[This is the first profile in our new series, Upstarts!: Parents Raising Children, Building Businesses]
Pete Sinjin Heitmann and Kira Smith founded Hootenanny Art House in 2007, or maybe it found them. In 2006 they had just arrived in New York City with their 18 month old daughter Zoe and not much else. They felt embraced by the inclusive and supportive community in Park Slope that, as new parents, they had found lacking in San Francisco. But it wasn’t all lollypops and roses. Since Zoe only slept in forty-five minute stretches, they were probably in some hallucinatory fugue state, not exactly the Empire State of Mind they might have been hoping for. And then there was rent to pay, every month. So they would spend afternoons busking in the subway, singing Woody Guthrie songs, Kira singing, Pete on guitar and Zoe on harmonica.
Pete: Zoe was hilarious. It was a very fine line for people between what’s cute and what boarders on “I have to call child protective services.” If Zoe was enjoying playing the harmonica it was great.
Kira: The money would be rolling in.
Pete: Yeah, the money would roll in, but for some reason she always wanted to lie down in the guitar case.
Kira: Which she fit in perfectly at the time.
Pete: And people would be like—
Kira: No no no no.
Pete: It would change immediately. You could see them pulling out cell phones.
Kira: Like pack it up, pack it up babe, we’re out of here.
Pete and Kira settle into life in Brooklyn; Pete taught Music Together classes and Kira started grad school for dance therapy. And when they were offered the chance to own their own business Pete and Kira said no. They never even considered having their own business, “entrepreneurship” was not on the hippie-artist-muscian checklist. The previous owner of the Hootenanny space, Saint Teresa, as they call her, really encouraged them to do it. Kira explained Teresa told them “to consider the things you want to do artistically in your life and the fact that this business could allow you to do that. She really told it to us straight and she couldn’t have been more right.” Teresa went on to focus on her own creative ventures (a Broadway show about immigration. What did you do today?) Pete and Kira realized they could give themselves the most precious of commodities in New York City, space, space to create, space to build and host and flourish as artists. They let that space become a gathering place for all of Park Slope. It was a space where they could not just hope to find community, but make it. The dynamic duo didn’t specifically set out with that intention, there was no mission statement. They simply reimagined the space, giving it a new identity that reflected who they are and what they value. A few coats of bright paint and a great mural of the Brooklyn bridge and Hootenanny was born. Their goal was vibrancy, not just in color, but in attitude. That same month Kira, still in grad school, gave birth to their son Tucker, Pete had a cameo in “The Nanny Dairies” and, due to some lead paint issues, they were forced to move out of their apartment with no notice. It was a smidge hectic. Suddenly, they were a long way from the uncomplicated days of busking in the subway.
The business allowed them to included their kids in their working lives, Tucker slept through many a raging disco. But it also included fourteen-hour days, art parties every weekend and no sleep. In the beginning they had no idea how to market Hootenanny. Registration was still done by snail mail and self-promotion consisted of a sandwich board outside the building, (what Kira called “organic marketing.”) But many disco parties and pancake breakfasts later Hootenanny found a foothold, in large part because of a few “alpha moms, powerful, visionary women” who saw something truly special in Hootenanny and fostered it. Those power moms refused to let it sink into the sea of failed new businesses. Instead, they rallied their friends and neighbors, and helped Pete and Kira find their place and voice as an integral part of the neighborhood. Going to Hootenanny is more like an impromptu jam session at a friend’s house (a friend with lots of kids) than a McMusic class found at a more corporate establishments. Dance, music, art, these are the things Pete and Kira worry about, not profit margins and marketability. They continue to be as hands on as ever. They want to be completely connected to the neighborhood and the families that come to class, “we want to feel like we are contributing.”
While some of us may be in relationships that fall into the for-better-or-worse-but-not-for-lunch category, Pete and Kira are in a totally different camp. They are partners in every respect, raising kids and a business together. Kira is the woman behind the curtain, in control of all the administration, and Pete is behind the guitar. Together they plan all aspects of the business, new classes, parties, extending to outpost locations (Jaya East, Cynthia King, Third Root). They said it is their working relationship that nurtures their respect for one another, “[the business] has been really good for our relationship . . . I get to see what he does, he gets to see what I do. It’s great . . . It’s been a unifying thing.” It allows them to be on the same wavelength, to share so much. “If Pete didn’t teach he would be depressed. It serves him so well to be giving to the community, to be doing what he loves, to be sharing music.”
And of course, their kids get to be part of it all. It is a family affair, one that accommodates a family schedule, allowing Kira and Pete to pick up their kids at school every day, to each lunch together, to have tea in the middle of the day with a nosey writer. And somewhere in all of that they still find time for their own projects. Kira is wrapping up her thesis and Pete plays his own music out and about, you know, for grown ups. As Pete said, “your kids have to see you doing what you love.” As a couple they both support and push each other, allowing them to grow as artists, while their kids grow, while their business grows. Now everybody, take a page from the Hootenanny book, turn on some Woody Guthrie, shake what you got and get inspired.
Sarah Moriarty is a writer, editor and adjunct professor teaching composition and literature classes at The College of Staten Island. Sarah’s writing has appeared in such hallowed places as her blog, her mother’s email inbox, the backs of Value Pack envelopes and a waist-high stack of mole skin journals. In addition, Sarah has contributed to F’Dinparkslope.com and edited fiction for Lost Magazine. An excerpt from Sarah’s novel, The Rusticators, is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Writers Space 2013/2014 anthology, The Reader. A resident of Brooklyn for the last eleven years, Sarah lives with her husband, daughter and a dwindling population of cats. Check out more of Sarah’s work at sarahmoriarty.com.