Community, art, and placemaking: The incomplete transformation of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery

“Give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians”

– William H. Whyte


In the book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) foresees the increasing need for cities to seek opportunities for placemaking in small spaces. The Bushwick Collective is an outdoor street gallery that runs mainly along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues in Bushwick, Brooklyn. If you’ve never been there, it is an extremely small space but it is an exemplary space. The area is fascinating because, despite its crime-ridden past, street art has livened up the old abandoned manufacturing buildings and has helped generate a booming street front, complete with cool bars and restaurants. Even the pizza chain, Artichoke Pizza, has entered the neighborhood on the corner of Wyckoff and Troutman, which is directly across the street from a giant Bushwick Collective mural of cartoon-like skulls reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, I would argue that the space is compromised by its appeal because of the Collective’s exclusivity regarding how they select street and graffiti artists, which impacts the types of audiences attracted to the space. I would also argue that the physical design of the space is in need of alteration considering the lack of adequate infrastructure, such as benches and trees, that would attract more members from the community. There are various ways to improve the area’s connection to the community and design.

Even though the area has reached great commercial success, the space is too disconnected from the community who live there. Physical distance from local residents is not the issue. Just a few blocks southeast of the Collective is a local nursing home, and just a few blocks east and west of the Collective are a couple of elementary schools. Although the physical distance between The Bushwick Collective and neighborhood residents is relatively small, the cultural divide is quite vast.

My main contention with the outdoor street gallery is that locals do not participate in co-creating the space. Only world renowned graffiti and street artists have the luxury of creating street art with The Bushwick Collective, if they are lucky. Space is limited and the Collective is very selective. I will say, it is important not to dismiss what The Bushwick Collective has achieved for street and graffiti art due to their expansive popularity. In many places graffiti art is still stigmatized and misunderstood as being associated with gang activity and vandalism, thus it is often widely discouraged and degraded to less than art. The work of The Bushwick Collective helps to reduce these stigmas. Furthermore, the Collective acquires permits for their art, and it is a safe place for artists to show off their talents. Despite all of the good The Bushwick Collective achieves for graffiti and street art and artists, the art has limited meaning to the community who have lived there for perhaps generations (before gentrification). While The Bushwick Collective focuses on garnering national and international talent to produce incredible works of graffiti art, it mainly attracts non-Bushwick natives. Visitors from around the world often go on walking tours to see the murals, and take selfies with the murals along the way. These tourists are often hipsters who also shop at the neighborhood’s overpriced vintage stores. But what about other members of the community? Where are they?

What you see is not always what you get. The overwhelming presence of hipsters at The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery and at the shops and restaurants popping up throughout the area (a token to the Collective’s spillover effects on local commercial businesses and housing prices) successfully masks what inspired Joe Ficalora to create the organization in the first place, which is actually deeply rooted in the neighborhood’s history and culture of violence and poverty. In fact, Ficalora had a rough childhood growing up in Bushwick. In the short documentary published by Tribeca Film called, “Born and Bred: The Bushwick Collective” (Hybenova, 2015), Ficalora talks about his story and why he got into street art:

My father got murdered. I was in eighth grade. He was murdered here in Bushwick, on Starr Street and Wyckoff. I asked some owners for permission to use their buildings for this idea, and they asked me, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘Well I gotta work here every day, I live here, I gotta drive this street every day. So when people come, they got something beautiful to look at.’

It takes a strong person to convert a space that evokes so much pain and suffering into a place that others can enjoy and appreciate; into a place that could fill others with hope and inspiration. What Joe Ficalora did with The Bushwick Collective was, for all intents and purposes, placemaking. But when I last went to The Bushwick Collective along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues, the connection between the site’s current status and its legacy felt disjointed. Like with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, I was hoping the art would speak to me in some way; I was hoping it would tell a story with pictorial elegance of this place and the people who live here. It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

Joe Ficalora’s vision for beautifying the Bushwick streetscape and placemaking is incomplete without enhanced community ownership. As noted earlier, street art along The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is not co-created by the community. Other non-profit organizations with similar missions of beautifying decaying neighborhoods in outer New York City boroughs, such as 7 Train Murals in Queens, have done remarkably well at involving the local community in beautification projects. On their website, 7 Train Murals proudly proclaims in all capital letters, “ALL MURALS 100% PAINTED AND MAINTAINED BY VOLUNTEERS WHO LIVE AND WORK IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD!” (n.d., p. 1).  By contrasting the missions of these two nonprofits it is easy to see the difference in priorities between a community-based mural organization and an outdoor street gallery featuring artists from all over the world.

