The 2016 Livonia Avenue El-Space Challenge is a partnership between ioby and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) that’s connecting community leaders in Brownsville, Brooklyn with funding and support for their creative, short-term projects that reimagine the space around the elevated train structure (“el-space”) along the neighborhood’s Livonia Avenue.
“Brownsville is primed for its own Harlem Renaissance,” says Layman Lee, Placemaking Manager for The Brownsville Partnership, an organization that works with local residents and community nonprofits to improve the neighborhood’s built environment. “We have so much great stuff: so many great artists, so much creativity, beautiful community gardens—it’s all here! We just need to champion it.”
Layman is also a leader of Make Music Brownsville—a project similar to the annual citywide event Make Music New York, but hyperlocal. Layman’s team will recruit artists to perform on the ultimate public stage—the sidewalk—during a day-long event designed to “celebrate Livonia and all the stations—they’re the main entry point residents use to come into Brownsville.” Also, she says, the event will “poetically combat the noise of the train with music.”
But that’s just one of Make Music Brownsville’s many joyful aims. Another is to celebrate the reopening of a youth-run farmers market on Rockaway and Livonia Avenues that was long ago shuttered to accommodate subway maintenance. Yet another is to get people out and enjoying Betsy Head Park and the neighborhood’s other public green spaces.
“The sense of community here is very strong, very real,” Layman says. “Once people know you, they know you. A few years ago, I was painting a mural in a basketball court here and a group of teenagers stopped and asked us if they could help. Now those same ‘kids’ are in college, but they still come back to help with new projects on their breaks! We want to get more residents engaging like that—with their local parks, with healthy eating options. We want to take that same spirit of commitment and turn people on to everything that’s great right here.”
Layman is also excited about the fact that Make Music Brownsville will be a first-of-its-kind event in the neighborhood. “DOT has long-term goals for this space,” she says. “The fact that they’re coming to the community now, at the beginning, is proof that they want to connect residents in this process of renewal. People have been reporting for ages that the el-space feels dark and unsafe. We know that gang activity influences how young people interact with it: where they can cross the street, which parks they can be in… We hope this event will plant the seeds for more dialogue about all of that.”
Perhaps most poignantly, Make Music Brownsville serves as a touching tribute to and manifestation of the lifelong work of Greg “Jocko” Jackson, a Brownsville native, former professional basketball player, and tireless community advocate. Last year, the Greg Jackson Center for Brownsville opened its doors on Rockaway Avenue. “He was really the unofficial mayor of Brownsville; you could turn to him for anything,” Layman says.
Mr. Jackson organized many memorable block parties in the neighborhood and, Layman says, “he always envisioned that there would be a band playing on the corner of Rockaway and Livonia to welcome people back into the community when they came home from work. Now it’s really happening for the first time. This wonderful homecoming.”