Preservationists slam city’s D’town art proposal for glossing over abolitionist history

Willoughby Square Park
The proposed design.

The city’s proposal for an art installation ostensibly aimed at honoring the fight against slavery in Downtown Brooklyn was met with heavy criticism from preservationists and activists, who lambasted the design put fourth by the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation for ignoring the the area’s rich abolitionist history.

“This sacred piece of land lies at the heart of 100 years of African-American activism,” said amateur historian Raul Rothblatt. “The EDC seems grimly intent on destroying any mention of this history.”

The agency tasked borough artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed to install text-based artworks in the planned Willoughby Square Park adjacent to 227 Duffield St., where abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Lee-Truesdell lived in the mid-1800s. 

The artist said her proposal was inspired by the role of porches as gathering spaces for Black activists, and that her engravings on and around the park’s seating areas could inspire conversations about the future of emancipation and liberation.

Rasheed’s proposal, however, did not reference either anti-slavery activists, nor did it highlight the work of 19th-century journalist Ida B. Wells, who lived around the corner on Gold Street. 

“The [EDC] proposal for what they call Willoughby Square Park is insultingly vague and devoid of any connection to the history of the neighborhood,” said Curtis Harris, a candidate for the Council’s 35th District.

The ire of the preservationists came at a Jan. 19 virtual hearing before the city’s Public Design Commission, which must give its go-ahead before the project can go forward.

An unassuming brick row-house, 227 Duffield St. is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to local lore, and the city is currently considering landmarking the structure under threat of demolition.

Rothblatt, however, scolded the city for siting the lawn’s dog run right next to the old building, which he worried will cause local pooches to relieve themselves above where escaped slaves once hid in tunnels underground. 

“You’d literally be having dog pee going where there were tunnels under abolitionists’s home,” he said. 

The city almost razed 227 Duffield St. via eminent domain in 2007 when EDC was looking to make way for Willoughby Square Park as a giveback for the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn upzoning, but officials halted the wrecking ball after a lawsuit was brought by activists and one of the building’s owners, the late Joy Chatel.

Chatel’s daughter at the Tuesday meeting called out EDC for declining to work with local activists and preservationists of the area.

“What is the reasoning behind not coordinating with what’s happening at neighboring sites, how can you totally disconnect the two if you are trying to instill the preservation of the Abolitionist movement,” said Shawné Lee.

The proposed locations for the artwork marked in yellow, and the dog park sited on the lower left corner next to 227 Duffield St.NYC EDC

Lee also called on the agency to recognize the lawn’s name as “Abolitionist Place Park,” after local Community Board 2 cast a symbolic vote to rechristen the space in 2019.

Officially renaming the park would still require a city map change in the Council, and local Councilman Stephen Levin supports the move, but has yet to introduce the necessary legislation, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Adams.

The political aide and other activists criticized the lack of transparency by EDC and the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) on the selection of Rasheed in February of 2020, saying officials kept project updates under wraps until last week’s CB2 meeting.

“Only today we learned that an artist selection took place in February of 2020, without making the finalists designs public, and last week is the first time anyone has heard of it,” said Manhattan public art advocate Todd Fine.

The 11-member Public Design Commission voted to table a decision on whether to approve the project, with the panel’s head urging the city to give the artist more say in how she wants to do the artwork, and to engage more with the community before coming back with a more fleshed-out proposal.

“[We] would like to table this proposition so that there is greater opportunity for the artist to hear some of the voices that perhaps have not been heard for whatever reason we won’t dwell on,” said PDC President Signe Nielsen. “And also very much to suggest to the artist as well as to the agency that the artist have the freedom to select locations within this abolitionist park that are appropriate to what she wants to convey.”

A spokesman for EDC said the two agencies will consider the feedback and meet with locals about the project in the future.

“The purpose of today’s meeting was to hear from the Commission and collect testimony. DCLA and NYCEDC will work closely with the artist to take into account the feedback provided today in the conceptual design meeting with PDC. We look forward to future meetings with community members and relevant design agencies,” said Chris Singleton in a statement.