Sabrina Ramos is a non-profit healthcare professional, mother, partner, and a native Brooklynite. Her parents were both community health advocates who she says, “made equity and justice their life’s work.” Today, she lets us into her gorgeous Prospect Heights brownstone (next door to where she lived as a kid), while she shares her powerful thoughts on community, design, art, and the long term effects of gentrification. In our ongoing conversation, Sabrina and I commiserate on the definition of ‘quality of life… “the majority perception is that all this development has improved our lives, but what about the perspective of those of us who live here in the middle of it? Most outsider opinions would say that we benefit (those of us who are left here) property values, conveniences, 4-star restaurants on the corner…but with them comes all those other daily inconveniences; rats! No parking, so we basically have to take Uber although we have a car, peeing, throwing trash etc. on our block because they have no connection to the place. And we can’t even go to those restaurants because you can never get a reservation!” Her words today are required reading.
LY: What neighborhood do you live in and how long have you lived here?
SR: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I’ve lived here in Prospect Heights my entire life, except for a few brief stints in college and abroad. My parents purchased my childhood home (the house next door) in 1972. At that time, this neighborhood was largely brown: many West Indians, Puerto Ricans, first or second generation Black southerners, with a sprinkling of other working class immigrants. My parents, being a young interracial couple (my mother is Jewish, my father afro-Puerto Rican) had limited options and finances as it was. They found this house on the ‘wrong’ side of Flatbush, and that’s where they landed to make a family.
LY: You said you live with your sister next-door to the same brownstone since birth. How did you come to the decision to move next door?
SR: About 25 years ago, my parents decided to buy the brownstone next door, as the Ukrainian woman who lived in and ran it as an SRO for the previous 30 years was no longer able to manage on her own. My family had been very good to her, and looked after her once her husband had died. She offered them a great price, but the one catch was that they take it fully occupied. Seeing it as the perfect investment for their children, my parents took this deal. Unfortunately, they were not as experienced in landlord-tenant law as they could have been; it took over eight years to fully vacate the building.
Sadly, my father died unexpectedly before the last tenant finally moved out. Instead of selling the property, my mother poured her grief energy into a full renovation. My sister moved into one of the apartments and I moved into the lower duplex with my son and my partner, Shawn. So now, my sister and her family live in the top two floors, and we occupy the bottom two.
Long story, but this is how we all ended up here! And, honestly, although the decision to buy this building caused an immense amount of heartache and stress for my parents, I am eternally grateful; there is absolutely no way any of us would ever be able to live anywhere near this neighborhood, let alone this block, in this century!
LY: A few months back I wrote about finding community on my grandmother’s front stoop and the differences there today. Experiencing your children growing up in the house next door to the one you were raised in, are there differences in community that you have noticed? If so, what are they?
SR: Wow. I don’t even know where to start. It’s complex, this gentrification thing. And although I love being able to say, “I’m from here” anytime someone asks me, the predictable response of, “Oh wow! You must have seen so many changes! There’s not many of you left!” makes me want to yell back, “Yes, that’s because you moved in and created this insanity. We did not need civilizing, thanks!” However, I cannot do that. Although I no longer really know most of my neighbors these days, some lovely people have come and gone. For me, community seems to have moved from the stoop or the street, to being more defined by my personal space: my living room, backyard, kitchen—and made up of whoever I add to it. That front stoop reference you made so resonated with me; there were always people—young, old, kids, music, loud, drunk; and you never had to do more than step outside with some chalk or a jump rope to find entertainment and companionship. Now, it seems the only people strolling up the block are looking for their cars after an event at Barclay’s or coming to one of the bars or restaurants located on every corner.
It’s so fragmented and disjointed, but this concept of “neighborhood” has been slowly disappearing in communities around the city for a while now. I walk around and eye the newcomers with a mix of resentment and defensiveness; this was our neighborhood, you took it from us and claimed it as your own. But, they will move here, have their own families here, and those kids will then lay claim to the community. That’s how it works, and although we spend lots of energy being upset about it, I’m trying my best to instead look towards ensuring my own comforts. At the same time, the thought that my own son gets frightened stares and induces purse clutching by scared white women right on his own block is infuriating.
It’s just so extra crazy because no middle class white person wanted to live here during the 70’s, 80’s, even much of the 90’s. The shadow of crime and fear was there, yes; but it was all over NYC during those years. At least on your own block, in your own ‘hood, you felt a sense of protectiveness by default. You knew the faces and places. There was a familiarity and an intimacy that has all but disappeared, and it makes me immensely sad that I have not been able to raise my son with that same connectedness to this neighborhood. I will never forget this memory I have of him in my head, around 5- or 6-years-old, out in the front yard swinging on the gate, kicking around his ball, scanning up and down the block looking for some kid, any kid, to come and play. It really struck me then that this would never be the same again. I always think of how awestruck my father would be if he were still alive. He never was able to see what Brooklyn has become, and I don’t think he ever would have expected it in a million years. It’s truly mind blowing.
LY: How do you carve out time and space for yourself at home when you are so surrounded by family, living in the same building as your sister?
SR: We do have completely separate units, so although we technically live together, each family has their own space. That said, my nieces are very social! They like to come down and knock on the door to visit, and we share the basement and backyard, so, we do see each other often. Our apartment is very much our own space, however, and I truly love being in it. It has become somewhat of a sanctuary, with all the mayhem out in the street, and I really try to ensure that it is peaceful, clean, and comfortable. We are so lucky we have this space. Oftentimes, we opt to stay in the back with the trees and greenery, or melting into the couch rather than face the streets. My son has his own little ‘suite’ downstairs in the back part of the house, and, being a teenager, when he’s home, he typically spends 98% of the time in his room with music, Playstation, and Netflix. Even though he probably spends way too many hours on the devices, I am deep down very happy that he likes his own space enough to want to spend time in it.
