Ditmas Park residents are up in arms regarding an artistic bench that was installed after some locals raised concerns that the bench could attract unhoused people or pose a safety risk to children.
The bench sparked controversy just days after it was created on June 18 during a community workshop led by local designer Michael Combs and hosted by the Flatbush Development Corporation as a part of its Open Streets program.
Combs began installing the structure on June 19 on Newkirk Avenue and Marlborough Road when he found out the FDC got a complaint from someone worried the bench would attract unhoused people or be unsafe for children to sit or play on.
He called the comment an “ugly complaint,” as houseless people may need a place to sit as well as the housed. He told Brooklyn Paper he does not blame anyone for their complaints, but instead is looking for the community’s grace in order to reach an amicable solution.
“People have their own perspectives and have their own traumas and experiences. I’m not going to villianize anyone for a complaint,” he said. “I just prayed that we could reach a peaceful resolution.”
Locals quickly dropped their initial concerns about unhoused people — however, some still worried the bench was unsafe for children.
Combs responded to that point by returning to the bench and adding extra pieces of wood in between the largest gaps in the rungs of the bench using his child’s own shoe to make sure even the smallest foot couldn’t slip through.
Days after refurbishing the art piece, he heard the landlord of the building closest to the bench received a violation notice from the Department of Transportation, which allegedly threatened to have the structure removed. The case status remains active, according to the agency’s website.
According to a spokesperson with DOT, that violation has since been repealed.
“DOT rescinded the encroachment violation to the building owner because it wasn’t the owner who installed the bench We will reach out to the Flatbush Development Corporation and work with them to determine if the bench can be approved by the city to remain in place,” the spokesperson said.
The approval process will require input from multiple city agencies including the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the NYC Public Design Commission.
Combs has now started an online campaign called “Save the Art Bench,” which has garnered support from local pastors, business owners, neighbors and has even gotten the attention of Council Woman Rita Joseph who represents the district. Joseph is currently working with DOT to reach a solution that appeases the neighborhood.
“It means something to me but I think it means even more to the neighborhood. It’s gonna break a lot of hearts for it to get torn down,” he said.
One local took to Facebook to protest the bench’s removal.
Karyn Meyer, who lives nearby, said she is in the area all the time and always sees people enjoying the bench — which is why she was shocked to hear some people wanted it taken away.
“It’s not doing any harm. It’s actually protecting the tree. It’s not in the way in any way,” she said. “It’s a beautiful work of art and it gives people joy. To take something down after this man spends all this time and he involved the community in making it and almost every single person has wanted it except whoever complained.”
Nina Leonard, a spokesperson for FDC, says she fully supports the bench’s creation and existence in Ditmas Park.
“It’s a beautiful piece and a great idea to have more public seating in the community especially on a wide sidewalk where people walk around and we have very few public parks and things like that,” she told Brooklyn Paper.
Combs created the artwork with a goal of fostering creativity and community. It was created during what he called the unofficial launching of his makers workshop where the community can work on creative projects in an encouraging environment.
Using scrap wood from his home, paints, and other tools, Brooklynites of all ages helped create the bench, according to Combs. Kids painted some signs while the adults helped Combs stack the cinder blocks and construct the bench’s key structure.
“A bench is support, it holds people up. A bench unlike a chair is for multiple people. A chair is a one off, a bench is for everyone,” Combs said. “It really is designed, built and created by everyone, for everyone.”
As he returned to the bench throughout the week to wrap up painting, he alleges neighbors of all backgrounds approached him to commend his work and inquire on when it would be completed.
“The event was just such a success,” he told Brooklyn Paper. “People really showed a lot of love and support for the bench and that was just the initial installation.”
Update (July 14 12:39 p.m.): This story has been updated to allow comment from the DOT.