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Cooperative! Part 3
by DK Holland

I'm looking up at one of the many sprawling old maple trees on Pratt's campus. Home to over 5,000 students, faculty, staff, a dozen squirrels and cats, the school is famous for its community of ragtag felines who live in the bowels of the steam plant. If you look carefully, you see a tiny doorframe from which these rescued strays emerge. But I've come to feed the squirrels, not to pet the cats. Suddenly I hear an alarmed squeal from high up in the tree. A cat is near. I go further onto campus and on a branch looking intently in the direction of the library another squirrel squats flexing its tail and squealing. As I turn the corner, a grey tabby is snuggling up to a student on the library stairs. Not unlike the phenomena of talking drums that communicate for many miles in Africa, the squirrels coordinate a warning that is broadcast to the entire wild population. It is repeated till the cat retreats to its own territory. The squealing stops, the squirrels relax, come down to feast. I have never seen a dead squirrel—or bird—on campus.

Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, which houses 36,000 adults per square mile, are communities in unique yet precarious positions: Many of their once dilapidated mansions and brownstones are restored multimillion dollar dwellings (some with personal bathrooms the size of studio apartments). Some awkwardly abut tenements with dingy overpriced studio apartments (and a shared bathroom down the hall). Some of these community residents never step out onto the street to meet their neighbors. But all neighbors walk through Clinton Hill, they see the same people all the time, on the way to the subway or the grocery store. And many are stoop sitters (it's a Brooklyn tradition to sit on your front steps and get to know your neighbors). They learn how to communicate. And like the squirrels, this cultivates a protective phenomenon.

In many ways Brooklyn is made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of little villages of differing degrees of functionality. Everyone makes a choice to be part of their village or not; to ignore it support it or tear it down. But those who chose to be part of their village stand to gain tremendously.

Dr. Georgianna Glose has worked in the Myrtle Avenue area since 1968 doing good, devoted to working with the poor. She runs Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership (SNAP) and is on the board of MARP. She says it's hard: Times have changed. Outreach is limited. "When I first got here, there were 30 different organizations that provided information about the neighborhood. Now there are just a handful." While there are endless blogs in Clinton Hill/Fort Greene (early on thought to be the largest concentration in the country), several important and once vital older organizations have gone under or cut back including block associations and the three house and garden tours. They relied on volunteers. It's much harder to get people to help now, to cooperate, to get out on the street or in a meeting now. They just don't have the time. That's what they say. But many more have money now. Recent studies show the well-to-do who live in communities like Clinton Hill are apt to donate more than those who do not live near less advantaged people. They may not want to get to know their neighbors but they can feel their pain. Money is a good way to cooperate.

Where these two rapidly changing communities are headed is on the minds of absolutely everyone here. Communities around the world are at similar crossroads. Wilson says, "Environmental mismatches within the population cause evolutionary leaps, sometimes within a single generation. Since all organisms are products of their environment we are experiencing evolution 'at warp speed.'" We can go either way, produce a society that thrives or decays: Even though we clearly benefit from cooperation, our decisions are often based on fear which can lead to inwardness, self-protection. The direction we will take in the bigger picture depends largely on the degree to which we chose to cooperate or isolate ourselves.

Much of the revitalization of Clinton Hill hinged on Pratt's board of directors who considered moving the campus to Long Island in the 1980s. This would have been a mighty loss: Pratt had been an anchor for the area for well over a century. But, at that point, who could have blamed them? The City had fallen part. While deciding to keep Pratt in Brooklyn was probably based on the realities the board faced, bringing Tom Schutte in to lead Pratt was a major vote of confidence in the community and a positive reinforcement of the ethical origins of the Institute. What was good for Pratt was good for the community and vice versa, even back then. Schutte says, "We opened our doors to all the neighborhood organizations. We believe with our hearts that revitalizing the larger community is very important and we keep that in our focus." Of the 67 BID districts in New York City (including Times Square and 125th Street), the Myrtle BID is acknowledged as one of the most outstanding turnarounds.

A former cow path, and the main artery of that part of Clinton Hill, Fulton slices right through the gridded side streets on an angle—from Bed-Stuy to Clinton Hill through Fort Greene ending in Downtown Brooklyn. Practically overnight, after the riots, the east end of Fulton Street collapsed from a bustling commercial area into a haven for drug dealers. But after three decades, during which several attempts (as on Myrtle) to form a local coalition collapsed, a BID formed named FAB Alliance (Fulton Area Business) was tasked with transforming the part of the commercial strip that runs through Clinton Hill and Fort Greene (Spike Lee and Magic Johnson are among the property owners in the area). When Phillip Kellogg, a former creative director, was offered the job of executive director, he left the agency world, taking a pay cut to return to what he loved most, working on community.

Looking on a map, Kellogg counted seven traffic triangles (and therefore seven open space opportunities) created by Fulton's angle. That first year, FAB hung three-dimensional snowflakes "like jewels on a necklace" at the triangles, in amongst the Christmas lights of Fulton, to celebrate these potential plazas.

In line with Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious strategic PlaNYC2030, which includes creating a more livable and hospitable city, FAB crystalized the idea of two triangle plazas (one in the more affluent Fort Greene and the other in the sketchy east end of Clinton Hill) and called for public hearings on developing each plaza. The residents' response was almost unanimously positive. The city re-routed traffic and blocked off the two triangles and the city's Public Plaza Program put in new surfacing, plantings, huge umbrellas, café tables and chairs. The plaza in Fort Greene, an area that has lots of resident and tourist foot traffic, was instantly embraced: People lounge and dine in the plaza before heading off to any number of local venues. The other triangle, the Putnam Plaza, is larger and has an even greater impact. Neighbors can catch a game of checkers or chess in between doing their laundry. Brown bag lunchers, skateboarders and residents who never had anywhere to sit outside before now lounge in the sun. Museum of Modern Art Outdoors, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Brooklyn Academy of Music have all held events there. Church choirs sing there. Arts and crafts are taught after school. Concerts for tots and moms on Friday mornings are gleeful events during the summer. Stores that had been long suspected of dealing drugs in that area were recently kicked out and new stores are taking their place. Kellogg says, "Property owners realize they have options for alternative tenants, tenants who are better for everyone."With all this positive activity and interest Fulton Street is exhibiting adaptive behavior for the first time in 30 years.

Even though most of the city has rejuvenated, many communities that go downhill never come back up. Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene are all large crazy quilt communities benefiting from a time of relative prosperity, civic engagement-cooperation. But what comes up may come back down. What does it take to get us to cooperate effectively when we are really squeezed? CA

Editor's note: Part four will appear in the next issue.

1.    "The Binghamton Neighborhood Project," David Sloan Wilson.
2.    The Future of Cities, TED Radio Hour.
3.    Ibid. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.