Friday, June 29, 2007

BOOM on Flatbush, Downtown Brooklyn & Duffield St.

Very few New Yorkers realized the scope of development on north Flatbush and around the Fulton Street Mall. But the recognition of the scale of new construction is beginning to dawn, since a few newspapers reported that there is $3.1 billion in development along north Flatbush. That number is hard to conceive- it's almost as big as the Atlantic Yards proposal for nearby Prospect Heights- but it doesn't include the other projects going up in Downtown Brooklyn.

This is relevant to Duffield Street because the NYC Economic Development Corporation says that the revitalization of the area hinges on the demolition of these private homes. To quote the inimitable Janel Petterson of the EDC:

The Duffield Street site is an important component of the Downtown Brooklyn plan, a strategy to stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for residents and employees in the area.
Here are links to the recent news coverage of economic growth in the area:

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Joy Sends Her Thanks

Joy Chatel got sick at the Eminent Domain press conference yesterday. Today she is resting at home, but she does have a message. She would like to thank everyone for their support and concern. The battle to prevent the destruction of her home has taken a great toll on her, and she is extremely grateful for the wide support she has gotten.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The First White House

The archaeological discovery of slave passages at George Washington's presidential home has created quite a stir. You can read about it here and here. There's an interesting connection between that discovery and the new interest in the Abolitionist homes on Duffield and Gold Streets in Brooklyn. Dr. Cheryl LaRoche has been instrumental in both projects. She was hired by AKRF as a Peer Reviewer in their report on Duffield released in March. Dr. LaRoche, like many of the academics hired by AKRF, came to the conclusion that the Abolitionist homes in Brooklyn should be preserved since they represent one of the best opportunities for Underground Railroad research in New York. These conclusions were published by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, and can be found by clicking here and going to Appendix C.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Abolitionist Museum Augments the Stated Bloomberg Vision

On June 23, 2007 the Daily News started an opinion piece with this statement:

The future of downtown Brooklyn is colliding with its past. Unsubstantiated claims that six 19th-century houses may have hidden slaves on the Underground Railroad are being used to block a key component of the area's rebirth.
But a quick look at the stated goals of the plan will show that an Abolitionist museum at 227 Duffield Street would greatly augment the stated goals of the plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Here are a few quotes from a Department of City Planning press release "Bloomberg Administration Unveils Development Plan for Downtown Brooklyn (4/13/2003)" [emphasis added]:
  • Downtown Brooklyn offers companies seeking to diversify their operations affordable office space, outstanding mass transportation access, and burgeoning residential, academic and cultural opportunities
  • Downtown Brooklyn must be a livable community with its own unique identity
  • Our vision for Downtown Brooklyn capitalizes on its existing strengths: its transit networks, strong neighborhoods, cultural resources
  • The plan calls for... an expanded intellectual community.... [and] A mixed-use cultural district with a new library, theaters, galleries, rehearsal spaces, and other cultural venues
  • "This Plan and collaboration that went into its development underscore the Mayor's commitment that residents should decide the future of their communities," said Deputy Mayor Doctoroff. "Downtown Brooklyn has enormous potential for further quality development and the Administration is determined to ensure that we continue to build consensus going forward so that we meet the needs and interests of everyone involved."
The press release mentions the word "cultural" eight times, and "parking" twice. The plan would call for the creation of 2,000 new parking spaces, and 694 of those were envisioned for the properties currently home to the Chatel and other families.

The promotion of an Abolitionist museum on Duffield Street is much more consistent with the stated goals of the Department of Planning press release. The future of Brooklyn is not colliding with its past. We need to fully research the historical these properties before destroying them. Otherwise, it might be the parking lot that will "block a key component of the area's rebirth."

But who's listening?

Our Times Press published a summary of the May 22nd Eminent Domain hearing. See

The article quotes Christopher Moore at length:

"Within a stone's throw of Duffield Street, you have financiers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan on Pierrepont Street. In 1835, Lewis financed the great postal campaign which sent antislavery materials throughout the country. Congress, flooded with petitions, adopted the first slavery gag rule. That campaign started in Brooklyn."

"Half a block away at Willoughby and Duffield Streets, William Harned is purchasing land in the Adirondacks for fugitive slaves. Go another half a block and Walt Whitman, fired from the Brooklyn Eagle for writing antislavery editorials, is forming an abolitionist newspaper at the corner of Myrtle Avenue. At 227 Duffield, Harriet Truesdell involves herself in anti-slavery campaigns at a time when it was dangerous for white women to do so."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Daily News Calls Grassy Knoll Key to Brooklyn Economy

An attempt to discredit historical evidence of
Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Activity

Finally a newspaper has tried to defend the Economic Development Corporation attempt to confiscate and demolish the seven homes linked to the Abolitionist movement in Downtown Brooklyn. The opinion piece, Taking license with slavery, published June 23, 2007, makes several strong claims and challenges the motivations of those trying to promote the Abolitionist heritage.

