Op-ed: To help artists post-pandemic, create community spaces and affordable homes

prospect heights
The proposed development on Vanderbilt and Atlantic Avenues.
City Planning Commission

In my 27 years as a choreographer in Brooklyn, I’ve never seen artists struggling more than they are right now. Not only have we been unable to come together in person safely to practice, perform, and do the work we love — we’ve also been struggling to pay the bills. 

For artists, living with near-constant economic anxiety is, unfortunately, nothing new. When I founded Creative Outlet back in 1994, I wanted to create a space in Fort Greene to uplift young artists — particularly artists of color — through education, performance and cultural programming. Growing up, I was lucky enough to participate in community arts programs that were truly inclusive. As I got older and understood just how rare those opportunities were, I decided to expand on these programs and create a communal creative space that was truly open to everyone. 

Almost two decades later, forging equity through the arts is still at the core of what we do. It’s why Creative Outlet  put together a youth scholarship training program, why we help students with college applications, and why we provide free mentorship and affordable opportunities to families whenever we can. It’s why when the pandemic hit, we did whatever it took to keep our programming going, including offering free outdoor classes. I’ve seen firsthand that when artistic resources are accessible, they have an amazing ability to bring diverse communities together. 

The need for creative environments and organizations like ours still exists — in some ways, they’re more critical than ever. Due to the pandemic, many artists have been furloughed or laid off, and are left trying to navigate a job market as it reinvents itself to fit a post-COVID world. To say our futures are uncertain would be an understatement.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be partnering with 840 Atlantic Ave. to develop a shared space dedicated to our vibrant community of local Brooklyn artists. The almost 8000 square-foot area will include a theatre and rehearsal studios for classes and workshops that will not only benefit nearby creatives, but will also attract world class artists. Creative Outlet prides themself as an organization that trains students that have gone on to Broadway, film, TV and concert stages across the globe. This new cultural performing arts center will be the newest training ground to help young artists achieve their dreams whether that’s on the Broadway stage, or beyond.

Importantly, 840 Atlantic Ave. would be a new home base for Brooklyn creatives, many of whom have to commute outside the borough to find a good place to practice their craft. In a city like Brooklyn, this should never be the case — in fact, there should be communal creative spaces like this in every neighborhood. 

We already know that art and creativity are powerful tools for healing, and recent studies show they can really improve your mental health, particularly during the pandemic when mental illness has seen a giant uptick. Not surprisingly, access to the arts improves the well-being and mental health of low-income people. A study of NYC neighborhoods found that cultural resources, like the arts, were linked to improved outcomes in health, education, and overall well-being. 

The 840 Atlantic Ave. development will not only bring a new arts-driven, community space to Brooklyn, but also will provide approximately 95 units of affordable housing. On top of navigating a pandemic-prompted recession, artists and working people are getting pushed out of the neighborhoods we call home due to increased prices and a lack of affordable housing options. It’s not enough to simply create a space for artists — we also need to ensure that artists can actually afford to live in these same communities. I hope this project can be an example for other developer-nonprofit partnerships in Brooklyn and across the city. 

My passion for choreography has always been woven with my desire to uplift the African American experience, using dance as a medium for honoring our history and celebrating our future. This space will be truly inclusive of all races, religions, genders and ethnicities, and dedicated to artists who want to explore their own cultures, whatever they may be.  

It’s crucial for arts and culture organizations like ours to be included in the development of Downtown Brooklyn, not just for this one project but for the long term planning of our community. Due to this gentrification of the Downtown Brooklyn area, many people of color, artists and other community members desperately need access to affordable housing and creative spaces to keep them in their neighborhoods and build their quality of life. We are so fortunate to have this opportunity to partner with 840 Atlantic Ave., and to see this project come to fruition would be one of our biggest dreams coming true.

Jamel Gaines is the artistic director and founder of Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet