By Hannah Means-Shannon

When Anica Archip, Dean Haspiel, TRIP CITY, and a host of talented people turned out to make themselves heard on behalf of Sunny’s Bar, it definitely made a statement about what Brooklynites and the wider arts community holds dear. The Save Sunny’s Bar Benefit, held December 1st at the Hamilton Gallery Theater in Carroll Gardens, also made another kind of statement, more subtle but widely pervasive, about the impact and recovery from Hurricane Sandy still deeply affecting the region. Some neighborhoods may have been little affected, while some faced previously unimaginable devastation, but the underlying truth remains that New York, Brooklyn, and the other boroughs form one social ecosystem, that like a human body, is interconnected on the deepest levels. When one part sustains damage, the process of reconstruction is slow, and often occurs under the surface, while other systems seem to bounce back more quickly and maintain normal operation. For Brooklyn, and especially Red Hook and Staten Island, the hurricane damage posed a very serious question: after rebuilding, would the ties of the past still be recognizable, or would continuity break down in the interest of starting over?

Sunny’s Bar became a focal point for this question on December 1st. The “Save Sunny’s Bar” benefit evoked a powerful response in favor of saving continuity and making sure that the future remains in dialogue with the best elements of the past. The fact that comics, storytelling, poetry, performance, and music became the medium to re-establish that connection says a lot about Brooklyn’s identity as an arts hub, scratching the surface to get to the roots of community. The event was also a powerful display of the efficacy of the arts to take action and work together towards a common goal, something that’s rare enough these days that it might disappear from public memory as an option. It might even be called a crazy idea, or one unlikely to succeed. The Sunny’s benefit set the record straight: this is still an effective approach to expressing the needs and desires of a community. It was a live action Kickstarter to complement the online Kickstarter in place for Sunny’s Bar, and in many ways those who participated got as much out of it in terms of inspiration and solidarity as Sunny’s did in terms of financial aid. That’s what happens when people find that they not only have a voice, but a practical way to express it.

(Anica Archip, Sunny Balzano, Dean Haspiel)

TRIP CITY’s own provided a substantial chunk of the evening’s performances due not only to the personal connection many felt to Sunny’s, and the abiding influence their experiences at the bar felt on their work, but also because they had seen the destruction of Sunny’s first hand. This included the heartbreaking grief they had witnessed from Sunny and his wife Tone, and their staff members, but also the determination and resilience that encouraged others to rally around and provide extra support. Dean Haspiel performed his comic “Beef with Tomato”, which appropriately discussed the ways in which natives react to unexpected disasters, as well as the very personal disorientation that sets in. He also gave a sneak-peek at his creator-owned project drawing on the imagery and themes of super hero comics, introducing THE RED HOOK. The glimpse posed a number of interesting questions about love and identity, and certainly confirmed that Brooklyn continues to function as his muse.

(Dean Haspiel reads “Beef with Tomato”)

Seth Kushner read a soulful new essay, “My Brooklyn”, illustrated by photography from his book Brooklynites, a book which expressed the beginning of a journey into observing his own community. The reflective essay suggested that nostalgia was an important thing, a touchstone for rebuilding Brooklyn rather than simply casting away the debris following the hurricane without further inspection.

(Chris Miskiewicz raises a toast to “Last Night at Sunny’s”)

Chris Miskiewicz performed a story set at Sunny’s Bar, “Last Night at Sunny’s”, that highlighted the role of the bar in many peoples’ lives as a central fixture in time, one which enables people to find continuity, even while the world at large changes, often beyond wildest expectation. Jen Ferguson’s presentation of the CulturePOP photocomic of her own meditations on Brooklyn Bridge provided another center of reference about what changes and what stays the same in the lives of Brooklynites.

(Jeffrey Burandt reads “Bibbin’s Bodega”)

Jeffrey Burandt and artist Zees voice-acted their new post-heroic comic “Bibbin’s Bodega” with bass guitar accompaniment, expressing as much about culture, and relationships as about the thrill of super powers. Local poet Denver Butson rocked this meditative segment of the evening with poetry about the truly extraordinary and extreme elements of life hidden within ordinary exteriors, and challenged the audience to think twice about the seemingly solid world they take for granted every morning.

(Francis, a bartender + music booker at Sunny’s Bar and a local poet drink hot cider)

Comedy performances were an opportunity to take an ironic look at the way we live, often featuring life’s more superficial aspects. Brooke Van Poppelen really provided a voice for human foibles and weaknesses in the face of increasing gentrification in Brooklyn and Manhattan, from parodies of “brunch” culture to the excesses of grotesquely complicated salad-based luncheries. Queens native Angry Bob ripped into recent election vagaries and commented on relationships, or lack thereof, while admitting his own minimal experience of the hurricane. Both elicited big responses from the audience, proving that focusing on what we have in common may be the most integral part of the rebuilding process.

(Black Coffee Blues Band)

Music, such a life-blood to Sunny’s Bar, continued to turn the evening into a celebration of resilience. The new band fronted by Jeffrey Burandt, Two Beards: One Heart, stunned the audience with impressive vocals and a fresh, off-beat approach to indie music. Blues music resurrected Sunny’s own tradition of live music nights, with veterans John Pinamonti, the Black Coffee Blues Band, and Smokey Hormel. Sunny’s own Tone performed with her group, the Luna Sisters, conjuring radio days with their melodic harmonizing.

(The Luna Sisters with Smokey Hormel & Band)

If the crowds of supporters hadn’t realized already what the evening had been a tremendous success, when Sunny himself took the stage to thank them, it must have all hit home. The effort had turned into a celebration of culture so enjoyable, the financial success of the “Save Sunny’s Bar” benefit seemed like a sudden revelation. This suggested that the audience needed the event as much as Sunny’s, taking a few hours to rebuild themselves and call to mind just why Brooklyn is such a big part of their lives. The Sunny’s benefit illustrated the connection between the people and the place: the arts community and Sunny’s Bar, and also the people of Brooklyn and Brooklyn itself. For an area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, whether the wounds are visible or not, old, valuable connections were re-established and time started to move forward again at a more familiar and hopeful pace.

–Hannah Means-Shannon

(Sunny Balzano ends the night with gratitude and communal cheer)