Disciplined Disrupters: Finding Solutions in Brownsville

Since 2011, Community Solutions, a national non-profit founded by Rosanne Haggerty, has been working to empower communities to develop their own systems-level solutions to complex social challenges. The stated goal of their many different projects and initiatives is to “change public systems so that homeless families and individuals can get the transformative help they need at a lower public cost.” Their work, however, touches many different individuals, not only the chronically underhoused.

The organization’s success in realizing its vision (and its distinctiveness amongst its institutional peers) could be attributed to how thoroughly embedded Community Solutions is in the neighborhoods it serves, leveraging the goals and resources of hundreds of likeminded partner organizations to form a network of individuals and institutions working across scales, disciplines, and sectors.

In Brooklyn, two Community Solutions projects — one national, the other locally based  — are teaming up to work with residents of Brownsville on a sustained effort to turn around a neighborhood suffering from cyclical poverty and its many symptoms. Rasmia Kirmani-Frye is the director of one of these initiatives, the Brownsville Partnership, comprised of a growing confederation of individuals, community groups, and city agencies that are facilitating and rallying around change in Brownsville. The Partnership is a grass-roots organization with a deep knowledge of and commitment to Brownsville’s residents. It aims to provide a framework for helping those residents to identify and implement improvements to their neighborhood. Nadine Maleh is the director of Inspiring Places, a program of Community Solutions that provides planning, architectural, and real estate development services to communities in Northeast Hartford, CT, and New Orleans, LA, in addition to its work with the Partnership in Brownsville. In the conversation below, Kirmani-Frye and Maleh share more about both these groups and their ongoing collaboration with residents of Brownsville. — G.S.

Tilden Houses and elevated tracks on Livonia Avenue
Gabriel Silberblatt (GS):

How do you describe Brownsville to people who don’t know the community?

Rasmia Kirmani-Frye (RF):

Brownsville is dense and populous, but it’s very disconnected — in multiple senses of the word — from the rest of Brooklyn and the rest of New York City. And it’s also disconnected physically and geographically. If you’re in a car driving down Eastern Parkway and you make a right turn on Howard Avenue or Saint Johns, you literally dip into this valley, and the valley is Brownsville. It feels like you’re somewhere else. It feels far away and isolated. That sense is absolutely enhanced by the architecture — Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing in North America. With tower after tower after tower after tower, it becomes very disorienting. Where’s the train station? Where’s Downtown Brooklyn? It’s almost like being in farmland in the middle of Ohio, cornfield after cornfield, but where is Cleveland? That’s why I’ve sometimes described Brownsville as “urban-rural.”

Nadine Maleh (NM):

Historically that has always been the case with Brownsville. It’s always been talked about as “far away,” yet also not as a destination, as Canarsie or Coney Island were for their proximity to the water.

GS:

And the prevalent narrative about Brownsville is still its reputation as a violent, dangerous place with a lot of public housing.

RF:

You can’t deny the fact of the crime statistics; they’re true, and it would not be in the service of the community to ignore them. However, there is a counter-narrative that’s beginning to bubble up, which is not defined by crime. Brownsville is not a transient place — most of the people who live here have been here for generations. With that comes pride, a deep knowledge of the community, and a vision for what people want to see. And they want jobs and connection — and even bike lanes. A 75-year-old local resident was the person who called for bike lanes connecting the community to Prospect Park. And those bike lanes are now here.

NM:

Despite the realities of crime and robust unemployment, there are families supporting their children through school. And those kids are graduating and getting jobs. So despite a lot of obstacles that people face, there’s a lot of really incredible strength and success.

New bike lanes on Mother-Gaston Blvd.
GS:

Brooklyn’s “Renaissance” in the last 20 years has largely not applied to Brownsville. Why is that, and what does it mean for Brownsville in the next 10 to 15 years?

RF:

There are a lot of factors, but one major one has to do with the sheer concentration of public housing. That has really been an anti-magnet for outside investment and gentrification. I am often asked if I think that gentrification is coming to Brownsville, which is a fair question considering the immense change that has happened in nearby Crown Heights over the past five years. In my opinion, Brownsville is not in danger of experiencing that kind of transformation in the near future. But to be clear, I am not saying it’s a trivial concern for local residents — there is a lot of fear here that Brownsville will be gentrified, public housing will be cleared, and people will be displaced. And I definitely understand that fear. But I think the gentrification of the rest of Brooklyn can do one of two things to Brownsville: it can further isolate the neighborhood and reinforce this “tale of two cities” narrative, or it can provide a springboard and a rallying point for the community to say, “we want that, but we want to control it.” As data becomes more and more readily available, Brownsville residents will ask: why is the high school graduation rate going up in Crown Heights? We want that. Why is Bed-Stuy’s crime going down? We want that. Those things don’t have to mean gentrification in terms of displacement; they can mean positive community development from within. And the Brownsville Partnership is really investing in that possibility for the neighborhood.

