If you think you know New York City history, Black history, American history—anything about Brooklyn at all—but you don’t know about Weeksville, then go to the Creative Time project Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn before it closes this Sunday, October 12.
There are five major sites specific to this ambitious, neighborhood-spanning creative meditation on Black history and gentrification. The show begins when you emerge from the A/C subway stop at Utica Avenue, where Otabenga Jones & Associates with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium have created a combination live DJ / temporary radio station / visitor performance space in the back of a pink Cadillac. You can pick up a map of the entire project here, or just hang out for hours and have seriously funky fun while learning a thing or two about Black music and politics. During my visit, a few young girls walked by and broke out in dance when Sugar Hill Gang came on. An old man in an old car stuck his head out the window, eyes firmly off the road; he kept staring as he passed until his head was turned so far back he had to give up and keep driving.
From that point I walked east on Fulton and south down Rochester to the new cultural arts building of the Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC), a multifaceted museum dedicated to preserving the history of a free and intentional 19th century African American community along with documenting changes to the Crown Heights Bed-Stuy area over time. The site contains three restored houses from the original Weeksville settlement and gardens, a beekeeping and honey spinning facility, and a wholesome bakery and coffee shop.
According to Jonathan Tarleton, in the September 24 Architectural League’s Urban Omnibus, “This group of historic houses is … all that remain of Weeksville, a freedman’s town founded by stevedore and black suffragist leader James Weeks and a group of black investors in 1838 … just eleven years after the abolition of slavery in New York State and 27 years before the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery across the United States. With landowning a prerequisite for men to gain citizenship and the vote, the town’s founding epitomized the black struggle for self-determination, and it pioneered a model for developing free, self-sufficient black communities in an era hostile to the proposition.”
Inside the WHC is a gallery whose current exhibit, produced by local children, displays graphs, charts, statistics, and reflections on the changing neighborhood demographics, alongside video footage of Weeksville teachers offering some children a lesson in black history. On the day of my visit, a hoard of little girls, ranging from about 5-8 years old, were investigating the exhibit with great seriousness.
You should go. Just go.
Inside one of the restored homes you can find another important piece of the Creative Time project, Xenobia Bailey’s Century 21: Bed-Stuy Rhapsody in Design: A Reconstruction Urban Remix in the Aesthetic of Funk, a collaboration with students from Boys & Girls High School to construct “up-cycled furniture” out of found, discarded materials in order to create a “funkified” living space for “an imaginary local artist couple artist couple who leverage industrial design to support their dreams.” Also on the grounds of WHC, while Ms. Bailey and some of her comrades sat weaving plastic grocery bags into a blanket, I saw a man running a BBQ pit and giving away food, a healthy cooking demonstration, and young men working in the garden and maintaining the bees.
I walked west on Bergen and turned up Schenectady to the Bethel Tabernacle AME Church, where I was greeted by three enthusiastic young Creative Time workers who asked me to sign a waiver before entering the old abandoned church: I’d find some random boards and pieces of drywall strewn about, they warned, so I should be careful walking.
Entering the space was exciting. For a minute I felt like I was simply entering an abandoned building on my own. Then I heard the film music, a deep, dirgic drone, somewhere between horror movie violins and heavy machinery on a construction site. As I turned the first corner I saw open church pews and a few people inside, the dark glow of the film on their faces. Here cinematographer Bradford Young’s three-channel video installation weaves together shots of the church, the nearby steetscape, Weeksville’s historic houses, and the faces of the church’s longest serving members. Their faces, shot close up, both head-on and in profile, seemed bent on staying as expressionless and immobile as possible. But the film become a study of how no one can really lack expression. Their faces’ micro-movements, and their apparent attempts to hold them back, suggested all the complex memory and emotion these elders might be carrying: joy, sadness, bitterness, anger, righteousness, pride, the peace of religious devotion. This was for me the most moving, mysterious, and provocative of the five featured pieces.
One of the most impressive pieces is the work by installation and performance artist Simone Leigh, whose installation offers a tremendous amount of specific history, and also a large number of real services for the community. Leigh has turned Stuyvesant Mansion into the Free People’s Medical Clinic, a real, actual administered care center that simultaneously offers a history of black doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers. I was blown away by the offerings: OB/GYN care, acupuncture, massage, diabetes workshops, HIV testing, herbal instruction, Affordable Care Act guidance, yoga classes, and blood pressure screening. There is also a sound installation of oral histories of black nurses and a waiting room filled with fiction, poetry, and non-fiction pieces on medicine, secret-keeping, ghosts, and herbalism.
Curator Rashida Bumbray and everyone at Creative Time should be commended for producing this innovative, experiential, experimental, and deeply informative exhibit, one that provides us all with a highly specific opportunity to reflect on the human cost of our city’s religious belief in development. You should go. Just go.