Brownsville residents concerned about the looming threat of gentrification and displacement are at odds over a shiny new photo kiosk installed last week at the corner of Livonia and Rockaway Avenues under the elevated 3 train. One side of the kiosk features a map of Brownsville highlighting libraries, public art, and parks, as well as a range of other local institutions; the other side has photographs of four murals in the neighborhood. At night, the kiosk lights up.
The project, called "Best of Brownsville," grew out of the Livonia Avenue El-Space Challenge, a contest sponsored by the NYC Department of Transportation and crowdfunding platform ioby that sought proposals to improve the intersection, which is poorly lit and has been troubled by crime. The DOT offered a 3:1 fund match for the $25,000 project, which was designed over the course of the past year by the firm ORE in consultation with youth participants at Brownsville Community Justice Center.
The youth were trained to use professional photography equipment and took pictures around the neighborhood, including the photographs of the murals. They selected their favorite photos, which will be on display in rotation over the coming year.
Erica Mateo, director of community-based initiatives at the BCJC and a native of Brownsville, said that when the kiosk went up last weekend, neighborhood residents quickly made their opinions known. Some were very angry—the installation looked like an attempt to brighten up the neighborhood for outsiders. The youth who created the project had done social media and neighborhood outreach to ask local residents what they wanted to see on the kiosk and to spread the word about it, Mateo said, but the word either didn't get out to everyone or didn't resonate the way it was intended.
On Tuesday, local resident Don Wallace, 25, posted a Facebook photo of himself standing next to the kiosk. He wrote:
IM WALKIN THRU "BROWNSVILLE" AND NOTICED THIS SIGN JUST SITTIN HERE... I THAN ASKED MYSELF ALL MY LIFE OF LIVING HERE WE NEVER NEEDED A TOUR OF WHERE WE LIVE... SO THAN I REALIZED WE MAY BE EXPECTING COMPANY.... PEOPLE OPEN YALL EYES PLEASE
The post went viral. Mateo said then when she checked the post on Tuesday night, it had been shared more than 600 times. Currently, it has more than 1,800 shares. In a neighborhood bordering Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick, all experiencing hyper-gentrification, the post struck a nerve. Mateo acknowledged this reality. "He's speaking to something that's real," she said. "Gentrification is happening all around Brownsville and displacement is happening all around Brownsville."
Mateo had heard buzz about people wanting to deface the kiosk, so she and her team decided to preempt an attempt to vandalize it. They wrapped it in plastic and scrawled "W.T.F. Where Did This Come From? Gentrification? Find Out More" on the wrap, with a link to an Instagram handle for a broader neighborhood organizing campaign.
"It's kind of cool that so many people are critically engaging in this conversation around their neighborhood," Mateo said. "So we thought, 'Hey, let's just be accountable for our work and let's talk about it.'"
Not long after the plastic went up, someone took it down. Mateo later saw it neatly folded up in a nearby trash can. It was a sign, she said, that some locals didn't want the kiosk covered up—they liked it.
Mateo put up her own post on Facebook and Instagram about the reaction to the kiosk.
The "Best of Brownsville" kiosk went viral and we want to engage the conversation. Although this is a locally grown project, it's been cited as a sign of gentrification. The Justice Center welcomes being challenged and held accountable for the work it's doing in the community. We have entered a critical conversation on a very sensitive and relevant topic. Some photos were posted below to explain the process for the "Best of Brownsville" kiosks, please check them out. We added this wrap and writing to keep the conversation going; however, other neighbors removed it b/c they like the installation and don't want to "deface" it. It's exciting to have sparked such an interesting conversation steaming from two local points of view. What are your thoughts? Please repost!!!!
Her post continued the debate.
Quardean Lewis-Allen, founder of the local design firm Made in Brownsville, commented that he was distressed by the reaction. "Frustrating and sad that we are so conditioned to think that anything clean, beautiful and positive can't possibly be for us," he wrote.
Commenter Pernell Brice, III, executive director of the nonprofit Dream Big Foundation, which created the neighborhood's Dream Big Innovation Center, a 5,000-square -foot multi-use development envisioned as a co-working space and entrepreneurship incubator, echoed Lewis-Allen's frustration. He described an interaction he'd had with several women on the street, whom he overheard expressing displeasure about the new 3 Black Cats Cafe. Price said he engaged the women in conversation and explained that the restaurant is the creation of three sisters from Brownsville, whom he introduced to the women. (3 Black Cats was launched with support from Big Dream and it's housed in the Innovation Center.)
But to Soyini Ayanna, another commenter, the kiosk represented something more sinister, even if that wasn't the intent. "My opinion- the positivity isn't the issue. Its the timing for it," she wrote. "Brownsville in Brooklyn has ALWAYS been different. Its the hood," she wrote. "Of course we'd like to see our neighborhoods get better but as they do, we're booted out."
Mateo said she understands this attitude, and that there's more to the reaction than simply a feeling that Brownsville can't have nice things.
The kiosk is sleek and modern and it sticks out, particularly on a dark, run-down corner.
"There's nothing up like that in Brownsville. Normally a project that expensive, quite frankly, is not done locally, is not grassroots," Mateo said. "People are responding to what historically they know to be true—that Brownsville residents normally aren't getting the resources to do these kinds of things."
The "Best of Brownsville" project will ultimately include two more photo kiosks along Livonia Avenue, one focused on the neighborhood's parks, the other on its libraries.
Mateo said she and her team are discussing how to further engage local residents with the project going forward.
She's already won one convert. Mateo reached out to Don Wallace on Facebook and they met up on Thursday evening to talk about "Best of Brownsville." She explained the project and gave him a tour of some of the sites highlighted on the kiosk. She introduced him to the founders of 3 Black Cats and to Pernell Brice. They also met up with some of the young people who work with the Justice Center. Wallace got a t-shirt and posed for pictures around the neighborhood.
Wallace, who works as a cook at Smashburger, said that once he understood the origins of the project, he saw it in a totally different light—as something empowering for the young people involved and for the neighborhood. "Living in Brownsville all my life, there hasn't been too much excitement or too much good going on," he said. "I'm a hands-on person, I'm a very people person, so I love to see everybody going up and doing things."
He was sanguine about the ongoing debate sparked by the kiosk and his post. "It started a conversation," he said. "I felt like the fact it's opened so many eyes—it's the peak of the time where we can launch a lot of ideas."