More complete report on Duffield Street

From Courier-Life

05/05/2007
Railroad redux – Duffield St. holds tight to Underground R.R. claims
By Helen Klein

Critics say that the Empire Development Corporation “trivialized” key pieces of data regarding Duffield Street’s connection to the historic underground railroad.
A report that sought to discredit claims that downtown Brooklyn buildings scheduled for demolition were connected to the Underground Railroad was slammed at a City Council hearing as being inadequately researched and documented.

Area residents and experts testified at the May first hearings that the report, by AKRF for the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), left out or attempted to trivialize key pieces of data in reaching its controversial conclusion.

They also criticized AKRF for not having taken the logical step of hiring an archaeologist as part of their evaluation team researching the seven buildings at 223 through 235 Duffield Street, and 436 Gold Street.

The buildings, which date back to the 1840s and 1850s, are in an area slated for redevelopment as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan. One particular site would be razed to create a parking area for a Sheraton hotel now under construction nearby.

Residents and preservationists have objected to the potential demolition of the old structures from the beginning, citing their historical significance.

One of the houses, 227 Duffield Street, was the home of a known abolitionist, Harriet Truesdell, from 1851 to 1863, though AKRF contended in its report that, “There is no considerable documentary evidence or strong local tradition of a direct association of the site to local Underground Railroad activities.”

It was loud objections over the proposed demolition of the group of buildings, dating back to 2004, that caused the City Council to ask that EDC revisit the question of whether the structures were connected to the Underground Railroad as a condition of approving the redevelopment plan.

The purpose of the rezoning was to allow construction of dense, high rise buildings – an event that AKRF describes in its executive summary in glowing terms, as, “A long-range planning strategy to create a vibrant, multi-use urban environment that serves the residents, businesses, and academic institutions of Downtown Brooklyn and its surrounding communities.”

As for the connection of the buildings to the Underground Railroad, AKRF’s report said, “The information on the properties, owners, and residents identified through the research process and the oral tradition collection effort did not conclusively document the presence of Underground Railroad activity.”

AKRF was chosen specifically to push this particular agenda forward, opponents claim. Noted Robert Furman, the executive director of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, in a “fact sheet on the AKRF report,” the company is, “A historical consultant known as a hired gun which does its clients’ bidding.”

At the hearing, Furman contended that, in fact, the report produced by AKRF, “Was so incompetent as to invalidate it and require additional professional and objective studies.” Among the problems with AKRF’s methodology, said Furman, was the fact that, “The researchers AKRF employed on their project were unfamiliar with local abolitionist and general history.”

In addition, Furman complained that, “AKRF has performed no archaeological studies of the Duffield Street houses despite the persistent and public insistence of the owners that holes in the basements are tunnel entrances.” Like others who testified, Furman called for an archaeologist to be hired, “To analyze the holes, before they are gone forever.”

A major problem with the report, said Craig Swan, who has a Ph.D. in American and African-American history, is that so little research has been done into the history of the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.

Swan pointed out in a video distributed on YouTube by preservationists and provided as testimony at the City Council hearing, that the subject, “Had never been discussed until 2004 when the city decided to tear down this row of houses on Duffield Street.

“In that year,” Swan went on, “they discovered some underground tunnels which are part of an Underground Railroad. They discovered abolitionists living along this block, and the city, of course, was not concerned with history so they decided to ignore all that and tear it down. We have to start worrying about preservation of our history. If we don’t preserve it, we’ve lost it.”

In the same video, Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, pointed out discrepancies between evidence provided to AKRF and the summaries contained within the report.

Noting that AKRF did not identify oral history sources, Gough said that the consultants had put assertions connecting the homes on Duffield Street with the Underground Railroad into the third person, in effect to cast doubt upon them.

“What they have done, they have restated without stating who said it, always using the passive voice. They talk as if everything that was said is not true. It is extremely insulting,” stressed Gough.

“This is a 760-page report,” Gough also noted. “There is a great deal that is of uncertain validity. But, I think, the greatest problem with it is that the people who wrote it don’t want to know.”

Jeanette Muhlmann, who lives on Duffield Street, said that she had seen, “The arch that leads to the tunnels on the site where they are now digging,” as part of the Sheraton hotel construction, and she said she has her camera ready to capture views of the tunnels when the digging reveals them.

Lamenting the destruction of the historic old structures, in favor of high rise development, Muhlmann said she didn’t understand why the high rises couldn’t be built while the old buildings are preserved.

“In Switzerland or Germany, when they find a site like that, they don’t destroy it,” Muhlmann explained. “They still build the high rises, but they keep the history inside. That would be great. They could have a museum about the Underground Railroad, which would be an attraction. Why destroy it?”

City Councilmember Charles Barron was scathing about the AKRF report. “The city paid a half a million dollars for the report, and they didn’t even hire an archaeologist,” he noted. “They had peer reviewers, but they didn’t list who the primary researchers were. Who were the peer reviewers reviewing?

“Some of the peer reviewers said the area was part of the Underground Railroad, but they didn’t put that in the report,” Barron went on, contending, “This is a blatant attack on an integral part of American history.”

Indeed, noted Barron, “This report is bogus.” And, he added, EDC had, “Failed on their commitment” to research the site thoroughly. Based on that, he said, “They should now cancel the demolition of those properties. We’ve got a good case that they made for us by their inadequate study.”

By press time, EDC did not respond to a request for comment.

©Courier-Life Publications 2007

Leave A Comment

About Us

The Historic Districts Council (HDC) is the advocate for all of New York City's historic neighborhoods. HDC is the only organization in New York that works directly with people who care about our city's historic neighborhoods and buildings. We represent a constituency of over 500 local community organizations.

Contact Us

Historic Districts Council
232 East 11th Street
New York, NY 10003
Tel: (212) 614-9107
Fax: (212) 614-9127
E-mail: hdc@hdc.org

Donate Now

Become a Friend of HDC! Your donation helps preserve, improve, and celebrate the places that make New York great.

Join Our Mailing List

Receive updates on programs, events, action alerts, and our Landmarks Preservation Commission testimony.