This past summer, I interned for Community Solutions, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in New York City. I was assigned to work in the Brownsville Partnership branch. Brownsville is a neighborhood in central Brooklyn, which has the highest concentration of residents living in public housing in the country.
Brownsville was first established as a Jewish ghetto in the late 1800s. Factory owners found cheaper land outside of Manhattan and were able to draw a large population of immigrant workers who no longer wanted to work for unionized factories. Most of the homes built at this time were two-story, wooden framed tenements that could comfortably fit two families. In reality, the homes became overcrowded as neighborhood transplants came quicker than homes could be built, resulting in gross overcrowding.
In the 1930s, waves of African-American migrants left the South and began calling Brownsville home, as it was one of the cheapest neighborhoods in New York and had factory openings. In 1948, under the direction of urban planner Robert Moses, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) began construction of giant public housing campuses in Brownsville. Almost all new residents were African-American, which drove out almost all of the Jewish population of Brownsville, including the businesses they owned. This left the already disadvantaged black population with a neighborhood in which no businesses were locally owned and the residents inhabiting it were unable to establish their own.
Brownsville now has about twenty apartment-style public housing structures within a little over one square mile. Ironically, the neighborhood has some of the tallest buildings in all of Brooklyn: 25-story brick towers. The typical NYCHA housing structure implemented by Moses is the realization of theory written by the modernist architect Le Corbusier, who proposed that large residential towers with surrounding open, green space would foster community amongst residents.
This was never actually materialized by Le Corbusier, and probably for good reason. These housing “campuses” are not built up against the sidewalk, as with any other typical New York dwelling. Rather, getting to your front door requires walking a non-linear path through “parks” that during the day receive no sunlight due to the height of the residential towers, and at night rarely have a working streetlight. Though poor infrastructure is a meager concern to a typical Brownsville resident, as forty percent of residents live below the poverty line and researchers estimate that seventy percent live in near-poverty.
Community Solutions has been working in Brownsville for over ten years now, having been introduced to the community by the late Greg Jackson, a former professional basketball player. Jackson was known as the “unofficial mayor of Brownsville,” having created a safe, neutral territory for children in the form of the Brownsville Recreation Center. Community Solutions’ tagline for all Brownsville-related projects is Jackson’s message: “Hope is Inside.” This meant that in a neighborhood that feels like the rest of New York forgot about them, pride and progress has to be created by those who are from there. It wasn’t until the end of the summer that I finally understood the power of this sentiment and how great of an effect it would have on my life.
During my internship, I lived about three miles west of Brownsville in a neighborhood called Flatbush. Flatbush itself has very similar neighborhood demographics to Brownsville, but has a much greater vibrancy and countless shops, restaurants, and places of worship lining Flatbush Avenue. Flatbush is about the same size as Brownsville, but doesn’t experience the same “economic isolation.” The neighborhood has over six subway lines running through it, wealthier zip codes on the opposite side of some traffic lights, and a good amount of public parks within walking distance. Overall, I found Flatbush, and Brooklyn in general, to be a really pleasant place to spend my off-days. However, the daily-living itself did prove to be quite difficult.
The SHECP program supports its interns by providing housing and a per diem. For New York interns, this came in the form of a bunk bed in dormitory-style housing through Brooklyn College and an $816 stipend, averaging out to $14 a day. The apartment was tiny, as to be expected in New York. Attempting to feed yourself on $14 a day in New York City is just as hard as it sounds.
Candidly speaking, there were nights where I’d climb into bed, still hungry, and just lay there wondering if I could really handle what I’d gotten myself into. I wasn’t expecting a cushy Manhattan summer, but I surely wasn’t expecting this either. Yet as the summer went on, the bigger picture of the SHECP experience slowly came into perspective as I found myself getting more and more passionate about the work.
I would spend my days alternating between Community Solutions’ main office in the Financial District of Manhattan and the on-site office: The Greg Jackson Center for Brownsville. A majority of my work was assisting my supervisor in administrative tasks regarding ongoing construction projects. It was exciting to learn that project management isn’t the responsibility of the architect at all, but instead the developer. I would coordinate with contractors, subcontractors, engineers, architects, city permit offices, donors, and even future residents. I was also able to give design input and work with the project architects at weekly meetings, although I will say that the firms’ modernist styles would shock me at times, as I only know the vernacular of classical architecture.
The most incredible moment all summer was my first site-visit. Projected to be completed in 2020, Community Solutions is developing 420 apartment units, many of which are listed at 20 and 40 percent of the New York Metro Area Median Income. The aspiring architect in me was fascinated, having studied the construction documents and 3D renderings prior, it was surreal to walk through and see the intricacies of how it all comes together. The aspiring public servant in me was touched by seeing a life-changing opportunity being built from the ground up for over 420 families. These kind of moments occurred all summer, consistently reaffirming my desire to use architecture for the social good.
My supervisor, Emmily De Los Santos, was an incredible mentor to have. She was insistent that this summer be as much of a learning opportunity than it was a work experience. I was required to attend countless lectures, mixers, events, gallery openings, roundtable discussions, and meetings held by elected officials. I attended the American Institute for Architect’s opening party for the unveiling of their 2020 New York masterplan, construction financing seminars at New York University, and the weekly Brownsville City Council meeting. One spectacle that most tourists miss is the Panorama exhibit in the Queens Museum. It’s a 1-inch to 100-foot scale model of all five boroughs in New York City. Immediately upon walking into the exhibit, my eyes didn’t shoot straight for the hundreds of Manhattan skyscrapers, but rather for the uniform skyline of the Brownsville projects.
This summer and all of the learning that was expected of me brought me to the realization that a great architect, urban planner, placemaker, etc. can never stop learning. We have to learn about the people who currently live there, not the people who can afford the higher price tags that come with exorbitant construction. We must constantly be learning about the past, present, and future of the environments we wish to shape, otherwise our constructions are just ill-informed and selfish.
Reflecting on the summer as a cumulative experience, I can say with confidence that it was the most I’ve ever grown and in such a short period of time. Despite the days where I didn’t know if the struggle was worth the end result, I now realize that the struggle was a part of the end result. My perception of poverty has forever been reshaped. My time with Community Solutions quickly became personal, as I was finally exposed to an application of architecture that contributes to bettering lives, and I quickly realized the importance of such work. Substandard housing may not have the same immediate consequences as food insecurity or barriers to healthcare, but it is nonetheless a symptom of poverty that can drain a person. After this summer, I am affirmed in knowing that my aspiration as an architect is to provide a safe, comfortable, and humane living space for as many people as possible, regardless of income. I will forever be grateful for this experience and will always carry the sentiment that hope is inside.
Brandon Davis is an architecture major at the University of Notre Dame, class of 2021. He was one of 130 students selected for the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty’s 2018 Internship Program. Each summer, SHECP interns are placed with nonprofit and government agencies that work on the front lines of poverty and serve as co-educators to students. The views and opinions expressed in this reflection are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.