Community and Faith: Rebuilding Brownsville, Brooklyn
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Greg Jackson, now 59, was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1974 after they had won the NBA Finals. He began playing with Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and Phil Jackson -- a dream for a young black man from Brooklyn. Then Jackson decided to play for the Phoenix Suns, which back then had trouble winning. But he had the extraordinary experience, envied by anyone who has dribbled a basketball, of playing in the NBA.
After that, where did he go? Back to Brownsville, Brooklyn. The older of two children (he has nine of his own) Greg Jackson was drawn to where he was born and raised and which has been, for decades, among the poorest and toughest of any inner city in this country. That was all the more reason for him to return, and he has never left. He knows something about Brownsville that defies its troubling reputation. He can feel the latent desire for recovery, for a community that works, for the pride it once had.
I met up with him recently at the Brownsville Recreation Center (BRC), where he went to work in 1985 and has directed since 1997. Also a kid from NYC (the Bronx), I have logged some real time in City "rec" centers so I imagined a place that had known better days, with decaying facilities and despondent staff. After all, this was Brownsville where most city folk thought twice, no more than that, about visiting if they wanted not to be the victim of mugging or a stray bullet and the only thing they considered in good supply was heroin and crack cocaine. When I entered I thought I was in a midtown Manhattan or suburban rec center -- except no one was white or of privilege.
When Jackson took over BRC the front desk was a security station and chaos reigned. Jackson's right hand man, called "V," told me this place had been transformed from "madhouse to safe haven." The first thing that Jackson did was to get rid of the security post and replace external controls with expectations and endless support. There would be no cursing, no bullying, no violence. Respect replaced intimidation and consideration replaced confrontation. I know this took time and dedication and perspiration, but today kids at the BRC are "different," in the right way. A culture different from the streets has been deeply rooted, so much so that it is even beginning to influence the streets. Not that I, a white man, would yet dare wander through the projects of Brownsville, especially at night, and even Greg Jackson avoids some corners, but the kids who go to the BRC are taking the lessons about community back to their streets and buildings. When youth become the agents of change there is reason for hope.
I walked around BRC. I went to the pool, a place where public school students learn to swim (a rare skill in neighborhoods like Brownsville). It's a place that helps youth envision a future other than the corner and a life of crime. I stood in the entrance of the gym and saw neighborhood kids playing on the courts and a set of ping pong tables where adults were practicing, some of whom were competing at a regional and national level. I passed a room where there were 30 brand new bikes, donated to the center, and destined to move kids around the neighborhood in ways that just did not happen in central Brooklyn.
We went upstairs into a room full of computers where people with grey hair were doing their email and whatever else we all do when we are at PC workstations. Everywhere I went the walls were gloriously decorated with murals, paintings, sculptures, masks, photos and reminders that we are what we make ourselves to be. There were countless fish tanks with golden marine life and a kitchen where, on weekends, cooking classes were filled with neighborhood residents who sought something other than take out or junk food.
Jackson told me how when he was a boy in the projects his mother would have him and his sister clean the hallways in their building and the sidewalks outside. He would ask, why do I have to do this, isn't this someone else's job? That was when he learned where responsibility resides. Families and communities must be based on taking responsibility for themselves, their homes, buildings and neighborhoods. He has lived by this ethos since then, and knows how to find and nourish it in others.
Two years ago, Greg, V, Jerry Childs and a group of Brownsville locals joined together to form the Brownsville Partnership (full disclosure: this is a project of Common Ground, a not-for-profit organization where my wife is President). The "Partnership" seeks to build on the work that Jackson and his colleagues began and extend it to preventing homelessness, reducing gang activity and violence, encouraging education and health, providing family services and enabling families to function, developing local business and jobs and fostering hope. Their mission is to change their community, to change its culture, person by person, family by family, block by block until Brownsville returns to the safety, vitality and promise it once had as a neighborhood some 50 years ago. The Brownsville Partnership knows that strength and resilience dwell in their community, but that it has yet to be effectively harnessed.
It was not possible, for me (and for others I know), to visit BRC, to have lunch in a diner with Greg, V and Jerry, to drive around the neighborhood, without feeling hope and a need to do something to support what is brewing in Brownsville. Faith is a precious thing. Faith is a conviction that a person, concept or activity can be trusted to do what it says it will do. Trust is the cornerstone of the BRC, of the Partnership, of the promise that Greg and his small army of (now) all ages deliver to Brownsville. Nothing less will do the job, and the job is getting done.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. Lloyd I Sederer, MD