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

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

by Alissa Walker

January 28, 2011
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.

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.
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.


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.

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