Over the past dozen years Tiffiney Davis has become an integral member of the Red Hook community. As the co-founder and managing director of the Red Hook Art Project, Davis has nurtured, counseled, fought for and agitated on behalf of kids for a third of her life: At any given moment the Red Hook Art Project, or RHAP, provides 25 to 50 lower income kids free visual art and music lessons after school, homework help and stress management techniques. It’s a sanctuary and a community that allows kids to be kids, and keeps them safe.
“Art is a human right,” she says. “It allows you to be a part of the community.”
Davis is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” where she discusses the genesis of RHAP, her own childhood, how the program pivoted to feed the neighborhood during the pandemic, and what comes next.
Red Hook is a neighborhood of stark contrasts. It’s a funky artistic enclave, an historic seaport town that is hard to access by public transportation. And it is rapidly gentrifying. Today, the typical home value is $1.6 million, according to Zillow—almost unthinkable even a decade ago. Red Hook is also home to the largest NYCHA, or public housing, facility in all of Brooklyn. And it’s a bayside peninsula, vulnerable to the whims of climate change, as evidenced by the devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Against this backdrop, The Red Hook Art Project was born when local artist Deirdre Swords saw artistic potential in Davis’ son. She and Davis began working with him after school, assisting him in getting a portfolio together and working with him—and ultimately his friends—to excel in high school and beyond. From there, Davis and Swords would build RHAP as a hub to keep Red Hook’s kids engaged and help them break through the systems that kept them from excelling, while also engaging with the neighborhood’s more well-off residents.
“What I’m trying to do is create that bridge and create a space where conversations can continue to happen,” says Davis, who works as a liaison between what she describes as the “front” and “back” ends of the the neighborhood—the families on the southeast side of Coffey Park and the usually well-meaning more affluent folks along Van Brunt Street, respectively.
“One of the biggest challenges now is language barriers and not understanding what to say and when not to say it,” she says, referring in part to the tense summer of 2020 and its demonstrations against police brutality, which brought some of the neighborhood’s differences to the surface. “What does an ‘ally’ mean? Also when you’re screaming ‘Black Lives Matter,’ what does that mean to you? How do you define that?”
Davis could have used something like RHAP as a child. Raised in Bed-Stuy by a single mom who was an addict at the peak of the crack epidemic, Davis herself became a mother at just 14, and lived in a series of public housing and homeless shelters around the borough and in the Bronx.
“Being an ‘80s baby, crack was heavy out in the black and brown community. It was a struggle for her, so it became a struggle for me, my siblings,” she says on the podcast. “You don’t really know what is on the other side … I lived in predominantly black communities where there weren’t much going on as far as opportunities, leadership. There wasn’t no real leaders in our communities steering us different ways to show us a different path, or a different view of Brooklyn.”
Today, she is working to change that view of Brooklyn: When the pandemic shut down the city, it was a crisis especially for families with fewer resources. So Davis and the Red Hook Art Project pivoted and literally began feeding the neighborhood. Over the course of the pandemic, they’ve given away more than $200,000 worth of hot meals, PPE gear, diapers and other essential items.
“Once I realized school was shutting down, I knew that life was getting absolutely real,” she says. “How do we continue to feed our students? But then … we can’t just send meals home to just one of our students when they have six family members living in one household. So how do we support them? And then how do we show the Red Hook community as a whole we are here for you as much as we can be? And how do we reach out to people who live in Red Hook who say they’re allies, who have resources, who are restaurants who may have been affected by shutting down?”
We get into all of those questions in the podcast. We discuss what RHAP does and how it’s evolving: It is now too big for its storefront and is looking for a bigger home. Davis envisions a larger space with a communal kitchen and arts education area. We also talk about Davis’ own journey … and if you stick around to the end of the interview, there’s also a little pop quiz about Red Hook history.