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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.
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.
IT REALLY DOES TAKE A VILLAGE
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
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
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.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS
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
FULTON STREET, CLINTON HILL AND FORT GREENE
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
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.