Brooklyn native Penina Roth went through several creative transformations before metamorphing into the founder of one of the most important reading series in New York. Always at her most comfortable supporting the people in the limelight, while staying out of it herself, over the years Penina has worked as a journalist, a talent manager receptionist and an assistant wardrobe stylist on music videos for Color Me Badd and Stevie Wonder. A stint in a post-production house even saw her making cappuccinos for cult director David Lynch. No small feat— if you’ve seen Mulholland Drive, you know that Lynch takes his caffeinated beverages very, very seriously. It wasn’t until 2008 while preparing articles for the The New York Sun and the The New York Times that Penina found her true calling as a hybrid muse and guardian angel for the multipurpose creation now known as Franklin Park.
While researching her article on the changing urban landscape of the Brooklyn neighborhood, Crown Heights, Penina interviewed dozens of residents and merchants, and then she interviewed dozens more. “I was obsessed,” she admitted during a telephone interview last week. “I’m an excessive person with a natural inclination towards journalism. I just sat in the courtyard of Franklin Park and interviewed all these different people about why they were there.”
It took hard work, energy and a deep sense of purpose to transform a dilapidated garage frequented by drug dealers into the seductively lit cheer garden that Franklin Park is today. During her interviews with co-owners Matthew Roff and Anatoly Dubinsky, Penina became impassioned by their goal to build an entertainment compound where anyone from the multicultural community would feel at home.
Franklin Park opened for business in April of 2008. With the bulk of the 2,000 square-foot-space designated as an outdoor drinking and eating area, Penina worried that the bar would have a hard time staying prosperous through the winter months. Eager to help out a project she believed in, she talked to Roff about holding a reading in his bar. “At the time,” she explained, “I only had three friends who were published writers. David Goodwillie, Matthue Roth and Liza Monroy. I thought that this would help them, and help Franklin Park, too.” Enter scene right the combination of serendipity and timing that have been a hallmark of The Franklin Park Reading Series ever since.
Goodwillie’s first novel “American Subversive,” had just been sold to Scribner, and so Goodwillie showed up to this still obscure part of Crown Heights with his editor, Paul Whitlatch, and a sizeable public of fans of all three readers. “We had maybe sixty people,” Penina said of that first reading. “That night, I had Matthue, this eclectic Hassidic novelist/memoirist/slam poet, who had a great book out already, “Yom Kippur A Go-Go.” Liza’s book [“Mexican High”] was referred to by Paul as ‘borderline young adult,’ David was more literary fiction. David really had an impact on me, both as an aspiring fiction writer and as a reading series curator, guiding me in everything from seating to programming. That first night, Paul also gave me great advice. He said, ‘you should have a theme and book writers with all different tones.’”
Today, it is exactly that mixture of thematic coherence and tonal incoherence that has made the Franklin Park Reading Series a favorite among the public and critics alike. Recent themes such as April’s “Betrayal” and February’s “Unconventional Love” attract an eclectic mix of passionate attendees and superpowered writers who come for the energy, the talent, the affordable, cold beer, and—probably—for each other. The crowd skews on the young end: affable and attractive. Standard-issue MFA wear (unisex denim, chambray, flannel) is updated with vintage eyewear and tasteful body modification, a.k.a, tattoos.
Since its founding in 2009, Jim Shepard, Heidi Julavits, Ben Marcus, Melissa Broder, Gary Lutz and other denizens of literary achievement have taken the crowded stage to impress and inspire. Some nights, the monthly series (now a New York Times and Time Out top pick) is so packed, fans cluster outside over bratwurst and Six Point ale to glean what they can from the verbal shenanigans taking place inside—fire laws prohibit the bar owners from letting too many people in.
Franklin Park’s May 14th reading, the last one of the spring, will celebrate “Literary Journal and Small Press Night” with Tin House co-founder, Elissa Schappell, Fiddleback managing editor Daniel Long, and others. Co-hosting readings with well-known literary magazines, such as Electric Literature, is something Penina hopes to do more of in the future, as well as launch books as she did with Atlanta-based Blake Butler’s Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia.
To her impressive roster of writers, Penina has recently added raffles, door prizes, and a pop-up bookshop. As always, admission is free and pints are $4. Another why-in-the-world-would-you-miss-it-event is Franklin Park’s movie night, a new series kicking off Monday, May 21st. Slated to take place every third Monday, the series will include screenings of hard-to-find features followed by a Q&A’s with the filmmakers. The inaugural film will be Zak Mulligan and Rodrigo Lopresti’s, I’m Not Me. If this cultural smorgasbord makes you feel like dancing, well, you can do that too at Franklin Park’s tremendously popular weekend DJ nights or at the bi-monthly live music night, every 1st and 3rd Tuesday. Crown Heights: new cultural core of the big red apple.
Franklin Park Reading Series
Every Second Monday at Franklin Park
618 Saint Johns Place
New York City – Crown Heights