, because she is always using French phrases when she talks. Even when she speaks to her students, there's always a word or two in French she says, then she translates it to them. Her favorite poets are Baudelaire and Jacques Prévert, both "very romantic French poets."

Her fluency and love for the French language matches her physical appearance: Glass looks and sounds like a petite French woman. But when she speaks in English, you hear a native British accent. When she asked me to teach her a sentence in Arabic, the same applied.

Glass says she was afraid to write after reading a novel by one of her favorite writers; "Asylum" by Patrick McGrath, is one of her favorite books that she also recommended me to read. The novel is about a psychiatrist's wife who falls in love with the husband of a mentally ill patient.

Friends and family are also influences in the artist's life. "My friends are my inspiration."

"As a friend she listens intently but she also shares - with anecdotes, with advice and with an open mind. She has a strong physical presence despite being slight in height and frame.

She sees everything and she feels everything, which sometimes bombards her senses," said Sarah Hartley, a journalist and friend for years.

"People like Suzanne give off an energy of curiosity and of intelligence that is extremely charismatic. You might be a taxi driver or a prime minister, but Suzanne is equally interested in you. And because of her innate curiosity, she is able to ask questions and find out answers that others might not do," Hartley said.

She has a close relationship with both of her parents. "My mom has a very visceral understanding of whether something I've written is going to work or isn't," said Glass. This is why she often lets her read her work before it's published. She has an artistic relationship with her father and he's at the top of her list of people who have influenced her creative life.

She tells me, "My father went to see my play 12 times." When she was a child, he used to speak to her in poetry. "That's my father in a business meeting," Glass said, pointing to a picture while she was checking her e-mail.

Her father is also a writer. He wrote his first novel, "Mrs. Pickles," at the age of 72. His novel was inspired by his cousin, who hid his non-Jewish wife from his family his whole life.

Glass's next project will be a non-fiction work about her great-grandfather, Hans Sachs, called "Einstein's Dentist." Sachs had a love for posters in the late 1800s, built a wing in his house for his collection and made a saloon for artists to gather. When the Nazis found out, they took interest in Sachs' collection and put him in concentration camp.

Suzanne Glass is a person who can be easily described. Some might find her blunt, arrogant and egotistical. But after peeking into her life or the past four months, I can say otherwise. She's passionate about what she does whether it's teaching or writing. Inspirational to many people. Straightforward to a point some may think impulsive. Friendly and down to earth. Classy and intelligent. She has low expectations of people until they prove her wrong, then she'll help them build higher expectations than they think of themselves.
"The Milliner," by Suzanne Glass.
"The Sculptor", by Suzanne Glass.
"The Interpreter," by Suzanne Glass.

Bushwick: Ethnographic Profile of a North Brooklyn Neighborhood

By Jessica Lawson
CUNY Baccalaureate Program/Hunter College


Vacant lots. Family neighborhood. Drugs. Hipster haven. Blight. Real estate opportunity. Depending to whom one talks, this north Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick conjures up a farrago of images.

Settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth-century as a farming community, Bushwick by the late 1800s was a residential and industrial area with over 14 breweries in a 14-block area. Several mansions erected by beer tycoons on Bushwick Avenue attest to the prosperity of this era.

What had become a middle class enclave of two- and three-family homes built up by waves of German and, later, Italian immigrants started a steady decline in the mid 1960s. In questionable housing practices similar to today's predatory lending scandal, real estate speculators bought homes from Bushwick residents for an average of $8,000 apiece, used fraudulent appraisals and, through a federal mortgage program, sold them to low-income blacks and Puerto Ricans at prices they couldn't afford, on average about $20,000 per home.

Many homeowners defaulted, leaving the properties abandoned. By 1972 it was estimated that 500 Bushwick homes lay empty due to the faulty loan program; more were abandoned as local property values became deeply depressed and buyers feared investing in run-down Bushwick.

