Brooklyn: Connected by Culture

Mellon Foundation staff tour Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Tia Powell Harris.

"In Brooklyn, the arts are fueling a renaissance for residents, bringing communities together, and fostering a more inclusive model of revitalization," writes Mellon's Senior Fellow in Residence Karen Brooks Hopkins.

As a proud Brooklynite and member of the arts community, I have taken several of our Foundation program staff on two “Brooklyn Days,” during which we explored the cultural treasures of New York City’s most artistically adventurous borough. (Click here for a recap of the first “Brooklyn Day”.)

Our second Brooklyn field trip featured a brilliant spring day, much like the first, proving that the weather gods were smiling on our venture. Our The first stop was Weeksville Cultural Heritage, an important but not widely known museum and historical site established by James Weeks in 1838 as a free community of African Americans. Our tour included a quick visit of the new buildings, a walk-through of the gardens—which replicate the outdoor setting of the original settlement—and most importantly, the amazing historic houses along Hunterfly Road. That the houses still exist at all is remarkable considering the massive amount of redevelopment in Crown Heights over the years, from large public housing blocks of the 1950s to today’s condominiums. We were impressed not only with the restored houses, but with the exhibition space, library, archive, oral history projects, and public programs that comprise the whole Weeksville experience.

Next, we boarded the bus and headed for the hipster communities of Bushwick and Williamsburg, stopping first at the Bushwick Starr. We climbed several flights of stairs to arrive at the Starr, a tiny theater in the classic off-off-off Broadway or “downtown” tradition. (Except, of course, we weren’t off-off or even off-off-off Broadway, we were in Bushwick!) We are talking minimal space, maximum heart. The founders actually lived in what is now the theater when they opened in 2007. The Bushwick Starr showcases new theatrical work and runs a significant education program, focused on environmental issues. The fact that quality theater is made available to an audience nearly every night in a neighborhood so far from Midtown Manhattan attests to the vibrancy and scope of Brooklyn’s artistic life.

We then travelled through the streets of Bushwick, where massive, colorful street murals generate an outdoor artscape that characterizes this part of the borough.  Bushwick is a patchwork of old factories and lofts intermingled with new construction, which is threatening not only the public art, but the entire personality of the area.

In Brooklyn, perhaps more than anywhere else in New York City, the arts are fueling a renaissance for residents, bringing communities together, and fostering a more inclusive model of revitalization. From vibrant new art spaces to outdoor installations, the borough is teeming with life. Here, the arts and public humanities are both attracting new residents and bringing existing ones closer together. Brooklynites are encouraged by the community’s connection to the arts, preferring to reimagine the existing spaces instead of tearing them down for new construction.

Next was Chez Bushwick, a dance studio and creative space primarily occupied by the brilliant young choreographer Jonah Bokaer. His space sits atop a former manufacturing plant, where a full carpentry shop still exists on the first floor. Jonah gave us a sneak peek of some new work he is preparing to take on tour, featuring music by the popular composer Pharrell Williams. It was great to see Jonah move so energetically in the beautiful exposed-brick space.

We left the street art of Bushwick and headed to the busy streets of Williamsburg, now one of the most youthful communities in America. Our host for lunch was Brooklyn restaurateur and master pizza chef, Michael Ayoub, at the Bedford location of his Fornino. Michael prepared many varieties of pizza for our group to enjoy, from classic margherita to several original recipes of his own. It was delicious and fun, as Michael explained each dish we sampled.

Fully sated we moved to our final stop: National Sawdust. A redeveloped sawdust factory (yes, a sawdust factory) turned acoustically state-of-the-art music venue for all kinds of contemporary and traditional music. National Sawdust is an exciting new addition to the city’s music scene given its intimate size and the broad range of artists appearing there nightly.

By the time it ended, our day had included three very diverse communities, a historic museum, theater, music, dance, street art, and pizza—all the great things that make Brooklyn Brooklyn.