City selects artist for abolitionist installation at Willoughby Square Park

Willoughby Square Park
The proposed design.

The city has selected borough artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed to erect a text-based public art installation at Downtown Brooklyn’s Willoughby Square Park inspired by the area’s long history in the fight to abolish slavery, the creative told Community Board 2’s Parks and Recreation Committee Monday.

“The main thing here is to think about how text shows up in places outside of books, outside of galleries, to think about the public spaces of place where we can engrave and include questions about emancipation and liberation and the future of how we think about equity directly into the park structure,” Rasheed told the committee at its virtual meeting Jan. 11.

The artist plans to engrave text into the seating and ground around the decades-in-the-works 1.15-acre park as well as include some sort of free-standing structure, she said.

The proposed locations for the artworks include seating, the ground, and a free-standing structure.NYC EDC

The typeface for the messages will be inspired by lettering used in Black newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries, along with classic storefront designs from around the borough.

A former high school teacher, Rasheed has had her work on display in the borough between the columns of the Brooklyn Museum and at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch.

The Park will also have abolitionist-related programming which was supposed to be in-person, but will now likely be remote due to the pandemic.

Alternatives Rasheed and the city are pursuing are cards distributed at local libraries with prompts for people to write to the artist, Zoom call discussions, collaborations with local public school teachers, or an online survey, said the artist.

The board committee members had mixed reactions to the proposal, with one member asking why the Economic Development Corporation — the quasi-public city agency overseeing the $15 million park project — didn’t coordinate in any way with neighboring buildings steeped in abolitionist history, such as adjacent property at 227 Duffield St., which used to house anti-slavery activists in the 19th century, and which the city is currently considering landmarking.

“You’re surrounded by all of these different things that are going on,” said board member Carolyn Hubbard-Kamunanwire. “I wanted to know whether there is any thought of coordination with the next block over on Duffield Place [sic] where there is a whole African-American history that needs to be coordinated.”

EDC’s borough director Ricky Da Costa said that they were not working with any buildings nearby, but focusing solely on the square itself.

“We are not directly coordinating with whatever is happening at any of the neighboring sites, our main concern is this open space and getting it constructed, and also living up to the commitment of having there be a memorial artwork to the abolitionist history of Brooklyn,” Da Costa said.

Community Board 2 cast their symbolic vote in October 2019 to re-christen the planned site “Abolitionist Place Park,” after the two-block stretch of Duffield Street between Willoughby and Fulton Streets which the city previously co-named “Abolitionist Place.”

The Parks Committee’s chairwoman lauded the choice of Rasheed, saying the artist and the proposal were a fitting tribute for the space.

“You seem like the perfect person to do this project, so thoughtful and directed and talented,” said Barbara Zahler-Gringer. “[Words] can be so inspiring and informational and stay with you when you leave, so I think that’s great.”

The site currently houses a temporary 15,000-square-foot “pop-up park,” which the city opened in summer of 2019, anticipating the full lawn would be built and opened by September 2020.

COVID-19 delayed progress on the park — which was originally proposed as a sweetener for all the high-rise development resulting from the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning — and Da Costa said EDC is ready to finally get building once they get the go-ahead from City Hall budget bigwigs.

“As everybody knows the city’s funding situation, or capital budget situation, is not what it once was, so we still are kind of waiting for the green light to let us know when we’ll be able to go ahead with construction,” the official said.