Engaging Change & Displacement – One Story at a Time in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
It starts with a story, a personal story about a public place with a private meaning.
In every neighborhood, in every city, there exists a universal truth hidden behind brick and mortar, connections to time and place. What evolves, what remains and what is lost, affects us all.
Along comes Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, co-founder of Buscada and leader of their latest project Intersection | Prospect Heights (ISPH) who shares this quiet truth, “personal history is embedded in physical spaces.”
Intersection | Prospect Heights is “a series of pop-up exhibitions public conversations, creative walks, and “guidebooks” showing neighborhood places through the eyes of residents in the early 2000s. Exposing change through individual stories, we (ISPH) seek to foster conversations on development, displacement and sustainability in this critical moment for the city.”
Gabrielle sits down with Emerging City to talk about this project and issues of displacement, development and social sustainability over two days of interviews. What follows is a condensed form of that interview. Download Ebook Version Here
For you personally, what was the motivation for this specific project in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn? How many tours did you do? Did you only approach people that you knew?
The work that is the core of this project I started in 2001 when I started asking my neighbors for tours of their Prospect Heights. It was the beginning of my doctoral research, which consists of work I did here and in Oakland.
I did 15 tours in Prospect Heights in the early 2000s and I found people for these tours in a variety of ways. Some, I knew but more frequently I would seek out people to introduce me to others that I did not know. I used a kind of snowball sample – different people acted as hubs, recommending other “tour guides” to me, ensuring that I ended up with a very varied group. Often these “hubs” were people who themselves connected to a wide range of people.
It was all word of mouth. It was a small project and super qualitative. The group of tour guides ranged: people who worked here, lived here, different ages, race, gender and even one teenager.
People were willing and open. I was tapping into something, people are really passionate about this neighborhood. (see below for interview excerpts)
To do the research, I asked people to take me on tours of “their neighborhood”, however they defined it, and I recorded the embodied stories they told along the way. Then I would go back and photograph the places they had taken me to on our walks. Then in a second round I would return to my tour guides with the photographs I had taken of their places, and we would talk further about the images and places.
Why would you conduct a second interview?
I think the second interview was a really important part of it. Just in the fact that people had a second time to talk and spend time with me, building a trust And maybe people are more willing to talk because I have invested time in them. People liked that I had gone back to take pictures of places that were important to them. These walks captured the sense of the place, as subjects bumped into people that they knew. Bumping up against the reality of the place brings out nuances as you move through the space. The flow of the everyday. Sometimes it is hard to talk about what is actually important to you, other than it being where a person goes everyday. Very frequently there is something larger and significant about these everyday places; these places can be a part of people’s sense of self, the way they relate to other people and even the ways they relate to larger politics.
How many hours was this in total, combining the two tours and photography? How much time was invested in each subject?
In total on average about 3 hours each that they spent with me, but with some subjects it was much more.
How did the collaboration between you, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council come together? Was it organic and easy or a lot of work?
I had always wanted to look for a way to bring this work back to the neighborhood that could be exciting for people to see familiar places and get an opportunity to think about them in a different way.
In 2004, Buscada made a short film from these stories and narratives, which was shown in collaboration with one of the first Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) events. In 2014, it was natural to get back in touch with PHNDC to develop Intersection | Prospect Heights together based on our earlier relationship.
Our partnership with Brooklyn Public Library started with asking for space to give a talk and with their enthusiasm and recognition of shared goals, it grew into much more: hosting public programs, displaying guidebooks of the projects, recording oral histories and connecting with their existing oral history initiatives, and finally, creating an archive in the Brooklyn Collection of the project’s recordings and guidebooks for future visitors to the library.
We got grants from New York Council for Humanities, Citizens Community for New York City, Park Place/Underhill Avenue Block Association, Carlton Avenue Block Association, and Council member Laurie Cumbo’s office.
These partnerships evolved very organically.
The Brooklyn Public Library has been very supportive and they will archive the recordings in their Brooklyn Collection.
The subjects in the guidebooks, how were they selected? Their stories were collected over a decade ago. Were they chosen with a current time-frame point of view?
There were specific stories that had long stood out for me, and that I knew I wanted other people to be able to read.
Another aspect was to decide how many stories, and to find the right balance. I was thinking about a number in which you could get a good diversity of experiences. I wanted a cross-section of where people went on their tours with me in the neighborhood and a balance of people who still are in the neighborhood as well as those who have left. Of course, a demographic cross-section of race, class, gender and age was also important. On one hand there is a kind of representative-ness but on the other hand every single one of these people is their own, wonderful, idiosyncratic individual. And I wanted that to come across.
How were the guidebooks host locations selected? The large quantity must be a key to the success of exposure.
