Brownsville

OPINION: Brownsville’s pain can’t hold a candle to its promise

July 31, 2019 Eric Adams
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

In the wake of the shooting at Old Timers Day in Brownsville, the community came together to mourn, and to do some soul-searching. The burst of gun violence that claimed one life and left 11 injured was traumatizing to many people who had come simply to unwind and enjoy themselves.

One thing everyone agreed on is that we cannot allow this shooting to define the neighborhood. That was critical: When news cameras descend on communities like Brownsville, it’s usually following a horrific tragedy of some sort. As a result, they become associated with crime, disorder, and urban decay. We saw this same dynamic play out during President Donald Trump’s recent shameful attack on U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore, as a vibrant city was reduced to its worst stereotypes.

It’s easy to use Brownsville as target practice when taking pot shots at a Brooklyn neighborhood that has become ground zero for incidents of gun violence within the borough. It would be easy, but neither a fair nor true representation of the proud, resilient and culturally rich tradition of the people, places and things housed there.

And it’s true that Brownsville has seen more than its share of poverty, crime, instability and general disadvantages than have other parts of Brooklyn, and even New York City. A 2017 report by the Citizen’s Committee for Children cited Brownsville’s ranking as 47th out of 59 community districts in overall risk, making it one of the highest-ranked communities in terms of cumulative risk to well-being.

For a child growing up in this neighborhood, what a blow to their self-esteem and hopes for the future it must be to constantly hear this brand of negativity from the media and others who would presume to pre-judge them, based purely on where they live. But to focus largely on this neighborhood’s weaknesses, rather than giving fair play to its strengths, perpetuates a profound disservice to those who call Brownsville their home. And it overlooks the fact that, be it ever so humble, Brownsville is populated by scores of families with strong, generational ties to the neighborhood who are determined to protect and improve it.

Despite the odds, the Brownsville community is pioneering ways to get kids off the streets by giving them opportunity. That’s the mission of organizations like the Brownsville Culinary Center, a nonprofit founded in 2017 by a Michelin-starred chef named Claus Meyer. The center runs a training program for Brownsville residents aged 18-34, allowing them to pursue their dream of becoming chefs, and it has already graduated dozens of promising cooks from the neighborhood.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center, a multi-faceted initiative founded as a partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, focuses on neighborhood crime prevention by actually investing in the intellectual and creative capital of the youth who live and grow up in Brownsville. Some of the programs the center offers community residents include Be on Belmont, a festival that celebrates revitalization of the Belmont Avenue commercial corridor; its Brownsville Photography Program, that teaches and encourages students to tell riveting stories through powerful visual imagery; and ‘Virtual’ Brownsville, an augmented reality app that I had the pleasure of personally being introduced to by the talented team of young coders at the center who developed it.

And there’s also the success story of the RACSteppers, Brownsville’s championship-winning step troupe from Riverdale Avenue Community School, made up of local 8- to 12-year-olds who channeled their pent up energies into perfecting synchronized dance moves that earned them the national competition’s highest honor two years in a row.

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There is much that needs fixing in this beleaguered neighborhood. But Brownsville’s pain can’t hold a candle to its promise. It has indeed suffered its share of challenges, but the story of Brownsville is also one of renewal, resilience, and hope. It’s a story that unfolds away from the camera lens, but it nonetheless demands our attention. Because what is happening in this neighborhood, good and bad, has implications far beyond Mother Gaston Boulevard. All you have to do is care enough to focus a fair and balanced eye to look for it.

Eric Adams is the Brooklyn borough president.

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