Given its history, it is fair to say that many Red Hookers were understandably hesitant about ambitious new government initiatives. In attempting to win community support for the Justice Center, this attitude would prove to be planners' largest obstacle.
In 1994, Greg Berman was hired as the lead planner for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The following are excerpts from his Planning Diary, which he wrote as a record of how he negotiated some of the challenges of early planning, including community needs assessment, fundraising and program design. To read the entire document, click here.
The focus groups were productive sessions, unearthing a treasure trove of valuable data about community attitudes and expectations. At the same time, they were a useful tool for building neighborhood support, as I discovered in the days that followed.
Red Hook is a neighborhood with a deep skepticism about government initiatives, a skepticism that is rooted in a history of government neglect and unwanted intervention. Many Red Hook residents feel that their community is home to a disproportionate number of undesirable government projects. They point to the neighborhood’s methadone clinic and waste transfer station as prime examples. They also feel that their neighborhood’s character was forever changed for the worse by Robert Moses, the master builder of New York, who essentially cut the neighborhood off from the rest of Brooklyn when he constructed the elevated Gowanus Parkway in the 1940s.
Given this history, it is fair to say that many Red Hookers are understandably hesitant about ambitious new government initiatives, no matter how good they sound on paper. In attempting to win community support for the Justice Center, this attitude would prove to be our largest obstacle. We got off to a good start in overcoming it with the focus groups. Almost by accident, we had sent a powerful message to Red Hook residents by convening the focus groups. And that message was: your voice counts. The focus groups were a visible sign that we intended to consult the community at each step of the process. This was not lost on participants.
Over the next several months, I met individually with every stakeholder that I could think of: business owners, clergy, tenant leaders, elected officials, police officers, Housing Authority administrators, local social service providers and others. As an outsider to the community, I took pains to emphasize that I was there to learn from them, that my job was to help translate their concerns and their ideas into concrete programs. In general, people were generous with their time and grateful to be asked their opinion.
I also went to as many public meetings in Red Hook as possible. At some, I spoke about the Justice Center. At others, I went just to listen. This sent the message that I wasn’t coming to the community as a carpetbagger, that I was interested in more than just selling a bill of goods.
What I learned from all of these encounters was that there is no substitute for face time. In other words, it is impossible to build meaningful relationships with people without investing significant time and energy. As the months passed, I found my connections with community leaders deepening. I met their children, attended their church services, wrote them letters of recommendation, ate dinner with them, and supported several of their neighborhood charity efforts. These ties would serve the Justice Center well when it was necessary to mobilize neighborhood support for a grant proposal, a newspaper article or a public meeting.
To my surprise, my outreach efforts revealed very few concerns about the Justice Center. The few issues that did come up were less about the concept than about process: Who would direct the Justice Center once it opened? What were we doing about jobs for neighborhood residents? Would the Justice Center have a community advisory board?
Given these concerns, we decided to create a formal vehicle for community input. For the last 30 years, New York City has had a network of 59 "community boards" that are responsible for advising the city’s administration about land use and other neighborhood issues. Several dozen community representatives sit on each board. Early on, Community Board 6 in Brooklyn, which includes Red Hook, agreed to convene a special task force devoted to the Justice Center. During the first years of planning, this task force functioned as a de facto advisory board for the project. They convened public meetings about the project every three months or so. These sessions were a valuable opportunity for community residents to stay informed about the Justice Center and for us to keep our fingers on the pulse of the neighborhood.