The BEAT team has interviewed each artist participating in this year’s festival to learn more about their life, work and relationship to Brooklyn. What follows is our conversation with Radha Blank.
Can you describe the Brooklyn you knew growing up?
I grew up on the south side of Williamsburg. My parents were part of a group of Black and Brown artists and musicians who entered that community in the early ’70s. There were a lot of dilapidated lofts and storefronts that these artists turned into homes and art enclaves (like Gerry Eastman’s Williamsburgh Music Center, which is still going strong!) We were right off the water, so I have lots of fond memories of the piers there. It was a very lively and yet very sound hood where many Hasidic Jews, Puerto Rican families, Vietnam Vets and biker gangs had settled. (Remember it was a different era so these “gangs” were more like cool big brothers.)
My parents and their fellow artists worked hard to engage the community with block parties, cookouts, and jams, and since break dancing was big then, we did dance battles too. My father Roger Blank, a jazz musician, taught the local kids drumming. My mom Carol Blank, an artist, taught painting. It was a very different time. The hipster culture had not infiltrated that area yet.
We were pretty much pushed out of the brownstone we were living in because it was owned by the city which hired developers to create more housing for the Hasids. By the time we moved to Brownsville in the late 80’s, crack was ravaging the area as well as other low-income neighborhoods, so it was a very different Brooklyn. I didn’t live within a community anymore; I lived on a block.
So you’ve seen the process of Brooklyn gentrifying.
Yes, and I don’t think that gentrification is necessarily a bad word because my parents on some level were gentrifiers, but theirs was of a very different style. They entered Williamsburg with the intention to invest something, contribute toward what had already existed. At the time, even though they had come from different cultural backgrounds and levels of education, folks pretty much had the same living circumstances. But now, in Harlem and Brooklyn, someone who’s barely making ends meet will live next to the owner of a half a million-dollar condo. My concern is whether the two residents see each other and not their socio-economic status. At what point do people feel they wont or no longer belong? This “insider/outsider” issue is something I often confront in my work.
But I don’t think all gentrification is bad, because with gentrifiers often comes better produce and amenities to a struggling or previously deprived area. It’s just a shame that these changes generally come with the gentrifiers.
What are some specific ways to gentrify an area organically and sustainably?
The city must continue to provide home-buying education and incentives for low-income families so they cam remain in their neighborhoods after they’ve gone through “beautification”. And for those entering, they should make some kind of investment into unit community they are entering. Tend to a community garden, volunteer at the local after school program, really get to know the people living around you—help sustain elements of the community that existed before you came and give it something it did not have before you entered it. It’s about participating in that comm
unity as opposed to isolating yourself.
What is your favorite Brooklyn restaurant?
I love a lot of the halal spots on Fulton Street between Bedford and Franklin Avenues. The food is awesome, really affordable and I love the sense of community amongst the African immigrant Muslims who frequent and own them.
What is your favorite memory of Brooklyn?
As an aspiring filmmaker I always wanted my own production company. So I came up with the name Silver Bridge inspired by the Williamsburg Bridge, which was always painted grey but from certain points in the city looked silver. It’s often how we got to the city. My family and I must have walked, biked over that bridge a million times. It’s such an important part of my childhood and represents for me what it means to have vision…to see something from a different perspective.
What is your favorite theatrical moment in Brooklyn?
Urban Bush Women. I think Jawole Zollar is one of our most amazing treasures in the arts. When I first saw them perform I was dazzled. Such powerful women! Such a strong image! I wore my “I am an urban bush woman” t-shirt into the ground! I had never before seen such profound stories told through movement. As a storyteller, their work would ignite my mind to what is possible.
To purchase tickets to Radha Blank’s “HappyFlowerNail”, click the link below:
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