Art Project “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine” Celebrates Black Heritage in Brooklyn This Weekend

“Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn” (Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

New York City so knows how to lose — and save, and lose again — its history. Among notable rescues of the past several decades were material remains of the vanished 19th-century African-American village of Weeksville in Brooklyn, snatched from the jaws of 1960s urban renewal. Once in parts of what are now Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, the village is currently getting fresh and needed attention in an art project organized by the Weeksville Heritage Center and Creative Time called “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,which runs Friday through Sunday (October 10-12).

Spread over four sites, the project roughly maps the footprint of the original settlement. More important, it strengthens the memory of a local past that could easily be swallowed up by gentrification.

The village was named for James Weeks, an ex-slave from Virginia who came to New York in 1838. His intention was to create a community of landowning African-Americans at a time when such ownership was a requirement for voting. The plan took hold. By the time of the Civil War, the village had more than 500 residents, two churches, a school, an orphanage, an old-age home, a cemetery and its own newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight. Blacks fleeing the draft riots in Manhattan in 1863 sought refuge there and stayed. But after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a swelling in the general population, Weeksville was gradually absorbed into newer communities that surrounded it.

In 1968, four of the village’s 19th-century wood-frame houses were rediscovered, in derelict shape, on an oddly angled street that had once been a section of Hunterfly Road in Weeksville, and before that, an American Indian trail. The area was scheduled for demolition, but after community pressure, the houses were declared city landmarks. Restored, they are now part of the Heritage Center, which encompasses vegetable and flower gardens and, as of 2013, an education building with an auditorium and classrooms.

The center is a logical place to start a tour of the four installations. The ground floor of one of the small houses has been taken over by the artist Xenobia Bailey and students from her design class at the nearby Boys and Girls High School. They’ve reimagined the place as the 21st-century apartment-studio of two struggling immigrant designers, one African-Cuban, the other African-British. To save money, the imaginary couple have been making their own furniture and décor from recycled domestic materials (cardboard, cloth scraps, plastic). Ms. Bailey refers to the style as a “funk aesthetic,” and you can find earlier versions of its homegrown chic in 19th-century African-American patchwork quilts.

A short walk away is the Bethel Tabernacle A.M.E. Church, founded in Weeksville in 1847, and across the street from it, a stone-and-brick hulk of the former Public School 83, Brooklyn’s first integrated public school. The school has been long closed. For many years, the church, which owns the building, used its auditorium for worship. And that twilight-dim space is now the setting for a three-channel video installation by the filmmaker Bradford Young.

The piece, with a plangent score by Gingger Shankar, is a homage both to the church and its parishioners, who appear in portrait close-ups, and to a neighborhood under threat of change. Mr. Young’s images — a church elder’s face, a ravaged cityscape, a bible — shot in satiny black, bone white and ash gray, would be enthralling anywhere, but take on a sharp, layered historical resonance here.

Such layering is exceptionally dense in “Free People’s Medical Clinic,” an environment created by Simone Leigh inside a 1914 Bed-Stuy brownstone called the Stuyvesant Mansion. The house was owned by Dr. Josephine English (1920-2011), the first African-American woman in New York State to have a private obstetrical-gynecological practice and the doctor who delivered all six daughters of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X. She converted the mansion into a senior home.

For the project, Ms. Leigh has turned it into a walk-in health center, modeled on those opened by the Black Panthers in the 1960s, but with a 19th-century overlay: Its staff is dressed in a style of uniforms worn by a society of black nurses called the United Order of Tents, which was founded in the mid-19th century, did valiant work during the Civil War, and still has headquarters in the neighborhood.

The fourth and last piece, conceived by the Houston-based collective Otabenga Jones & Associates, is about Brooklyn in the late 20th century to the present. A collaboration with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium and located outdoors in a pocket park, the installation is basically an open-air radio station, broadcasting live and recorded music and interviews with local artists — the dancer Aleijuan King, when I was there — who share their ideas and histories from the back seat of a sawed-in-half pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville dating from 1959, the civil rights era, when politics and popular entertainment alike were in the streets. (Broadcasts are live-streamed at:

All together, there’s a lot to love in the project — organized by Rashida Bumbray, Rylee Eterginoso and Nato Thompson — and its textured view of the past. The problems lie in the realities of present. The Weeksville Heritage Center, which has to be considered a major resource for the telling of African-American history in New York City, is in more than precarious financial shape and has been for a while, with staff cutbacks, more layoffs pending and education programs curtailed.

Boys and Girls High School, founded in 1878 and alma mater to such New Yorkers as Shirley Chisholm, Aaron Copland, Lena Horne, Norman Mailer and Randy Weston, is on brutally hard times. Its massive 1970s building was designed to accommodate 3,000 students; the present enrollment is 800. Evaluations based on low scores in standardized testing have had the effect of gutting its budget along with the student population.

And what about the physical survival of the empty, disintegrating P.S. 83? Can the church continue to support it? Maintenance grows ever more expensive. Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights real estate grows ever more valuable. It is one of the embittering paradoxes of gentrification that as money flows in, history, an asset of incalculable value, is swept away. Under these circumstances, an art project conceived as a celebration of the past ends up sounding like a lament for it.

What remedial aid can — or will — the city give in these particular cases of history on the verge? Obviously, private money, of which this city has a bottomless supply, could instantly turn around the crisis at the Weeksville Heritage Center, at least. But who wants to give to black Brooklyn when, for $65 million, you can have your name emblazoned on a dopey new fountain in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

“Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn” can’t do much. It’s only art, and it’s only on view through Sunday. But its restorative spirit should be kept alive, in place, from here on.

5 thoughts on “Art Project “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine” Celebrates Black Heritage in Brooklyn This Weekend”

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