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City now seeks ‘Railroad’ ties

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Oh the irony: After spending more than two years preparing for the demolition of Duffield Street homes that many believe were stations on the Underground Railroad, the Bloomberg Administration now says it wants to “to commemorate abolitionist activity that occurred in Brooklyn in the 1800s.”

Bloomberg announced on Monday the creation of a six-member panel to honor Abolitionist history in Brooklyn — even as the destruction of seven houses on Duffield and Gold streets, near Willoughby Street is slated to go forward in 2009. Their destruction will make way for Willoughby Square — a park and underground garage that is the centerpiece of the mayor’s Downtown Brooklyn Plan.

Preservationists were not appeased. “The issue still remains that we have physical reminders of the Abolitionist movement, and the city is seemingly intending to move forward with their demolition,” said Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

One of the seven houses, at 227 Duffield St., belonged to Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, prominent Brooklyn Abolitionists. A number of the homes’ basements have tunnels that may have been used to help slaves escape to freedom.

In April, a consulting firm hired by the city cast doubt on the houses’ ties to the Underground Railroad. But critics quickly questioned whether the firm, AKRF, could be impartial, given that it was hired and paid for by a city government intent on paving over the Duffield Street houses.

Indeed, at a subsequent City Council hearing, the firm admitted that it had never employed an archaeologist to investigate the validity of the historical claims. Moreover, eight of the 12 experts hired to peer-review the report disagreed with it. One of those reviewers was Jim Driscoll, president of the Queens Historical Society, who called the mayor’s move “a poor substitute.”

“They’re talking about spending $2 million [on this commemorative effort],” said Driscoll. “How much more would it cost them to set aside 227 Duffield St.? Why not remove that house from the project and turn that into a museum?”

The six-member panel is charged with finding a cultural group to operate commemorative programming this fall.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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