Women’s History Month – In Conversation with Sisters-in-Law Katherine Conkling Thompson & Elizabeth Thompson
Today we present the grand finale of our Women’s History Month interview series, which began in March and introduced us to some wonderful women through the thoughtful nominations our readers submitted. We’ve already posted interviews with six Greenpointers who are doing exceptional things in the neighborhood – Amy, Jay, Sogoal, Lauren, Nackie, and Meg – and today we have a unique final post to share.
Allow us to introduce two sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Thompson and Katherine Conkling Thompson, who both nominated each other! Their Greenpoint homes are just three blocks apart, on Milton and Calyer Streets respectively, so we arranged to sit down with them together at Katherine’s house on a misty gray Sunday evening. Her daughter Abby (17) and Elizabeth’s daughters Beatrice (8) and Penelope (4) joined us in the living room and took part in our interview. Katherine’s older daughter Charlotte (20) is away at college and was sorely missed, especially during the photos – and her eldest son, Eliot (22), also deserves a mention, as his childhood soccer adventures play a large role in why his aunt Elizabeth nominated his mom.
When Elizabeth wrote to us, she said:
I want to nominate my sister-in-law, Katherine Conkling Thompson, as your next AWESOME GREENPOINT WOMAN profile. Katherine moved to the ‘hood 16+ years ago and has been a tireless advocate and volunteer for all things community and GREEN for Greenpoint (and Williamsburg…16+ years ago there was much less of a distinction between the two neighborhoods in terms of community-related activity). On top of raising three Greenpointer kids, renovating her house, and maintaining a studio practice (read: artist), Katherine was a founder of the Greenpoint Williamsburg Youth Soccer League (GWYSL) – starting with a handful of families and building it to become the incredibly vibrant program it is today.
Katherine in turn wrote back, accepting the nomination and interview request, but insisting that we consider Elizabeth for an interview as well!
Wow! Thank you so much for your interest…Elizabeth’s glowing nomination is very sweet but you should know that she is actually quite an “Awesome Greenpoint Woman” being the Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Every year she conducts the Fuller Challenge which is a contest that awards a large purse to the best idea/proposal/design that will/can improve the world! They are at the cutting edge of supporting and inspiring innovative work to help save the planet. It’s absolutely fascinating! I nominate her 🙂 Besides hosting interesting scientists and thinkers from all around the world she is raising two beautiful girls and is fully engaged in their school.
Katherine poured us all a cup of tea, and we gathered in her living room and began our chat.
GP: Before we get into everything, tell us about the marital connection that makes you sisters-in-law.
Elizabeth: My brother is Katherine’s husband.
GP: And who came to this area first?
Elizabeth: I think we both did! Katherine initially lived in Long Island City, and I lived in Williamsburg. And then Katherine’s family moved to Greenpoint about 17 or 18 years ago.
Katherine: I always track it by my daughter Abby’s birthday; she’ll be 17 on Tuesday! We lived in Long Island City for ten years. Our son Eliot started going to the Greenpoint YMCA when he was two, and that’s when we met a few other families who were living here. Then we were sort of forced to move from our loft in Long Island City; it was falling apart, and my landlord was like, “You’re having another kid here?!” I was pregnant with Abby, my third baby, and he was like, “You have to leave! Please just go. You’re not supposed to be here.” So we started looking everywhere; up on the Hudson a bit, just everywhere. We didn’t really know where we could go, or where we belonged. But it turned out that we belonged here.
GP: That’s a beautiful way to describe finding your home and your place here. Elizabeth, where were you at the time on your own path to Greenpoint?
Elizabeth: I moved to Williamsburg around 1991, and stayed there for a long time. I had one apartment on Havemeyer, and then later moved into a building at the corner of Driggs and North 7th. After that, I was back and forth between San Francisco for a few years. When I was pregnant with Beatrice, we just needed a bigger place. The move wasn’t really planned, but we found a place on Noble Street, and have been in the neighborhood since, now on Milton Street.
GP: How fun that all your kids have grown up just a few blocks from each other.
