I built playgrounds in the early 70s because it was my job. One of them was on the block bounded by Park Place and Sterling Place between Howard and Saratoga. It came to mind when Hilton Als said the word Brownsville as a place he knows. I was listening to parts of his essay “Homecoming” on the New Yorker Radio Hour (here) in June 2020 on a warm Sunday morning. If you don’t know his work you can get to know him, Shane McCrae and Michael R. Jackson (here).
The playground was made of 12×12 inch pressure treated Douglas Fir in lengths from three to eighteen feet. The photos will say everything. There still is a park there today, the timber is gone, there is a Head Start Center, a fire station/rescue, and new housing has replaced the tenements that Hilton described as burning.
When my work was almost done, the community was nearly gone. A better word would be deracinated. I was filling out a checklist on the steps when a young man just a few years younger than I walked straight toward with what I sensed as rage in every step and he had a knife he wanted me to see. I had no idea why he was so angry. I imagine he would be in his seventies today.
I was the one on the steps with new beginning thoughts. He was the one demanding to know why I was there, doing “stupid shit”, and I said it was to finish the playground and a place for community theater or shows, pointing to the trellis. The genius of rage came right up into my face at that moment. All he said was I was a lame, white motherfucker, it’s too late, too fuck’n late, and walked up the steps passed me.
The Genius of Rage
In his closing, Hilton read a portion of Homecoming essay saying, “and now it is happening to you,” and that is when that whole experience of Brownsville came rushing back into my life. I have both of their thoughts in my mind now, Hilton’s and the guy with the knife. It is still happening and it is too late.
This post is motivated by another place-based examination of community development. It is an experiment of mine in looking back at the history of Lincoln Square/Center as an attempt to compare it to the recent five-year build of City Center (here). I’m guessing, but I think the thread of it might be displacement as the transitional function of institutional racism, a cycle of recurrence that must be stopped.