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Cooperative! Part 3
by DK Holland
Shrieks of terror, breaking glass and crackling flames erupted in the hot summer night as race riots tore through the troubled neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, right down Fulton Street through Clinton Hill. The New York City-wide blackout of 1977 was a spark landing on loads of tinder and the tinder was exceptionally abundant in this part of Brooklyn.
In the Southeast edge of Clinton Hill (a neighborhood sandwiched between Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene) were the mean streets of Christopher George Latore Wallace and Kimberly Denise Jones (they would grow up to become The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil' Kim). Clinton Hill proper features some of the city's most elegant nineteenth-century mansions (many of which were in a precarious state of decay) and includes Pratt Institute (a historic district within a larger historic district). The riots poured down Fulton Street like wild fire, causing ripple effects: Residents and businesses fled in droves over the following months. This phenomenon was called white flight, as if it only mattered that Caucasians packed their bags and left.
Dilapidated housing stock, drug dealing, street crime, graffiti and poverty all create urban blight; dysfunctions like these stymied New York City's growth back in the 1970s. In desperation Mayor Abe Beame made a plea to the White House for help on behalf of the nation's largest city, a city gone bankrupt. The reply was emblemized on the cover of the Daily News, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
I moved to black Clinton Hill from white Chelsea in Manhattan. It was 1983, just five short years after the riots. I was aware that my new neighborhood, as the rest of the city, was not going to get better without a lot of help. And not anytime soon.
Three decades later Clinton Hill (and other areas of Brooklyn) is conflicted as it gentrifies. They still have a few "candy stores" for "over-the-counter drug purchases" as well as crack houses (there's still one right near where Biggie was born I hear). Recently a parent-run co-op school opened and, since this edgy-but-hip area is now labeled a "food desert" (e.g., lacking good grocery options), there is also a worker-owned-and-operated food co-op as well as a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) and a CSF (Fishery). These cooperative, volunteer ventures are within a few blocks of each other right where Biggie and Lil' Kim once hung out "doin, dealin and rappin" crack. All these co-ops are run by strangers who find they have a common goal. New shops are moving in, new construction has started to fill in empty lots. All this good energy has created gusto and a village feeling, and it's exorcising the ghosts of the riots that have haunted this part of Brooklyn for three decades.
LOOKING OUT FOR EACH OTHER
The best Halloween walk ever takes place each year in the heart of Clinton Hill. It attracts over 5,000 revelers to ghoulish events including a macabre outdoor play (that always ends with candy being tossed to the kids). The Whistle Blow has become a New Year's Eve tradition, also open to all comers. Hundreds of warmly-wrapped neighbors arrive on the lawn of Pratt Institute just before midnight to be serenaded by antique steamboat whistles. They hug and kiss in the huge, dense white plumes of steam the whistles blow off. These events plus Christmas lights, community gardens and improved public schools are all signs of outwardness, very tangible, pro-social cues. They make a joyful and visible statement: We value cooperation, we value community.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson puzzles, "How do you get a city to behave adaptively?" Humans pick up on the positive or negative symbols around us. Wilson adds, "People feel authorized to be disorderly when they are in a disorderly environment." Conversely they are more compelled to cooperate when they sense pride in their environment. This starts with seeing the right visual cues. He explains, "A community is like an organism and when the organism's component parts are contributing to the whole, that is a sign of adaptive behavior."1
IT TAKES SOME VIGILANT VILLAGERS...
Dr. Thomas Schutte has served as president of Pratt, one of the country's leading art and design schools, for the past twenty years. He sensed that changing the visual cues in Clinton Hill would help trigger urban renewal when he took on the restoration of the college's campus in the early '90s.
The general impression of much of Brooklyn back then was that it felt unsafe, as if thieves and murderers were free to roam the streets. Luckily this impression was largely erroneous. Many of Clinton Hill's stakeholders understood that the only way to affect positive change was by racial and economic integration: learning to work together—to cooperate, not to isolate.
MYRTLE AVENUE, CLINTON HILL, BROOKLYN
Myrtle Avenue's skeptical merchants and anxious property owners needed to be organized. Early on in his tenure, the calm and centered Schutte was recruited to chair Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) tasked with jump-starting the transformation of the avenue. MARP's all-volunteer board includes local stakeholders including nonprofits, small business owners, banks, resident-leaders of public housing. Since Myrtle is next to the campus and a major artery in Clinton Hill, this made sense for Pratt.
Myrtle was nicknamed Murder Avenue back when the oppressive Elevated Rail ran above and the Mafia held court below (in their storefront social clubs). Even though the El was torn down in the '70s (it had depressed the avenue since the late 1800s), it was said that Myrtle was a street that had gone too far down to come back up. Schutte helped get the avenue into focus, "We couldn't get sidetracked. We had to reverse the image of the whole community." Of Pratt's campus he says, "We didn't even need a lawnmower back then."
But art emerges from messiness not order. It's rebellious. Back in the '60s the budding and brazen photographer Robert Mapplethorpe went to Pratt and in the '70s Debbie Does Dallas, the infamous student porn film, was filmed illicitly on campus. Graffiti, considered an ersatz artform back then, had emerged in New York, with bold tags defacing the streetscape of Myrtle (not to mention the city in general) much to the dismay of fearful residents and parents of students.