Elizabeth: Katherine and I are a year apart in age, but decades apart in our children’s ages. I had children late in the game [Katherine interjects, laughing: “She had a life first! Lots of adventures”]. Abby does a lot of babysitting for me, but she’s so busy this year as a junior in high school – I’m like, “Abby, what will I do without you!” We actually just ran into Abby on the subway last weekend; we’d been coming from ballet class, and Abby had just been at a three-hour study session.
GP: Elizabeth wrote to us originally about all the great things Katherine has done as a community activist in the neighborhood, especially as a pioneer of the local youth soccer program. Let’s hear some more about that.
Katherine: Eliot played one season of soccer in Park Slope, where there was a much more established program in place. It was with the American Youth Soccer Organization, a national program where parents get trained to be coaches. So my husband completed the training, and then we decided to start our own league. Back then, and I don’t know if it’s still like this, but the parents all banded together and felt very entrepreneurial. It was before the internet, which meant there were no online sign-ups. Instead we printed flyers, and translated them into Spanish and Polish, and just canvassed the North Brooklyn neighborhoods. Door-to-door. We made some relationships with some people on the south side. It turned out that a lot of Polish kids had Polish school on Saturdays, so there was a lot of wondering if we should run the soccer program on Sundays, but then there was church. When we started we didn’t get as many Polish families, but lots of Hispanic families.
GP: Abby, did you play soccer too?
Abby: I did, I played for awhile…but soccer isn’t really my thing!
Katherine: ALL the kids did! All my kids were required to, the poor things.
GP: I’m imagining Elizabeth as wild and free in the city at this point, like the cool aunt stopping in to the soccer games.
Elizabeth: I think I must have made it to a few of them! [Katherine: “She’d be riding by all cool on her bike!”]. I’m trying to remember what years those were. Katherine’s daughter Charlotte was born in 1993…
Katherine: And I think the soccer league started in 1999.
Elizabeth: Oh, so I wasn’t really here.
Katherine: Elizabeth was studying in San Francisco at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Elizabeth: I was studying there for a master’s degree in philosophy. I was there and back quite a bit between 1996 and 2000. So I missed the really early days of being here while the soccer program was launching and all that.
GP: What brought you back to stay in New York for good?
Elizabeth: I was ready to come back. I had met my husband out there, and he had lived in New York and was from the east coast, and we were both ready to get back to New York. I had kept some irons in the fire here, and had held onto my apartment, so ended the sublet, and we moved back in there, and got married in 2001 right after September 11th. We almost canceled our wedding, because it was scheduled for three weeks afterwards.
GP: Wow; what was that like?
Elizabeth: It was very strange; very eerie. We had lots of people who didn’t come – friends from Europe, and several people from the west coast who just didn’t want to get on a plane. We thought about postponing or canceling it, but my mother was really the one who was like, “We’re having this wedding.” So we did. The deed was done, and that was all that really matters.
GP: After you nominated Katherine, she then nominated you back, and shared some of your professional achievements with us. Tell us about getting involved with the Buckminster Fuller Institute – was that soon after your return to New York, or more of a recent role for you?
Elizabeth: I’ve been officially there as a staff member for ten years. I started working as a consultant for the board president at the end of 2002, and then worked for about a year instigating a strategy planning process, and convinced the board to move the institute from California to New York. So I looked all around for space, and for a small non-profit organization – even though it’s holding this big legacy, we’re a tiny organization – space in Williamsburg was much less expensive. And at that point I was living four blocks away, so it made a lot of sense to move the institute to Williamsburg. We got some office space, and we’re still there.
GP: Katherine also noted that you manage an annual prize at BFI called the Fuller Challenge – what’s it like to work on that?
Elizabeth: It’s a very interesting place to be. It attracts a wide range of pretty interesting people. Fuller’s legacy, and his own research in his life, was what he called “omni-directional” – he really was involved in so many different things, and many people in a variety of disciplines, from the built environment to the computer technology industry, hold him as an iconic figure. So the Challenge program was born out of this idea of trying to identify very interesting global change projects. What’s so cool to me too is that there’s a lot of people in this neighborhood who are doing really interesting things relating to what we’re about, especially in terms of sustainability challenges. Greenpoint’s an interesting place; the rooftop farm on Eagle Street is just one example that stands out to me.