“A Key Component of the Area’s Rebirth”?

The thesis of the article is that preservationists are trying to “block a key componenent of the areas’ rebirth.” Unfortunately, the Daily News fails to explain why these properties are “a key component.” It would be very interesting to hear how this proposed grassy knoll is essential to Brooklyn’s economy.

Given the lack of specifics by the Daily News, I am reminded of the exact same claims by the EDC in the City Council hearing on the subject of May 1, 2007. At the hearing, Council Representative Liu spent several minutes trying to ask the EDC representative if, in fact, the Downtown Brooklyn plan could proceed without this property. EDC Vice President Thomas McKnight tried to avoid anwering Liu’s yes-or-no question, but in the end, he admitted that the EDC plan can proceed without the properties.

The Daily News itself gives many examples of how Downtown Brooklyn is experiencing astounding economic development without a grassy knoll and parking lot at the site of these seven homes. In their words, “Billions of private dollars have been committed to projects ranging from skyscrapers to affordable housing.”

It's possible that another parking lot would also greatly help Downown Brooklyn, but why is eminent domain necessary for this? If the two impressive new hotels going up across the street from 227 Duffield need parking, why can't they build it themselves?

Let me make a simple request of the Daily News. Please explain how these billions of dollars of investments are threatened by the Duffield Street Seven?

Independent Research?

Given the weak argument of the benefits of destroying these privately owned homes and businesses, the Daily News goes on to attack the defenders of the Abolitionist homes. In response to advocates' claims that the EDC "failed to adequately research the possibility that the buildings once harbored runaway slaves," the article states:

"In fact, the city bent over backward to do just that, commissioning a $500,000 study by independent researchers and historians. The conclusion: A family active in the abolitionist movement once lived there, but there is no proof the houses hid fugitives. [emphasis added]

The City may have bent over backward, but that doesn't mean they successfully proved their point. The EDC hired AKRF to do this research, and AKRF was hired without competitive bidding. This raises questions about their independence, especially since AKRF has never said who the "independent" researchers are. The EDC report published in March 2007 and written by AKRF, goes into great detail about the qualifications of the historians hired as peer reviewers. But these well-respected academics were only reviewing the work of the researchers who wrote the report. Nowhere does AKRF or the EDC name the researchers. Only AKRF can say what their qualifications are, and whether they are in fact independent. But AKRF is not speaking, and the EDC is not asking.

The Daily News article parallels the EDC’s attempt to frame the historical discussion. There is no debate that the area around Duffield Street was a known Abolitionist neighborhood at a time when most of New York was pro-slavery. One local resident, a poet and reporter named Walt Whitman, wrote vividly about an escaped slave coming to his house in a book called Leaves of Grass (1855). The Daily News and the EDC try to fall back on the argument that there is no verifiable evidence that slaves hid in the basements of these properties. The Underground Railroad was a very secretive movement, and the EDC does not claim that slaves did not hide in these basements. It only says that there is no proof that they did.

The historians hired by AKRF did come to the conclusion that the properties should be preserved. The EDC conclusion contradicts the peer reviewers published statements calling for further research. Even the Executive Summary of the AKRF/EDC admits that more evidence of Underground Railroad activity could be discovered.

Historians like Dr. Cheryl LaRoche, who was hired by AKRF to legitimize their report, have dedicated their lives to researching the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Dr. LaRoche, who is much more respected in this field than the EDC or the Daily News, has stated that Duffield Street represents the best site for possible Underground Railroad in New York City. She says that it is one of the most promising sites that she has ever evaluated.

Nobody debates that this is the best documented potential Underground Railroad site in New York City.

Even if it is impossible to prove that fugitive slaves hid in the basement, the homes still might be an important part of Abolitionist history.

Representatives Liu, James and Barron are not denouncing the report “simply because they say so.” You could almost say that the report denounces itself. Its Executive Summary seems to contradict the Appendices.

Working Together to Promote New York

The EDC’s stated goal is to have a diverse and vibrant economy. A parking lot may attract a few people, but in the long run, the New York economy would be better off with a museum for our proud Abolitionist history on Duffield Street.

