Quardean Lewis-Allen grew up on what he calls, with a smile, “the most beautiful block in Brownsville”: Howard Avenue between Blake and Dumont. On that block, divided by a planted median, his observations of the dichotomy between single-family homes and a housing project sparked a lifelong interest in architecture and design. That interest took him to SUNY Buffalo and the Harvard Graduate School of Design; to Paris, where he studied affordable housing; to Anambra State in southern Nigeria, where he worked on an eco-sustainable city; and, ultimately, back to the streets of his youth, where he founded Made in Brownsville in the spring of 2013. MiB aims to “challenge the local narrative of violence and chronic disease” by giving young people the opportunity to learn about architecture and design through projects that create tangible changes in the neighborhood.
We sat down with Lewis-Allen to talk about what Made in Brownsville has in store and why he believes its approach is so important to breaking the vicious cycles that perpetuate Brownsville’s economic and social challenges.
Tell me a little about your background. What was it that inspired you to found MiB?
When I was 8 years old, I knew that I wanted to be an architect. I lived across the street from public housing—just a renovated tenement courthouse building, but a lot of my friends used to live in that building as opposed to the single-family houses along the block, and I always kind of wondered, well, why do they all live there? I wondered about the relationship between people who live in a particular type of housing versus others. The way that I saw it was, the space informed the interactions that happened in the space. So if there wasn’t a gate that blocked the courtyard from the street, I wouldn’t have climbed up on that gate and fell and had a scar on my eye for the rest of my life, right?
I never went to school in Brownsville. I went to elementary school in East Flatbush, middle school in East New York, and then high school in Crown Heights, at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. I went straight to undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo, studied architecture. I wasn’t too invested in the social justice architecture at that age. I think I was just kind of getting my bearings and trying to see where I fit in. But I saw the dynamic in that space already—it was very proportionate to the field of architecture in terms of representation of minorities. I was one of two black men in my class. I always sought out more diversity within the school, but also in the field. I was looking for minority-owned architecture firms to work for. Each year, it drove me to look back to my community to see, well, is there a local development corporation or community development corporation that I could work for? And there never was. And I was like, “Why is that? Don’t we need development in Brownsville?”
When I got to grad school was when I really took charge of trying to seek out means of engaging young people to diversify the fields of design. I was the chair of the Social Change and Activism group at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Then I had an opportunity to go abroad for a summer to work in Nigeria to do some eco-sustainable affordable housing for the Chife Foundation. There’s a collection of tribes that had given this land to one of the community members. They’d given him a scholarship when he was young to go to local schools, and then he went on to get an economics degree from the London School of Economics. Then he worked for Enron and Apple, and then he came back and started his own software company back in Nigeria. So he had millions of dollars that he could invest in building a city for the people who gave to him. He was a role model in that sense of going, doing something and giving back to your community. I really admired that.
I started working at the Brownsville Partnership, a project of Community Solutions, in the spring of 2012. I was also working for Perkins Eastman, an architecture firm in the city. I was doing one day here and four days there at Perkins, and I only really liked the one day. I tried to devote a lot of time to the work here. It was around creative services, branding, marketing, social media. There was one conversation with one of my supervisors, Nupur Chaudhury. She was saying that they needed to engage the community in some way. In my work in Nigeria, one way that they engaged was to get old shirts, and then to advertise the project we were working on for the community, silk-screen the logo of the project on the shirt and give it out, or have the locals make their own products. And I was like, “Well, we could do that in Brownsville.”
I quickly realized that there was a lot more impact that could be made with something like going on the street and having people silk-screen a shirt that says “Made in Brownsville.” The means of product production could go into changing the narrative for the community. Our arbitrary boundary sets this relationship between us and them, and them is everything else, and it puts us in a place where we’re made to accept a narrative that is imposed on us by what the media takes away from the community, as opposed to us generating the content that proliferates the positivity that exists in Brownsville.
The stated goal of Made in Brownsville is to give at-risk youth access to and experience in design projects. How do you go about that?
The projects are typically commission-based. We work with a lot of the community groups in the neighborhood. Community Solutions, for instance, which is our fiscal sponsor—while I was working for them, we applied for a retail market in a vacant lot, now known as MGB Pops, on Mother Gaston Boulevard under an RFP [Request for Proposal] that the Economic Development Corporation released, and we were awarded that. Then I left Community Solutions, and Made in Brownsville came back as a subcontractor for some of the design work, as well as the mural that went up on the site. Then we became tenants on the site. The design and the mural was a project that we were able to engage young people in conceiving and implementing. Brownsville Community Justice Center just got a permanent plaza approved close to where that mural is, on Osborn off of Belmont. Belmont Avenue has seen a lot of disinvestment over the years, a lot of vacant storefronts, so a lot of organizations are putting their heads together about how to revitalize that corridor.
As projects come, we’re also trying to build out the training component of the organization with cohorts. Right now, the cohorts typically come from subcontracts with groups like the Brownsville Community Justice Center, but we’re going to be starting our first cohort independent of BCJC around printmaking in April. The young people are learning Photoshop and design thinking around how to brand and market a campaign for anti-violence and also crime watch—how to get people to report crimes.
Why is visual art and design so important in creating social change?
For me, it’s the role of the artist to articulate the intentions of spatial interventions that are coming from the voices of the people in the community. People know how they want to feel in their space; they just don’t necessarily know how that works or how to articulate it formally. So we have to play that role in bridging the gap between intention and implementation. I think for a lot of the groups here, Made in Brownsville is the missing link. They could go and hire a huge architecture firm and get charged way too much to do one little project on a site, but it wouldn’t be worth it. So we offer a more sustainable route for nonprofits that are trying to just do good work.
