Embedding Histories in a Changing Prospect Heights

It’s not news that gentrification, displacement, and who is able to live where have become the overarching topics of conversation in contemporary New York. But while personal histories often find their way into ensuing arguments, more subtle accounting of the importance of certain establishments and personal landmarks are often left out.

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, principal of interdisciplinary creative practice Buscada, began interviewing her Prospect Heights neighbors in the early 2000s. In the process she gathered a series of evocative descriptions of the often small, sometimes banal aspects of life in that small Brooklyn neighborhood that serve to make it a community. Now, in the aftermath of significant real estate and demographic shifts in the neighborhood, she is introducing these stories to current residents by embedding them in businesses — some still existing, others that took their neighbors’ places — in the form of printed guides to six individuals’ personal Prospect Heights. Along with walks to the locations treasured by these residents, public conversations about the neighborhood today, and an ongoing oral history project, Intersection | Prospect Heights serves to lift the veil of anonymity surrounding conversations on gentrification by grounding them in individual articulations of the value of places that have been or could be lost. Here, Bendiner-Viani describes the impetus for the project and shares eight of the stories at its core.

J.T. 

In 2001, I began asking my neighbors in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to take me on a tour of their neighborhood — however they defined it and wherever that might take us. We walked to the supermarket, their homes, a diner that served up conversation alongside scrambled eggs, a store’s backroom where old friends gathered. I returned to photograph these places, and as we later discussed the photographs, my neighbors often shared new and deeper stories.

These forever changed my experience of the neighborhood. All of a sudden, this place seemed filled with an enriching cacophony of other people’s histories, needs, desires, and hopes. My own landmarks were transformed: a trip to the supermarket was no longer the same, nor was the building in which I got married; my walk back to Prospect Heights on September 11, 2001 became intertwined with neighbors’ memories of the view from Brooklyn.

Grand Army Plaza

Grand Army Plaza

I felt an obligation to honor the stories that had been entrusted to me. I wrote about the importance of walking everyday places and the formation of senses of self, culture, and politics in overlooked spaces. I also wanted others to hear the loud and vibrant neighborhood that I now heard, these layered stories that made clear to me what is at stake in the network of New York’s everyday places.

Years passed. Though I moved away, these stories and images remained my sense of Prospect Heights. At some point, I realized that the neighborhood was no longer the same. Slow processes of time and the flow of individual lives, along with more rapid effects of Atlantic Yards, speculative development, and displacement, had changed it. As public conversation around the many things that fall under the heading of “gentrification” ramped up, I increasingly found the language used to discuss it to be vague, deterministic, and inaccurate — framing the losses that comes with “neighborhood change” as regrettable but inevitable, even “natural.”

Map showing locations identified in the oral histories collected and locations where guidebooks with those stories can be picked up.

Along with the neighborhood, the reason to share my “tour guides’” stories had shifted. With the intention of making space for more specific, grounded, and nuanced conversations that call attention to real experiences of what is valued and what can be lost, I started the Intersection | Prospect Heights project in partnership with the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and Brooklyn Public Library. Through a series of pop-up exhibitions, public conversations, walks, new oral history recordings, and “guidebooks” sharing those places my tour guides showed me, the project brings voices from the not-too-distant past into dialogue with the neighborhood of today.

Most of these Prospect Heights stories were told before debate around, and development of, Atlantic Yards got underway, and certainly before the advent of Pacific Park. They were told before wholesale purchase of property and violent evictions of residents in nearby Crown Heights became commonplace. They were told before the majority of Bloomberg’s incentives for large-scale development took effect and before the de Blasio administration’s proposals for neighborhood rezonings across the city. Yet, the project is about all of these, just as it is about creating opportunities to share the similar or different experiences of other neighborhoods.

The project has hosted two public conversations about place and one tour thus far, and throughout the fall will continue to put on creative walking tours and gather stories from both current and former residents of Prospect Heights, online and in person. I hope that the dialogue sparked lets others hear the rich landscape I first found so valuable ten years ago and fulfills some of the promise of author Neil Postman’s formulation: “In learning about difference, we become less afraid and therefore more courageous. In learning about commonalities, we become more hopeful.”

Read on for eight personal stories from six current or former residents of Prospect Heights.

