I visited there twice in 2016. After the first visit, I wrote about a work colleague who had died too young, Robin Flowers.
We had begun our PR careers together, and in 1987 we found ourselves stationed in Bushwick after a devastating fire had destroyed telephone service.
The defining characteristic of the place, even back then, was how temporary everything seemed.
One example: With our company under pressure to restore phone service quickly, our Marketing department had arranged for T-shirts for the workers on site that read, "We're working as fast as we can!" The grizzled operations executive leading the recovery efforts opened the first box of shirts and said, "We can’t use these!" -- since the phrase could mean the exact opposite in a unionized setting... a work-to-rule excuse. As soon as he uttered those words, our PR vice president grabbed the box from Robin's hands and hurled it into a nearby dumpster.
Revisiting Bushwick in 2016, I was struck by the area's change and revitalization in barely two decades. The once-impoverished community had become home to vibrant street art and commerce.
I carved Robin's initials into one wall there as a makeshift memorial -- my life's only attempt at street art. I was delighted and encouraged to find the "RF" still there a few months later when I returned to take photos on my own.
Three years later -- last Saturday -- I returned to The Bushwick Collective a third time and saw that Robin's initials had long ago been painted over.
I was with a group of talented photographers from New Jersey's Black Glass Gallery, but I didn't have the heart to take many photos. The street art was just as compelling. Here's a site where you can see the great photos my friends took that day.
But me? Just hours earlier, I had learned that another work friend -- Joellen Brown -- had been been in an accident and was in an intensive unit in Philadelphia with a head injury.
I wandered aimlessly around Bushwick on my own, preoccupied with thoughts and prayers for Joellen, until I came to the corner of Johnson and Gardner.
There, I stopped in my tracks, and took photo after photo of the mural that accompanies this post. It's a work by Michel Velt, an urban artist from the Netherlands. The wavy-haired model, according to Michel's Instagram site, is Nathaly Smits.
It wasn't the mural's beauty that transfixed me. It was a rare sense of familiarity and recognition. When I returned home and compared my 2019 photos to my 2016 photos, I realized that this was the only mural that I had photographed in the neighborhood that had survived for three years.
That’s the thing about Bushwick. As beautiful and poignant and playful and life-affirming as the street art is, it is meant to be temporary. That's the point of it all. The murals here survive for six months, maybe a year... but then they are painted over... and the cycle begins again.
Nothing lasts forever.
In Bushwick, everything is temporary. Except maybe this mural.
The very next morning, I learned that Joellen had died.
My friend was a wonderful writer, but sometimes there are no words.
She isn't listed as one of the book's authors. If you look back at any of the half dozen speeches she wrote that were published over the years in "Vital Speeches of the Day" (a prestigious monthly collection of the best speeches in the world), you won't find her name there either.
Instead, you'll find a transcript of Bell Atlantic executive Ray Smith at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In 1999, he talked about hate speech on the Internet. Joellen titled the speech, "Civility Without Censorship." She wrote: "Instead of fearing the Internet's reach, we need to embrace it -- to value its ability to connect our children to the wealth of positive human experience and knowledge... We need to fight destructive rhetoric with constructive dialogue -- hate speech with truth -- restrictions with greater access."
In 2010, at the Economic Club of Washington DC, Verizon executive Ivan Seidenberg used Joellen's words to sound more presidential than a real-life president: "We need accountable leaders in government, as well as in the business community, who reject the false choices between job creation or deficit reduction, growth or sustainability, serving consumers or investors, managing for the short term or the long term, being profitable or doing things right. Real leadership isn't about making false choices; it's about finding solutions to real problems."
In 2016, I asked Joellen to contribute a blog post to the fledgling website of the New Jersey Chapter of the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators). She readily agreed, and what a treat it is to have a record of Joellen's observations about speechwriting in her own words. That post has been widely re-distributed in the PR community, and you can read it here.
Here too is more of Joellen in her own words, speaking about her endowment to Ohio Wesleyan University in honor of her sister.
If you want a sense of her life, please read her obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer, which includes loving detail provided by her good friend, our former colleague Jay Grossman.
If you want to make a meaningful difference in Joellen's memory, please consider donating to Philadelphia Young Playwrights.
Finally, if you are looking for life lessons, I urge you to visit The Bushwick Collective. You will be reminded there, amid all the beauty and the chaos, that nothing lasts forever. There is no refuge in art. And sometimes there are no words.
The only thing that may transcend time is our impact on the lives of others after we are gone.
This is how Joellen Brown will be long-remembered.