Brooklyn at Eye Level

These days the newsfeed about Atlantic Yards is a little bit quieter than it has been. But, in certain parts of New York City, mere mention of the project still amounts to fightin’ words. For the past six years, it seemed every hot-button urban issue – density, scale, historic preservation, community benefits agreements, eminent domain, the MTA, Olympic aspirations, job creation, gentrification, racism – was somehow implicated in this controversial project. The groups supporting or protesting the project seemed incapable of speaking the same language, much less seeing eye to eye.

Talking to New Yorkers is easy. New Yorkers have opinions. And often, they’re ready to share. When the topic is neighborhoods – those places where buildings, family, identity, money and politics intersect – people have, well, a lot to say. Why, then, is community engagement so tricky? Many attempts to formalize a process of soliciting the advice and identifying the priorities of residents result in frustration and misinterpretation if not outright mutual incomprehensibility and protest. Sometimes it takes artists – unaffiliated with the institutional agendas that drive development projects and often cleave communities into warring factions of stakeholders – to rise above the fray and invite disputing voices into dialogue.

The Civilians is a theater company whose creative process begins with broad-based, face-to-face investigation into real life. They pound the pavement, interview experts and passersby on the topic at hand – current and past Civilians’ productions range from a play about the Evangelical Christian community of Colorado Springs to one about climate change – then they perform monologues culled and collated from interview tapes, and mash the material up with music and dance. For the past year, the Civilians have been looking at all aspects and viewpoints on the Atlantic Yards development proposal as an inroad to broader urban issues of home and neighborhood change in New York City. In December, they transformed their research and interpretations into the multi-disciplinary performance project, Brooklyn at Eye Level. In this piece, two members of the Civilians’ creative team, Michael Premo and Colleen Werthmann, share with us their singular process and offer us a quick peek at the performance. This just might contain lessons for a new paradigm of how to engage and really hear each other.

–Cassim Shepard
Project Director,
Urban Omnibus

For watchdog blogging on Atlantic Yards, going back four years, check out Atlantic Yards Report.

To stay up to date on the Civilians’ process and productions, check out their site.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Norman Oder February 25, 2009

I enjoyed watching Brooklyn at Eye Level, and I enjoyed the video above. But the Civilians’ admirable effort–the first performance was launched in a matter of weeks–is, by their own explanation, hardly definitive.

My commentary on the show:

And, at some point, it’s not a question of dialogue, it’s a question of facts. For example:

Caron Atlas March 2, 2009

Thank you, Urban Omnibus, for highlighting the role that theater can play as a catalyst for community dialogue and action. As program director for the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Initiative on Arts & Community Change, I appreciate that your web site is including the arts as an integral part of your conversation.

Brooklyn At Eye Level is a good example of how theater can bring people together in a creative process of civic engagement. While at first I questioned whether a play could have no point of view, it reminded me that one of the powers of art is that it can hold multiple perspectives without neutralizing them. The Civilians took great care to learn about the community, talk with a wide range of people, and listen carefully to concerns about their project. I experienced this first hand in the lively conversation we had with them at the Pratt Center.

In the end, seeing the show in Brooklyn surrounded by the people living its story, inspired by the community artists who joined the Civilians on stage, and participating in the dialogue afterwards with neighborhood activists, all made for a strong experience of community building. Brooklyn at Eye Level did in fact have a point view: to make visible and celebrate those who care enough about their communities to become actively engaged in them.

The project also created — starting with the interviews, continuing into the performance and the post show conversations, and now onto this website — an inclusive forum to talk about critical issues of development, public policy, and transparency. I agree with Norman Oder that the play wasn’t definitive, and that dialogue can only go so far. But while it may not have offered an in depth analysis of the root causes and strategies related to these issues, it hopefully moved people to get engaged and learn more. The thorough research and thoughtful analysis that Norman Oder includes in his blog would be a good place for them to start.

Pam Newton March 3, 2009

I had never heard of the Civilians, but this project reminds me of some other recent theatre, which combines performance with a kind of anthropological field research and journalistic reporting. Anna Deveare Smith was really the first to popularize this approach. She interviews people connected to major political events – the Crown Heights incident or the LA riots – and then performs their words verbatim in a series of monologues. Similarly, Danny Hoch has been doing politically charged one-man shows for years, where he enacts a series of characters based on real people, often in connection with controversial issues. His most recent show at the Public, Taking Over, has a lot in common with this Civilians project: it is about the tensions surrounding the gentrification of Williamsburg. But a couple things strike me as unique about this Civilians show: one is the incorporation of dance, movement, and music into the monologues, which adds an invigorating element. Another is the presence of a community of performers on stage. A nice change from the one-person shows which abound lately. It is refreshing to see a group of performers working together to create dialogue and address issues, and without imposing a specific political agenda. I’m excited to know they’re out there. Thanks for the video.