I think the most important aspect of Made in Brownsville is the youth engagement, because a lot of where the young people go off track happens at that age between 14 and 21, where they just get caught up in the streets after school closes. They’re bored, and they need to be engaged in something, and there’s not enough activities for them to engage in within the community.
It seems like there’s a self-perpetuating cycle in Brownsville in which, because of the challenges in terms of economic opportunity and crime and education, people make it their goal to get out rather than staying here and seeking to improve it.
There’s an Alfred Kazin quote on our website, that Brownsville “measures all success by our skill in getting away from it.” People adopt that notion that you have to leave in order to seek a better life. But the interesting part about Brownsville is that it’s always been like that. Even when it was a predominantly Jewish population, it was still a very low-income population. I think that’s the mentality of people who live in low-income neighborhoods—that you have to escape it as opposed to changing it, as opposed to realizing where you fit within the systems of change and taking ownership of that.
There are a lot of experiments that have been done in Brownsville. Public housing was an experiment. A lot of social service programs are experimented here, and policies have come from experiments happening in Brownsville. We need to take charge of understanding our influence as residents, as grassroots organizers, as believers in the power of community advocacy. We have the tools that we need to make changes. It’s just making it accessible to residents who have never known that they had the tools.
The young people are the community. They’re the ones in the streets. The older people, they’re at work. If young professionals aren’t returning back to the neighborhood—there’s a generational gap that needs to be filled by someone. It’s the young people that we train now who are going to be the middle-aged people in the community later. At some point, you have to start investing in them, because then they’ll invest back in the place that invested in them.
Tell me about the results you’ve seen so far.
We were at MGB Pops, the retail market, for two and a half months. That was a period of market research for us, for the value of our products. Mother Gaston over by Belmont is the heart of Brownsville. As retailers in that space, we sold the most out of all of the apparel retailers, and we were always the most active in terms of engagement from the community. People would walk up like, “Oh yeah, I know somebody that makes shirts”; “Oh, I like what you’re doing with these young people.” There was always that feedback that allowed us to realize that people value the brand of Brownsville.
We had our launch in that space as well. It was freezing, and we were able to pack that tiny space with about 160 to 170 people toward the end of November for a fundraiser and launch, which I’m sure isn’t unprecedented, but for a local organization that has just been working on the ground since April—it meant, I think, a lot to everybody who showed up.
One of the young men that we worked with through one of the design workshops was able to take the mic and do one of his poems. He talked about the importance of an organization like Made in Brownsville in him being able to engage in that kind of forum in his own community. Another young man—he’s a designer, 20 years old, and we were able to purchase his screens for his shirts, because he would go to a printmaker and they would charge him way too much to make six or seven shirts when he could be making them himself. In that same event, he did an Instagram post that just made me cry, about this being his first fashion show, and thanking us for giving him the space and opportunity to do that and believing in him. That’s the stuff that gets me teary-eyed. That was an expensive event to throw, and that one Instagram post made it all worth it.
I think the important thing is that we’re reaching parts of the community that other organizations haven’t reached yet and bringing them to this space. I think the space where all these organizations interact is more important than any one organization, because there’s a lot of interaction that occurs that benefits the participants of all these programs. If we’re able to tap the mind of one artistically inclined young person to get into the space with all these other organizations and deal with a lot of their other issues, I think then we’ve impacted their life positively.
There are plenty of oversimplified assessments of what Brownsville needs, what Brownsville’s challenges are. The narrative in the media is that “this is why there are these challenges in Brownsville,” and “these are what Brownsville’s problems are,” and that’s a narrative created by people who aren’t really familiar with the community. How does your approach differ?
Look, when you used to Google “Made in Brownsville,” the first thing that came up was “More Arrests Made in Brownsville.” Now, when you Google it, it’s a bunch of products and interactions that are owned by community residents, that shine a positive light on the things that happen in our community. I think to the extent that that brand gets attributed more so to the place than to any kind of organization—if we’re adding value to the place, the work of impacting the narrative is being done in that way, such that it will trickle down to the people growing up in Brownsville and how they see themselves and value themselves.
So what does the future look like for the organization?
We’re going to do a series of proposals for interventions and secure spaces around Marcus Garvey Village. We got our first major grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council to do our “entourage” project over the summer. We’re going to be engaging a small group of community members in creating some urban furniture for underutilized space within Brownsville. And MGB Pops is opening back up in May. It’s like 20 things in the air.
We’re completing the area’s first health impact assessment. It’s a multistep process of community engagement, vetting and analyzing proposals for interventions within the community such that you can assess the impact and then make recommendations around it—the impact on health and violence or crime and other socioeconomic factors. We did one around Belmont Avenue and Pitkin Avenue, Belmont being that corridor I was saying is really vacant, because we proposed an incubation lab in Brownsville for that space.
There are a lot of exciting things happening in Brownsville. There’s a lot of attention being paid to Brownsville right now, for obvious reasons: space, and there being lots of it here. That’s why it becomes ever more important that the community organizes before they get organized.
The grand vision of Made in Brownsville is, you enter into a café, and there’s a gallery of young people’s work and products that you can purchase that were all made in Brownsville. And behind that is the fabrications lab, a room for think-tanking and innovation, a woodshop and metal shop. Those are things that we’re working toward, and to the extent that now is a good time to plan and make the best decisions around how those types of projects get implemented, things like a health impact assessment are important to see how the community feels about them and what it takes to successfully implement and make change within the community.