Intersection | Prospect Heights walking tour, with readings of collected stories | Photo courtesy of Buscada

In 2002, David K. was 15 and had lived in Prospect Heights all his life.

“The perfect thing” — David K., 2002
Lincoln Place & Underhill Avenue

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.

Gus lives on the fourth floor, Lashawn lives on the third floor, and Dblock — his real name is Christian — lives here.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.

Lincoln Place. A lot of people be out here at night on the corner. It’s kind of not the safest block to be on, but I know people over here, so it’s not that bad. My friend Gus lives in this building; the building’s kind of nice. Most of my friends live here. Gus lives on the fourth floor, Lashawn lives on the third floor, and Dblock — his real name is Christian — lives here.

I know them all from Met’s — they used to come and pack. Me and Gus, we played basketball and started talking and hanging out. That’s how we became friends. We went to see Paid in Full together. We try to get girls and stuff…we do a lot of things…we just hang out.

Look at this! Isn’t this like the perfect thing? See the stairs? And the key, you can’t go and just cut the key. You gotta buy it. Eighty dollars. Cause it’s one of those buildings that you get from the government. “Building being protected by government enforcement agency.”

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Julia

In 2003, Julia had lived in Prospect Heights for 20 years. She still lives in the neighborhood.

“The fence” — Julia, 2006
St. Marks Avenue

People had signs up — Atlantic Yards pro and con — who’s a fool, you’re a fool, they’re a fool. “You say you’re for affordable housing, how you can be for affordable housing if you’re not for this project?” “You think there’s actually going to be affordable housing in this project?!”

We were saying that we used to be nicer, and I said, well, we used to have less money.Friends of mine and I, on opposite sides of the argument, see each other and we’re like, “We used to be more friendly.” And we couldn’t figure out what to do about being more friendly.

And I said, smile more; what I’ll do is I’ll sit on my porch more, I said, you sit on your porch more. We used to sit on the porch — we were 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…

And the other thing that we did on St Marks, if you have old clothes, you hang them over your fence. When people say, “Where did you get that outfit?” I go, “From the fence.” Those shoes? From the fence.

But it sort of faded away. It’s less and less.

We were saying that we used to be nicer, and I said, well, we used to have less money.

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

“This says we fought” — Julia, 2003
Grand Army Plaza

This is Grand Army Plaza. The park was here, Grand Army Plaza was here, before everything else came. The statue is a phenomena — I’ll tell you why. You stand on the right hand side, facing the arch, lower bottom is an African American with a gun. That’s phenomenal. That says we trust. That says America. It blew me away when I figured it out. And it’s just a casual little thing. You wouldn’t catch it. It says we fought. We were there [in the Union army]. Everyone says oh, I don’t know…I say, No. He put his life on the line! Because running away could have seriously been an option.

In 2002, Tanya had lived in Prospect Heights for 15 years. Soon after, she moved to New Jersey.

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Tanya

“What we really believe” — Tanya, 2002
Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch

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.

You see people standing outside, waiting for the place to open, even on freezing cold days. Because it’s a Mecca, it’s a place people like to go to. I mean, you see all kinds of people in there.

It’s for everybody, you know? It’s very accessible. The public library at 42nd street isn’t. Yes, you can look at the lions. You sit on the steps. But do you go in? Whereas here, you sit on the steps, you have your kids screaming and playing and it’s not a big deal. And it’s a nice looking building.

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Inside Georges, later renamed The Usual, a Prospect Heights restaurant

“It doesn’t have to be a big thing that you do” — Tanya, 2002
Georges / The Usual, 637 Vanderbilt Avenue

I really like this place. You hear people talking, joshing around… It’s a very mixed crowd in here, race, sex, age. You see people from all different backgrounds. Cops come in here, Sanitation, park police, plumbers, accountants, politicians, and you hear people talking trash…it’s funny!

Here in New York…America…you have this thing about being somebody of a certain level, the doctor, the lawyer, the Wall Street whatever. And you have people here who have a life, they run a luncheonette, and they make people happy. It appeals to me very viscerally.

It makes me realize, yeah, you need some money, but you don’t need to be just chasing a dollar, to the exemption of everything else. It doesn’t have to be a big thing that you do…

I feel that they love it, and that makes me like it, also. If I’m in a bad mood and I come in here, I walk out in a better mood. It’s just the place. It’s comfortable, you know?

