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Community

Developing Global & Local Communities

In Brownsville, Changing Lives With Creative Skills

Valuable Training Gives Residents a Brighter Future

From The Ground Up Episode 2 of 5

This is one in a series of articles and videos about the revitalization of Brownsville.

The first thing to keep in mind when discussing the neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, is that it's home to nearly 60,000 people, most of whom live in 22 public housing complexes in an area of barely more than one square mile.

That concentration of people, nearly 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line, comes up in many conversations about the challenges facing the neighborhood. Residents and community leaders also mention the fact that the main subway lines run on the outskirts of the neighborhood. And last year, the New York Times reported that nearly half the residents of Brownsville over the age of 16 are not in the labor force.

These and other factors far less easy to pinpoint have meant that unlike some other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, whose fortunes have risen and fallen with the economic times and have fared particularly well in recent years, Brownsville has long demonstrated high crime and poverty rates.

Community leaders say that, without gentrification, the area's current residents have the opportunity and responsibility to take the lead on making changes to their neighborhood.

Involving the citizens of Brownsville, especially the younger ones, in creating a long-term vision for its future is precisely what Quardean Lewis-Allen aims to do. Lewis-Allen, who was born and raised in Brownsville, returned in 2013 after completing a master's degree in architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Shortly thereafter he launched Made in Brownsville with Alan Waxman, whom he had met while at Harvard.

Building Skills to Change the Future

According to Lewis-Allen, the objective of Made in Brownsville is to employ at-risk young people to "increase their access to creative design and innovative technology fields by engaging them in projects that change the narrative around violence, crime and disease."

Current projects include the MGB Pops, an open-air market that runs on Brownsville's Mother Gaston Boulevard in the warmer months and provides a space for entrepreneurs to sell their wares. The group has also worked on local murals and designed flyers for the nearby police precinct.

"You could see us as a design agency," Waxman says, “but instead of just creating a vision for the neighborhood from the outside, it's really to do it from the inside, from the perspectives of the people who live here."

Says Lewis-Allen: "We want to help mitigate the relationship that the young people particularly have with themselves within the context of the neighborhood," says Allen. 'And then try to train them or break some of their habits or fill in the gaps where it's missing, such that they can communicate with the world outside this bubble. I think there's not a lot of space, unless they are actively seeking it, where they can go out and find the kind of space where they engage with the professional world."

Quardean Lewis-Allen
Quardean Lewis-Allen

Across the River and at Home

The bubble of Brownsville can be hard to penetrate. Lewis-Allen recounts a trip the group took to a top advertising agency last year, noting that for many of the participants, who range in age from 14 to 22, it was the first time they had ever been into Manhattan.

Another goal is to help residents feel more invested in their own streets. "We can actually try out different ideas and see the results in the neighborhood," says Waxman, "rather than just making idealistic blanket theories that run the risk of failure."

What does that failure look like in practice? "For instance," says Lewis-Allen, "we're working on a mural design. We compiled ideas and created a design and then came back to the group, and apparently the crown that we drew in the design is a gang symbol. If we didn't go through this process, there would be such a disconnect."

Instead, says Waxman, "the most at-risk population that some would consider the problem are actually the drivers of the solution."

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