Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In discussion about Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, history, transition, gentrification, and, yes, Atlantic Yards

It’s hard to do justice to the sometimes compelling, sometimes disjointed, wide-ranging panel discussion concerning Fort Greene and Clinton Hilll presented last night by the New York Times’s blog The Local at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Dweck Center at Grand Army Plaza.

But the session, titled “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” did touch on the important and sometimes fraught intersections of neighborhood transition, development pressure, and race/class relations. (Of the panelists, two were black and two were white.)

And, despite some overlong monologues (from both panel and audience) or off-topic questions, it left people longing for more, for the messy humanity of in-person dialogue, in contrast with often-anonymous online interaction. (More from The Local, source of Nicole Nelch's pic.)

An audience of about 135, racially mixed though predominantly white, attended the event, and moderator Andy Newman of The Local said that, for a future event, he’d look to a space within the two neighborhoods. (The Times and the library have an ongoing relationship regarding events; hence the choice of the Dweck.)

Old like new

Writer/performer Carl Hancock Rux reminded the group that the new may not be so different from the old. He read from a 2005 article he wrote for the Brooklyn Rail, tracing class and race tensions all the way back to 1858.

While the condition of Fort Greene Park, worn down in part today by soccer players, has occasioned much debate on The Local, Newman found a Brooklyn Daily Eagle clip from 1888, in which those playing lawn tennis and croquet were criticized for tearing up the turf.

Author, filmmaker, and memoirist Nelson George recalled how dangerous Fort Greene was in his youth. He showed part of a clip (sans audio) from the 1974 film The Education of Sonny Carson, in which a kid goes through a brutal initiation, on the bleak turf outside the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, to join a street gang.

DK Holland recalled how the publication she founded The Hill, served to bring people together beginning in the mid-80s, a time when the neighborhood had boarded-up buildings and gangs on the streets. It still serves to build and celebrate community, highlighting neighborhood heroes, businesses, and history.

(In a sign of the times, The Hill, a nonprofit enterprise produced by volunteers--the only costs are for printing/production--is feeling the downturn in advertising; the next issue may not emerge “unless some angel appears,” Holland said. Council Member Letitia James, who was in the audience and received moderate applause, is helping with fundraising.)

The era of black artists

As he’s written, George in the mid-80s joined a burgeoning community of black artists in Fort Greene, one building on the neighborhood “pre-history” of musicians like Betty Carter and Cecil Taylor.

The names of residents and visiting performers is impressive: Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, Larry (now Laurence) Fishburne, and Wesley Snipes.

‘“I happened to meet this little weird guy in 1985 called Spike (Lee),” George recalled, observing that “She’s Gotta Have It” was not merely a hugely successful film but also a magnet for the neighborhood. Lee, of course, set up shop in Fort Greene, and some of his ensemble--both in front of and behind the camera--came to the neighborhood.

George identified another era, in the early 1990s, the “Brooklyn Moon wave,” involving artists associated with spoken word and music: Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, Kevin Powell, and Sarah Jones.

Now, he said, it’s a time of transition, as wealthier (mostly) white residents move in, and, as he wrote in the Times, he also feels the inevitability of aging.

The AY effect

The growth of new residential towers, mainly at the neighborhood’s edges--and in several cases the unexpected consequence of a Downtown Brooklyn rezoning aimed to produce new (but ultimately unnecessary) office space, provoked dismay from George, who linked them to the planned Atlantic Yards project, which would be built just across the border in Prospect Heights.

George, a member of the DDDB advisory board, criticized at Borough President Marty Markowitz and developer Bruce Ratner for bringing a huge increase in the number of residents and visitors, via the arena and 16 towers. “And forget the night [Brooklyn-born rapper] Jay-Z does his ‘Return to Brooklyn’ concert,” George warned.

George was rebuked, mildly, by Rux, who said he didn’t necessarily like the new towers sprouting, and he loves brownstones, but, “at the same time, I recognize it belongs to a time and belongs to a moment.”

