Brownsville, Brooklyn is benefitting from a thriving grassroots and youth-driven effort to revitalize public space. Over the past 4 years, the Brownsville Community Justice Center has spearheaded the Belmont Revitalization Project to engage youth in reimagining one of the most distressed corridors in the neighborhood. The Belmont initiative received a Center for Active Design: Excellence Award in 2016.
In the interview below, we catch up with project director Deron Johnston to check in on the progress of the Belmont initiative, and discuss the multiple civic benefits of youth-led initiatives to transform public spaces.
CfAD: Can you give a brief recap of the BRP initiative and how it started?
Deron: The Brownsville Neighborhood is a Brooklyn gem with a deep history and many assets (namely it’s amazing residents). Still, with its accomplished and hardworking residents, vibrant culture, and innovative problem solving, the neighborhood faces many challenges—46% of youth live in poverty; a comparable number do not graduate from high school. It’s known as the murder capital of NYC, and the community faces very high rates of incarceration. The Justice Center is working with young people ages 16-24 to help them live, grow, and thrive in this environment. Our multi-pronged approach to enhancing public safety includes placemaking projects and connections to economic opportunity.
Our youth participants attend a preliminary workshop on civic engagement to discuss their interests and identify neighborhood issues they’d like to address. Out of this exploration came the first Service Day in 2014 for the Belmont Avenue corridor, where they coordinated maintenance and stewardship activities such as graffiti removal, tree bed cleaning, mural installation, and trash pick-up. With the Belmont Revitalization Project, we’re investing in our young people, and our young people are investing back into the neighborhood.
CfAD: Why is public space particularly important in Brownsville?
Deron: The young people in Brownsville have a unique experience with space. There is a high concentration of public housing, and their worldview is framed through this lens. “This building is where I’m safe, where I can meet people and hang out. If I cross the street to another building, I’m leaving my safe zone and my life could be compromised.” We address public space in our programming because if you’ve been cut off from opportunity because of your relationship to space, you want what you’ve been missing out on—like safely getting to school, or accessing a commercial corridor with job opportunities.
CfAD: You’re one of the Advisors who has supported CfAD in developing the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines. Can you share examples from your work that demonstrate how public space improvements influence outcomes such as trust, participation, and stewardship?
Deron: Through the Belmont Revitalization Project, young people get involved in corridor improvement efforts, and over time, establish long-term connections to the space. They’re the ones who initiate design and maintenance efforts. For example, they created the “Stronger Together” mural in the Belmont Plaza that shows two hands reaching out to forge a connection between opposing developments. Young people have become the long-term stewards of the plaza—activating the space through programming like seasonal giveaways of backpacks and winter coats, or DJ-ing community events, to name just a few.
More recently, young people have been leveraging technology to promote safety on Belmont Avenue. After conducting interviews, they found out that local business owners didn’t have extended store hours because poor lighting infrastructure created a safety concern. Working in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT), Mayor’s Office, and Gehl Institute, they piloted a temporary 3D lighting projection that changes color to light up the corridor, using sensors to track pedestrian traffic and creating data for further assessment on how to improve the corridor. The DOT plans to install the sensors permanently in mid-September and use Belmont Avenue as a pilot in hopes of replicating similar installations across NYC.
CfAD: You mentioned that the youth at the Justice Center are particularly interested in arts entrepreneurship. Can you tell us more about how arts-based initiatives are shaping the community?
Deron: Brownsville lacks funding for arts and culture. According to the CD16 report, for the 100,000 residents who live here, the public library and the pool are the only City-funded cultural resources. There’s no space for performing arts, no art galleries, no place for young people to explore arts and culture as a career path. That’s why this interest comes out at the Justice Center. Our early Belmont community service days have evolved into triannual block parties. At the Belmont Street Festival, we installed a modular stage and hire local artists to perform. These events activate public space and build the local arts economy—giving artists the opportunity to gain exposer, build a portfolio, generate social media content.
CfAD: What advice would you give other communities that are taking inspiration from your work?
Deron: A few takeaways come to mind. 1) Don’t be afraid to shift the narrative. When we first started, we needed to change the story about Belmont from a negative to positive lens. Instead of a dirty, smelly, place where people don’t feel safe, we wanted to redevelop the corridor as a space where children and families hang out, where people shop and play, relax and have a good time. 2) Look for non-traditional partnerships. Working with young people at the Justice Center, we realized that safety and economic vitality went hand in hand, and reached out to the NYC Department of Small Business Services for collaboration on retail improvements. Now we’re running a program where young people are invested in the corridor, because they can visualize becoming business owners there. 3) Recognize that people who are perceived to be making a public space “unsafe” can become the leaders of change. Young people at the Justice Center are using their grit, creativity, and survival skills to do great things for the neighborhood.