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Ben Ziggy aulding with his portrait from “Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In our current social climate, dominated by a xenophobic presidential candidate, fragile police/minority relations, and the ever-growing specter of a hyper-gentrified New York City, artists and non-artists alike are worried about the state of our society — but few among us know where to look for solutions. Despite the diversity of New York City specifically and the country as a whole, we often find ourselves in communities that are deeply stratified by socioeconomic class, race, religion, and gender. Portrait artist Rusty Zimmerman is working to change that with his recently completed Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights, which has culminated with an exhibit at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. That his work reflects on these issues is not remarkable. What is remarkable is the way he has used his work to facilitate dialogue and empathy within his community.

A neighborhood man with his portrait

Having previously worked as a portrait painter for notables such as Andrew Cuomo, Zimmerman wanted to dispel the stigma that portraiture was only for the wealthy. The idea behind the project is simple: In one year he would paint the portraits of 200 people from his Crown Heights neighborhood. With the help of crowdfunding, it would be free for participants, who would keep their portraits once the project finished. Each sitter would be painted in oil in about four hours, and during the painting process, the conversation between artist and sitter would be recorded, with the recordings ultimately given to both the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Weeksville Heritage Center as an oral history of the neighborhood. It was imperative that the project be inclusive and that the sitters represent all the many diverse communities that make up Crown Heights — Caribbean, Hasidim, African American, hipster, Panamanian, elders, police, and more. Community interaction between these groups was fostered throughout the project by a series of openings and events at 14 locations that would appeal to different demographics in the community ranging from museums, synagogues, and a community centers to the Brooklyn Bells ice cream shop and Happylucky No. 1 gallery. Zimmerman also included a street-art component during the course of the project by wheat-pasting some of the portraits on construction walls around the neighborhood.

“Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights,” installation view

Like much of New York City, Crown Heights experienced white flight in the middle of the last century, followed by a period of decline. The Chasidic Chabad Lubavitch community, which has its world headquarters on Eastern Parkway, stayed in Crown Heights and was joined by African Americans and West Indian immigrants. At one of the receptions associated with the project, Evangeline Porter, whose portrait is included in the exhibit, spoke to Hyperallergic about the neighborhood. She moved here 57 years ago after graduating from Howard University and has seen it go through many changes. For many years, she said, it was “downtrodden, it was full of drugs, it was dirty.” The neighborhood is notorious for being the site of three days of rioting between Jewish and black residents in 1991, after a black youth was killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitch Grand Rebe Schneerson, igniting long-standing tensions between the two communities. The riot caused casualties on both sides and deep fissures in the neighborhood. Since then, community members from both demographics, as well as the NYPD, have worked to build bridges through events like neighborhood barbecues and soccer matches between Chasidic and West Indian teams, with varying degrees of success in unifying these diverse populations. Tensions have occasionally arisen, as black residents complain about mistreatment from landlords, shopkeepers, and the Jewish Civilian Patrol or Shomrim, a private Chasidic police force; while Jewish residents complain of being mugged. Colin Karlcohen, who moved to the area from Jamaica 40 years ago, has worked to soothe animosity in the neighborhood as president of the 71st Precinct Community Council. At the exhibition opening, he said, “the riot took place two stores away from me, so I have seen from the start and to the finish…and I can see the transformation of Crown Heights with the inflow of white people, Jewish People, black people. It’s all good: Unity in the community is what we see and must have.”

A portrait of Rabbi Behrman

Gentrification over the last decade has further changed the dynamic of Crown Heights, as rampant development occurs and more affluent residents move in, causing rents to skyrocket. City services such as sanitation and policing have improved, but many longtime residents can no longer afford to stay and benefit from these upgrades. Similarly, many new hip bars and restaurants have sprouted up along main streets like Franklin Avenue that cater to the new residents and change the culture of the neighborhood. But even as older residents are pushed out, many new residents may feel like pawns, as they are themselves fleeing rising rents in other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

As New York continues to develop and gentrify, issues of displacement and the whitewashing of history and culture are becoming increasingly problematic. These concerns are complicated, difficult to solve, and oftentimes appear beyond our control, but there are ways we can assert agency. Despite the diversity of New York City neighborhoods, residents tend to display an inability to socialize, interact with, and relate to people who look different, who do not have the same income or share the same traditions, even if they are our neighbors. When newcomers move to a neighborhood like Crown Heights, they may often feel isolated because they are not aware (or part) of the longstanding traditions and histories of the place. But allowing our differences to isolate us into monocultural communities only hastens the whitewashing caused by gentrification. Empathizing with others is one way we can work against this racism and misanthropy. If we can take the time and tolerate the awkwardness of familiarizing ourselves with our neighbors, it can help us maintain robust communities.

Carl Desir with his portrait

Zimmerman hopes that his project can help bring the Crown Heights community together to cross the boundaries that divide. His projected culminated with Crown Heights Free Portrait Project at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, an exhibition of all 200 portraits, as well as a multimedia component: QR codes accompany each portrait which, when activated with a smartphone, present audio excerpts from the interviews conducted during the sittings, giving a story to each portrait. Crown Heights resident Ben Ziggy Faulding has lived in the neighborhood for four years, and although he described himself as “part of the new wave of people moving in, part of the Jewish community, Black, a little bit of a hipster,” he noted that he often does not have time to get to know others in the community. “There was [a portrait of] one person who I had never seen before, don’t know anything about her, and I expected the audio clip to be something about her musings on the community. [Instead] it was like, ‘This is what it’s like to be catcalled and it’s annoying,.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what she is thinking about…’ It’s something you wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity to hear.” This ability to foster exchange and allow us to see through one another’s eyes is at the heart of this exhibit and what makes it important.

As busy individuals in a rapidly changing city and country, it is often easy to feel powerless when we consider the many large social issues swirling around us: gentrification, racism, sexism, education reform, economic disparity, and the like. The Free Portrait Project reminds us that if we take the time to interact with our neighbors, it can become a point of empowerment in understanding our communities. Carl Desir moved to Crown Heights six years ago. He participated in the project and felt it was significant because “it breaks down those barriers that most people feel when people move in or people move out… It brings the neighborhood together.” Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, who was born in the neighborhood, sees the project as a continuing effort in the community. “I think we are still watching the project develop,” he said. “Rusty painted everybody, brought everybody together, now we as a community — let’s see if we can take this project and build on it.”

“Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights,” installation view

Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights continues at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (145 Brooklyn Ave., Brooklyn) through October 23.

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Justin Mugits

Justin Mugits is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Mongolia) and Anthropologist /Historian. He currently works in museum programing and has previously spent time as an archeological field technician, teacher...