LY: What is your most cherished piece in the apartment?
SR: The couch is most definitely my favorite. We like to place bets on how fast it will take guests once they sit on it before they fall asleep—it’s that comfortable, and it’s one of my favorite places to be. Plus, since its back is towards the window, you have a view of the trees in the backyard when you’re sitting on it.
In terms of sentimental value, though, I’d have to say the records. Although they are not technically a “piece” [of decor], they are an essential parts of my childhood, my life before, and of my father. These albums are the soundtrack of my childhood and even though it’s much more efficient to simply put on Soundcloud, when I do have the urge to throw some on one Sunday afternoon, I take a journey back in time. My father was a music fanatic and somewhat of an aficionado (and frustrated musician)—mostly jazz, Latin jazz, and salsa, with lots of soul and R&B thrown in as well. As a young man growing up in Harlem, he saw many of the masters play live in underground bars and clubs, and he developed a lifelong love for the art form. It took us a long time to figure out how to properly display them, as I felt an Ikea shelf would not honor them in the right way. We searched Craigslist, eBay, antique shops, etc. until Shawn had the idea to hunt down these old barrister’s bookcases, that could properly fit the size of each album and also were paneled with glass so they could display the records. I’m pretty sure they were each purchased from different states and had to be shipped here, then refinished and painted, but we finally got them in an appropriate place!
LY: Where did the purple woven basket in the living room come from?
SR: I was walking with my mom on 7th avenue in Park Slope. There’s a guy who sells African woven baskets and other items in front of PS 321. I liked it, she bought it for me. And that’s exactly the spot I pictured for it. Not particularly exotic origins, but I still like it!
LY: Who made the two-paneled tree artwork in the living room?
SR: Shawn made that piece. He’s an architect and designer by training (but also so much more!), and he created these panels as a tribute to the Central Park Five. They are images of trees with words like “wildin” and other phrases that were specific to the case and repeated during the news coverage and trial of the Central Park Five. There are four large panels all together, and they were created to be part of an exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem a number of years ago. I love the stark black and white images, but also having beautifully designed, socially-relevant art in my living space. That case was so significant and divisive in NYC during my high school years, and I like to have these hanging as a reminder that the fight for justice is ongoing, can be beautiful, and is always a bit tangled. Also, I love that something Shawn made is so impactful and can be prominently featured in our home.
Much of the other art hanging on the walls was also made by friends or family. My mother is an artist and her pieces are all around, as well as others made by close friends, some of them also with great political and historical significance. This intimacy with the artists makes all those pieces so much more important.
LY: When it comes to apartment styling, where do you stand?
SR: Before Shawn and I moved in together, I had a lot of items that belonged to my grandmother in my apartment. And, while they were very sentimental, they were also not exactly how I wanted my house to look. Before, I never quite felt that my space represented me, but was simply more functional. I did not have resources or time to focus on decorating, and I also don’t think I realized at the time how much of a difference creating a space of your own design really frames your life. Most of the pieces I had were taken out of convenience and sentimentality after my grandmother died, and while parting with them was emotional and I still do have a few here and there, moving them out and the new stuff in felt like a new beginning, and an opportunity to do things the way I wanted. I guess it was fairly freeing.
As a designer, Shawn has a very good eye. He also happens to be a relentless bargain hunter! He will scour the internet and every physical locale without resting until he finds exactly what he’s looking for at exactly the right price. Or he’ll just wait until that thing comes along, no rush. I don’t know that I operate with any type of theory about style or design. It’s more like, “Do I like this piece? Is there a place for it? Does it serve a purpose? Is it comfortable? Are the color and design realistically pleasing and practical?” I love the light we get here on the parlor floor. Everything becomes bright and illuminated during the morning and afternoon hours. I want to be able to have a space that shines in that brightness and envelops you once the light fades. When I look at other people’s house tours on blogs, I find myself striving for the perfect ideal, lamenting all the clutter and crap in our every corner. How do they do it? But the grass is always greener, and I want a home that I can live in, that reflects my family’s life in its fibers.
What we have now is an eclectic working mix of thrifted/Craigslist, ABC Carpet (RIP the Bronx outlet!), and some randomly sourced stuff that we’ve picked up along the way. I’ve had some luck keeping this handful of plants flourishing and happy, which has added a lushness to the space that I love. I’m taking it slow before I add more, and I hope I didn’t just jinx my green thumb!
LY: Three words to describe the way your place feels?
SR: Cozy, lived-in, soothing.
LY: How do you see yourself and family growing in this space?
SR: It’s kind of funny to think about this question, since I’ve been growing in or around this space forever! I almost feel like I’ve grown with it instead of in it. Those early years, as a child, with my parents and sister, they seem so, so far away; yet at the same time like they were just yesterday. I think the juxtaposition of what’s happened outside contrasted with what’s happened inside these walls is what does it. We’ve experienced birth, death, sorrow and grief, joy, marriage, growth, and all the change that comes in between and around all of those monumental events, all within these houses. And outside the world has kept on spinning and evolving. It’s quite remarkable, really.
I’m not sure what the near future holds for my son, or for us, but this space has certainly been the most grounding, comforting, and stable thing I have known. I imagine that, as we continue to grow, so will the world outside, for better or worse. But through all of it, we will always have this constant to remind us of where we began.