The Daily News says that promoters of Abolitionist history are "cynically playing on the charged issue of the city's slave past." If the Daily News has to resort to this sort name-calling, then it looks like the argument in favor of the parking lot is weak. If the EDC is going to confiscate possibly historic private property, the burden of proof of the benefit must be high.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Extensive Press Coverage of Duffield Street

Our press conference on June 19 was wildly successful- check out some photos here. We spread our message around the globe and around New York. Moreover, much of the press implicitly or explicitly questions the credibility of the NYC Economic Development Corporation and AKRF.

The most coverage came from AP, which was picked up in the Houston Chronicle Battle Over Possible NY Slave Quarters, New York Post 'SLAVE SITE' RAZE FUROR, and 1010WINS NY Sued Over Plan to Raze Sheltered Slave Houses.

New York City papers picked it up, including the NY Times A Juneteenth Riddle: Was Duffield Street a Stop on the Underground Railroad? and the NY Sun, History on Duffield Street. The New York Times article includes room to make comments, which are worth reading in themselves.

The Brooklyn newspapers that have covered it so far are The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Supporters Rally Once Again at 19th-Century Duffield Street Houses and Brooklyn Downtown Star Duffield Street Files Suit. The Star has a long history of excellent coverage of this issue, but this article makes some surprisingly blatant mistakes, including stating that two buildings are threatened with eminent domain, when in fact the EDC wants to confiscate and demolish 7 privately owned properties. The Courier-Life publications printed a pretty thorough article, Commission walks away from Duffield houses - President pens letter stating history will be ‘better served’ without saving buildings.

The blogs also had their say, including The Gowanus Lounge Another Effort to Save Duffield St. Underground Railroad Houses and the comprehensive EMINENT DOMAINIA: The Big Apple Bites.

I posted WBAI's coverage at It's a big file, and I haven't been able to edit it down yet.

The result of all this coverage is that the EDC/AKRF are looking less credible. It still seems odd that the EDC would waste so much effort on such a small piece of land, even if it had no historic significance. They have bigger projects to work on.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Elected Officials, Historians, Residents Seek to Preserve Duffield Houses During Juneteenth Commemoration – Celebrating the End of Slavery

BROOKLYN, NY – On Juneteenth – a national celebration that commemorates the end of slavery – elected officials, historic preservationists, and local residents will rally at Duffield Houses to challenge the conclusions of the City's Economic Development Corporation report, which denies the existence of a historic Underground Railroad site at this location. Many of the nationally-renown expert witnesses who worked on this report will directly repudiate the City's conclusions – which will now allow a private developer to demolish the Duffield Houses and build a parking lot at the site.

On January 7, 2004, Duffield Street residents found notices taped to front doors informing them that their historic houses would be taken by eminent domain and demolished to make way for a new parking lot. A growing number of historians, archaeologist, and Underground Railroad experts are outraged at the concocted conclusion of the City's report by a consultant firm unqualified to make such an analysis. Many consider this Underground Railroad site to be hallowed ground and a
vital cultural treasure that should be preserved. The Underground Railroad was the network of people and places in which fugitive slaves sought refuge when escaping from the plantation system in the South.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 from 1:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

227 Duffield Street (between Fulton & Willoughby)
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Elected Officials, historic preservationists, and local residents.
JIM DRISCOLL and RICHARD HOURAHAN, expert witnesses.
LEWIS GREENSTEIN and JOY CHATEL, Duffield Block Association.
BOB FURMAN, Chairman, and RAUL ROTHBLATT, Board Member, Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance.
CHRISTABEL GOUGH, Secretary, Society for the Architecture of the City.
ILANA BURGER, Community Organizers, FUREE: Families United for Racial
& Economic Equality.

John Choe | Chief of Staff
Office of Council Member John C. Liu
The Council of the City of New York

Monday, June 18, 2007

Suit: Underground Railroad homes at risk

From amNewYork
By Justin Rocket Silverman

A lawsuit filed against the city aims to save seven unassuming houses that may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad used by escaping slaves.

The houses are slated for demolition to make way for a massive redevelopment of Downtown Brooklyn.

"There is no debate at this point that prominent abolitionists lived at 227 Duffield St.," said Jennifer Levy, a lawyer with South Brooklyn Legal Services, which filed the suit Friday.

"But the city didn't include that fact in its final environmental impact report. I guess they missed it."

The suit seeks to show the city violated its own laws by failing to fully examine the historical significance of the houses it wants to demolish. Preservationists say the houses were important stops along the Underground Railroad in the 19th century. They criticize the city for not holding public discussions on their demolition.

full article

[Photo, Jefferson Siegel]

Sunday, June 10, 2007