‘I hate it. It hurts me’: Historian slams city’s weak proposals for abolitionist memorial in Downtown park

A historian accused the Economic Development Corporation of sidelining an abolitionist memorial to being only an ‘afterthought’ as part of their newly-proposed design for Willoughby Square Park on Aug. 26.
Hargreaves Associates

A historian accused the city of sidelining a planned abolitionist memorial as part of a planned Downtown park.

The city’s quasi-public, pro-development arm, the Economic Development Corporation, unveiled new design renderings for Willoughby Square Park at a meeting of Community Board 2 on Monday, and one history buff accused the agency of failing to deliver on a promised tribute to the area’s rich abolitionist history.

“They’re just reducing what was supposed to be a great and prominent memorial to Brooklyn’s great role in the abolitionist movement to an afterthought, and that is a disgrace,” said Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, and longtime advocate for memorializing the neighborhood’s connection to the Underground Railroad.

When EDC first proposed the Downtown greenspace between Duffield Street and Albee Square W. as a selling point for the neighborhood’s 2004 rezoning, its original plans required the city to raze the former Duffield Street home of abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, which may have served escaped slaves as stop along the Underground Railroad.

But local advocates rallied and the city backed off its demolition scheme in 2007, leading then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to earmark $2 million of the project’s $15 million budget for a monument and programming dedicated to the legacy of Kings County’s abolitionist movement.

The memorial could be inscriptions on a low wall or seating, or a free standing structure, such as these other examples, a lanscape architect contractor for EDC told Community Board 2’s Executive Committee on Aug. 26. Activist and head of the Harlem Historical Society, Jacob Morris, who was at the meeting, was not impressed. “It was supposed to be a critical and central element of the park. I hate it, I hate it. It hurts me,” said Morris.
Hargreaves Associates

At the Aug. 26 meeting of Community Board 2’s Executive Committee, Mary Margaret Jones, a representative for landscape architecture firm and Willoughby Square Park designer Hargreaves Associates showed off some ideas for a proposed $700,000 memorial — including an abstract sculpture in the form of a tall, squiggly column and inscriptions chiseled into steps or furniture throughout the park — which outraged the Harlem history buff, who said the presentation fell well short of what Bloomberg promised more than a decade ago.

“It was supposed to be a critical and central element of the park,” said Morris. “I hate it, I hate it. It hurts me.”

But a spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation claimed Morris is just salty with the city for shooting down his own proposal for a memorial in 2007, and defended the agency’s plan as a sincere tribute to the area’s abolitionist roots.

“Despite Mr. Morris’ unfounded position and the fact that his proposal… was not selected in 2007, this project has the support of community leaders and elected officials, and will pay homage to the abolitionist history in Downtown Brooklyn,” said Christian Ficara.

And Jones assured the group that nothing has been finalized regarding the abolitionist tribute, and that the city will solicit design proposals from artists later this year that will be reviewed and finalized by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Irondale Ensemble, and the Weeksville Heritage Center by November.

This map shows where a potential memorial could go.
Hargreaves Associates

The chosen artist will set up their piece at the beginning of next year — in time for the park’s opening September 2020 debut, Jones said.

In the end, the board’s Executive Committee recommended the group support the park’s new design with a letter to the Public Design Commission when the board’s general membership reconvene for the first time after its summer recess next month.

But Morris accused the city agency of bypassing the civic panel’s Parks Committee — which traditionally provides recommendations to the full board on park designs — and vowed to raise the issue at that committee’s upcoming meeting on Sept. 16.

“That was a hell of a move, that was a slick move,” he said. “By bringing it to the executive board instead of a committee, that was a rushed process.”

Ficara said Morris’s claim that EDC pulled a fast one is nonsense, noting that the community board sets its own agenda and determines which committees hear which issues — not the city.

The landscape architects flipped the park’s design to have seating and tables at Albee Square W. near restaurants and hotels, while moving the playground and dog park to the more residential Duffield Street side. They also cut out approaches and bulkheads for the high-tech underground parking garage that was part of the former plan.
Hargreaves Associates

The public will have an opportunity to provide comment on the upcoming design proposal online before they’re finalized in November, according to Ficara.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

More from Around New York