This summer the Public Space Potluck in Bedford-Stuyvesant's Herbert Von King Park brought together urban enthusiasts from all walks of life including new and old residents, designers, urban farmers, and students, for an evening of food, and conversations, on the value of public spaces. Built in 1871 by Olmsted and Vaux, this 7.3-acre public park is one of the first in the neighborhood and an integral one to the community. Its design features an open air theatre and cultural center, dog park, baseball field and more recently a Steemit Park the first public design project fully funded with crypto currency.
After sampling the array of delicious food and fresh farm grown vegetables, guests Jeffrey Chen, professor at Pratt Institute's Interior Design program and Jackson Chabot, a recent graduate from the Pratt Institute's Urban Placemaking and Management program, shared their views on gentrification, local stewardship and the role of public spaces in leveraging visibility for local non-profits and organizations to not only sell their products, but also to get their narrative out to the public.
Since 2010, Jeff has collaborated with ReConnect Brooklyn, an innovative Bed-Stuy based social impact organization located right across the park. He started out by introducing the origins of ReConnect Cafe and "Productive Collisions", the interior design studio he co-created at Pratt Institute looking at issues of gentrification in the Bed-Stuy community.
Speaking of his initial ideas for the Cafe's design Jeff said, "I was observing different business that could be started in front of these storefronts since 2013; and I noticed long term residents and new residents walking past one another. So the question for me was, how could design bring close together groups that might not really talk to one another. We leveraged a CNC fabrication in the theme of a stoop and it worked. It made folks pause and talk to another. It was really the culture of the organization that spurred these conversations.", he remarked. ReConnect Cafe was designed to create “an entry level economy for disconnected youth" through social entrepreneurship opportunities. Over the next two years the collaboration resulted in a pop-up structure to sell their merchandising - the first of which was unveiled in Herbert Von King Park.
Jackson met Jeff and Reconnect Brooklyn in October last year at the pop-up unveiling at this park. His thesis explored how public space and public realm in general, can be used by non-profits and social enterprise to not just sell their products and do community engagement but also to share their narrative. According to Jackson, this was particularly important to transient public spaces and third spaces such as pop-ups, which unlike a local bodega or cafe struggles to retain the connection with customers.
"When I was approaching my project, it was one, how do I get involved in my community and two, how do I give back and help someone who is already doing something in the neighborhood, thereby building off of what Jeff has been doing." Eventually the collaboration with Jeff and Reconnect, resulted in a framework for the organizations future pop-up events and engagement in similar public spaces. His research further explored means to address invisible buckets of information that exists in Bed-Stuy such as policing, gentrification, and criminalization of public space, that would further help understand nuances of executing a project from scratch in a park or plaza.
Jeff and Jackson's engaging conversation extended into a series of questions from the curious potluck commune on how communities can be more involved and what were the next steps for the organization. As we made new friends and continued to empty out more casseroles, the sky turned grey with rain just in time for the end of the potluck.
Next, we'll be at First Avenue Water Plaza, designed by SCAPE studio. Join us on Thursday August 22, 6-7 pm to enjoy this innovative design that combines interactive play with green infrastructure. Don't miss the last potluck of this summer! RSVP now!
The beauty of public spaces is that it sometimes allows for honest interaction with a stranger.