A unanimous 4-0 vote from the New York City Council made history last Thursday by approving historical designation to an area with an upwards of 800 homes in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The Land Use Subcommittee of New York sat before a personal audience of members with unwavering attention and three panels of emotional activists on Thursday, Feb. 25. The subcommittee listened to the panels’ testimonies before approving the historical designation of the Bedford Historic District.
The meeting came after the designation of the district from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Dec. 8, 2015, to which this meeting was the follow-up approval.
The District holds around 820 buildings in a site between Bedford Avenue and Tompkins Street, with Monroe Street to the north and Macon Street to the south. Its late 19th-century architecture is bringing the area into the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District which was created in 1971.
At the meeting, Robert Cornegy, the council member who represents the district that encompasses the area, made a short speech giving his support for the designation before the panels began. Cornegy expressed his pleasure of seeing the issue being taken care of in his first year of office, however he proposed there could be some issues due to obligations on property owners.
Lisa Kersavage, the director of strategic planning and special projects at the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, responded to Cornegy’s concerns. Cornegy posed the problem of elderly or disabled persons needing to modify the exterior of their homes to account for their disabilities. Kersavage did not show concern for the issue and explained that it is rare for these requests to be denied by the commission.
Peter Koo, the chair on the subcommittee, also sent some concern to the panel about rising property value that could result from the designation. Claudette Brady, one of the founders of the Bedford Historic Society explained that landmarking has not led to significant property value increase, rather gentrification or “the influx of white people into Bedford-Stuyvesant,” as Brady called it while raising her voice, has.
The panel of the Bedford Historic Society brought raw emotion and passion into the room as Brady, who has been working on this issue for about nine years, showcased her dedication to the job. “For us, keeping momentum going for nine years has been difficult,” Brady yelled. “I was in a hospital bed in cardiac ICU, planning meetings because we don’t have staff.”
Daniel Thompson of the Bedford Historic Society shared Brady’s passion and read a metaphor to the subcommittee. “The physical context, the row houses all stand shoulder to shoulder, each one supporting its neighbor, and that’s what we do in our community,” Thompson said.
Council member Stephen Levin, who represents a small part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, supported Thompson. “One of the remarkable things about this posed district, is that it, for generations, even without the LPC’s mandate to preserve these buildings, the community has preserved it, and the families have preserved their homes in remarkable fashion,” Levin said. “I’m just proud to support this.”
According to Brady and Thompson, community effort was a strong aspect of the designation process. Between 2007 and 2010, the society held public meetings to which 150 people attended the first, and block association meetings, where as many as 60 people would attend, when it is unlikely to get even five, according to Brady.
Ronald Howell, a Brooklyn College professor who was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, supports the designation as well. “I think it’s extremely important both to me and to especially, black people who have feelings about Brooklyn and the presence of blacks in Brooklyn,” Howell said.
For Howell the history doesn’t stop at the renaissance architecture, it extends to the community of African American and Caribbean families that came to the neighborhood in the 1920s. “For me, Bed-Stuy is like family, not just extended family, but it’s a family that goes back in time for generations,” he said. “I think it would be disrespectful to history, disrespectful to people of color who came up in Brooklyn, not to give a recognition of the significance of that community.”
Howell did however propose similar concerns to council member Cornegy’s. According to Howell, there are many people who have sincere connections to Bedford-Stuyvesant and do not agree with the designation, for reasons such as getting fined by the Landmark Preservation Commission for independently maintaining their homes.
Stephen Duffy, a Brooklyn College film student has lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant for two years and supports the designation. “I’m already seeing development of new apartment buildings and commercial store fronts, so I’d hope that in making Bed-Stuy a historic neighborhood, that kind of deconstructive construction will slow or end all together,” Duffy said.
Bianca Carpio, another Bedford-Stuyvesant resident, does not see the historic value in her section of the neighborhood. “Not that I don’t love my area, but it doesn’t seem historic, although I’m glad Bed-Stuy is getting recognized for being a great neighborhood,” Carpio said.
As the meeting came to a close, the council members, audience members, and those testifying for the designation got together for a family photo, showcasing the communal feeling that Thompson spoke of.
“It’s a great sense of relief and reward after a long concentrated effort,” Thompson said after the meeting. “I guess it’s safe to buy a bottle of champagne on the way home.”