Walking together in Brooklyn: Alterity, gentrification and data privacy

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Contributors (in alphabetical order): Anonymous 1;, Fayard, A-L.; Stefan; M; Statler, M; de Vaujany, FX.

On October, 25th 2019, we had the opportunity of a first Open Walked Event-Based Experimentation (OWEE) in the US. The idea of an OWEE is very simple: gathering a group of people who, for most of them, have never met, and co-producing a collective walk along with some analysis about it. An OWEE has thus no particular ‘objective’. It is a drift (“derive”) in a public space, sometimes intertwined with visits of third-spaces or collaborative spaces which are a way to explore further or differently the area around.

The topic of this collaborative learning expedition was Brooklyn, with the general and vague idea to explore its invisible frontiers and atmospheres, and grasp some aspects of the gentrification process here.

  1. FROM CARROLL GARDENS TO BUSHWICK: DESCRPTION OF OUR WALK

 

The event has first been announced five weeks ago on social networks and had also been signaled with an Eventbrite link. At this stage, it was just an idea, an empty shell. Then, a couple of first directions were put on line by Anne-Laure, Matt and François. Two people registered also sent feedbacks about what could be done (e.g. going beyond Atlantic center or the Navy Yard - exploring Bushwick area). And two weeks before the event, a more detailed document including a description of the spirit of our learning expeditions (OWEE) and a general idea about our itinerary from Carroll Gardens was put on line. The document emphasized the idea of co-production and improvisation. This would not be a “touristic tour” of Brooklyn.  The hashtag set up for this event was #OWEEBrooklyn.

 

9.30 AM: Meeting point at Carroll Park in Brooklyn in the area of Carroll Gardens

We were not the only ones! Huge lines of parents waiting for the Halloween costumes parade of PS 58, a public school in Caroll Gardens, A participant who has lived in the area for more than 10 years explains: “I remember my first parade (in October 2006). This was much more informal and there was definitely no line (it was still an experiment at the time; it has become an institution!).”

 

We get to know each other. A dozen of people have joined us (30 registered). Mainly academics, but also an architect, two artists (a film-maker and an art teacher) and an entrepreneur. Some have lived in Brooklyn for several years. Others arrived recently (i.e. two month ago). Others have only been occasionally to Brooklyn. One never. Great variety of points of view? One participant shares with us: “Coming from working in the fashion industry for almost 20 years, it was refreshing to meet other professionals in other industries that I wouldn’t normally meet in my usual business environment and hear their point of views from their particular perspectives. I think as humans we innately want to connect and belong. This was a curious way to do so that was really enjoyable.”

We are brainstorming on the itinerary... What does it mean to 'lead' such an excursion?  One could lead by knowing where to go...or by not knowing where to go but knowing where we are...or by not knowing where to go or exactly where we are...the element of randomness or chaos may add a bit of generativity to the process, so while we may consider and compare several 'plans' i.e., plan A, plan B, etc., still we remain open to whatever we may encounter, allowing these encounters to shape and bend our path, leading to a destination that we refuse to identify or predict in advance.  After several minutes of discussion, plan B, i.e., Bushwick "won". At this stage, the idea was that it may not be our final destination (Navy Yards).

Off towards Gowanus via Union Street. Pause on the bridge: they are digging in the canal. The smell is persistent. One of us tells the story of Gowanus canal. Apparently the Gowanus was the most prized hunting grounds of the indigenous Lenape Algonquin people, reserved for the chief.  Dredged by slaves of Dutch settlers, used and abused by industry, then plugged and mostly abandoned. Today it's a super fund but this does not developers to build expensive condominiums and people to live there. He shares a story of ecological tensions: on the roof of the Whole Food store, a block away, Gotham Greens, produces organic fruits and vegetables.  A construction project, a big backhoe scoop on a barge, dredging up black slimy dirt from the bottom of the canal...careening with the weight - who would authorize such an activity?  Why only there?  How is it connected with the Superfund cleanup efforts (see:  http://gowanussuperfund.com/).

 

Next stop towards Nevin Street (nearby Warren) by a NYCHA development / project.

