These young people are reclaiming a community and re-imagining their own futures

Why young people should be hanging out on street corners: a visit to Brownsville Community Justice Centre

Posted on 25 Jul in


 Zack Ahmed

Brownsville, East Brooklyn has the highest concentration of public housing in the U.S. It’s also known as one of the most violent places to live. This is how James Brodick of the Brownsville Community Justice Center introduced us to the notorious New York neighbourhood- but it’s certainly not the story I took away from our visit.

The Community Justice Center team have been in Brownsville for six years and are working towards establishing a community court in the mould of the famous Red Hook a few miles away. Bureaucratic barriers have delayed the opening of the court itself, but in its absence the team have been quietly getting on with some truly remarkable work. One project specifically targeting those young residents at risk of being perpetrators or victims of violent crime, engage them in a programme that transforms both the people and the place in which they live.

Using an approach known as ‘place-making’ the team help young people to develop connections with their environments, working with them to reimagine and redesign their local area. Engagement starts with looking at maps of their local area, then adding a poverty index, a map of unemployment for the area and the locations people have been shot. Next they look at what local resources and amenities they have. After this it’s the public image of their neighbourhood- what do newspaper stories and other media say about the area? They also investigate the people that live in Brownsville and the history of the area. By looking at their neighbourhood through these different lenses the participants start to develop a completely different understanding of their home and what’s led it to become the most densely populated and violent place in New York.

What happens next is transformational. The young people start working on small urban design projects. They go out into the community, wearing their trademark bright purple tee shirts emblazoned with the ‘Brownsville Stronger Together’ logo, cleaning up forgotten corners, painting murals and redesigning safety into their environment. One particular project involved reclaiming a piece of road that sits at an intersection between housing projects which had become a no-go zone, turning it into a pedestrian plaza. Tables and chairs are now laid out every day, creating somewhere for people to meet, hang out and host community events. They’ve taken a place of fear and potential violence and turned it into a loved community space. They’ve also started reclaiming abandoned shops and using them to support local business start-ups, so a once thriving shopping street that had wasted away thorough neglect is now slowly coming back to life.

The ultimate aim of this work is to combat crime and promote public safet. But something even more powerful is happening. The very people who were most likely to be making the area unsafe and adding to its decline over years to come are now the ones visibly out there improving, regenerating and making it safer for everyone.

So why does this work? James says it challenges the narrative that ‘no one cares about us’ and it was clear to me that identity is a big part of what’s happening in Brownsville. These young people are reclaiming a community and re-imagining their own futures at the same time. That’s why my lasting image of Brownsville will not be one of poverty, overcrowding and violence but instead of hope and empowerment.