The Flatbush Family Network is one of Ditmas Park’s defining institutions: Founded on September 19, 2003, it predates Picket Fence–its first organizational meeting was at a late lamented Caribbean spot in the same place, Rug-B–not to mention the Farm; outlasted Vox Pop; and helps bind the neighborhood together with a mix of mundane news of stoop sales, useful tips on local services, and occasionally intense debates on what the community stands for.
One way the FFN is notably different from other parenting and family lists in Brooklyn and elsewhere: The choice it’s made about the definition of “family,” which is not limited to the parents of young children.
“I think of all who live or contribute to the health and wellbeing of our neighborhood as being part of our extended family. That is really why we never defined family as being strictly parents. Members include the elderly neighbor with grown kids living down the block… or the farmers market manager… or newlyweds thinking about a family. It could really be anybody,” Ellen Moncure Wong writes.
The list is also a great deal of work, often fairly thankless work: Nobody notices who’s maintaining a lightly-moderated, private listserv with 2,373 members (as of Sunday night) until there’s something to complain about. But nearly a decade in, we thought the woman who has, for the last few years, quietly run the list on her own deserved a thank you from this blog and from the community–and figured she’d also have some interesting observations from a place very close to the digital heart of this changing community.
Ellen, with typical modesty, eventually obliged in answering some questions, though she characteristically insisted on stressing that this isn’t a one-woman show: She created the list along with current and former neighbors Alexandra Reddish, Patricia Robertson, Chelsi Meyerson, who have moved on to other projects or other places but deserve a lot of credit; she also mentions her husband Joe Wong, a Ditmas Park native and PS 139 grad who “does soooooooooooo much for this group and it is NEVER, ever noticed. Plus, he keeps me sane. And that ain’t easy.”
But we give Ellen more credit than she’d like to take. (Amy Sara Clark over at Patch did a nice story on the list in March as well.) Ellen keeps the information coursing along while working a full-time job as a fundraiser for the ACLU and raising two boys. She’s never sought to turn it into a business; instead, FFN is one of the purest community services you’ll find, one of the things that makes Ditmas Park really feel like a small town.
That may not entirely be by coincidence. Ellen, 35, grew up far from Flatbush, but in a place whose small-town vibe isn’t, perhaps, totally unfamiliar. She was raised in Charlotte Court House, Virginia, a town of about 300 people in the state’s rural south. There was no stop light in the county, and it was a 15-minute drive to the closest store. Mail would arrive for her mother addressed only to, “Peggy, Charlotte Court House.” She answered some questions by email; we’ve lightly edited the exchange
What was your first impression of Ditmas Park?
I started dating Joe after our freshman year at The College of William and Mary (we were in the same dorm). He grew up on Stratford Road, so I visited the neighborhood for the first time when I was about 19. I was working at summer camp at the Poconos. I would drive in on my days off and hang out in his basement eating San Remo pizza and veggies from the back yard. I have always loved the neighborhood–in many ways I feel like I grew up here. We moved right after we got married–early 2000. So, we were newlyweds here, had our kids here… [Now] it is New York to me. I have no desire to live anywhere else.
Where did the name “Flatbush Family Network” come from?
The Flatbush Family Network was first established by a group of parents a few decades ago. They all had children around the same ages. This was before the internet, so it was necessary to exist in a physical space. They had a storefront for many years on/near Newkirk. The group was vibrant for many years (there are still many on our network that were part of it), but it died down as their kids grew up and the needs of the group changed. Also, nobody was there to keep the group alive.
When we first sat down to think about what a neighborhood parenting group looked like, John Broderick (previously at FDC) joined us and put us in touch with the old FFN folks. They suggested that we build off their brand and re-establish the group. We did so with the understanding that it would be in a virtual community. This would allow the group to evolve with the needs of its membership. I think this has helped it stay relevant throughout the years.
How has FFN changed over the years?
It used to be such an intimate group–holiday parties, carousel days, weekly playgroups. It used to really be a “new parents group,” but over the years it has become reflective of what I think family really is. I don’t think family stops with parents and kids. It includes local teachers, neigbors librarians, business owners, nannies, grandparents, etc. To me all these people help make up my own Flatbush Family. I couldn’t raise my kids without them.
How much work is FFN?
It depends. It isn’t a lot of work, until it is. And, since I have been doing this for so long now, it feels just part of my routine.
What’s the hardest part? What’s the most fun part?
Hardest–realizing that I am not going to make everybody happy. I like to make people happy. I am a pleaser. Also, not showing emotion and staying completely neutral. I never share my opinion when it comes to tough subjects.
Best–walking down the street and hearing someone say, “I heard on the Flatbush Family Network…” I used to know almost all the members, now I know a fraction. It’s kind of cool to hear someone say something positive and know that I had a secret part in that.
When did it hit you what a big deal FFN was?
It is staggering. I think it hit me when we signed up our 1,000th member (in late 2009). I felt like balloons should fall from the sky or something.
This is a lot of work, and tough work at times. Why do you keep doing it?
Because the group is important. Because it is my way to do something for a community that has given me so much. Because I truly do enjoy doing it–99% of the time. Because I feel like I made a commitment many years ago, and I am loyal as hell. Because I am an activist at heart, and I do think that groups like this help make the community better.
Have you ever thought of trying to turn FFN into a business, like Park Slope Parents did? Why haven’t you?
It was mentioned at one point a long time ago by one of our original members. I don’t want to ever charge people to be a part of this. It isn’t a business–I don’t want to make it something it isn’t.
How do you think growing up in Ditmas Park is shaping your kids?
This neighborhood has made them into such smart little people. They understand diversity and family. They understand community and their responsibilities to that community. What I love most is that all of Yates’ and Ellis’ best friends live in the neighborhood. This neighborhood has given the best that New York City and small town America can offer.
Congratulations to Ellen Moncure Wong, our inaugural honoree to the Ditmas Park Neighborhood Hall of Fame! We hope you’ll join us to celebrate her hard work for our community when the Ditmas Park Corner hosts a ceremony in her honor on Thursday, September 20. More details to come.