OPINION: Teaching how to be a good neighbor, transforming a neighborhood from an educator’s perspective
Myrtle Avenue in the Clinton Hill/Fort Greene section of Brooklyn is a hub of activity, from street beautification projects to restaurant openings. In fact, it was used as a model of economic development when Robert Walsh, then commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services, provided a tour to delegates from Northern Ireland in 2010, to showcase the emerging transformation of Myrtle Avenue as a template for the city of Belfast. Seventeen years earlier, however, Clinton Hill/Fort Greene had a very different landscape.
When I arrived in 1993 to serve as the 11th president of the 130-year-old Pratt Institute, the 20-block main commercial strip running through Clinton Hill into Fort Greene was in need of a turnaround. Nicknamed “Murder Avenue,” local residents and students avoided walking down Myrtle Avenue after dark, fearing for their safety. With one in five stores vacant, and high crime rates plaguing the area, the need to attract businesses and provide a better quality of life in the neighborhood was vital. Simultaneously, Pratt was experiencing a downturn, operating with a deficit of $16 million and a physical plant of buildings and grounds in a state of disrepair.
Facing these challenges, both Pratt and local Clinton Hill/Fort Greene residents came together to craft a forward-thinking plan to create a neighborhood that would “provide something for everybody” as urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote. As an educator, taking a lesson plan right out of Pratt’s core curriculum was the model solution: apply critical thinking and problem solving skills in real-world situations through partnerships within the community. Forming an alliance with our neighbors, the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP) was born, where I served on the board, and later appointed chair.
To implement the plan, we held community meetings on the Pratt Campus, offering Pratt’s alumni, faculty and students as volunteers to local residents in a show of unity, to refurbish buildings and grounds which had suffered from years of neglect. While a local youth coalition was engaged to spearhead efforts to remove unsightly graffiti in the area, the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation produced unique and artistic modular street furniture local residents could use along the commercial corridor of Myrtle Avenue. Providing the physical anchor to the overarching project was the building of Myrtle Hall, the first LEED Gold-certified building of higher education in Brooklyn, housing Pratt’s Admissions office. To reflect the vitality of the neighborhood, the new building was named Myrtle Hall to showcase the synergy between the community and the college.
Maintaining a vision for quality and stability, the Pratt and local Clinton Hill/Fort Greene communities worked together, and now Myrtle Avenue is a safer destination. With store vacancy rates down threefold, from 20 percent to 7 percent, and the campus restored to an economically prosperous and academically competitive environment for creative thinkers, the community is now thriving. For example, local real estate is booming, new apartment and mixed-use buildings are being erected, diverse businesses have opened, and the economic spending in Clinton Hill/ Fort Greene is making a resurgence.
Investing the time to get to know one’s neighbors can only improve the surrounding environment. Pratt’s collaborative relationship with MARP and the greater Clinton Hill/Fort Greene community serves as that role model for other urban academic institutions nationwide, proving that creating a successful community can provide something for everybody.
Dr. Thomas F. Schutte serves as the 11th president at the 130-year-old Pratt Institute, one of the world’s top art and design colleges in Brooklyn, New York. He will step down in June 2017.