BrooklynEdges: A Mosaic Grows as Boerum Hill Changes

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Photo by: Julie Turkewitz

“The idea is that everything in the world does suck,” Susan Gardner says. “But there's got to be some joy in there somewhere.”

Wyckoff Street between Smith and Hoyt is a long, tree-lined block of brick homes in varying shades of brown. But amid the beige and burnt sienna, like a shot of confetti nestled among a line of brown crayolas, sits number 108.

Instead of brick, there are beads. And broken mirrors and shells. And a starburst of buttons, and jewels, and marbles, and a menagerie of tiny plastic animals. Bits of coral are encrusted in the walls, and the curlycued bars on the windows are wrapped in beads. Tens of thousands of colorful pieces creep downward onto the patio—and upward, too, moving to the second floor like vines with lives of their own.

This is the project of Susan Gardner, 70, a third-generation New Yorker who moved to this house four decades ago. For the past 10 years, she’s spent each summer crouching on her patio or scaling a ladder, adding to this expanding mosaic. “The idea is that everything in the world does suck,” she says. “But there’s got to be some joy in there somewhere.”

When Gardner moved here in 1969, the neighbors were poorer, and violence and corner drug deals were the norm. “Wyckoff Street was just about the worst street in the whole neighborhood,” she says. Still, there was a community feel, and she relished the circus around her. “Everyone went out in bathrobes,” she says. “The street really belonged to the people.”

Since then, Gardner has witnessed the gentrification of Boerum Hill. Like many of many of Brooklyn’s revamped neighborhoods, crime has gone down. But the old bodegas are now trendy bars and a slick Starbucks. Housing prices have risen, forcing out old neighbors. And many of the new folks, says Gardner, don’t talk to with the poorer residents who remain.

Her mosaic, she believes, has become something of a universal talking point. On her longer days at work, she’ll speak to 20 or 30 people who pass by. “There’s a lot of friction between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ that’s been going on here,” she says of the neighborhood. “And I think this is a place,” she says, indicating her house, “where that doesn’t exist.”

Always something of a renegade, Gardner spent 35 years teaching art to women at a local Jewish university, bumping heads with rabbis when she insisted on taking Orthodox students to nude drawing classes.

The mosaic project began just before September 11, when her anger over her neighborhood’s growing slickness and homogeneity was hitting a tipping point. A small flower was her first design.

Then, two planes crashed into the twin towers, and she couldn’t stand to be inside, alone. She grabbed some tiles and beads and started working furiously. “It was one of those things that seemed to change the tilt of the world,” she says. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”

Of course, not everyone loves the idea of peculiar public art project growing haphazardly on an otherwise pristine pathway. Orazio De Gennaro has been Gardner’s next-door neighboor since 1994 and says he hears the occasional gripe from passers-by. “I hear people saying, ‘What is that?’ Maybe they think it’s like graffiti.”

But many, including Gennaro, have supported the project fully. Darlene Evans grew up down the street, and her mother still lives in the Gowanus housing projects nearby. Evans remembers “the robbing and the gunshots,” of old, and sees local changes as overwhelmingly positive.

The mosaic, Evans says, has been one small part of the shift toward a friendlier atmosphere. “You start looking around, asking questions, like ‘I wonder who did that,'” she says. “Before, nobody would ever speak. Now you say ‘Hello,’ even if you don’t know them. It’s cool.”

These days, most of Gardner’s supplies come from people who leave broken plates, cracked beads and errant buttons on her doorstep. She gets visits from French and Dutch tourists, and has adjusted to the sight of flashes popping through her living room window. A few years ago, on the day of Brooklyn’s West Indian Parade, three women wearing nothing but feathers hopped out of their car, grabbed her around the shoulders, and asked to take a photograph with her in front of the house.

This will be Gardner’s first summer in retirement, and she’s anxious to get started on the mural. First, there will be spring cleaning and repair, and then “that little spot over the door that I want to fill in,” plus, some space under the eaves of the windows, and a sculpture by the tree on the patio. She estimates she has about 10 years of work to do on the mosaic.

“They did a video of me for TV,” says Gardner, “and this lady just happened to be going by, and she said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but when I’m feeling down, I come by this house. And like that, I’m feeling good again.’ And I thought that was the best thing anyone every said about this house.”

Brooklyn Edges features people and organizations living on physical, political and cultural boundaries within the borough of Brooklyn.