There’s an urban surprise tucked away on the second floor of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, as interesting for adults like us as it is for piquing the curiosity of our city’s children. Alphabet City, an installation of black vinyl by Elizabeth Hamby on the walls of this level of the museum, shows the footprints of 61 NYCHA public housing developments in New York City. By placing them all together in this way and in the abstract, the viewer truly gets the sense of how affordable housing architecture has permeated our collective understanding of urban design.
As Hamby, an artist and educator, states, “Since the first NYCHA developments were dedicated in 1935, they have transformed the language of buildings in New York City, offering new shapes and patterns in the urban landscape.” As the museum plaque continues, “These buildings provide homes to much of the city’s population yet aren’t considered to be an important part of New York’s landscape.” Not surprisingly, Hamby is also a community urban planner for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and has also worked at institutions like the Museum of the City of New York, Bronx Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the Partnership for Parks.
On another level, the project helps to highlight the sheer amount of people housed in NYCHA developments – half a million New Yorkers, “by lifting their shapes as a key component of the grammar of the city,” Hamby writes. These buildings, she contends, “house the stories of our city.” Hamby has used the core idea of Alphabet City – footprints of buildings akin to the footprints of humans – as an artistic and educational tool since 2010 with students, NYCHA residents, and other New Yorkers.
A nearby exhibit in the same space by James Rojas, albeit scattered due to child play, encourages kids to create a model neighborhood using recycled materials.