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.