When I searched the New York Times website recently for “Brownsville” (the one in Brooklyn, not the one in Texas), the first few search results were as follows:
While Brownsville undeniably has severe problems stemming from poverty and violence – and there is no intention of making light of these problems as they inflict daily suffering on the residents – it is not quite the hell hole portrayed in the media.
The last couple of years have seen significant change for the better. What is particularly encouraging is that the change is oftentimes coming from within and built on broad coalitions.
Here are some of the signs that Brownsville is moving in the right direction:
1. Brownsville is getting bike lanes
Until a few years ago, there were virtually no bike lanes east of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, they all more or less abruptely ended before reaching the far east of the borough. In an ongoing project the New York City Department of Transportation has been implementing numerous bike lanes in Brownsville and neighboring East New York. This has been a highly collaborative effort that originated in the community – Community Board 16, the chairperson herself an avid biker – had lobbied the City for years for putting them on the (bike) map.
2. Brownsville has Youth Markets
Brownsville is solidly located in one of the “food deserts” dentified in the New York City Department of City Planning’s “Going to Market” study. Unfortunately, many of the city’s year-round greenmarkets are not in these high need areas but for the most part in the more affluent sections of the city. Brownsville, however, has two not just one but two Youthmarkets (there are only five in all of Brooklyn). Like most greenmarkets in the city, Youthmarkets are operated by GrowNYC. While youthmarkets only operate seasonally, they have an added benefit of providing hands-on experience for young neighborhood residents and can help establishing a “real” greenmarket in the hopefully not so far future.
3. Brownsville has a Neighborhood Improvement Association and the Brownsville Partnership
For a long time community based organizations in Brownsville have been comparatively less active, compared for example to the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in nearby East New York. In recent years, however, this has changed. The Brownsville Partnership, a project of Community Solutions, has for years been active in the neighborhood, working on homelessness prevention and public health issues. A new group, the Ocean Hill Brownsville Neighborhood Improvement Association, is forming inspired by the “Brownsville Works!” report, a studio project from Hunter College’s Master’s Program in Urban Planning that analyzed some of the challenges and opportunities for retail development on Brownsville’s main commercial strip, Pitkin Avenue. It is important to note that these initiatives are driven by local residents guaranteeing the long-term sustainable development of these groups. Together with the Municipal Arts Society the Brownsville Partnership organized the “Brownsville Hope Summit” last year, which demonstrated that local efforts are increasingly acknowledged beyond the neighborhood.
4. Brownsville has “Made in Brownsville”
Founded by Quardean Lewis-Allen, a Master’s student in architecture at Harvard and Brownsville native, Made in Brownsville, aims to empower juvenile offenders with design and manufacturing skills to provide a productive alternative to violence and boredom, and opening an avenue for young Brownsville residents into the creative sector.
While the odds sometimes seem heavily stacked against Brownsville these initiative and others, like the proposed Brownsville Community Justice Center and a pop-up program for vacant lots in Brownsville planned for later this year, show that there is much more to this neighborhood than hopelessness and the seamlessly endless vicious cycles of poverty and violence.