Pratt Institute prides itself on its 25 acre green campus in the heart of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. It’s quite the commodity, as most New York City colleges don’t have access to traditional outdoor spaces. Because Pratt’s campus presents itself as natural, perhaps as old as founder Charles Pratt himself, we often don’t question the validity of its seemingly innocuous gardens. But how, exactly, did Charles Pratt acquire 25 acres in the middle of Brooklyn for the construction of a trade school? The short answer: he didn’t.
The long answer begins before Clinton Hill was established. Not much is known about the area upon which the neighborhood was built, apart from the fact that it belonged to the Lenape people before Dutch colonists reportedly purchased the land from them. The area remained largely undocumented until the 1860s, when oil baron Pratt decided to build his home on Clinton Avenue. Then, a few streets over on Ryerson, he built Pratt Institute.
In 1887, Pratt Institute opened its doors to twelve students. Six months later, 400 students were enrolled in engineering, architecture, design, library science and domestic studies classes. Anyone could attend the school, regardless of class, race or gender, making it the first college in Brooklyn to keep those demographics out of its application process. Nonwhite people could take all the same classes as white people, and women could take most of the same classes as men. Easily accessible by the elevated train running down Grand Avenue, and affordable for people in the working class, the school was revolutionary.
We may wonder how Pratt Institute gentrified a neighborhood that it practically built. Charles Pratt was a model philanthropist, sharing his wealth through endowments to local schools and investing in quality housing for the working class. Sure, his campus was a few streets over from some of the most opulent houses in Brooklyn, but it seemed that Pratt truly was built on the premise of helping people. It almost truly was.
Things got trickier in the mid-century, once Charles Pratt passed and his family no longer had ties to the school. By then, Brooklyn had changed, and Pratt Institute found itself needing to do so too. The problem didn’t lie with its desire to move onward, but with how it decided to do that.
By the 1950s, the surrounding area’s median income began to drop. As people moved to the newly-constructed suburbs, Clinton Hill became a largely working class and low income neighborhood; a stark contrast from the millionaire’s haven it once believed itself to be. Crime rates went up and the safety of the neighborhood was perceived to go down. Brooklyn as a whole seemed to be in a stagnant place, unable to develop because of the lack of loans granted by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC). Clinton Hill, a redlined district, was no exception.
Enter Robert Moses. During the postwar period, Moses was responsible for the design of the interstate highway system, the United Nations campus and numerous New York bridges. His work, however, went beyond supplementing the fabric of the city: he wanted to tear it up. Moses did this by way of “slum clearance,” or the razing of communities he deemed undesirable. The clearance gave way to urban renewal.
The urban renewal cycle begins when a powerful system, such as the HOLC, designates an area as a “slum,” barring the residents from taking out loans that would change their situations. Someone powerful, like Moses, sees the area as harmful to the wealthier parts of the city and aims to clear it. The US government provides the funds. Private developers, also using government funds, build projects, which are then sold back to the city’s residents. Their price ranges and discriminatory laws often prohibit the people that had been cleared from moving back.
Pratt Institute was a renowned school for professionals, and Moses viewed its neighbors as unworthy of being there. In the 1950s, he began to displace them from Clinton Hill. Ryerson Street, Grand Avenue, Steuben Street, and Emerson Place were truncated with heavy iron fencing, and the elevated train that ran down Grand Avenue was dismantled. He brought in large, corporate-level architectural firms to expand the campus’s interior, and the cleared areas were outfitted with new high-rise housing for the middle class. (One of these would later be acquired by Pratt for student housing, and is now present day Willoughby Hall.)
As Moses wanted, Clinton Hill followed Pratt’s example. The undemolished brownstones and apartment buildings around campus were renovated and sold to upper middle class families. Businesses moved in, new constructions popped up and more art students swarmed the area. This is the Clinton Hill we know today: the half-historical landmark, half-renowned arts district, with its centerpiece being the lush idyll of Pratt’s campus. People who didn’t fit this new image of Clinton Hill were not invited back once it had been renewed. It was not renewed for them.
We, as students, aren’t clueless to Pratt’s history: we’re told on day one of class that we stand on colonized, gentrified land, and we can all guess to what the term “arts district” really alludes to. But Pratt’s gentrification of Clinton Hill is half of its grapple with displacement and exclusion. Essentially, Pratt Institute gentrified itself.
When Charles Pratt opened his trade school, each class cost four dollars; adjusted for inflation, that’s still only about $119 a credit. Today, we pay almost $2,000. The cost of living in Clinton Hill has steadily increased, which was largely Pratt’s doing, so students below a certain income level struggle to live here, even if on campus. The average income of dependent students’ families tops $75,000 a year, still less than Clinton Hill’s yearly average of $111,000. The school’s gradual shift away from technical degrees, and towards the visual arts, has ushered in a different population: one that, in turn, amplifies and expedites the gentrification process. Pratt has started, continued and validated the cycle.
This isn’t to say that Pratt can’t grow and change as an institution. But, as students and active members of a community that has exiled others, we have to question if this school was built for us. The short answer is yes, as Charles Pratt worked tirelessly to ensure that it was built for everyone. The long answer, however, goes back to our sprawling green grass and the bones of the dismantled neighborhood it grows upon.
Quite literally, we stand upon their shoulders.
Art by Tien Servidio