What It Takes to Preserve a Building Tied to Black History

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As protesters demand a national reckoning on America’s whitewashed history, activists are rallying around a former abolitionists’ home in downtown Brooklyn with ties to the Underground Railroad as a chance to diversify historic preservation. High-profile endorsements to designate the building with landmark status, including by Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James, have bolstered a campaign by activists that goes back 16 years. 

The former home of prominent abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell, 227 Duffield Street is the last historical residence on a block with a record of abolitionist participation — a neglected slice of history among shiny new high rises, office buildings and chain hotels. Oral history has it that the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the unrecorded connection has been hard to prove. The current owner, developer Samiel Hanasab, wants to tear it down and build a 13-story apartment building in its place. 

At a public hearing in July, some 40 people testified in favor of giving the building landmark status, while the only dissenting voice was the property owner’s lawyer. In total, 70 letters in favor of landmarking were submitted. Advocates for 227 Duffield fought for landmark status over a decade ago and lost, after a report commissioned by the city deemed the evidence for the home’s connection to the Underground Railroad  “not sufficient.” Activists, pointing to the home’s known historical significance, have questioned the standard used to prove a two-century-old clandestine activity. The Landmark Preservation Commission will schedule the vote for designation “in the near future,” according to commission chair Sarah Carroll.  

Landmark designations in marginalized and low-income communities are rare, fueled by the corrosive effects of time and lack of sustaining endowments. Just last year, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a museum at the site of one of America’s first free black communities, had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to stave off closure. In a city of over 37,000 sites designated for landmark status, just 17 of New York’s landmarks are dedicated to abolitionist and Underground Railroad history, remnants of a resistance that helped over 3,000 fugitive enslaved people find freedom. Nationally, only 2% of the 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experience of Black Americans, according to The New Yorker (a figure the NRHP is nowworking to change). 

At the hearing on 227 Duffield Street, preservation activist Michael Henry Adams lamented a “grave disparity between what’s designated in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or Greenwich Village compared to Harlem or East New York or the Bronx” (the latter neighborhoods have large Black populations).

“Of course Black lives matter,” said Adams. “Of course Black landmarks matter. Black people are not just Black people. We are Americans. We are the people who built this nation, so our history is second to none.” 

Many of those testifying at the LPC hearing called out the city’s past practice of using eminent domain to redevelop historically Black neighborhoods, which is how the fight for 227 Duffield Street began. In 2004, the city tried to use eminent domain to seize 227 from its now-deceased owner, Joy Chatel, as part of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s redevelopment plan for downtown Brooklyn. Chatel, known affectionately as “Mama Joy,” led protests and dedicated her time to documenting historical research on the home and neighborhood. Her dream was to turn the home into a museum. In 2007, after the city commissioned a lengthy report detailing the home’s historical significance, 227 was spared from demolition, but the LPC did not bestow it with landmark status. Instead, the city changed the name of  Duffield Street to “Abolitionist Place.” That is, until last year when Hanasab filed a permit to demolish the building. 

(Disclosure: CityLab is owned by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company’s founder and majority owner.)

“For years, our history has been either demolished or stolen from us,” testified Anthony Bedford, president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn. “For years, our youth have been denied the right to learn true Black history. When you look at 227 Duffield, that right there is a landmark of history. The rest of the homes that were near there were landmarks as well, and they were demolished. We stand against that, not only as a community, but as a full movement.”

“Black Landmarks Matter,” was the rallying cry from advocates, neighbors and elected officials throughout the virtual hearing. As the only opposition voice, attorney Garfield Heslop argued that landmarking the building would burden the developer, who had already invested around $3 million in the property, and hinder him from carrying out his development plans. 

“Absolutely, if the property is landmarked, the project would be bankrupted, and Mr. Hanasab personally would be bankrupted,” Heslop told CityLab. “The bank would own the property, and of course the bank as such could auction it off and sell it to the highest bidder, or just leave it there, abandoned, and do nothing with it, and I’m not sure that would be consistent with the goal of supporters in preservation.”

But Nestor Davidson, the faculty director of the Urban Law Center at Fordham University School of Law, said if the building were landmarked, there are many foundations and nonprofit organizations that would work to preserve a high-profile property like this one. “Especially in the moment we’re in, I would imagine that there would be a lot of energy around keeping the building in a condition in a way that does honor the history that it represents,” he said. “And I would hope that the end result would be what the process is designed to do, which is it would be preserved.” Advocates and elected officials, like City Councilmember Stephen Levin, have also called for city funds to preserve the building and turn it into a museum.

Earlier this month, Heslop filed a $100 million lawsuit on behalf of Hanasab against the LPC, the Department of Buildings and the City of New York for suspending the issuance of an already-approved building permit following a public outcry last year. 

“I think that’s a hard argument to make,” said Davidson. “If you purchase property that is subject to landmark and the property is landmarked, you’re not entitled to the maximum return that you would have been able to get for that property had it not been restricted.”

If he does keep the property, Hanasab says he intends to create an African-American history museum in the basement of the apartment building. Heslop said that Chatel’s daughter, Shawne’ Lee, is working with Hanasab to achieve this goal. Lee had sold her half of the home, the final piece that remained within the family, to Hanasab in 2017, city records show. Heslop said Hanasab and Lee have an agreement that she would only temporarily relinquish her ownership stake while the museum is constructed in the basement, after which ownership would revert back to her. Heslop did not respond to requests to view documentation of this agreement, and Lee could not be reached for comment. 

“The new owners have never reached out to any of the historical advocates, they’ve never shown any interest in the history,” said Raul Rothblatt, a local activist who fought alongside Mama Joy and remains an advocate for the property. “We have a vibrant community of people willing to save this history, and they have not shown any interest in that, and I think these actions should be recognized. As far as I can tell, they have contempt for the history, if their actions can be judged.”

And really, argue advocates, how many people who are interested in experiencing a tangible and powerful piece of Black history will be tempted to go into the airless basement of a high-end apartment building?

“As luxury developments and sky-high towers crop up all over downtown Brooklyn, it is our responsibility as New Yorkers to ensure that we do not build over this important piece of the past,” testified New York Attorney General James, who joined Mama Joy in the initial fight to save the home when she was still a city councilmember. “At a time when Americans everywhere are questioning the preservation of statues and monuments of slave traffickers and Confederate generals and others whose actions place them squarely on the wrong side of history, 227 Abolitionist Place stands out as the type of monument we should honor and preserve, and from which our children should learn about our history.” 

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