The Community Board met and heard presentations on our local neglected public plazas that abut Prospect Park. First up, from In Cho and Rudy Delson, came a power point presentation on plans for the Q at Parkside Plaza to get a facelift to coincide with the renovations to the station itself slated to begin this summer. The crowd peppered the two with questions about the nature of the changes and how the plaza would be used after its up-sprucing and who would be in charge of its use. The short answer is that despite the open-to-anyone Parkside Project committee's involvement, the plan is for the community to continue to devise its own plan in an open and free exchange of ideas. However, the DOT wants SOME group to take responsibility for the plaza's upkeep and maintenance of any plants, so there will need to be some organization charged with the job. The Parkside Project committee is currently trying to find the right balance in that regard. There will need to be startup money and an annual maintenance budget - that's why elected officials are being brought up to speed and asked to contribute commitments of support. It's all very much a work in progress, but now that CB9 has given the go-ahead, and DOT has pledged the initial landscaping toys of planters-benches-graniteblocks-trees, and we have a professional pro-bono designer on board, and the committee has continued to grow and flourish through outreach and a general sense of excitement...hey, the sky's the limit. There's still plenty of ways to get involved, and I encourage you to email me so I can add you to the growing list of supporters interested in volunteering, in order to bring this slab of concrete back into the hands of the people who traverse it every day. That's us!
Following the Parkside Project came a presentation by local artist David Eppley on his proposed project to bring a much needed medium-length temporary art piece to the dilapidated green sheet metal Flatbush Trees. Eppley's idea was previously endorsed by CB9's Parks and Land Use committees, found a partner in local spread-the-wealth community arts group PLG Arts, and the proposal went to DOT's Arterventions program. We'll soon know the answer from DOT whether their panel digs the plan enough to give its official go-ahead.The idea for the project includes Eppley involving local kids in making the hexagonal brightly-colored industrial tape shapes that will give the trees their psychedelic-spring-like visage, as rendered above.
I'm happy to report that both projects received near unanimous approval from the Board itself during its executive session. But there was a caveat to the feel-goodiness, one worthy of note. A few concerns were raised about the relative cultural inclusiveness of the project by City Council candidate Laurie Cumbo (whom I've happily endorsed, though she's actually in the 35th district which starts at Empire on-north) and local artist Javaka Steptoe. I can honestly say, from my vantage point, that at every step of the way I've noted an intense effort towards the goal of community inclusion and outreach. Both projects will involve significant input and involvement by locals from diverse backgrounds, old-timers and new. But despite all that, I managed to receive a bit of an earful on the importance of appearance as well as substance, particularly in the makeup of the speakers and leadership of such projects, not to mention the artists or designers themselves.
Okay, enough euphemisms. Laurie said the leadership at CB9 and and on these projects is overtly white. No, she didn't say too white exactly. She said there aren't enough folks championing the cause or making the art who are people of color. She stood up and noted that the neighborhood is predominantly Caribbean and African American (true, though census-wise less so now than any time in 30 or 40 years) and that public projects of these sorts should make every effort to feel inclusive of these communities. True, true and true again.
Did this make me feel a little uncomfortable? Yeah, but just a tiny bit. I mean Laurie's running for Council and inclusion is her theme - "We're All In This Together" says her poster. And while that sounds nice and sweet and lovey-dovey peacey weacey, the fact is that gentrification has swept the neighborhoods she hopes to represent at a pace that I haven't seen in...well, ever. And not everyone is cheering. Ft. Greene, you could pretty much see that one coming. But Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Crown Heights? My God you can barely recognize parts of them for all the Browstonerism and palefaces. And while there's plenty of good that's come from the economic revitalization of once-blighted neighborhoods, the rents all around have sky-rocketed and the very "sense of place" has been uprooted for many old-timers. Even middle-timers are being priced out, or if they are lucky enough to own their homes they'd likely be unable to afford one there now. Schools are being rethought or integrated, infrastructure is being refurbished, amenities are catering to a new clientele. It's truly shocking to even yours truly, a pretty longtime Brooklynite who grew somewhat immune to reality of a constant rollicking reinvention that is NYC. BUT, when that change comes in poorer black communities, and quickly, and sometimes with insensitivity, there's bound to be backlash, or at the very least hurt feelings and damaged pride. I'm actually shocked when I meet people who don't recognize this fact, but that's the very nature of the beast I suppose. If all you're thinking about is housing stock and restaurants, you're likely to miss the real story going on underneath our noses. Even the word "pioneer," applied to housing and businesses alike, is incredibly loaded, and I've heard it used more often than I'd like to admit.
I may be naive, but that's the VERY REASON I've gotten so excited about public plazas and community art and renovated train stations and smart public safety measures that doesn't just involve random stop and search tactics that don't work and create hostility. The point here, to me, has been to create opportunities to do stuff that we can all do together, without controversy and with near universal acceptance. Things that don't favor one group over another. BUT...when a dude comes up with an idea, like Rudy Delson or David Eppley, and it's a good one, and they show the passion and drive to make it happen, using as many people from the community as they can...should they be penalized for the color of their skin? Isn't there an English language word for that kind of thing, judging people on the basis or race rather than on the content of their character or worthiness of their deeds? I'm searching for it...can't quite pull it from memory...um...uh...
In a certain way, this whole gentrification thing, it's so colonial, you know? Despite the fact that it doesn't involve sovereignty, there is historical precedent for this sort of thing, even if the metaphor doesn't fit exactly. And yet, it really doesn't have to be so traumatic. There's a way to cut through the bull, but it definitely means meeting, talking, learning to trust, and most of all realizing that the steady march of rents and prices upward affects everyone, not always negatively. For instance, ask the person who bought a house in the 1970's and sold it recently whether the churn of money favored him/her or not.
I'm also aware of what Laurie wisely identified as people's tendency to gather within their "racial comfort zones." You don't see such sort of mixes of people in the same room often enough, but when you do it's certainly enlightening. The playground is one place to note it in full bloom. People are drawn to people they think they know or understand culturally. It's the human tribal thing, and you have to try hard to resist the urge to congregate and socialize conservatively.
I continue to draw inspiration from every interaction I have when I stretch outside the "comfort zone," and I honestly believe that we could all make a better effort to reach our hands out to people who come from different backgrounds. It's made a world of difference in my life when I manage to do it, and community is about developing trust so much more than giving lip service to the feckless concept of "diversity." In fact, when I hear that word these days, I hear a certain laziness or fear. It's not descriptive anymore, and a stand-in for other words that people are afraid to use. "Call it what it is," I want to scream. Please just go ahead and use the words black or white or Asian or Latino or gay or rich or poor or educated or ignorant or whatever, and use it in a sentence the way you mean it. I guess I'm still naive enough to think there's an honest conversation to be had.
Oh yeah, and those blog comments about that post on Buffie the School Slayer. Oy vey!