Livonia Avenue intersects the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York. Once, Livonia was lined with a grocer, a dry cleaner, a furniture store — the types of mom-and-pop businesses that signal a healthy, thriving neighborhood. But those buildings fell into receivership decades ago, and the storefronts have sat vacant ever since.
Now, Community Solutions and its Brownsville Partnership are trying to catalyze the area’s renewal. They are a core part of the Livonia 4 Team (including Community Solutions), a coalition dedicated to transforming four area properties. John Napolitano, Senior Project Manager, The Brownsville Partnership, explains it’s not just about housing. “We are trying to create a whole new environment on a long stretch of blocks.” Fortunately, there is a clear local blueprint: The Brownsville Plan.
This plan was developed with deep community input in 2016 and 2017, including many families that have been Brownsville residents for multiple generations. Napolitano notes, “It gave us the template for how to proceed.”
Quite simply, the residents want change. Health is rooted in the environments in which people live, work, and play. Today, life expectancy in Brownsville is 74.4 years — nearly a decade shorter than the average lifespan in nearby boroughs. The reasons may lie in Brownsville’s longstanding history of residential racial segregation, as startling health inequalities often occur in BIPOC communities and places where many residents live in poverty.
To counter that, Brownsville residents envision transforming Livonia into a healthy living corridor. They asked for healthy lifestyle resources — not just groceries with fresh produce, but community gardens so their vegetables could be locally sourced. They asked for open space — and formed a land trust to ensure they get it. They asked for activated streetscapes that feel safe and encourage walking, and for fitness and exercise opportunities.
Emotional and mental health also play a huge role in residents’ abilities to thrive. The Brownsville Partnership is focused on meeting residents’ needs for support, celebrating and cultivating their resilience, and addressing trauma that jeopardizes their physical and mental health. A $575,000 predevelopment loan from BlueHub will be used to build 80 new units of supportive housing for homeless and housing insecure youth and their families.
“We are developing an integrated supportive housing project serving young adults and young adult families who have been touched by the various systems — the foster care system, the criminal justice system, the homeless system — which have adversely impacted their lives,” explains Napolitano. “We are trying to design a long-term housing solution for this vulnerable population along with other families.”
He continues, “Often these young adults have a checkered housing history. This is really their first venture into living on their own; we want to be sure that transition happens in the right way so they can succeed and thrive.”
Helping residents thrive means providing an array of support services customized to their needs. A core component will be one-to-one coaching. Napolitano explains, “We know these young adults lack the kind of adult support and guidance we all need. Having the staff establish a rapport as a coach, not a case manager, is at the heart of this model.”
“Mental health services are desperately needed right now in communities of color — they are struggling — and Brownsville is no different. It is important to have strong, reliable partners in tenuous moments like this. BlueHub has been there for us.”
“Of course, the need was quite acute before the pandemic and the unrest of this last year.” He concludes, “If anything, the pandemic was an X-ray on our society showing us where things are broken in the whole physiology of the community, where the pain points are, and where the healing needs to happen: Everywhere.”