by Phoebe Neidl (phoebe@brooklyneagle.net), published online 02-16-2010

One reads a lot about the struggle for affordable housing here in New York, and in Brooklyn in particular, where we are experiencing the mixed blessing of gentrification perhaps more than any other borough.

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society — one of its most relevant to date — puts a human face on the issue of housing, which too often gets debated in terms of units, percentages and square footage.

“Tivoli: A Place We Call Home,” which opened Feb. 11, tells of the triumphs and travails of Tivoli Towers, a 33-story residential building in Crown Heights built in 1974 as part of the Mitchell Lama government subsidized affordable housing program.

“It’s a small project that represents something so big,” says one of the exhibit’s creators and a Tivoli resident, Delphine Fawundu Buford, who worked with longtime friends and fellow Tivoli residents Scott Brathwaite and Anthony Clouden Jr. to make the 80 portraits and 25-minute documentary that comprise the exhibit.

In 2006, the building’s owner announced plans to convert the building to market rate housing – which could have doubled and tripled rents. The tenants mobilized, raising money for a lawyer, and ultimately triumphed when a judge held up a clause in the building’s deed that required it remain in the Mitchell Lama program until 2024. The battle, Buford says, made her think about “the need to preserve the history of the community that was there.

“It’s something so basic that people are asking for, just to afford a home…and here’s what one community is doing to try to maintain that,” she explained. “You hear everyone talking about it – ‘Can I afford to live in New York City?’ – even people with larger incomes.”

Buford and her collaborators spent last summer interviewing 40 of the building’s residents for the documentary, which focuses not only on the tight-knit community of Tivoli, but on the ongoing quality of life issues presented by the building’s poor condition.

“It’s always easier to intellectualize the issue and then the people get lost in the debate. [The exhibit] kind of humanizes it, and makes people think, ‘That could be my neighbor or my brother or sister,’” said Buford. The accompanying portraits show residents posed in front of the pale walls of Tivoli’s interior, some alone, some with their families. Each portrait includes the subjects’ names, occupations and how long they have lived in Tivoli.

“I wanted to focus more on the people. Focusing more on the person rather than their surroundings makes you ask questions about who that person is and what’s going on in their life,” says Buford, a photographer and filmmaker by trade who has traveled to such places as South Africa, Cuba, Ghana, Egypt and New Orleans for her work.

“I’ve documented communities around the world, so doing this about my home was so special,” she says. “It’s almost like a self-portrait…After the [opening], one of my longtime friends was crying. People kept coming up to us in the days after. They were really excited. Walking in and seeing all those portraits of their neighbors, there was a pride there.”

The residents of Tivoli are among the constituents of City Councilwoman Letitia James, who attended the opening along with Borough President Marty Markowitz and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “This exhibit puts a beautiful face to that struggle [for affordable housing],” said James. “Now, when you think of Tivoli, you don’t think of brick and mortar, but of the children, seniors, men and women who live there. They are a part of the fabric of Brooklyn and part of the fabric of society.”

“Tivoli: A Place We Call Home” will be on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St.) until August 29, 2010.

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