GOWANUS — When 16-year-old Christopher Bussey leaves his family's apartment in the Gowanus Houses and walks over to Smith Street, he's only two blocks from home, but he's entered another world — where boutiques selling $200 skinny jeans have replaced the restaurants he went to as a kid.
“I don’t feel that connected to the neighborhoods around us,” Bussey said, adding, "They're pushing us out by trying to change stuff around us."
Those troubling words were captured in a documentary produced recently by the Gowanus Houses Art Collective, a new program that gives young residents of the public housing complex a forum for artistic expression.
Chris O'Falt, a Carroll Gardens filmmaker, and Tracey Pinkard, a Gowanus Houses resident, launched the collective together. The two met at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, where O'Falt was teaching filmmaking and Pinkard works as the parent coordinator.
Together they decided to create a program to teach art skills to kids in the Gowanus Houses. They recruited the first participants by walking up to kids on the basketball court and asking if they'd be interested in making a documentary.
Earlier this month, they screened the 8-minute movie "Growing Up Gowanus" for residents. That was followed by a spoken word night where young people read their own poems and hip-hop lyrics. Last weekend, they hosted "Photo Saturday," where kids walked around shooting pictures with help from volunteer professional photographers.
With permission from the Gowanus Houses residents council, Pinkard and O'Falt have been using a basement multipurpose room to host the collective's events. Soon they plan to convert a small room nearby into a recording studio.
This summer, O'Falt and Pinkard hope to have kids in the collective help out when the nonprofit arts group Groundswell comes to Gowanus to paint a mural about gentrification.
So far the response from residents both young and old has been extremely positive, Pinkard and O'Falt said.
Jayson Andrews, a 15-year-old football player at Boys and Girls High School who dreams of being an actor when he grows up, said working on the "Growing Up Gowanus" documentary was an eye-opening experience.
"I learned that it takes time to do big projects like this," Andrews said. "It also taught me that your community can help you do positive things."
He added, "Not only does it keep people off the street, it keeps people's minds lifted."
While they continue to host art events this summer, O'Falt and Pinkard will work on collecting supplies such as furniture, computers and printers. The eventual goal is to turn the Gowanus Houses Art Collective into a sustainable organization with a permanent home at the 14-building NYCHA complex.
Both O'Falt and Pinkard also want the project to build bridges between Gowanus Houses residents, some of whom have lived there for generations, and the increasingly wealthy newer arrivals moving into multi-million dollar brownstones nearby.
Those newer neighbors could be an audience for the collective's artistic output, starting with the "Growing Up Gowanus" documentary on the teens' anxieties about gentrification. "I think that's something that me and my neighbors should probably hear," O'Falt said.
Pinkard sees the project as an opportunity to give residents in surrounding neighborhoods a window into life in the public housing complex — and a more positive view than they'll see in most press coverage, Pinkard said.
She gets annoyed when she reads accounts that make it sound like the Gowanus Houses is "under siege" by gangs and drugs, and wishes there were stories about events like an intergenerational game day where old-timers taught kids how to play stickball, she said.
“There’s more good here than people would believe,” Pinkard said.
With the neighborhoods surrounding the Gowanus Houses full of accomplished visual artists, writers, and performers, O'Falt sees plenty of potential volunteers who could work with the collective.
While the program won't halt the gentrification the teens worried about in "Growing Up Gowanus," it could at least harness it into something beneficial, O'Falt said.
“Nothing we do is going to stop a house from being gutted and sold for $4 million, but there are a lot of people that are highly skilled and highly educated that would like to have their presence in this neighborhood not be a 100 percent negative thing," O'Falt said.