On a recent blisteringly hot afternoon, some Brownsville residents came together to prepare organic, locally produced food, sample handmade delicacies, sell handcrafted jewelry, showcase designer clothes and just chill out in the shade.
Behind them a hand-painted mural emblazoned with the words “Hope is inside” formed the perfect backdrop.
Throughout the summer, these gatherings have been taking place at MGB Pops, an outdoor marketplace on a formerly vacant lot in the center of New York’s Brownsville neighborhood. In many of the gentrified parts of the city, such an occurrence would be nothing unusual, but in this deeply troubled neighborhood, where most of the vacant lots are surrounded by chain link fences and gun fights on the streets can force parents to keep their kids indoors, it was a welcome sign that change is coming.
“This place gives the community light again,” says 16-year-old Tysheem Sanders, who has been volunteering at the marketplace all summer. “And it’s us that’s making it happen.”
With a reputation for high crime rates, high unemployment and the highest concentration of public housing in the city, far-out Brownsville has yet to see the wave of gentrification that has swept across much of the rest of Brooklyn and other areas of New York.
But with its nearest neighbors — Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant to the northwest and Crown Heights to the west — already experiencing rapid gentrification, there is a growing sense that Brownsville is next.
Not everyone is pleased. Gentrification is often unkind to low-income residents who frequently get pushed out when wealthier residents come rolling in. But now, in order to stay ahead of the game, community leaders in Brownsville, among them many African-American professionals, are working to prepare for what’s ahead by helping the area gentrify on its own terms, from the inside out.
“We’re trying to disrupt the normal flow of things” says Quardean Lewis-Allen, who in conjunction with Community Solutions helped conceive the MGB Pops project and engaged local youths to work on the design and mural. “If we can empower the residents with jobs and skills that will help them shape the neighborhood’s future, then they are less likely to be displaced when Brownsville suddenly becomes hip.”
In historically black enclaves around the country, from Detroit to Washington, D.C., and Harlem to South Central Los Angeles, gentrification has fueled an often involuntary black flight to the suburbs or to less desirable neighborhoods as rents start to exceed local income levels. In some neighborhoods, however, such as Brickton, Philadelphia, a trend is emerging in which middle-class black professionals, sometimes known as black gentrifiers, are working to change this narrative by remaining in or returning to their communities to engage in revitalization efforts that help boost the fortunes of all residents while keeping the area’s character intact. In Brownsville, a neighborhood that is over 80 percent African-American, close to half of whom are living in poverty, some local activists, like Lewis-Allen, are taking a leaf out of Brickton’s playbook.
Lewis-Allen, who was born and raised in Brownsville, returned to the area in 2013 after graduating with a master’s in architecture from Harvard. Together with his partner, Alan Waxman, whom he met in college, he founded Made in Brownsville to give local youths an opportunity to learn about design and architecture so they can get related jobs and also so they can play a role is shaping their neighborhood’s future. To this end, Made in Brownsville enrolls kids in training courses and then hires them when possible on community or client-commissioned design projects.
MGP Pops was one such project; another is the revisualization of the Belmont Avenue corridor, commissioned by the Brownsville Community Justice Center. For much of Brownsville’s history, Belmont Avenue was a thriving market space, with dozens of pushcart merchants selling their wares. Today it is mostly abandoned, with boarded-up storefronts, and is a no-go area at night. In October, Made in Brownsville began working with court-involved youths to reimagine the space. Their renderings include green walls, a mural and a pedestrian plaza that will be multifunctional, with special lighting features to make it inviting at all hours. In March the center got approval to make the plaza permanent.
“The community knows what it needs and has a vision for how to implement those needs, but the problem is access to capital,” Lewis-Allen said, acknowledging the major obstacle low-income residents face in determining their neighborhood’s future.
On this front some help is at hand. A few years ago the Dream Big Foundation, an organization with money to spend, set its sights on developing businesses in Brownsville. Dream Big’s founder, Robert LoCascio, was looking for a community where a relatively small investment could make a large impact and selected Brownsville because of the area’s serious needs and its serious potential. In keeping with other community efforts, Dream Big decided to keep it local — to identify local entrepreneurs with good ideas and provide the necessary funding so those ideas can become a reality.
Their first project will be the Three Black Cats Cafe, the brainchild of sisters Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez, who are Brownsville natives. The cafe, currently in the construction phase, will open later this year on Belmont Avenue. “We want to be part of the Belmont Avenue renaissance,” says Dream Big’s Pernell Brice, who is overseeing the project. “Our hope is that once one new business opens on the block, others will follow.” Part of the arrangement with the Jimenezes is that the cafe will double up as a hub for entrepreneurs, with a section in the back with computers and free Wi-Fi. The idea is to use the hub to incubate other business ideas, the best of which Dream Big will also fund.
The concern remains that once homegrown businesses start to thrive, outside investors will swarm in and low-income residents will be forced out anyway. Over the past few years, as nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant became more desirable, aggressive investors have been buying up properties, sometimes showing up with bags of cash and pressuring residents, often the elderly, to sell their homes. One Australian investor has bought nearly 600 homes in the area, many of them old brownstones, for conversion into top-dollar rental units. Ironically, Brownsville’s high concentration of public housing, which some consider a source of many of the neighborhood’s woes, may be the thing that keeps it intact.
“The only reason developers aren’t all over this place already is because of the projects,” Diana Jimenez said. “If they all get torn down, the party’s over.” She has reason to be worried. In 2000 her family was forced out of a housing project at Prospect Plaza when the city made the unusual decision to tear it and some other Brownsville projects down. “We were supposed to have a right to return,” she said, “but it’s 15 years later, and we’re still waiting.” The city tore the building down in 2005 and three others in 2014, and the replacement housing units, only a percentage of which will be reserved for low-income residents, are still in the construction phase. Jimenez and her family have had to pay market-rate rents ever since, something she says a lot of Brownsville residents just aren’t in a position to do.
“We don’t know what the future’s going to bring,” she said, “but we just got to try to stay ahead of the game, keep doing what we’re doing — gentrifying from within.”