This next step is an opportunity to make visible important social issues made invisible by the gentrification process. 1 out of 14 New Yorkers live in NYCHA housing. Indeed, more than 400,000 New Yorkers reside in NYCHA's 325 public housing developments across the City's five boroughs.  Several discussions between participants took place - one around public housing. NYCHA was created in 1935. The first agency in the US. and the largest in the country. Funded by the federal government, the state and the city.... Interesting to see how these buildings have become visible to me as I started working on a research project involving NYCHA residents - making these buildings more than "the projects".

The city as a palimpsest - layers of perception, stories we hear, we make and we share.

 

As we walk, sharing a story about the "Power of Light" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a young boy and girl living in the ruins of bombed Warsaw, inspired in the dark and freezing cold by a meal and a candle on the first night of Hannukah to escape through the sewer, run into the forest, join the partisans, then walk to the coast of Yugoslavia to catch a boat that takes them, the first Jewish refugees to be successfully liberated from Nazi Europe, to the Holy Land, where they are celebrated and settled, recounting the story years later to the author on the last night of Hannukah as they play with a dreidel they had brought with them from the forests of Poland.

 

A participant makes a comment about something he read: that the homeless people in NY could all be housed in the empty units of NYCHA developments (this was a comment made at least five years ago by a friend working in the mayor's office...indeed it seems the vacancy rate has declined since then). That triggered my curiosity as what I've read / heard several times was that with all the empty apartments in NY (especially in recent years the expensive high rises) could be housed (see http://picturethehomeless.org/project/homeless-people-count-vacant-property-in-manhattan/). I found an article talking about how the vacancy rates have fallen down at NYCHA but that there were also many under occupied apartments (e.g. a family with children and the children are grown up and leave, see https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/12/the-hidden-rooms-within-new-yorks-public-housing/548198/)

 

As we walk groups form and dissolve along / around conversations. As for past other collaborative learning expeditions, each of us as some specific expectations. Each of us is sometimes paradoxical, enjoying a co-produced walk, but expecting at some point an expert comment and a more controlled temporality... A participant shares at this stage: “I expected a more informational tour but I like the concept and it turns out that the most important part of the day is getting to know my walking fellows and talking about interesting topics (most of which have little to do with Brooklyn).”

BAM - a stop in front of the new bookstore. Great to see a bookstore but why do we "need" a membership asked one of us. The BAM as an institution, as a place where I love going... but as one of the participants )who loves the BAM as much as I do)  told me later on, it's interesting how we don't notice around and within the BAM... extensions, commercialization of this cultural institution.

The huge apartment buildings going up all around in downtown Brooklyn.  Who is living there?  Whose investments make these developments possible?  How will the existing urban infrastructure handle the tens of thousands of people who would live in these skyscrapers?  Where do the people who are displaced by these developments go?  What's the current status of the Atlantic Yards development?

 

We continue on Lafayette Avenue.

Conversations between three participants about Airbnb. A participant explained how she does not like Airbnb and how it has killed all neighborhoods of downtown Athens and increased the prizes. Interesting: this critical conversation about Airbnb is recurrent in other walks that we organized in Europe (e.g. in Lisbon, Berlin, Rome and Paris). Other cities are mentioned - Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Berlin... Of course, the money helps people who rent (some more than others) but what are the long term implications and repercussions? I have been thinking a lot about system thinking (not so) recently. Again it seems like a meaningful lens. Interesting also that Airbnb’s popularity is for travelers seeking authentic ‘neighborhood’ travel experience.

 

Speaking about kids and schools and neurodiversity...speaking about sustainable fashion, sustainable supply chains, the need to develop economic systems that aren't exploitative or extractive...

We go on in the direction of Bushwick through the East of Williamsburg. We walk through the Pratt Institute, enjoy the calm and art around. The detour was suggested by 2 participants who have lived in Brooklyn for more than 10 years.. Several people asked "where are we?" They all were impressed by the peacefulness of the place.

Before arriving at Pratt we stopped to watch the shooting of an ad for the upcoming Census (2020). Charmaine Minnifields, an artist, social activist, was painting a mural. The mural, two black characters dressed in clothes from the19th century (maybe early 20th) was on a brick wall on a corner building. Was it the movie crew or the corner restaurant on the other side but I could not help thinking of Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing which I have recently watched again.

