Opposition and Support Voiced for Proposed Bed-Stuy Historic District

Proposed Bedford Historic District. Credit: LPC.

Proposed Bedford Historic District. Credit: LPC.

Potential district is characterized by late 19th-century masonry residential structures. The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a well-attended hearing on the potential designation of the Bedford Historic District in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant community on January 15, 2013. The proposed district would be comprised of approximately 800 buildings, roughly bounded by Bedford and Tompkins Avenues from west to east, and Monroe and Fulton Streets from north to south. The area was mostly developed during the period between 1870 and 1900. Many of the late 19thcentury residents were people of New England origin, as well as German and Irish immigrants. Following World War I, African-Americans increasingly moved to the area, drawn by the area’s affordable, high-quality housing. By the 1920s and 1930s, the area became a quiet residential alternative to Harlem. The neighborhood later saw an influx of Caribbean-American residents.

Architecturally, the area is characterized by masonry rowhouses and small apartment buildings constructed between 1870 and 1900. Brooklyn architects Isaac D. Reynolds and Montrose Morris are heavily represented in the proposed district. Individual landmarks in the district include the Alhambra Apartments at 500 Nostrand Avenue, the Renaissance Apartments, at 140 Hancock Street, and the  Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools, both constructed in the 1890s.

Local Council Member Albert Vann spoke in support of the designation, stating that the landmarking proposal was the result of community initiative. Vann testified that it would serve as a means for the community to protect itself from “powerful economic forces,” and would function as a “bulwark against negative gentrification.” Richard Bearak read a statement from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in support of the designation. Markowitz believed that the “proposal is not government dictating but government responding,” and would grant the district “a measure of neighborhood respect that would further restrict developers from squeezing every last ounce of development rights” resulting in residential displacement. Evelyn Collier, speaking for Brooklyn Community Board 3, also expressed strong support for the designation.

Many residents also attended the hearing to voice their support. Vivian Munsey appealed to the audience to “get this beautiful area landmarked,” and recalled being impressed by the neighborhood’s brownstones as a child, and later growing to appreciate the area’s architectural history. Architect Morgan Munsey, who is also a local resident, listed some of the luminaries who had lived in the community, including Shirley Chisholm, Lena Horne, Frank Woolworth, Aaron Copland, and Betty Smith author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Altovise Fleary, President of the Jefferson Avenue Block Association, emphasized the importance of “protecting the aesthetic and historic nature of the Victorian brownstones.” Resident Arthur Kell said that recent development had led to “so many ugly buildings where there used to be something architecturally beautiful.” Lorraine Roach-Steele decried the new “square-box construction” that “devalues our homes.”

Representatives of preservationist organizations including the Bedford-Stuyvesant Society for Historic Preservation, the Society for the Architecture of the City, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Districts Council, and the Victorian Society New York also testified at the hearing advocating designation.

Although the overwhelming majority spoke in favor of designation, there were several people who spoke strongly in opposition. Johnny Ray Youngblood, Pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, objected to the proposal on several grounds. He claimed that the community had not been adequately informed or consulted and that landmarking would unfairly impact thousands of homeowners, placing them under undue financial constraints. He claimed the landmarking process had been dominated by “pro-preservation insiders.” He stated that a hearing held on a workday in Manhattan did not provide the community a means to participate. Homeowner Sehu Jeppe testified in opposition to designation, saying “what needs to be preserved are the people of Bed-Stuy,” and arguing that affordable housing and education were the issues that needed attention. Kirsten John Foy, of the National Action Network, argued that the hearing did not allow for broad based community input. He submitted letters from over 200 residents requesting that the designation process be suspended until a real community education campaign is performed. Another resident, Maurice Cherry, argued that the City should not be “playing Big Brother” and stated he was “not concerned with Caucasian architectural history.”

Commissioner Libby Ryan countered the accusations that Landmarks had not made substantial outreach efforts by stating that Landmarks had held three evening meetings in Bedford-Stuyvesant, sent four letters to every property owner in the district, and that LPC’s staff attended local community board meetings. Brooklyn Community Board 3 District Manager Charlene Phillips testified that community board representatives had visited block associations to raise awareness of the issue. Historic Districts Council Executive Director Simeon Bankoff noted in his testimony that he and HDC staff had attended dozens of meetings in the neighborhood to address the issue of landmarking over the previous three years. Bedford-Stuyvesant was one of HDC’s original preservation priorities on their inaugural “Six to Celebrate” list in 2011.

Commissioner Libby Ryan left the record open for 30 days to allow for the submission of further testimony and closed the hearing.

LPC: Bedford Historic District, Brooklyn (LP-2514) (Jan. 15, 2013).

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