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Mike

In 2002, Mike had run a long-time family business in Prospect Heights for eight years. It closed in 2015.

“We can talk about anything in here” — Mike, 2002
Georges / The Usual, 637 Vanderbilt Avenue

This is the most important place in the neighborhood… It’s not like any other place, not because it’s mine, well maybe it is because it’s mine, because we can talk about anything in here. And with girls, guys, you can talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll, politics, anything. You know you can talk about anything and it makes you feel good.

There’s all the lingo here, the noise. “Two eggs scrambled!” you know? “Georges!” People wake up every morning, we know them, “Good morning, good morning.” That’s all that’s said, and we know what they want. Coffee or a butter roll. Or, “No no, not today.”

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Georges / The Usual

Especially older people. 286 Park Place, 299 Park Place, 366 Park Place. 99 St Marks, 166 St Marks. Everyday day they call. They’re little old ladies, little old men. We won’t see them all winter. As soon as spring comes, we see them.

Sports in this neighborhood is huge! So, sports is the topic, and whatever’s in the newspaper. Me, I’ll do anything to get somebody to laugh. It could go anywhere, this conversation. But – when we first opened up this store, it was OJ crisis. I put up a sign: “The subject of OJ is strictly prohibited.” Because it’s going to end up black and white. I’m white, you’re black! I don’t want it to go there. I talk about it in Manhattan, that’s where it goes, I talk about it in Bay Ridge, that’s where it goes.

I have a business to run. It’s not a discussion, it’s an argument. Make noise, who cares, but if there’s gonna be an argument, especially between black and white, I’m not about that.

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

David

In 2003, David had lived in Prospect Heights for 25 years. He still lives in the neighborhood.

“A place that talks most about this community” — David, 2003
Met Foods Supermarket, 632 Vanderbilt Avenue

Talk about capturing the sense of the neighborhood, Met Foods. “You’re homebound, don’t worry, call us and we’ll get you what you need.” I haven’t heard of that since I first came to New York to visit my aunt in 1958. I just wish she could be here to enjoy it. She died with a Bloody Mary in her hand. Mixed it, sat down, boom.

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Met Foods

If one thing talks most about this 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 that they came in and decided, “Oh, we’re getting rid of the Goya stuff here, you know? We’re going upscale.” No.

It’s what made this neighborhood for us. 25 years ago we got very lucky on the house, but really it’s the fact that it’s a comfortably mixed neighborhood. Now, I can’t pull down my veil of ignorance… I’m part of the dominant society, but it just feels to me like a comfortably mixed neighborhood.

Photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

Neville and mural outside of electronics store

In 2001, Neville had lived and owned a business in Prospect Heights for 24 years. He lost his building and moved that year to East New York.

“The store hasn’t been touched” — Neville, 2001
641 Vanderbilt Avenue

The man who owned this place was one of my best friends — he was in the electronics business like me — but he died a few years ago. Before he died, all his friends — he was a cricketer in the West Indies, and his friends were his old cricketers — we used to get together on Thursday afternoons in the back of the shop, and have a big party, food, drinking, eating. Even now, although the store is boarded up, it’s still the same inside, all the screws, nuts and bolts on the shelves, untouched. Every Thursday, like today, we still have the party. He went to the hospital for a check-up and they found something. When they operated, he died. The store hasn’t been touched. If I need anything, I’m short of anything, instead of buying it, I get it from him.

Kiosk

Intersection | Prospect Heights kiosk in Met Foods

To learn more about the Intersection | Prospect Heights project or to submit your own story, visit inter-section.org. All stories will be archived by the Brooklyn Public Library and will become a part of the second phase of the project in 2016.

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani is principal of Buscada, a design, art, and critical research studio focused on place and civic dialogue. She is a professor of urban studies and public art at the New School in New York and holds a PhD in Environmental Psychology from the Graduate Center, CUNY. She has published widely and her work has been shown at institutions including MIT, Tate Britain, the Center for Architecture New York, and the Sheila Johnson Design Center.

Unless otherwise noted, all images by the author.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.



Leave a Reply