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Photos: Juneteenth Celebrations in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn



Photos: Juneteenth Celebrations in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn
Photos: Juneteenth Celebrations in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn

On a sunny Sunday afternoon at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, just days before Juneteenth, large crowds of people were lounging on brightly colored picnic blankets and under tents atop the hill, making them hard to miss.

With R&B and hip-hop filling the breezy air, this was just the early vibes of the Lay Out, a series of summer park gatherings that its creator says exists “to center Black joy.” By 5 p.m., the park would be swelling with mostly Black attendees dancing and drinking together, playing games and enjoying one another’s company for a day of rest.

“It’s my favorite event of the summer: I’m a picnic girlie, and I just like all the Black people,” said Toni Leotaud, 31, who lives in Brooklyn. “I know I’m going to see mad people that I know.”

Now in its fifth year, the Lay Out has become one of the main attractions in Brooklyn each summer, especially its celebration of Juneteenth. (One of the events is always scheduled to take place around June 19, the national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.)

Emily Anadu, the event’s chief executive and one of its founders, said the idea for the Lay Out came about in 2020, inspired by coronavirus pandemic restrictions and the protests that broke out that summer after the murder of George Floyd. One demonstration near her home in the Fort Greene neighborhood left a police van engulfed in flames. She woke up the next morning to help with cleanup around the park but was surprised by what she saw.

“I remember going out there, and it was like nothing had happened — it was like Pleasantville,” she said. “Everything was cleaned up, but someone swept the ashes into the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

Having lived in New York City for nearly 20 years and in Fort Greene for most of them, Ms. Anadu recalled how it was once normal to see an abundance of Black people. During the early months of the pandemic, as she spent hours walking through park, it became viscerally clear to her just how much the demographics had changed.

“It just felt uncomfortable to have this huge dichotomy between the extreme pain that people were feeling, like I am not safe in my body in this country,” Ms. Anadu said, “and then for a lot of people experiencing time off from work and beautiful days in the park.”

Days after the protest, Ms. Anadu set out to organize a park gathering where Black people could comfortably “take up space” in what had once been a mostly Black neighborhood. Over about three days of planning, she consulted with five of her friends in a group chat about her idea, and through word of mouth and online promotion, the first Lay Out took place on Sunday, June 7, about a week after the protests.

She said more than 500 people had been at that first event, adding that it was a bit nerve-racking to have so many attendees, given the social-distancing guidelines. But the event was outside, Ms. Anadu reasoned, and the size of the crowd was a testament to just how much “we needed each other.”

On Sunday, the Lay Out returned with different sponsored activities, including tennis workshops, mini basketball games, Black-owned businesses and a nearby after-party. We spoke with attendees about what had brought them to the park.

What is your favorite memorable moment at the Lay Out?

Leigh Brant: Last year, in the middle of a set, they started playing Keyshia Cole, and a circle formed around a man who was proposing. And everyone stood in a circle around them and was singing “Love.” It was beautiful.

Is this how you usually spend your Juneteenth weekend?

Since they started doing it, yeah, every Juneteenth I’m here.

What keeps bringing you back?

Do you not see this? The culture, the music, the vibes — they got food down there. It’s just the energy is always on 10.

How long are you visiting for?

For a month. I knew June is a great month in New York — there’s so many stuff. And Juneteenth is during this month, too, so I really wanted to live it.

What brought you here today?

I’m actually here selling food. We’re called Wadadli Jerk, and this is the fourth year we’re doing this. We actually started when the Lay Out started during the pandemic.

What do you love most about it?

The beautiful people. It’s just nice to see beautiful Black people enjoying themselves and just being who we are.

What keeps bringing you back to this event?

Iris Stevens: I actually used to live in Brooklyn, and even though I’m back living in Jersey, there’s just a certain vibe with everyone coming here together in the name of fun and joy. It’s something that always draws me back.

What do you think is different about this event versus previous ones?

Sadé Council: It seems a little bit more organized in terms of space, and, like, we have a little bit of a gated area, which is lovely. But it’s just the same good vibes as always. It feels like a family reunion. And it’s just beautiful to come and celebrate my borough with my friends and seeing friends that I haven’t seen in a long time.

What are you most looking forward to today?

Honestly? There’s a joint that I got an eye on who I know is going to be here, so I’m going to shoot my shot.

What do you love about Juneteenth?

It’s a holiday for Black people to get together and just be cool. July Fourth isn’t really our day — we weren’t necessarily free, and I feel like this is Black people’s July Fourth.

What has been your most memorable experience spinning here?

The first year I D.J.ed here. It was right after the protest — I had just returned back to New York from Virginia, and I asked Emily if I could bring music to the Lay Out, and it was my favorite moment when I played “Ease on Down” from “The Wiz” and I’m on top of the hill, and I saw all these beautiful Black people running up the hill. I was in tears because it was so liberating. I was anxious because I had just got back to Brooklyn and I hadn’t yet settled spiritually yet. And that moment just opened me back up.

What does community mean to you?

Jetta Strayhorn: I’m from Atlanta, so community specifically for Black people has always meant a lot to me. Community specifically is a group of people that will be there for each other no matter what and can make you feel like every part of you is accepted, and thankfully, I found my people.

What are you post looking forward to for this Lay Out?

West Foster: I’m looking forward to community, connection and diasporic reconnection.

Is this your first time at the Lay Out?

It is my first time at the Lay Out. One of my good friends kept on saying how much of an amazing experience it would be. And I figured while I’m here in the U.S., got to come and enjoy it. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be moving to the Emirates.

What are you most enjoying so far?

Honestly, the spirit of community. Everybody’s nice. It’s good for my goddaughter to be here to see beautiful people doing amazing things. The vibe is very friendly. The park is giving life. Ellie’s here showing out. I’m just loving the environment.

What makes the Lay Out so special for you?

It’s the blackest my neighborhood looks, but also I run into old friends and I get to see future generations and how they’re hanging out, seeing how they’re trying to make their voice heard and impact the community.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Juneteenth to me means freedom and respecting and acknowledging the ancestors that came before us. And it means communication. It means tap your neighbor and say, “Hey neighbor, we’re free.” Just the fact that we still uphold each other, uplift each other and we’re still out here fighting for those freedoms today.

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