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) explains that city streets serve as informal recreation areas. He hinges his analysis on observations he made of the street life on 101st Avenue in East Harlem. On 101st street, the street was the play area – not because children had no other place to play, but because they liked to play on the street (Whyte, 1980, p.10-12). In addition to serving as a play area, a city street is something of an “art area” for children to create and recreate the streetscape. In Bushwick, children often draw colorful figurines and hop scotch games onto sidewalks and streets during the summer. The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is the perfect place to activate neighborhood children in the arts and harness their creative minds through the co-creation of murals along with professionals and other community members. To avoid mission creep, perhaps The Bushwick Collective could partner with the City, local schools, businesses, non-profits, and/or organizations to co-sponsor this type of artwork. However, the issue of children lacking exposure to art may already be near and dear to Ficalora’s heart because in the short film he mentions not having access to artistic pathways growing up (Hybenova, 2015). Perhaps he would be open to expanding his legacy and impacting the community in this profound way, too. Additionally, to further engage the surrounding community, The Bushwick Collective could partner with other organizations to participate and sponsor in neighborhood networking clean-up events, which is another creative idea developed by 7 Train Murals.

In addition to engaging children and the community in placemaking, expanding the publicness of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery requires important structural elements, too. In my most recent visit to the space, I noticed there were very few benches to sit on, which were all fixed, shallow and very uncomfortable looking. Few trees lined the sidewalks to shade pedestrians from blazing hot summer days. According to Whyte (1980), the availability of sitting areas impacts the usage of the space. Therefore, more benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

More benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

A critical juncture to optimizing the publicness of the space would be to permanently close off The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery from cars altogether (particularly along Troutman Avenue, between Wyckoff Avenue and Saint Nicholas Avenue). Closing off the street to cars would make it safer for children to play in the street; it would allow the space to act more as a public plaza, opening up the street for outdoor seating, street vendors, and three dimensional artsy structures. However, a barista informed me during one of my observations of the space that street parking is an issue in the area, and local shop owners and trucks park along the street in the mornings until about one in the afternoon. Still, considering the level to which The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is already public, and in spirit of Whyte’s plea to “give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians” (p. 100), a compromise, at the very least, should be considered.

Since I moved to Bushwick in January of 2014, I have admired the The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery, and how frequently the street art changes like the seasons. It’s like I get to experience my neighborhood for the first time all over again each time a new mural goes up. Surely, The Bushwick Collective have helped liven up a neighborhood previously known for high crime rates and abandoned manufacturing buildings, which felt more like streets lined of abandoned dreams. The organization has successfully transformed a space into a place, and involving the community in placemaking and incorporating structural improvements would help complete its transformation. noun_766494-1

UPDATE (3/30/2017): I have contacted Joe, the creator of The Bushwick Collective, to gather more information (that may not be available on the web) regarding whether or not The Bushwick Collective has had the opportunity to partner with local public schools or community-based groups/organizations to create murals in the neighborhood. And if this is something The Bushwick Collective has done in the past, or if this something that the organization is potentially interested in doing in the near future. There may be bottlenecks to such collaborations (particularly with the City) to which I am currently unaware. I really look forward to hearing from him (fingers crossed). Hopefully more to follow on this soon. Thanks for reading!


7 Train Murals. (n.d.). 7 Train Murals [Website home page]. Retrieved on March 27, 2017, from Link

The Bushwick Collective. (2017). The Bushwick Collective: Facebook homepage. Retrieved from Link

Hybenova, K. (2015, June 4). Tribeca Film published a short film about The Bushwick Collective: Just in time for this Saturday’s Bushwick Collective Block Party, Tribeca Film. Bushwick Daily. Retrieved from Link

Whyte, W. H. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York, NY: Project for Public Spaces.

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