GS:

What do you feel will be the key to controlling that transformation process in Brownsville?

RF:

It has to start with investment in the capability and capacity of local residents. If you ask, and stick around long enough to listen, residents can tell you what the problems are, and they can often give you the solutions as well. Paying attention to those conversations and going from there is how you build trust. Then it becomes an opportunity to find a place or the resources to convene and implement those solutions and move the discussion forward.

The big question for the new administration is whether there is a real commitment to disrupt systems that aren’t working.
NM:

Community Solutions brings that organizational structure to the table. We’re finding and coordinating the neighborhood’s latent assets, be they buildings or people, which can be translated into solutions for the community.

GS:

What does this community engagement process look like?

RF:

Well it starts with conversations with residents, which have produced some really essential and revealing questions, such as, what does it mean that Brownsville hasn’t been rezoned in 60 years? And why is that important to residents? Why can’t Betsy Head Park be like Madison Square Park? Do they want to know how to talk about urban planning? What have other communities facing similar problems done?

Last year we organized our HOPE Summit in response to questions like these. The idea was to offer Brownsville residents and friends of Brownsville an all day opportunity to gather community input about safety concerns and discuss community revitalization through facilitated dialogue and planning activities. Aside from cataloguing a bunch of really great ideas, I think the HOPE Summit also helped address a prevailing sense of apathy in Brownsville that has built up because people feel ignored and have heard the word “No” over and over again.

Planning workshops at the HOPE Summit | photo courtesy of Sheryl Ann Photography
NM:

More than 200 people came to the Summit. It taught us a lot about what people really want to see and gave us some ideas about how we might start responding to the community’s needs. That is where the idea for one of our current projects, a new multi-use community space at 519 Rockaway, came from — people want a place that’s safe and positive, that’s not affiliated with any particular gang’s turf, where they can go to just sit down and have a cup of coffee. It will not only be a place for counseling, or somewhere to go because you’re in crisis, but also just a casual gathering place. And there are so many vacant or underutilized lots in the neighborhood that can be put to this kind of use. Locals would also love to have a sit-down restaurant or a market. We responded to an RFP from the Economic Development Corporation and were approved to develop a lot for commercial use  Our goal is to revitalize the small commercial corridor surrounding the project site with artisans and specialty crafters so that it will become a city-wide destination for unique items.

These kinds of projects are really where Rasmia’s and my teams, the Brownsville Partnership and Inspiring Places, have been working together in a meaningful way. I feel very strongly that the real estate work that we’re doing is in the service of the community and responding directly to the Partnership’s work.

519 Rockaway Avenue, a building recently purchased by the Brownsville Partnership | via Google Street View
GS:

What is the importance of physical transformation in the work that you do?

RF:

It takes a lot of different forms, and really cuts horizontally across everything we do. At the smaller end of the spectrum are the quick “visible interruptions” in a community that change the way people interact with their space. For example, we created way-finding signage through the Brownsville Houses, using photos and text of statements by residents, to help differentiate buildings that otherwise look the same. We were able to do that through a New York State Department of Health grant to create a walking trail, only instead of tracing a path through nature we did it through public housing. The signage helps you know where you are and reconnect with the street grid, and I think it’s a really great example, a very physical embodiment, of how we interact with the residents.

Another example is our senior walking group. That may sound like a benign activity, but when you have 60 seniors walking down the streets, en masse, it immediately changes the way that street is perceived from a public safety perspective.

New way-finding signage through the Brownsville Houses
NM:

The goal of the work Inspiring Places does is to build on this foundation, to capitalize on the physical impact on the neighborhood the Brownsville Partnership has already initiated. When the Partnership worked with GrowNYC to bring a Youthmarket to Brownsville, a big part of the impetus for that was to improve public health and unemployment [NB: Youthmarkets bring fresh produce into underserved communities, as well as employ and provide small-business skills for local youth. -Ed.]. But the market at Livonia and Rockaway is creating a physical transformation at that intersection as well. The corner was notoriously plagued by gang-related violence, but now there’s this very positive, emerging activity on the street. It is right at the subway station as well, which makes it an important gateway to the community.

Let’s convene the solutions, invest in what people say they want and need, look for the bright spots, look for leaders, and hire people from the community.
NM:

So expanding on this momentum, Inspiring Places is about to conduct a feasibility study with tenants and with NYCHA for a lot directly behind where the Youthmarket is, to bring some more permanent commercial activity and additional housing to that area. It’s exciting because the potential development site is adjacent to public housing, and can be incorporated — possibly even physically integrated — into that context, and could offer ground floor retail, which is something that NYCHA’s charter explicitly prohibits. We’re currently in the process, with the Brownsville Partnership, to get feedback from tenants of that particular NYCHA development, to ask if this project makes sense to them and to ask what type of retail they would want to see.

