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The Design Difference: In Brownsville, Enormous Urban Challenges, and Hope

How can design help create change in New York City's Brownsville neighborhood? The first in our three-part series on The Design Difference.

GOOD was asked to attend The Design Difference, a charrette held by the Japan Society, Common Ground, and the Designers Accord. In this series, we're examining design solutions to social problems and ways for designers to contribute pro bono work for the proposed solutions.

As I ride a bus through the neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn two days after Halloween, I see ghosts. The location of a once-thriving famous pickle factory. The abandoned steel plant laced with razor wire. An empty main street that once was filled with bustling furniture stores.

As part of a group of thinkers gathered for a charrette to focus on one of New York’s most underserved communities, we hear plenty from our tour guide about a phantom neighborhood of front stoops, street ball, and a vibrant Jewish community that lived here in the early 1900s. What we see is Brownsville’s reality of broken windows and vacant buildings.

The bus stops outside what looks like an unremarkable building, a low-slung concrete-covered complex. Just stepping inside we know this place is different. The warm air is humidified by a large public pool. A hallway is draped with vivid murals made to look like an Egyptian tomb. Visitors are greeted by a slow-moving iguana named Juliet. And the most remarkable part: There are people here, lots of people here, perhaps more people than we’ve seen during our entire 30-minute tour. This is the Brownsville Recreation Center, and it is the heart of the community.

At the rec center, we have lunch in a surreal setting—a theater still dripping with blood and gore from the annual haunted house—and meet Greg Jackson. The unofficial mayor of Brownsville, Jackson is a towering figure with a cheerful face, and he seems to know just about everyone in the neighborhood.

For Jackson, the vacant streets we saw on the bus ride in aren't the status quo. The rooms around us echoing with pick-up basketball games, the clatter of ping pong practice, the clang of weights—these are the Brownsville reality. "I say, the rec center is 'normal,'" he says, smiling. "Here, we can dream it."

As the executive director of the Brownsville Partnership, a pioneering homelessness prevention and community development program, dreaming is a big part of Jackson’s job. In a telling moment, he points to the storefronts that used to be the center of the community. Back when he grew up, he says, his family spent Sunday afternoons walking the business district, window shopping.

"Daydreaming," Jackson calls this action, something which he thinks is critically important for the neighborhood. That's what's missing for the residents: that public imagination, the feeling of possibility, an idea of what could be. We were here as part of an event called The Design Difference to help find out how we might be able to help Brownsville dream again.

A Tool For Change

The Design Difference was organized by the Japan Society in New York in partnership with Common Ground, the Designers Accord, and GOOD. It's the latest project of the Japan Society’s Innovators Network, which hopes to champion social change in a way that broadens and strengthens the dialogue between Japan and the U.S. Betty Borden, the Japan Society's director of policy projects, says that the goal of the Innovators Network is to address global issues, like sustainability and urbanization, with local solution. "We want to look at what people are doing at the community level," she says. "We're very interested in how communities have transformed and are transforming themselves." In that way, the Society brings together innovators who can cultivate fresh thinking and new approaches to hard-to-solve challenges.

A “hard-to-solve challenge” might be a way of describing Brownsville. According to a Reuters story published earlier this year, Brownsville remains the most violent neighborhood in New York City with a 50 percent increase in gun violence last year—even as the rest of the city has seen a trend towards lower crime. Only a third of the population has graduated from high school, and the median household income in 2008 was estimated at $17,967—far below the poverty line. Drug trade pervades the landscape, and many of the male residents have already been to jail.

From an outsider’s perspective, it feels like Brownsville’s ills can be attributed to a single physical flaw: Only one square mile in size, Brownsville is home to the city's highest concentration of public housing. Most of the residents are stuffed into the familiar high-rise projects that make up over a third of the housing stock, yet the neighborhood itself is underpopulated, with vacant storefronts and empty apartments lining the streets.

But it quickly becomes apparent that the neighborhood is full of these contradictions. There's no sit-down restaurant, but plenty of fast food (New York's best selling Popeye's is in Brownsville); only two banks, yet dozens of check-cashing centers.

"Hope Is Inside"

Since 2005, Brownsville has been aided by Common Ground, a legendary, international organization which works to end homelessness. Common Ground established the Brownsville Partnership as a unique collaboration between the neighborhood and the New York City Housing Authority. It's a revolutionary model, one that transcends disciplines or categorization. And it works because both groups are committed to transforming the physical environment. Besides working as a liaison to improve the conditions that create homelessness, Common Ground has helped to fund two affordable housing structures which are currently under construction.

In the most symbolic moment of Jackson's introduction at the rec center, he holds up a long vinyl banner with Rosanne Haggerty, the executive director of Common Ground, and speaks about their partnership. He quotes the banner often, as three words that have become a slogan for the community. These are the words he envisions will be printed on signs and T-shirts throughout the community: "Hope is inside."

In our subsequent tour of Brownsville, we do see hope inside. In one of the original Carnegie libraries, we view a massive museum collection focused on Brownsville and black history. It is the ultimate crowdsourcing project, with all objects coming from members of the community.

We tour a unit inside a housing project, and meet a resident who works a few hours at the security desk downstairs to keep her building safe. And we meet dozens of residents who greet us enthusiastically when they hear why we've come to their neighborhood.

And—in what's perhaps the most captivating moment for the participants—we walk into a shiny new grocery store filled with pyramids of fresh produce, slick whole fish on ice, and technicolor towers of canned goods stacked to the ceiling.

We learn that this isn't the only new place to buy produce: In the summer there's now a greenmarket, staffed by local teens. We marvel, speechless, at the triumph of bringing fresh, affordable food to the neighborhood.

As we boarded the bus, Brownsville's challenges seem as insurmountable as that tower of cans. But what as we drove away, it occurred to me that my hometown, Los Angeles, doesn't look that much different. What's happening in Brownsville is happening where I live, too. In this economy, any city in the country is only a plant-closing or a crime spree or a natural disaster away from collapse.

Solutions tested in this community could be replicated anywhere if they work. The question now became, how could design make a difference? And how could we—outsiders, with only a tenuous connection to the neighborhood—help in a way that was meaningful?

In parts two and three, we'll look at how design can be employed to create solutions for communities like Brownsville, walk through the charrette process, and even pass along the workshop tools for you to use.

Read all three stories in the series here.

Photos by Ayumi Sakamoto

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