“Because there’s been such disinvestment in Brownsville, whenever there’s any new investment, people are distrustful of what the intentions are. It’s appropriate to ask ‘why now?’ and ‘for who?’”
– Erica Mateo, Brownsville Community Justice Center
What makes a successful neighborhood project? The best ones are often the ones that provoke the most meaningful conversations — and sometimes they’re about difficult topics like gentrification, displacement, and what it means for a planning process to have true community ownership.
That was recently the case with the Best of Brownsville Photo Project. The project was funded in part through the Livonia Avenue El-Space Challenge, a partnership between ioby and NYC DOT. It consisted of three kiosks, designed through a partnership between Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC) and Brownsville Partnership, two well-known collective impact organizations in Brownsville. The kiosks feature photographs taken by Brownsville residents and curated by Brownsville youth, that highlight, in these residents’ eyes “the qualities that make a neighborhood a home.” They also include a map of the neighborhood’s key community gathering places, from a rec center to a popular cafe.
We recently spoke with Erica Mateo, BCJC’s Deputy Director, Katie Edmonds, BCJC’s Youth Design Educator, and Layman Lee, Placemaking Manager at Brownsville Partnership about the conversation that emerged after the kiosks went up.
The kiosks were installed in an area with a lot of foot traffic, right beneath the elevated 3 train, and all three organizers agree that most of the immediate feedback from residents and passers-by was curious and positive. But despite the deliberate efforts to create an inclusive design process, some residents were taken by surprise. Within a few days, a Facebook post by Brownsville resident Daquan Wallace, pointing to the new kiosks as signs of gentrification, had gone viral. Then Gothamist picked up the post, and the conversation grew far beyond the neighborhood.
That the spectre of gentrification was raised was no surprise to Erica, a Brownsville native, who’s worked in the community for 5 years. “Because there’s been such disinvestment in Brownsville, whenever there’s any new investment, people are distrustful of what the intentions are. It’s appropriate to ask ‘why now?’ and ‘for who?’” she says. To some, the kiosks were misinterpreted as a suspicious symbol of outside attention rather than community pride.
Highlighting the good in Brownsville
The fact that some in Brownsville automatically see new things as representing change driven by outside forces creates a tricky dynamic, especially for organizers like Layman, Erica and Katie, much of whose work seeks to lift up residents’ own knowledge and pride in their neighborhood. In places like Brownsville that have undergone decades of underinvestment and are now on the brink of rapid change, there can be so much anxiety around the threat of displacement that many community members are poised to fight, and rightfully so. That’s what makes the goal of this project and others like it stand out — as Katie puts it, the project was intended to “ask the community not just what we have a problem with and want to change, but what we like about our neighborhood.”
Erica adds, “Rather than trying to add anything new, we leveraged what’s already here. We worked with local youth who are talented and interested in shining a light on the good that already exists in the neighborhood.The youth are creating a counter-narrative. A narrative that’s different from the one depicted in the news, which is a negative one.”
Something physical to react to
The opinions that emerged on social media — some from Brownsville, some not — included some very tough questions around whether placemaking-type “improvements” can be separated from the forces of gentrification. This is a constant conversation in Brownsville and many other Brooklyn neighborhoods, but the team thinks bringing a new physical object into a public space helped a lot of these thoughts crystallize. “It’s because there was something physical that just appeared one day,” Layman says, “Having something that is very human scale on Livonia Avenue in a heavily trafficked area allowed for a flood of both positive and reactionary response.”
Erica is glad the kiosks provoked conversation; once she became aware of the reaction, she quickly wrapped the kiosk in Saran wrap and mock-defaced it with writing that directed readers to BCJC’s social media, where the conversation could continue.
“These are visual signifiers of some kind of change, some kind of investment,” she says, “We want to be self-reflective, be accountable, be critical, be intentional and not shy away from the conversation around change. The folks responding to the kiosk are asking questions. That’s civic engagement! That’s key to making sure change is happening on the neighborhood’s terms!”
For Katie, who has a design background, one of the key lessons from the photo kiosks is the value of bringing new ideas into the built environment physically, to give people something to react to early in the planning process. Katie wants to go even further by mocking up full-size paper versions of small scale projects and putting them in place to gather reactions in real time, before a final version is fabricated.
Layman agrees that the dialogue is a healthy one for Brownsville, and wants to focus next time on bringing even more community members into what was already a robust community planning process. She thinks going the extra mile to find and engage people who would not otherwise be part of the process is well worth the extra effort. “It’s important for community-based non profit organizations to use events like this to draw in and engage residents in the conversation,” she says, “Hopefully, later on, these same residents will continue to work together with city agencies to inform decisionmaking for their neighborhood.”
Ownership in the face of change
Modeling and building this kind of productive engagement in community decisionmaking is a major goal of many of the organizations we work with; it’s also a main reason we at ioby think small-scale projects are valuable well beyond the dollars raised. If a community can truly own a planning process, even if it’s as small as a few photo kiosks, it can set an important precedent for change made on the community’s terms. In Brownsville, Erica says, “It’s true that the neighborhood’s changing and that means other people might want to live here, but we need to figure out how to retain community ownership over the process of change.”
Layman is particularly interested in creating truly inclusive processes around placemaking, which she admits can be a real-estate buzzword: “It’s a funny new term that real estate developers and urban designers can use to improve physical space with or without community input, with the larger goal of boosting real estate values,” she says, “My job as placemaking manager is to build on the expertise and knowledge of the local residents because they’re the experts.”
Involving a community in building something positive, over which they feel true ownership, is an important step in helping a neighborhood remain intact in the face of rapid change. In addition to feeding into formal planning processes, small projects can be incredibly helpful in moving large, important conversations forward. “We all want to make systems change,” says Layman, “It’s hard, but these are the types of projects that can really contribute in a meaningful way.”