From Pratt we continued towards Bushwick and passed through a few blocks which are home to the Hasidic community. It felt like a jump in time. A strange moment where it felt that it could all be a movie decor.  A couple of people expressed that feeling of being out of time, out of place; a feeling of estrangement. We arrived on Flushing Avenue and passed the Pfizer building, an abandoned chemical plant turned into a creative space - with a lot of food start-ups and some art programs including Pratt Fine Arts MFA and Design Start Up Center.

A long stretch of Flushing Ave... the Hasidic community of South Williamsburg mingling with the African-American, Hispanic and increasingly gentrified populations of Bed-Stuy...speaking of Persian cuisine, Iranian culture...a man leaning precariously on a post outside a huge hospital, fading into the opioid haze...

We then went through Sumner house before arriving in Bushwick for a good break in a pizzeria. It is already 1.30 PM. We enjoy pizzas and drinks outside and start talking about what we saw, what we could do in a post, what we could do next. The group is at two different tables next to each other, but the discussion is not easy.  Part of the conversation is focused on data privacy. Basically, our walk has produced geolocalized data, pictures, tweets... What is it becoming? Is it a good or bad thing for the area?

 

Due to the constraints of several members of the group, we agree to focus the next hour after lunch to the area of Bushwick itself, and not to go to the Navy Yards. After a walk in an area which is obviously gentrified (I remember another walk in Bushwick area more than twenty years ago... and it was very, very different).      François leads this last loop of our walk. We stop the walk at 4 PM at Jefferson street subway station. Six of us take line L to come back.

        4.00 PM: End of our collaborative learning expedition at Jefferson street sub-way station

  1. SO, WHAT DID WE LEARN, WHAT DID WE SHARE?

 

Three key themes emerged from our discussions.

 

  2.1 Collaborative learning expedition as a way to re-visit everyday experience

 

Intermingling / weaving of 2 main narratives following Heraclitus’ quote suggested by one participant as we were debriefing at lunch: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Those who knew Brooklyn and revisited it with new perspectives and those who were new (not very familiar) to Brooklyn. A dialogue between two perspectives.

Perception of the city as constructed through the walk and the conversations. (where are we? what is this place? ... It's Pratt...and Pratt becomes a different place for the person asking the question and for the person answering). The familiar becomes unfamiliar in the eye of the other, sometime in our own eye, and is reconstructed with another layer. Ongoing movement as the city changes... ("I haven't come here for several months... a year")

2.2 Discussion and collective walk as a way to make visible everyday invisibilities: gentrification, homelessness and   relationships between communities

 

Gentrification: PS 58 and the DLP and how it reshaped the neighborhood (kicking some out) and the PS 20 in Fort Greene might do the same things (similar to Airbnb in Athens); homelessness vs. new expensive developments; public housing; how do these communities co-habit (as we were going through the Hasidic blocks of Bushwick, a participant told us about an article she read about the tensions between Hasidic Jews and Hipsters in Williamsburg, showing that in the end they needed each other (here it is: http://nymag.com/realestate/neighborhoods/2010/65356/).

See also: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303491304575187942725181712

"A Hasidic landlord I spoke to doesn't want the South side to be overtaken by "young urban professionals"—he reminds me they don't like to be called hipsters—but having them on the North side of the neighborhood has been "absolutely great for business."

For all of the noise over the bike lane, there is mostly a symbiotic relationship between these two communities—not to mention the Puerto Ricans, Italians and Dominicans who call Williamsburg home. And so they go on, pierced cheek to bearded jowl." (WSJ)

2.3 Walks and tours as generative of data: issues of privacy and how these data could be part of a common?

 

This third topic emerged mainly during our lunch in Bushwick.

Open source, data generation, etc. A virtual layer (plural most probably) of data created as we walked - GPS on our phones, photos taken and posted, shared, video cameras, etc. How much data did we produce in the process of our walk and conversations asked by a participant at lunch?  We have all been geolocalized, we have seen numerous CCTV or private camera, we have taken pictures which are now in the cloud, we have sent information on social network... How could we re-appropriate this data? How could they be part of our common or that of the inhabitants of the areas we explored? What if all our walk had been transparent, invisible for all these technologies? Would it have been a good thing?

 

Next OWEE in the Queens in May…

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