Installation view of Brooklyn Utopias in the Old Stone House (photo by Rick Schwab)

This past weekend the renovations of Washington Park and the J.J. Byrne Playground outside the Old Stone House in Park Slope were unveiled to a cacophonous crowd of thrilled children and their parents. Fittingly, I was there to see Brooklyn Utopias: Park Space, Play Space, an exhibit on the second level of the Old Stone House coinciding with the park’s reopening that invited artists to respond to the ideas of bringing play to public spaces while being conscious of community and urban development.

Washington Park viewed from the Old Stone House (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

While I talked with curator Katherine Gressel and Old Stone House executive director Kimberly Maier about public play space in New York City, it was possible to see the results of the years of community planning that went into the now vibrant greenspace outside. Where once there was an asphalt field and scrubs of patchy grass, there is now a swath of green adorned with climbing toys and fountains. The 19 artists and organizations in Brooklyn Utopias: Park Space, Play Space take the concept of community play spaces further in their exploration of how art can be a strategy for addressing public parks and recreation spaces, as well as examining the eminent domain and gentrification that sometimes drives these developments.

Katherine Gressel, curator of Brooklyn Utopias

Brooklyn Utopias, an ongoing series curated by Katherine Gressel in the Old Stone House, asks artists to envision an ideal city using Brooklyn as a lens. Gressel said that she first had the concept for Brooklyn Utopias back in 2008, when Brooklyn’s rising popularity and subsequent boom in housing construction resulted in overdevelopment and other consequences. Many grassroots groups have responded by taking an active role in improving neighborhoods and bringing community ideas together, and Brooklyn Utopias is a way to see how artists are addressing these same issues.

Previous Brooklyn Utopias exhibits have focused on overdevelopment, community preservation and urban agriculture, and Park Space, Play Space, in bringing play into this urban development dialogue, has organizations like the Groundswell Mural Project presenting a video of their “Dreams (Infinite Dreams)” mural created in a partnership with the Trust for Public Land as part of a greater project to transform PS 164 in Borough Park’s blacktop schoolyard into a green play space, and artists like Bettina Johae investigating how eminent domain has been used for forming parks in Brooklyn.

Bettina Johae, “Eminent domain nyc – Brooklyn parks” (detail)

The Old Stone House is an appropriate venue for exhibits on idealized urban planning, as the house itself is the result of a 1930 Robert Moses project to create an idealized replica of a 1699 Dutch farmhouse that was a site in the Battle of Brooklyn. Katherine Gressel is a painter herself and has explored the development of Brooklyn in her work, including a painting that places the Battle of Brooklyn in the contemporary Brooklyn streets, which is held in the Old Stone House’s permanent exhibit downstairs. Modern battles over public space also inspired Park Space, Play Space, including Occupy Wall Street, represented through the art of Karen Kaapcke who did plein air paintings in Zuccotti Park. (She was featured on Hyperallergic in December 2011.)

Cheryl Molnar, “Kent Ave. 2005-2011” (2012), ink-jet prints

The fact that one person’s utopia can be another’s loss is an undercurrent throughout the exhibit, as well as the impact of development on the natural and existing urban terrain of Brooklyn. Cheryl Molnar concentrated on the rapid transformation of Kent Avenue after the rezoning of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront, and the sprouting of apartment buildings, along with the opening of public space and parks, shows how in only a few years this dramatic construction project has brought both new economic and community activity, as well as major changes in the area’s character.

Marina Zamalin, “Brooklyn Canals” (2009-2011), video (photo by Rick Schwab)

Much of the art definitely has its strength in the ideas behind it over exuberant visuals, but Marina Zamalin’s transfixing video, “Canals of Brooklyn,” is a beautiful journey over the waters of the borough to find surprising corners of nature that look more like untouched wetlands than waterways in a city populated with millions. Brooklyn’s nature was captured in more accessible, yet just as easily overlooked, places in Lynn Cazabon’s “Uncultivated” works, where the artist photographed uncultivated plants found in the perimeter of Washington Park at the Old Stone House. Both demonstrated that nature isn’t just corralled in fences and that landscaped park spaces are only one aspect of greenspace to be preserved in Brooklyn.

Husk, “T.U.B. Park (The Utopian Bath Park),” watercolor, graphite and ink on paper (detail)

Of the artists that propose park projects that could be realized in Brooklyn, Husk’s is the most whimsical, yet still appealingly possible. Their proposal for “T.U.B. Park (The Utopian Bath Park)” would have hot tubs made from repurposed water towers filled with rainwater and powered by the kinetic energy of children’s play as well as gravity, water and compost, the utopia coming from the adults getting their relaxation while the children play frenetically below.

Stephanie Beck, “Circle Park, From the Park Space Series” (2012), graphite, cut paper and glue on paper

Two artists have utopian maps proposed for urban parks, with Christine Gedeon’s “OSH, Brooklyn (Plot Re-visualized)” comprised of a fiber topography of an idealized revitalization of the Old Stone House park spaces, and Stephanie Beck’s “Park Space” series of relief-maps presenting an ideal layout of parks within the city streets. Both are direct takes on the theme of artists shaping community, and the artists’ potential to propose change.

Washington Park and Old Stone House

Public programming that involves the community is an essential part of Brooklyn Utopias, and this coming Saturday, May 19, is a whole day of events at the Old Stone House and in Washington Park. At noon, Bettina Johae will lead a bike tour in conjunction with her “eminent domain, nyc” project to selected park sites of eminent domain in Brooklyn, including Prospect Park and Calvert Vaux Park, ending at Coney Island. (Email b [at] ettinajohae [dot] com to register for the bike tour.) Will Pappenheimer is hosting an Augemented Reality workshop where he will demonstrate how to use smartphones to make the windmills of his app, Sky Mills, appear in the park and invite participants to add to the skywriting of the virtual plane that layers over the sky. Game-designers Gigantic Mechanic are bringing interactive games, including the Rubber Ball Battle of Brooklyn, which mixes dodgeball with capture the flag to replicate the Revolutionary War engagement, and Shadowplay, a live-action arcade game where players play with their shadows. Other upcoming events can be found on the Brooklyn Utopias blog.

After spending time in the tranquility of Brooklyn Utopias: Park Space, Play Space in the Old Stone House and stepping out into the swirls of people drawn to the park in the spring sun, it was possible to imagine that although art can be much more romanticized than what usually ends up in city planning, it is possible to bring some of its spirit into Brooklyn, and that artists are an essential voice in imagining an exuberant, yet intelligently developed, future for the borough.

Brooklyn Utopias: Park Space, Play Space shows through June 24 at the Old Stone House (336 3rd Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn). 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...