Over the next ten years, “Brooklyn’s newest neighborhood,” Pacific Park (formerly known Atlantic Yards) will rise from a long strip of excavation rubble, smack-dab in the center of Park Slope, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights. It will be a hub of 15 mixed-use towers extending from either side of Barclays Center, covering 22 acres (eight of which will be privately-managed public open space) and including 6,430 apartments, and 14,000 brand new residents. “Brooklyn’s newest neighborhood” has the distinct ring of annoying copy from a corporate developer, but for once it’s kind of true: in most parts of the country this would qualify not just as a new neighborhood, but a fairly large city, having come into the world fully formed. Unlike the way in which other neighborhoods have evolved, with a slow and organic emergence, this one will be somewhat unceremoniously plopped in the midst of what is already one of America’s most densely populated swaths of land. In fact, the ways in which the Barclays Center and its attendant development has transformed the local landscape in the last few years is just the tip of a much bigger transformational iceberg, which will be revealed in phases of towers over the next decade.
But fifteen years ago, when Brooklyn’s newest neighborhood was just a glimmer in developers’ eyes, Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, then an environmental psychology doctoral candidate, moved to Prospect Heights. For her research, she interviewed a wide range of Prospect Heights residents, and in the process, Bendiner-Viani learned quite a bit. Each person gave her personal tours of the neighborhood, including where they bought groceries, drank, picked up their laundry, and descriptions of all the characters they met—landlords, bar regulars, shop owners—along the way. “I had no agenda or specific questions, it was about making sense of self and place in every day kinds of places in a neighborhood,” says Bendiner-Viani.
Now, Bendiner-Viani’s design and research practice, Buscada, in collaboration with a neighborhood organization, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, has turned her research into pop-up exhibitions up-and-down Vanderbilt Avenue—the spine of the community. Consisting of photographs, oral histories, “guidebooks” based on the six residents’ lives, and in-person tours of the places they mention, this project functions as a means for people to understand a place before, and as, it is radically transformed.
Bendiner-Viani hopes that making her research public now will help people grapple with the changes that will continue to happen all around them. “There is such disjunction between what is in the photographs, and what is in the neighborhood now,” says Bendiner-Viani about her research. “This is also with an eye toward ten years from now, when all those buildings are built and people will be living in them, [which] will increase the population of the neighborhood by two-thirds.”
The project, called Intersection / Prospect Heights, includes tours that began in October (and that are wrapping up shortly—though will recommence in the spring) and all material—the six guidebooks, photographs from the early 2000s, and oral histories—are also available in another neighborhood institution, the Brooklyn Public Library, in collaboration with InfoCommons, the Brooklyn Collection, and Our Street, Our Stories: A Brooklyn Neighborhood Oral History Project. Eventually, Intersection / Prospect Heights will comprise its own archive at BPL. Plus, says Gib Veconi, the chair of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, “community members present and past can still submit their personal stories online, and take part in a survey about development in Prospect Heights.”
Bendiner-Viani, who now teaches Urban Studies at the New School and directs Buscada, points out that the guide books—little jewels that meld map and memoir—might be individual, but they also cast a much wider—and thought-provoking—net. “The stories are a combination of very personal things that are often connected to larger politics, and they are frequently very moving and funny,” she says. “It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the radical change that has happened, and that will happen once the Atlantic Yards buildings are fully inhabited.”
Bendiner-Viani re-interviewed the subjects recently to discuss the now-historical photographs from her research, and she found the subjects’ reflections had become both more personal but also broader with the passage of time. “That idea of seeing people respond in that way, when bringing photographs back to them, it would be a great thing if other people could reflect in the same way.”
One of her favorite guidebook stories is about an older-man who owned a hardware store where he fixed TV and audio equipment, and hosted parties in the back of his shop every Thursday—impromptu gatherings with food and drink, a back-room materialization of a micro-community of West Indian men. When her tour guide took her to his friend’s shop in 2001, he explained that even though the owner had passed away, his friends still continued the weekly gathering. On her walking tours for Intersection / Prospect Heights, Bendiner-Viani returns to the same address.
“Now it is completely changed—it’s a high-end manicure and pedicure kind of place,” said Bendiner Viani. “There is no party in back.”