Monday, August 13, 2007

A victory for Brooklyn or a new justification to demolish the Duffield Abolitionist homes?

This is not a quote from Bloomberg's press release today:
In view of the Underground Railroad’s great importance has in our nation’s history, City Planning and EDC acted immediately to investigate the claims presented at the CPC public hearing of Underground Railroad activity in the area.
This is a quote a NYC Department of City Planning press release from 2004.

The Observer reports on a new released press release (PDF) in Mayor Appeases on Underground Railroad Rancor. Here is an excerpt:

Widely Respected Panel Selected to Assist with Commemoration Project

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced plans to develop a project to commemorate abolitionist activity that occurred in Brooklyn in the 1800s. To assist in that effort, a six-member panel of noted historians, community leaders and academics has been selected to work with the City and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.

"Recognizing and honoring the historic role that Brooklyn played in the abolitionist movement is a worthy endeavor, and a role we should be proud of," said Mayor Bloomberg. "It's important that as we work to bring new jobs and housing to downtown Brooklyn that we also work to ensure that the noteworthy deeds of our ancestors will not be forgotten.
The announcement is certainly a victory for those who want to promote the development of Downtown Brooklyn through the commemoration of the Abolitionist history at 227 Duffield Street and other nearby historic properties. It is a clear recognition by the Mayor that these buildings can provide an important cultural resource to the area.

It remains to be seen whether today's press release is just an excuse to tear down these properties and to build a memorial at some other location. The EDC made this suggestion at the May 1st 2007 public hearing on the historical claims surrounding the Duffield Street homes threatened with destruction by their Downtown Brooklyn plans.

There are some disturbing hints in the Mayor's press release. Most strikingly, the EDC hired a team of eminent historians to act as Peer Reviewers for the report written by AKRF and published by the EDC in March 2007. These academics worked to legitimize the AKRF report, which concluded that there was not sufficient evidence at the time to preserve the properties. The Peer Reviewers came to the conclusion that the properties should be preserved.

Today's press release announces a "Widely Respected Panel Selected to Assist with Commemoration Project," but none of the Peer Reviewers who spoke out against the EDC's conclusions were included. Apparently, their years of work on the subject mean that they are no longer "widely respected," since they disagreed with the EDC.

It is also quite curious that the Mayor did not include Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance as one of the community groups on his panel. Four Borough has been at the forefront of the initiative to advocate for Downtown Brooklyn through the promotion of the history at 227 Duffield Street and nearby properties.

The press release continues:
In connection with the City's efforts to implement the Downtown Brooklyn Plan... an extensive research effort was completed in response to suggestions that certain houses on Duffield and Gold Streets in Downtown Brooklyn played a role in the Underground Railroad. The research did not directly connect Underground Railroad activity to the houses, but it did confirm a great deal of abolitionist activity in the area. As a result, the City is seeking to develop a commemoration program that will celebrate and embrace the role that Brooklyn played in bringing an end to slavery.
AKRF did spent two years researching this history, but for serious academic research, this is just scratching the surface. And it is factually incorrect to say that this effort "was completed in response to suggestions" etc. The research was done because AKRF was caught lying. The well respected historian Dr. Cheryl LaRoche testified before the City Council that Duffield Street is the most promising site for Underground Railroad research in the country. It is wrong to characterize this as a mere "suggestion," and I hope the Mayor corrects this error.

We applaud the Mayor for moving in the right direction. We just hope it is the right direction.