Questions of density

Later, George said he wasn’t uncomfortable with older white or black homeowners making a profit from selling their houses, but "the issue really becomes the high-rises.”

Again, Rux offered some perspective, reminding George of the mansions torn down on Clinton Avenue for apartment buildings.

Holland noted that when she moved to Clinton Hill, it needed greater density, to have people on the street and shopping in its businesses.

The discussion did not get to the question of what exactly is the neighborhood’s carrying capacity and whether the government had sufficiently studied the impact of new buildings. After all, urban areas near transit are supposed to support increased density--the question is how much.

Other towers

Unmentioned was the parade of generic towers along and near Clinton Avenue that are the Clinton Hill Houses, once civilian workforce housing during World War II, which look not unlike housing projects.

One audience member said public housing had been ignored during the discussion and on the blog; he pointed out the role of FUREE and its film about gentrification, “Some Place Like Home.”

And even the term “housing project” drew some debate, when Council Member James suggested the phrase was not preferred by current residents. George, who grew up in a “project” (in Brownsville) shot back that he used that term.

George noted that the Ingersoll Community Center, serving those in public housing, has long stood unopened. James said it will finally open in July or August. (She blamed the delay on the federal government’s failure to support public housing. While the latter is undeniable, the delay lasted far longer than ever predicted, so someone in the New York City Housing Authority should take some heat.)

One audience member, referencing the hop-skip version of neighborhood history packed into the event, reminded the audience of the role of the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) in renovating and managing housing, as well as the efforts of the late Council Member Mary Pinkett, crucial to the neighborhood’s revival.

Feeling welcomed--and not

One relative newcomer, a white woman who said she’s a social worker, said she mostly felt welcomed, but sometimes she didn’t. (On blogs, I've read reports of people throwing pebbles and other unpleasantness.) What, she asked with sincerity, can she do?

Holland suggested she join some local organizations. (Then again, the Fort Greene Association members are not the type to toss pebbles. She did also mention churches.)

Rux suggested a psychological, cultural approach, “about not making people feel it was nothing before you came.” (Earlier, taking off from the not uncommon perception that the neighborhood didn't arrive until new restaurants sprang up, Rux cordially reminded the audience that, yes, there were restaurants in the 1980s.)

How do you hold onto the neighborhood? Some of the nurturing is organic, if accidental, part of what George called “a magical quality,” a feeling of connection.

George titled his onetime column in the Village Voice “Native Son” well before he learned that Richard Wright, who wrote the novel of that name, lived in Fort Greene while he wrote it. (A slide show George produced for The Local was played at the event; it shows the Richard Wright memorial bench in Fort Greene Park, with its plaque already vandalized.)

Looking forward

In closing, Newman asked the panelists to briefly predict what they’d think of the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in a decade.

“As my neighborhood,” Rux said succinctly.

“I think it’ll feel very much the same,” said Jonathan Butler, founder of the popular blog Brownstoner, who got relatively little microphone time (and has a more brief history in the community, though his blog has provoked much discussion, as noted in this New York magazine cover story). “Hopefully ten years of talking some of this stuff out will make it even better.”

“I’m not certain,” George said. “If they build a sports arena, and they build those other things, I think it will change the nature of the neighborhood. You can’t build a sports arena and not have fast food restaurants, not have souvenir shops, not have strip clubs.” (I haven’t seen any new strip clubs near the Prudential Center in Newark, though.)

More conversation

“I think what you mentioned about talking--and blogs are a big part of this,” Holland mused. “We need more people engaged in the conversation, coming to it with well-thought out ideas.”.

The Hill, she said, could also be a forum for the conversation. Then again, The Hill comes out twice a year. Newman said an intern from The Local is working with a community organization to get more people, notably those without computers, engaged in the blog.

That might democratize the discourse. But The Local, a worthy experiment, doesn’t yet have a business model.

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