The Prospect Heights Development Council approached individual merchants across the neighborhood to participate in the project, as well as North Flatbush, Vanderbilt Avenue and Washington Avenue merchants’ associations. We engaged supermarkets, restaurants, dry cleaners and of course the library, and asked them to host guidebooks for the public to take as well as drop boxes for people’s stories. Some locations hosted popup exhibitions featuring large scale photographs of the neighborhood as well.
Emerging City also joined one of Gabrielle’s tours/creative walks of Prospect Heights.
Emerging City presents 4 salient points of view and stories from Intersection | Prospect Heights
“A couple of years ago, the neighborhood wouldn’t be this quiet. It would be real loud. A lot of people would be out here, on the street, doing stuff. Selling…stuff. People would be talking in front of buildings. Loud music, cars. Now it’s kind of dead. I guess all those people moved out of here.”
David K. 2002, Corner of Lincoln Place & Underhill Avenue
“When I’m walking past, I see this and it’s just gorgeous.
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY and all these figures that are here. I look at this, and think, wow, there used to be creativity in this country. It’s a public library, but you have all these magnificent carvings and sculptures, and all the sayings about the “longing noble things.” I don’t know what the whole thing says, but this is written in stone, this is what we really believe, this is for everyone. You can’t miss this. There isn’t just a little sign saying this is for the public. This is huge, bigger than anybody.”
Tanya 2002, Brooklyn Public Library
“If one thing talks most about community, it’s probably the supermarket. Because of the people there and what they try to do. They do it to make money, granted, but they seem happy to be here, concerned about people, about delivering service to the whole neighborhood. It’s not they came in and decided, “Oh we’re getting rid of the Goya stuff here, you know? We’re going upscale.” No.”
David 2003, Met Food Supermarket
“We used to sit on the porch – we so broke that was the only entertainment we had. Sit on the porch, have a cigarette, say hello to people, give ‘em shots. And we didn’t do it a lot, but we did it enough…”
Julia 2006, St. Mark’s Avenue House
Intersection Creative Walks | This is not a usual tour. This is a tour about stories.
These walks take participants through Prospect Heights, following in the footsteps and reading the words of the people that Gabrielle interviewed and recorded in the early 2000s. As the physical and social components have changed, she shares that currently there are 19,000 people in Prospect Heights. The African-American and Caribbean population has decreased and the number of $100,000+ per family annual income has increased. In addition 13,500 people are expected to arrive in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, the Barclay’s Center housing development, once these buildings are complete in 10 years. This group tour lets us see how Gabrielle conducted those initial personal tours, which radically changed how she feels about the neighborhood.
At the end participants are encouraged to share their stories answering the overarching question “What does this place mean to you?” The tour ends at the Brooklyn Public Library. Our tour (the second of two) consisted of 10 total participants with a varying of time of residency in Prospect Heights, from residents of 16 years to only 1 week.
The interviews currently being conducted at the library are very open-ended and begin with the question, Where is your Prospect Heights? The interviews are open to anyone. Interviews completed to date have included a range as wide as a resident who has lived in the area since the mid 1950’s, to someone who is moving to the area in the coming weeks.
There are various ways that people can contribute their stories:
1. Via online submissions https://inter-section.org/submit
2. Small group conversation recordings at the Brooklyn Public Library
3. Oral history interviews at the Central Branch of Brooklyn Public Library or conducted at the end of the creative walking tours of the Intersection sites https://intersection.youcanbook.me/
4. Via cards left at stands thought the neighborhood with drop boxes
Critical in approaching a project of this type is to consider the various shades of gray that cannot be anticipated in the stories being told and the reactions to those stories. Gabrielle shares that at each of the group discussions held at the Brooklyn Public Library “lots of people are grappling with pride of the neighborhood but there was also a love and lament coming across at the same time. In most stories, people were very conflicted.”
We think this is a positive, as that kind of bipolar feeling and intricate internal and external conflict can only come out in a safe, shared atmosphere. This project has created exactly that. It has built a bridge to learn about someone’s experience and therefore better understand your own through shared stories and conversations. Both may ignite a richer, more inclusive internal dialogue as well.
This important initiative is something that can and should be repeated in neighborhoods worldwide. (See below for 5 salient suggestions from Gabrielle on how to work on a similar project in your area)
The appeal is across so many factors:
(1) Giving voice to the voiceless
(2) Creating a space for communication about tough but increasingly relevant issues of gentrification
(3) Creating an invaluable archive of personal stories of the neighborhood for future residents
What does it mean when cultural sustainability advances for some while atrophying for others. Intersection | Prospect Heights does not assume to pose solutions, yet they take that first critical step in opening a dialogue with the goal of striving towards true understanding.
FIVE SALIENT SUGGESTIONS
Be open to it evolving.
Consider how to use the physical objects of the guidebooks as a way to start dialogue.
Make the project open ended.
Be sure to partner with on-the-ground advocacy and cultural groups
Do a lot of self analysis – ask yourself questions such as are there better ways to engage people? To reach out to displaced people and/or people being pushed out?