Perhaps Bushwick became notoriously famous in the wake of the massive riot that erupted on the evening of July 13, 1977, during a citywide blackout. Residents looted the Broadway shopping district, grabbing anything they could, from consumer goods to iron gates. By the next day, 134 stores had been looted and 44 set ablaze. The fires spread to residential buildings. After the riot, Bushwick was never the same. A third of its businesses were shuttered, 20 percent of its housing stock lost and many residents fled.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s Bushwick was notorious as a hotbed of drugs and crime. Knickerbocker Avenue was one of the city's centers for heroin and crack. Prostitutes abounded in the blocks around today's Maria Hernandez Park. Bushwick had one of the highest murder rates in Brooklyn with 77 murders in 1990.

Lourdes Guillen, Dion Millington, Sheila Rodriguez

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans and later immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico tried and continue to try to eke out an existence. Among the vacant lots and drugs, low-income families raise children the best they can in sometimes-derelict housing. Nevertheless, Lourdes Guillen, a 22-year-old City College student, has fond memories of growing up in Bushwick in what she described as "such a family neighborhood."

She recalled her apartment on Wilson Avenue, which she shared with her mother, as "really rinky dink." A two-bedroom railroad apartment, typical of Bushwick housing stock, it only had windows in the front and back rooms and was freezing in the winters and sweltering in the summer. As a child, Guillen, of Puerto Rican descent, would play with her cousins who lived down the block, in an empty parking lot next to her apartment.

"Maybe it was dangerous and I never really knew," Guillen said. "The most dangerous thing I remember was a drunk lady singing outside of the corner store at midnight."

Said Dion Millington, 25, a lifelong resident: "I always felt safe when I was a little girl. My neighborhood - everyone - were the children's keepers." Millington grew up in several different apartment buildings surrounding what used to be Bushwick High School. Despite her rosy perspective on growing up in the neighborhood, she experienced some pretty terrifying incidents.

"At PS 106 around lunchtime, all the kids were outside. It was a nice day. And then someone decided to shoot up the yard. I remember having to wear a tissue box because I lost my shoe running for my life," she said. Franco, a friend from elementary school, was shot and killed while playing video games with his friend. Apparently the doors all looked the same in the apartment building and the perpetrator mistakenly shot through the wrong unit, killing 9-year-old Franco and wounding the friend. Dion believes it was "definitely" drug-related.

Sheila Rodriguez, 28, grew up in a railroad apartment on Bleecker Street between Irving and Knickerbocker Avenues. "We were one of the first Dominican families in the building, probably the block," she said. "Everyone knew everyone else's business - who had a drug habit, who had an ACS case. Neighbors were close knit."

Gentrification, yes! Gentrification, no!

She recalled the corner of Irving and Bleecker, where something was always going down. "My mom had a window that faced the street and she saw a lot of stuff - muggings, shootings, stabbings. A fight would always end up on that corner."

She said her first day of school at IS 291 was one of the scariest days of her life. For the first time, she was venturing out of the safety zone of her block and going to school in a different area with people she didn't know. She described the atmosphere as "violent" and said there were "always people looking to fight, but I had the grace not to fall into that."

She credits her mother with instilling a strong set of values in her and for being strict with her and her siblings. Rarely did they leave their block or stoop. "I didn't feel unsafe," she said. "Mom was really attentive of us and didn't give us a chance to feel in danger. I was 15 years old, and she was forcing me to come inside, it was kind of embarrassing."

Rodriguez, who manages a Starbucks in Soho, recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Decatur Street and Irving Avenue where she lives alone with her three-year-old daughter. She searched for months to find a suitable and affordable apartment. Bushwick has the highest incidence of serious housing code violations in the city. "I was looking at $1,500 a month apartments that were smelling of piss and had bottles on the floor," she said.

In the last several years, Bushwick has been going through a revival of sorts. Artists, students, and other creative-types who have been priced out of neighboring hipster Mecca Williamsburg have flocked to Bushwick's north side. Numerous galleries, coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, bars, restaurants and DIY venues have sprung up around the Morgan and Jefferson L-train stops. Bushwick now has a "cool-factor" that is registered by the city's hip. Sometimes touted as the next Williamsburg, Bushwick is a continual obsession of publications such as the New York Times, New York Magazine, and blogs like Gawker.

