Wondering Around Artists and the Gentrification of Brooklyn

Hiding in the open on Dean Street, just shy of Crown Heights’ rapidly developing Franklin Avenue, sprawls a bright, fun, and expressive new gallery and events space. It’s not the kind of gallery you might expect. There are no glass doors, no air conditioning, and no newly painted white walls. “Wondering Around Wandering” is designer and artist Mike Perry’s newest exhibition, set in a recently renovated industrial warehouse. Long wooden picnic tables and wide open doors invite passersby in to explore. Perry’s visuals are transfixing. A ladder protrudes from one wall, leading the viewer into a canvas of colors and shapes. Another pedestal showcases a ceramic sandwich overflowing with human-looking fillings.

Neighborhood artists, most from a Bergen Street collective called the Monti, worked together to renovate the space.  They sought out sponsorship, raised funds through a Kickstarter campaign, and then cleared out the broken industrial laundry machines stored there. Architectural artist J Bell is responsible for building the wooden structure that houses the gallery store. He admitted that they have put a lot more into the space, in terms of time and money, than they are getting out. “We knew that coming into it, but it just, it kinda had to be done,” said Bell. “Everything just fell right together once we started going for it. It’s beautiful.”

It truly is a beautiful space and the low trafficked location wasn’t an accident. “My life is in this neighborhood,” said Perry. “I live and work here. I actually don’t even leave the neighborhood very often.” Perry also uses the space to teach free art classes on weekends. He wants to address the lack of artistic educational experiences available in the neighborhood. Previously he’d teach uptown at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. By staying close to home, he teaches students of all ages who don’t have frequent access to the arts.

The first classes filled up quickly, as most of the publicity was done online. Foot traffic from the community isn’t where they’d like it to be yet, but intern and unofficial greeter, Fiona Simmons, is optimistic. “I think that’s only because the neighborhood didn’t know about it and they’re still figuring out that we’re here.” She noted that they have been signing up people for classes who were just walking by, including two school-age girls who will be joining them for class this weekend. “They’re really really cute, I’m excited.”

Still, for now, most people coming to the classes aren’t from Crown Heights. It’s hard to ignore that the neighborhood is in flux, and artists have a role in the changing neighborhood makeup.

In 2010, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts held an exhibit called, “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks” curated by Brooklyn native Dexter Wimberly. Working with founder Laurie Cumbo, they addressed the role artists play in the phenomenon of gentrification. “No neighborhood in New York City has been the same for the last 60 years, the last 100 years,” noted Wimberley. “These generational cycles have changed, driven by economics, driven by immigration.” He cautions the casual use of words “gentrification” and “gentrifier,” adding: “It is such a loaded word, most people are biased when they say it, because the word has grown to have a very negative connotation.”

Wimberley’s work is referred to as contemporary urban history, using art to encourage people to think about the community. A recent exhibit investigated how tensions resulting from the changing neighborhood led to the 1991 Crown Heights Riots. “The riots were rooted in a lack of interaction and communication between Hasidic Jews, Caribbean Americans and African Americans that live in Crown Heights.” He discussed how neighborhoods change when new people come in, renovate their houses, and don’t interact with their neighbors. “It’s their right to do that,” he acknowledges, “but it’s not the right thing to do.”

If it is true that the most important aspect of a sensitive approach to the gentrification question is assuring interaction, perhaps “Wandering” is a perfect example. This space is not a commentary on the changing neighborhood, but rather a welcoming space that is accessible, geographically and economically.