GP: Absolutely. When I see things like Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, it makes me more hopeful about the future and about what we’ll be leaving behind for the generations after us. That connects to my next question, which is what it’s been like to have kids in this neighborhood. For your daughters, too – girls, what are some of your favorite things about growing up in Greenpoint?
Abby: I think my experience with Greenpoint is very different from my friends who grew up in Manhattan, just because I had so much more freedom at an earlier age. I could go to the grocery store when I was about eight, for example. [Elizabeth: “Shhh! Beatrice is eight and she’s dying to walk to WORD bookstore on her own!”] But Greenpoint has changed a lot. My best friend lives around the corner, and when I was little, I couldn’t walk to her house via Franklin Street, because Franklin was too dangerous. So I had to walk on Guernsey instead.
Katherine: Franklin at the time was like a truck thoroughfare, and it was completely desolate. The trucks would just rumble through, so we devised alternative routes!
Abby: It’s funny that it’s changed so much; now Franklin is so popular. But I feel lucky that I grew up with six best friends all within about a five block radius.
Elizabeth: I hope some of that small-town feeling gets maintained; I think there’s a huge population explosion about to happen.
Katherine: There’s so many babies and carriages!
GP: For the moms, do both of you feel pretty settled here? Is there a master plan to live out your glory days here in Greenpoint?
Elizabeth: Well, my parents are getting older, and it is interesting to imagine. My mother really wants to live in a place where she can walk to wherever she needs to go. Urban life is really tremendous that way.
Katherine: Cities are the new retirement destination for sure. Everybody’s moving to the Upper West Side to retire, and go to Central Park and the museums!
Elizabeth: Buckminster Fuller’s daughter, who is 87 now, actually moved from Los Angeles back to New York. She grew up here as a little girl, and just moved back two and a half years ago. She lives by herself in a little apartment for exactly these reasons; she can’t drive anymore, and she knew the city well enough not to be intimidated by it. So yeah, we’ll be here for awhile I think. The girls will be going to the prom and I’ll be collecting Social Security!
GP: Katherine, Elizabeth told us that you’re a talented artist, and that you have a studio space. Tell us more about that; is the studio here at home?
Katherine: Well, we held onto that loft we first lived in, in Long Island City, and I had my workshop and studio there. But my husband has a production company, so it’s more or less been transformed; I can still go there and work, but now I work fulltime in the city designing shoes. So there’s very little time lately for my art. But all these paintings are mine [Katherine points to a number of canvases hung around the living room]. Oh, but not that! Those are Sarah Bedford’s. She’s a local artist who lives on Java Street. Awesome Greenpoint woman. So I love to paint, but now am spending a lot of time on the shoe designing. A friend of mine taught me how to do shoe sketches, and drawings of a more technical style, and I started doing that freelance along with antique furniture restoration when the kids were little. When Abby was in about fifth or sixth grade, I got the opportunity to have a fulltime job doing shoes, and I was ready to get away from furniture, having done it for twenty-something years, so that’s what I’ve been doing. I design hanging footwear accessories for flipflops and sandals.
GP: It’s obvious that you two are inspired by each other, since you nominated each other. But can we also ask about some of the other women in your lives who are inspiring to you?
Katherine: When I moved to the city, the first thing I did was restoring antiques – I did a lot of gilding, and carving. I ended up working in a shop that was down in the meatpacking district. I was introduced to these two sisters, and one of them had a shop upstairs above the factories, so I started working for her. Her sister was a muralist and painter, and did wall finishes and amazing wall murals. These two women were really creative, and they sort of became like my big sisters. They were very independent, and very philosophical in some ways.
GP: That’s a theme we’ve been noticing as we’ve talked to all the women nominated for this series; the other women they admire the most seem to be people who have an independent streak and want to do things their own way. I get that feeling from both of you, that you’ve struck your own path in life.
Elizabeth: The idea of mentorship is a really compelling one. I always feel like I just didn’t have a true hands-on mentor in my life. The thing about turning 50 has made me realize that I’m the oldest person in the room most of the time. And I’m the one people are looking to for answers, or expecting to be wise! It’s this really weird kind of shift to start thinking of myself that way. I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship, and realizing that younger women are probably looking to women my age for some guidance! It would be so neat to start something in Greenpoint around this. A mentorship circle, maybe.
