In September 2014, Vogue ranked the coolest neighborhoods in the world, and Bushwick, Brooklyn, found itself No. 7 on the list. A shock to many who worked or lived in the formerly industrial neighborhood of low-slung row houses, factories, and warehouses, the Vogue article brought new attention to the forces that had started to seed change in Bushwick over the previous decade. Bushwick, historically home to working-class and low-income immigrant communities and most recently a diverse Hispanic and Black community, was now being represented in international media in a way that the majority of the community had little relation to or ownership of. At the center of Bushwick’s newly found international acclaim was the dramatically transforming local street art scene.
Unfortunately, becoming one of the most renowned street art scenes in the world did not contribute to the prosperity of long-term residents. In fact, as Bushwick’s art scene gained worldwide attention, many local artists found themselves struggling to maintain their public art practice, as they were now competing with global artists and paid corporate advertisers for scarce funding and limited installation site opportunities. A marked, and for many unwelcome, shift in the content and authorship of Bushwick’s street art ensued, causing concern for many in the community.
“Local artists who have been residents for many years . . . sometimes get passed over for what’s labeled as the ‘new, hot thing,’” says artist Mark Garcia, a Bushwick homeowner and full-time custodian at a Bushwick public school.
In 2015, Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC) launched the Community Artist Project: Public Art Commissioned for Bushwick by Bushwick. The initiative provided paid opportunities to artists/art collectives with longtime ties to Bushwick, seeking to give back the walls of Bushwick to the community and reflect the values and cultures of Bushwick and its people. The Community Artist Project (CAP) was developed to respond to the changing needs of the local creative community.
One of the artists who worked through CAP, Hops Art, reflects on the celebrated and traditional role of public art in the community during his youth in the late 1980s and 1990s: “It was great and tough at the same time. It was a community. Spontaneous block parties where hip-hop emceeing and breakdancing battles would entertain the block, accompanied with graffiti art on the walls. Everyone struggled and everyone lived a life of culture and its customs. Myself and a few other graffiti artists would paint what we saw, document our culture and neighborhood. We represented the struggle of life in our poverty-stricken neighborhood. Whatever we put on the wall had meaning and purpose.“
Developing a Community Artist Program
RBSCC is not an arts organization. It’s one of New York City’s largest multi-service community developers. For over 40 years RBSCC has worked to address the longstanding
issues of North Brooklyn communities through a holistic approach that starts with the physical environment and extends deep into the social and cultural fabric of the communities it serves. RBSCC’s broad-based programming includes affordable housing development and job training, youth engagement, senior services, and healthcare. CAP is an extension of the existing work of RBSCC—following its core mission of connecting resources to those who need them and creating empowering opportunities to catalyze thriving communities.
RBSCC’s commitment to make the CAP initiative accessible to the long-standing Bushwick artist community started with the application process. CAP applicants were asked to describe their relationship to the Bushwick community and whether they currently live there, rather than to provide a more traditional artist’s curriculum vitae or artist’s statement.
This place-based application prerequisite was combined with a lengthy and targeted recruitment and engagement strategy. To ensure this creative opportunity was accessible to the broad spectrum of Bushwick residents, all CAP materials were available in Spanish and English. CAP recruitment materials were shared with RBSCC affordable housing tenants, local merchants, local arts collectives, churches, the press, service offices, long-term commercial businesses, and community-based organizations. CAP was announced at numerous community forums and through one-on-one meetings with local leadership. In addition to prolonged outreach, RBSCC staff offered one-on-one meetings with individual artist-applicants to answer questions and offer support.
This strategy led to the receipt of 19 CAP proposals from artists who had ties to Bushwick. The selection criteria, too, were intentionally weighted to favor artists with a deep and long-term relationship with the neighborhood, both physically and culturally. Submissions were also judged based on artist experience and the quality of the proposal. In the end, four artists were chosen to participate in CAP, among them Garcia.
“The support we receive to do public art is very important. It helps people understand their visits to our neighborhood,” says Garcia. “The art serves a purpose of awaking some emotion or dialogue.”
Working with the Artists
RBSCC, in turn, learned some valuable lessons about working with and supporting local, community-based artists.
To truly reach local artists, sponsoring organizations must be flexible and able to work with creative individuals who (potentially for socioeconomic or linguistic barriers) may not feel they have the luxury of identifying primarily as an artist or applying for these opportunities.
In a gentrifying community that has experienced displacement, a person’s legal address or residency might not be the best indication of connection to the community. In Bushwick, real estate speculation and rising rents have displaced many longtime community members whose vacant homes were quickly filled by newcomers (often young, predominantly white, and college-educated ones) who more readily identify as artists. Additionally, Bushwick has long been the home to migratory populations and undocumented families whose cultural presence in Bushwick is longterm, though specific individuals may be more transient (due to a variety of reasons, both economic and legal). Because of these concerns, RBSCC chose to prioritize “connection to the community” over mere residency when defining a “community artist,” and applicants were asked to describe their relationship to the Bushwick community.
Another important reality is that RBSCC’s CAP artists all have full-time jobs (some in creative industries, some not) in addition to their professional art practice. For successful installation of the CAP projects, it was important that RBSCC be flexible in determining a schedule of site access that allowed artists to work around their other commitments. Relatedly, CAP artists required significant additional RBSCC staff support on a range of logistical and business items such as navigating submission paperwork, developing artist bios, drafting contracts, selecting materials, and arranging insurance.
Arts Build Community
The success of CAP has been felt beyond the visual impact of the art installations themselves. CAP artists have continued to seek out RBSCC staff for support in responding to various grant opportunities, for professional references, and to share news of new work.
CAP artists, all of whom have longstanding ties to the Bushwick community, have also deepened their level of community engagement since CAP. Newly engaged with community and community-based organization infrastructure, CAP artists now regularly attend community meetings and forums and have used their platform as paid artists to further their professional development and to amplify the voice of the long-term community within the North Brooklyn art scene.
Ensuring that long-term cultural communities and traditions remain visible and celebrated in the face of gentrification is another way RBSCC works to support the sustainability of New York’s communities. For longstanding community development corporations and other community-based organizations in transitioning neighborhoods, diversification of services and new strategies for community empowerment like CAP become critical in ensuring the continued development of the communities they serve.