While incredibly affordable for Manhattan and even Williamsburg standards, rents are increasingly out of reach for many of the neighborhood's long-time, low-income residents. According to a study released by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, Bushwick's median rent in 2007 was $795. Finding an apartment close to that median has now become impossible. A troll through Craigslist apartment rentals reveals two-bedrooms going from $1,100 a month to over $2,000.

This deeply worries Nadine Whitted, the district manager of Bushwick's Community Board 4. "Most of the housing that is being developed is expensive and low-income people can't afford it," she said in a telephone interview. "In the last five years, there's no more vacant lots. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but they're being filled with homes that people can't afford. There's often no subsidies on them and landlords can charge whatever they want."

She hoped that if Bushwick continues to experience a boom in housing, "then at least the type of housing that will come our way will be affordable to all people," she said. She suggested that Bushwick would benefit from by making affordable housing available using a three-tiered income model based on Area Median Income or AMI.

"Everybody smiles and waves"

A walk down Knickerbocker Avenue on a Saturday afternoon reveals a bustling shopping district. Maria Hernandez Park, formerly a haven of drugs, was named after a community activist who stood up to drug dealers and was subsequently shot and killed in her apartment on Starr Street. Now, children frolic and play families stroll and picnic and the park is even home to a Greenmarket. New bars and restaurants are under way in surrounding blocks. The newest addition on Troutman Street, Tandem, opened up the third week of April. New residents continue to flock to this increasingly attractive neighborhood.

Patrick Pope, 24, moved to Bushwick in December 2007 from North Carolina. "I liked that there were so many families here because it seemed safe," he said. "Everybody smiles and waves. I sometimes feel like an asshole because I didn't wave first. People are nicer than me!" Indeed, Bushwick is a much safer neighborhood than it was in the past. Violent crimes and felonies were down almost 75 percent in 2008 compared to 1990 stats.

Chris Person, a 23-year-old School of Visual Arts graduate, moved to Dekalb Avenue one year ago. He lives in a two-bedroom new construction and splits the $1,300 monthly rent. He appreciates Bushwick, he said, for its affordability, attractive women and surfeit of parties. Asked his feelings on gentrification, Person said, "Morally ambiguous and an inevitability."

He said the problem was not with gentrification itself, but more of a reflection of the existing social system. "There is a distinct problem with the way affordable housing is underfunded and how building projects never solve problems. There will always be ‘douchebags' and 20s living on the fringe and raising the rent."

Not all longtime residents are opposed to gentrification either. The many changes that have taken place in her neighborhood have pleased Dion Millington. She left Bushwick in 2005 to live in Florida. Millington, of Haitian descent, was in a bit of shock to see white faces in her neighborhood after she returned in 2008. "When I came back and I'm getting off the train, and it's like midnight, I'm seeing all these new faces. I'm like, did I miss something? Has Brooklyn become like this new hip, chic place? I love the fact that there are new people coming in. It's nice to see other people come in and show that it's okay and cool to be different," she said.

For Rodriguez, a single-mother raising her daughter with the help of her family, Bushwick still has a long way to go. She noted that the area around Myrtle Avenue remains underdeveloped, and shopping and culinary options are limited. She still has to go to Manhattan to take her daughter to educational and cultural activities. "I would like to see my community cater to children. The community centers that are present have nothing - no play dates, activities for toddlers. I would like to see more arts accessible to everyone, music, workshops, community outreach for the youth and more education," she said.

With the country in the midst of an economic recession and the real estate market in the city at a standstill, no one is quite sure what the future of Bushwick holds. The rather hastily built condominiums that have gone up in the last couple years sit empty. Bushwick-as-the-next-Williamsburg has lost much of its steam. The never-ending concern of gentrification will undoubtedly rage on, but one thing is for certain, Bushwick has come a long way.