Joy on Duffield: Deal saves ‘Underground Railroad’ home

Duffield Street resident Joy Chatel shows a tunnel in her basement that she believes was used by fugitive slaves.
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

The city has said it will redesign a park that is the centerpiece of its plan for Downtown Brooklyn after the owner of a home linked by historians to the Underground Railroad won a court settlement last week.

The house in question sits at 227 Duffield St., on what would have been the southwest corner of Willoughby Square Park — the 1.8-acre greenspace that city officials hope will be the Bryant Park-style heart of a newly booming Downtown Brooklyn.

In the settlement, the city promised it would “not seek to [condemn] 227 Duffield Street in conjunction with the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan.” Now that the building will remain, architects will be forced to carve out a niche in the park, said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

“It is premature to say” how exactly the settlement would affect the design of the park, since “designs have not begun yet,” added Patterson.

But what is clear is that the owner of the house, Joy Chatel, has won a nearly four-year-long battle with the city over what critics have called an abuse of eminent domain.

The fight began in 2004, when the city passed a major upzoning of Downtown Brooklyn that has ushered in a building boom throughout the area bounded by Flatbush Avenue Extension and Tillary, Jay and Fulton streets. At the center of that expansion was to be a new green space and with a parking garage underneath it: Willoughby Square Park.

In order to create the park, the city said it would have to condemn Chatel’s property, and up to six other homes on Duffield Street and neighboring Gold Street. Preservationists criticized the city for ignoring evidence that the houses were once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network that helped guide slaves to freedom.

Under intense pressure to preserve Chatel’s home in particular, the city paid a consulting firm $500,000 to study the homes’ historic merit. That report, issued in April, claimed that 227 Duffield St. and the other homes were not part of the Underground Railroad — though the report was repudiated by two-thirds of its peer reviewers.

“There is overwhelming evidence … of Abolitionist activity” at Chatel’s house, archaeologist Cheryl LaRoche said at the time.

But Joe Chan, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, countered in a statement that “Willoughby Square has always been the centerpiece of the [Downtown Brooklyn] Plan, and is an important incentive to attract private investment.”

In a last-ditch effort to appease preservationists, the city co-named Duffield Street “Abolitionist Place” in September and promised $2 million to commemorate Abolitionist activity on the street.

Critics, including Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Fort Greene), said the co-naming was a nice gesture, but that the houses should still be preserved.

Following last week’s settlement, Chatel thanked the mayor “for listening to our plea.”

Lawyer Jennifer Levy, who represented Chatel, speculated that the city decided to settle because it “was the fastest way to continue development, and they realized they could redraw the [park] plans pretty easily.”

But the future of the other six homes, which might be condemned during a different phase of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, remains up in the air.

The city, meanwhile, declared itself happy with the results.

“The city is pleased that this litigation was resolved in a manner favorable to all the parties involved, and is now looking forward to proceeding with its plan for commercial and residential growth in Downtown Brooklyn, together with the mayor’s initiative to commemorate the area’s abolitionist history,” said Law Department spokeswoman Kate Ahlers.

For his part, Chan declared this week that “Willoughby Square will move forward and will, in time, become one of the great public spaces in one of the fastest growing urban centers in America.”

With Joy Chatel’s house anchoring the southwest corner, that is.

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