Two years ago, on a whim, Bed-Stuy resident Lauren Cawdrey decided to buy Willoughby General, a small storefront near the Myrtle – Willoughby subway station.
The space had been left suddenly vacant by its former owners, who could no longer run it. A stylist by profession, Cawdrey had no experience running a store– and hardly any money to buy one – but she believed in the space, and that was enough to make it work. Since then, she’s turned it into a “wants and needs”- based grocery store, as well as a gathering space hosting monthly events like open mic nights and group meditation sessions, currently on hold.
That’s the ethos of the store, Cawdrey explained – not just to sell goods, but to foster a sense of community, as well.
“The average customer is a repeat customer, which I’m really proud of,” Cawdrey said. “Almost everyone that comes in, we know like almost on a first name basis, or we know about their pets or their life or their job.”
To celebrate the two-year anniversary of her ownership of Willoughby General, Cawdrey is hosting a mural painting event at P.S. 54, the local public school where her daughter Vivian has attended since pre-Kindergarten. The event will take place in lieu of the party Cawdrey would have held at the store, and is a collaboration with Painted Pathways, a group of scenic artists that volunteer their time for community events, and which Cawdrey’s friend Heather Piper is a member of.
“Since we can’t have that kind of community celebration, I feel like giving back to the community, and beautifying our neighborhood, is a celebration in and of itself,” she said.
The work will take place Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm. The painting will be done by Cawdrey herself as well as by fellow P.S. 54 parents and volunteers from United Scenic Artists, a union for workers in the arts and entertainment. The mural will be painted along the side of the school facing Nostrand Avenue, and will read “Bloom Where You’re Planted” – a reminder, Cawdrey explained, to do the best with what you’re given. Variety Coffee, Seemore Meats & Veggies, and Black Seed Bagels will provide food and coffee for the volunteers, and materials will be provided by Cawdrey herself and by volunteers.
Cawdrey has completed a number of other murals on the walls of P.S. 54 and the surrounding area, including one directly across from the school, consisting of student self-portraits. With the help of Piper and other volunteers, she also restored a massive octopus that had been painted years before on the north wall of the school, touching up the faded tentacles that spanned the length of the building, and adding in a vibrant coral reef backdrop.
The murals do more than just make the school look nice, Cawdrey said.
“You have to draw attention to the school if you want people to go there, or even know about it,” she emphasized.
P.S. 54 is on a dead-end block just off of Nostrand Avenue, with not much nearby other than a Home Depot. The neighborhood can feel chaotic and industrial, Cawdrey said, which she feels might deter parents from enrolling their children at the school, which currently suffers from low enrollment.
“She’s very willing to participate in anything that would improve the school environment, and the feel of the school, in terms of community and enhancement, and just bringing life to a building,” Emma Pelaez-Velazquez, principal of P.S. 54, said of Cawdrey.
The new mural’s message will also, hopefully, prompt meaningful conversation among parents and kids – and maybe spark a new hobby.
“It is my hope that the school grows, and as the school grows, we can bring the programs that will enhance the children’s lives,” she said. “We don’t know who’s the next artist within the bunch.”
To view the mural in progress, head to P.S. 54, located at 195 Sanford Street off of Nostrand Avenue, this Friday or Saturday at 11 am.