For a borough with a dense and diverse history, Brooklyn doesn’t have much in the way of public historic recognition. Sure, there are some plaques for the Battle of Brooklyn and historic writer homes in Brooklyn Heights, but the details of the communities formed and the places that are their foundations are often anonymous in the urban landscape. Artist Anna Robinson-Sweet’s current installation project adds historic plaques around the borough to highlight what has been forgotten.
“I think it’s just really important to recognize history and the way that it’s not something very historically important happened in that place, but the way that the physical makeup of the neighborhood has changed and really imagine what that’s like, and how our history is really shaped by these strutures we see every day,” Robinson-Sweet told Hyperallergic.
Each of the 10 places in her National Register of Historic Places, 2013 Additions, Brooklyn, NY project were labeled with a silkscreen poster in late May. These works so perfectly replicate the language and aesthetic of the official National Register of Historic Places plaques you’d think, at least from afar, that it was the real thing rather than a piece of street art. Eight of these places have actually been destroyed, and the other two much changed. Yet by recognizing what happened in that place, she hopes to connect it to a moment in the history of its neighborhood. For example, there’s the former location of the Butterick Publishing Company at 18th Avenue and McDonald Avenue, where the Delineator, the most popular fashion magazine of the early 1900s, was published, and its editors in 1920 used its readership to raise money to buy a gram of radium for Marie Curie. There’s also the former location of the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360 degree mural of the battle once presented at Joralemon Street that “was so effective that veterans of the war were frequently brought to tears.” And there’s the Empire Roller Rink on Empire Boulevard that was torn down and replaced with a storage complex. She actually got confronted by the storage employees while installing that one, only to get in an extensive conversation with a woman who worked there and remembered growing up skating in the roller rink.
“I think that the contrast between what was there and what is there now is really important in terms of presenting the way neighborhoods change, and to think about a place that was a really vibrant community center in a neighborhood that you would never expect or never know, especially for people who are more recent there,” she said.
Robinson-Sweet is originally from Brooklyn, but left to study art at Yale and it was there she fell into the rabbit hole of Brooklyn history with a project on Coney Island. She now hopes to expand the historic plaque project to more areas of the borough, as really the history of Brooklyn is so complex and ever-developing that almost every site has some historic significance to its community. “There’s so much that has changed in Brooklyn, and I feel like there’s this sort of angry and proprietary feeling of people who have lived here for a long time, but I think it’s a very emotional reaction,” she said. “I got interested in it in a non-angry or critical way and just explored that history.”
View more of Anna Robsinon-Sweet’s National Register of Historic Places, 2013 Additions, Brooklyn, NY and find a map of all the historic silkscreen plaques.