RF:

Every community deserves beauty. And I think every community can envision what that beauty looks like to them, and how it could transform their neighborhoods. But we always hear it from the community development side, and it has to come from the architectural side as well. All communities deserve good design and can actually have a conversation about what good design looks like.

NM:

Yes, it’s so important for the architecture community to be engaged in these issues. There does not need to be, and there should not be, a divide between high design and community work for architects. I think it’s really, really essential that those are more connected.

Youthmarket at Livonia and Rockaway
GS:

So much of the Brownsville Partnership’s success seems to be based on how embedded it is in the community. How do you maintain that while bridging the gap to the municipal governance level? How do you make the leap from residents who have their own set of issues, priorities, time constraints, to making progress on a more macro level?

RF:

It involves balancing a lot of delicate partnerships. You can’t work in Brownsville and not consider NYCHA a partner – or the Departments of Transportation, Health, Parks, Buildings or the Economic Development Corporation. We constantly ask ourselves how best to satisfy a relationship with a municipality while simultaneously staying loyal to the relationship that we have with the community. Sometimes it creates tension, and you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and work through that stuff.

I’ll use NYCHA as an example. We have worked really hard to develop a relationship with NYCHA at all levels – top to bottom; and are so proud of where that relationship is going. Our mobilization team, which works with families to prevent evictions, also seeks out relationships with their management offices for individual developments, as well as with their social services offices. That has opened up the discourse between residents and NYCHA at a different level. Now the conversation is not only being filtered through ten association presidents, or through the authority’s Community Engagement Department, but by residents themselves having direct conversations with upper or mid-level management. We can’t wait to see the relationship with NYCHA flourish under the new administration.

GS:

What policies, initiatives, or ideas would you like to see Mayor de Blasio pursue to build on the recent momentum in Brownsville?

RF:

There are a lot of really important questions that need to be addressed. How can the NYPD work better in Brownsville? Currently we’re an “impact zone,” which means that Brownsville gets flooded with rookie cops every year. [This interview was conducted prior to the Mayor and Police Commissioner’s recent announcement that they plan to end “Operation Impact,” the training program in question, and replace it with a more traditional approach in which new officers would first be placed in local precincts. -Ed.] This is a high crime area, everybody’s afraid: the residents are afraid, the rookies are afraid. That’s not a great combination. So how can the police department be supported to do its work in a way that’s respectful of residents? And then with NYCHA, how are we going to deal with the maintenance issues and preserve this housing stock that is really the last bastion of affordable housing?

NM:

More generally, and this is not just about Brownsville, I think systems need to change so that resources are aligned more properly with the needs of people. Those kinds of changes would not cost the city more money, but they would be an enormous disruption to the status quo.

RF:

We often call ourselves and our partners “disciplined disrupters.” The big question for the new administration is whether there is a real commitment to disrupt systems that aren’t working. And if the answer to that is yes, then let us show you what systems aren’t working for folks in Brownsville.

So many times, people fall in love with the same problem over and over and over and over. What would happen if we spent all that energy falling in love with the solutions that residents can identify, and investing in that capability to create neighborhood transformation? Brownsville is a community of incredible problem solvers, because that’s what people are doing here every day. So let’s convene the solutions, invest in what people say they want and need, look for the bright spots, look for leaders, and hire people from the community.

I’m optimistic. You can’t do this work and not be optimistic. Sometimes it’s exhausting, but I’m always optimistic.

HOPE Summit attendees | photo courtesy of Sheryl Ann Photography

Nadine Maleh is the Director of Inspiring Places, responsible for the development of supportive housing and community development through local partnerships and the implementation of strategic development initiatives that support the mission of Community Solutions. Nadine’s experience in planning, design, and construction supervision for housing projects includes sustainable design, program development, and the integration of health concerns into building design. Nadine has been responsible for overseeing the design and development of more than 1,000 units of affordable housing, over 800 of which were built sustainably. Nadine earned her BA in architectural studies from Tufts University and her Masters of Architecture with Honors from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Rasmia Kirmani-Frye is the Director of the Brownsville Partnership, managing a Brownsville-based staff of 20, and providing overall strategic vision and guidance to the Partnership. Rasmia is a founding staff member of the Partnership and began working in Brownsville in 2008 as Director of Programs and Operations. Prior to joining the Partnership, Rasmia was a New York City-based independent researcher and consultant working with community based organizations and government entities. Rasmia has worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn, where she has lived for the last 18 years. She received her BA in Urban Studies from the College of Wooster; her MS in Urban and Public Policy from the Milano Graduate School, New School University where she is currently a PhD candidate.