Michael K. Williams

Michael grew up in the Vanderveer Estates, a collection of fifty-nine red brick buildings, six floors high, with seven apartments per level spread across thirty acres in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Bounded by Nostrand Avenue to the west and Newkirk Avenue to the north, Vanderveer Estates takes up four city blocks and is divided across Foster Avenue.

Vanderveer is one of the largest privately owned rent-stabilized low-income developments in the city, annually housing roughly seven thousand working-class residents of East Flatbush since 1949. The development has seen a revolving door of ownership over the past half century. Its history is also marred by thousands of housing code violations and a legacy of crime and drug use.

Vanderveer residents nicknamed the drug corner at the intersection of Nostrand and Foster “the Front Page” because killings there received greater media attention, often landing on the front pages of the local newspapers. Meanwhile, the southern and eastern corners of the complex, near Brooklyn Avenue, were called “the Back Pages,” as the murders there went unnoticed by the press.

For decades, many “entrenched highly organized drug-distribution operations” ran through Vanderveer, drawing significant attention from the NYPD’s Sixty-Seventh Precinct, which, at times, has attributed as much as 40 percent of the total crime in East Flatbush to the development.

Michael said of the development he grew up in, “Veer, although there was a lot of violence growing up back then, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. Scars seen and unseen made me the man I am today.”

Michael’s birth in 1966 coincided with an exodus of white residents from East Flatbush at the onset of New York City’s fiscal crisis, which was subsequently followed by an erosion of social services. As Italian, Irish, and Jewish residents relocated, Afro-Caribbean immigrants from the West Indies filled the vacuum, coming from Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

Today, East Flatbush is the single largest West Indian neighborhood in all of the United States. With its combination of Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans — many of whom had moved north during the mid-century Great Migration — East Flatbush became the blackest neighborhood in New York City, which is still true today.

Michael’s family mirrored the makeup of the neighborhood. His mother Paula immigrated from Nassau, the Bahamas, while his father, Booker T. Williams, was raised in Greeleyville, South Carolina — a majority-black town home to fewer than four hundred people.

“My father being black American and my mother from the Bahamas,” Michael said of his family, “let my hood tell it and I may as well have been bi-racial.”

Growing up, Michael’s mother was his biggest influence, especially after his father left the family when Michael was a teenager. She was determined that Michael avoid the harsh fate that befell many other black youths in Vanderveer.

“My mother was extremely strict,” Michael recalled. “She had strong views on how a young man should act and behave. This was very different from what was happening just outside my door. I was not allowed to fight for any reason, not even to defend myself. The rule was my mother was the end-all that be-all in authority.”

Michael’s mother founded a daycare center in two vacant offices in the building’s lobby. Not only did she pay for the space out of pocket, but she redid it completely, beautifying the office and lobby with plants, pictures, and mirrors. She named the daycare center Morning Glory and made it her business to not only care for children but also mentor young mothers.

Michael reflected with great pride on his mother’s parenting:

It was hard for a black woman raising a black boy in an aggressively violent neighborhood. That was not easy to navigate through alone. But my mom is so stable, so grounded, such a foundation. She created such a foundation for me in the middle of the jungle. As I remember these things it makes me love her even more for it.

But outside of his home, Michael felt overlooked and misunderstood. His presence was noticed, he often recalled, but his humanity was not. He began to notice the racial and class dynamics that shaped his world.

His experience paying the family’s rent to the Hasidic Jews who owned Vanderveer resonated with him forever:

I remember my mother would have me go down to the rental office to give them her hard earned cash for rent. I remember the fluorescent lights making their white skin look that much whiter, me coming in there with my dark skin was such a distinct contrast. I remember having to navigate the envelope to their hand because they wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Between them and the cops, I always wondered why the people with the power never looked like me.

Throughout Michael’s adolescence he often felt powerless when confronted by adults, who used their authority to manipulate his insecurities. Michael was sexually molested as a teenager, leading him to withdraw from his peers. His vulnerability made him an easy target, and soon he was being mistreated not only by adults, but also by his peers, who bullied and mocked him, calling him names like “Blackie” and “Faggot Mike.”

q">>Consumed by insecurity and struggling to fit in in Vanderveer, Michael found a home dancing in Lower Manhattan’s gay nightclubs.

Throughout his young adulthood, Michael bounced in and out of drug clinics while getting busted for car theft and credit card fraud. Consumed by insecurity and struggling to fit in in Vanderveer, he found a home dancing in Lower Manhattan’s gay nightclubs. Though he wasn’t gay, it was there that he began to feel comfortable in his skin. Michael relished the lack of judgment the gay community afforded him. His talent as a dancer was undeniable, and ultimately landed him roles in music videos and on tour with Madonna and George Michael.

Michael’s experiences in the Vanderveer Projects and the gay bars of Lower Manhattan gave him unique insight into two of New York City’s most marginalized communities: young black men and homosexuals. Michael recognized the humanity of his neighbors at Vanderveer, whom society considered lost causes, and his gay friends on the dance floor, who were antagonized by the police and socially ostracized.

This proximity to marginalization and deep love for society’s outcasts prepared Michael to deliver the defining performance of his career as Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire.

Source : https://jacobinmag.com/2021/10/michael-k-williams-east-flatbush-williamsburg-black-brooklyn-gentrification

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