GP: I think you’re right that there’s this thirst among younger women, in the neighborhood and elsewhere, for their wiser elders to help show them the way. For example, so many people have an entrepreneurial streak, but fear that they don’t know the first thing about starting a business. Or they don’t know what resources might be available to them in the neighborhood. At Greenpointers we’re definitely taking note of these recurring themes we’re hearing.
Elizabeth: That’s the thing; networks really make people’s lives. If you’re a young person, and your family’s not connected to what you want to do, or you don’t have resources at your school, it would be so cool to have something in your neighborhood that would help you take part in meeting other people. And there’s a lot of knowledge exchange that goes the other way; the older generations have so much to learn from the young too.
GP: Let’s make sure we keep talking about it! One final question as we wrap up – tell us some of your favorite places in Greenpoint.
Katherine: I love Cookie Road for coffee.
Abby: Five Leaves for coffee is really good too.
Elizabeth: I go to Cup on my way to work for my coffee. I’ve got my Cup Card and once a week I get a free cup! And our favorite night out lately is at Achilles Heel. I could move in there.
Abby: Is that near where I used to go to preschool?
Katherine: Aah, no, you’re thinking of where Glasserie is, up on Commercial Street. Yeah, Abby used to go to preschool in the same building where Glasserie is now! The Blue Dot. And a side note, I also love the new Barcelona-inspired restaurant El Born on Manhattan Ave. I’ve been going there on Thursdays and then to Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club later on Thursday nights.
Elizabeth: Beatrice might want to share her favorite park – which one do you like the best?
Beatrice: Transmitter Park. And I like Ovenly near the park too.
Abby: Before Hurricane Sandy, Ovenly gave us pounds and pounds of coffee cake, which was amazing.
GP: Delicious! Well this has been fun ladies – thank you so much for sharing your Sunday night with us.
Elizabeth: Thank YOU! I never thought you’d even write back!
Katherine: And then when you did, I said, “I’m not doing this by myself!”
Ha! We especially appreciated the interest in mentorship that both of these ladies expressed, so we followed up even further the next day by email. Here’s what the Thompson sisters-in-law had to share when asked to reflect even more on their lives and accomplishments:
GP: What are you most proud of in your life so far?
Elizabeth: A hard question!!! I guess I am surprised…not sure it is pride yet…by the life I have led so far. I never would have imagined myself doing what I am doing. I grew up in a pretty conventional place and felt like the expectation for me was to get married! I guess when it comes down to it, one of the things I am proud of is that I don’t look back with regret – that I didn’t try something, or do something. Regret is a very hard thing to deal with as you get older!!
Katherine: We moved to Greenpoint back in ’96 because it was our most affordable option and we had met other Bohemian artists that were settling there with young and growing families. We were very fortunate that we found our house as the rents even back then were getting expensive for a family of five. I really believe in neighborhoods and the idea that it “takes a village to raise a child.” While my kids have received wonderful educations in the NYC public schools system, I think that the experience that they have had growing up here in Greenpoint has been been incredible. They have watched and participated in our investment in our community which gives such a feeling of richness and belonging as well as a sense of empowerment. Sometimes it seems that volunteering is a lot of giving away of time, money and energy but I do believe that getting involved and working on shared visions with neighbors is actually a gift, enriching the volunteer.
GP: If you could offer any wisdom to someone younger settling in Greenpoint, what would it be?
Elizabeth: Get involved in the neighborhood! Try to learn about its history and the amazing people who live here. Greenpoint is on the brink of some very big changes — in our skyline, in the number of people who will live here. The more you can savor the way it is, the better able you will be to participate in the community’s efforts to preserve itself.
Katherine: My advice to any young person settling down and trying to chart their course in the world is perhaps untried by me in my life but…I think it is really important to understand and know what you love and want to do and trust that. Having a goal and then going methodically backwards from that to create a roadmap in small steps seems practical and doable. Ask people for help, go to school, meet people who do what you want to do, make things up- go for it.