Deborah Young & Suzanne Spellen: Crown Heights North Historic District; Crown Heights North Association
Voices from the Neighborhood
Interviewed September 28, 2010, by Susan Hopper, HDC Board Member.
How did you get started with preservation? We started organizing in late 2001. One of our founding members, Denise Brown, had worked with the Historic Districts Council prior to our coming together as a community organization. We were starting up our organization, which was eventually named the Crown Heights North Association, Inc. or CHNA. Denise knew that a number of communities surveyed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission had moved forward to landmarking but not Crown Heights, and we were not sure how to proceed. Denise was aware of the work of HDC and said we should reach out to them.
How has the Historic Districts Council helped? This was one of the best moves we could have made. We reached out to Executive Director Simeon Bankoff, who held our hands, wiped our tears and encouraged us every step of the way. Frampton Tolbert, deputy director, was also very helpful when we needed strategies on how to best move our agenda forward. Both shared with us their expertise on preservation issues, and connected us with numerous resources. Since then, HDC has been most helpful in teaching us how to effectively maneuver through the bureaucracy, prepare letters in a manner that would best ensure the support of our elected officials, and how to strategically reach out to other organizations that could help us, such as the Landmarks Conservancy, Municipal Art Society, and others. They also told us whom to connect with at the LPC.
Frampton and Simeon were so willing to come out to meetings when we needed experts; they were gracious and are godsends to any preservation organization. HDC urged us to make the community a part of what we were attempting to achieve. Consequently, we began holding bi-monthly general membership meetings. HDC also helped us prepare for and participate in meetings with our elected official. HDC suggested we host an annual town hall meeting, so for our first town hall, we invited the Chairman of LPC and staff members to speak. We have been hosting annual town hall meetings ever since, each with a theme relative to community interest and needs. HDC has also been helpful in simplifying for us, and for homeowners, the do’s and don’ts of living in a designated community. Simeon and Frampton are very good at explaining historic designation in a friendly, “everyman” sort of way that is not off-putting.
HDC reviewed the initial map of the Crown Heights North area that was surveyed as landmark-worthy. They were very helpful in identifying the most important areas, and the areas that had been overlooked by the LPC survey. Because the area that was “landmark-worthy” was so large, HDC helped us devise how best to move forward strategically. It was important to make our goal more manageable. Before Deborah moved to the block she currently lives on, she had never heard Crown Heights referred to as Crown Heights North and Crown Heights South; she did not know Eastern Parkway served as the division between north and south Crown Heights. That boundary, set by LPC, makes sense. There are significant differences in architecture and history within the two communities. Crown Heights North buildings are older and date from 1850-1935. Buildings on the South side date from 1900-1940 and later.
CHNA and HDC attended several meetings with LPC, and it was soon evident that there were issues with LPC resources that could delay beginning the designation process for Crown Heights North. HDC staff encouraged us to offer our assistance to LPC, which we did. We mentioned that we had a copy of the initial survey, including copies of color photos of some of the most significant structures in the area. Part of our application, and our first accomplishments under the tutorship of HDC, was to re-take photographs of the properties featured in the original document. The photos, along with letters from our elected officials, and numerous requests for evaluations from the community all served as part of our formal application to LPC. The wisdom of HDC staff suggesting we re-take the photos not only helped us contribute to moving the process along, but it also showed that little had changed with respect to the housing stock in the community.
HDC stuck a few pins in LPC about the risk to the oldest house in Crown Heights North, an 1855 Italianate villa called the George and Susan Elkins House, now surrounded by brownstones. It had been calendared in 2006. A developer bought it and was intending to tear it down. Neighbors who were not initially in favor of landmarking heard about the fate of the building, told our organization, and we contacted HDC. They reached out to LPC, which landmarked the building in an emergency session just hours before bulldozers were coming,, and the house was saved. We, CHNA, would like to secure this property and plan to reach out to HDC to help us with direction on how to get backing to secure this house. (See Updates)
Overall, we’ve become more sensitized to changes in the community, more observant, over the years as a result of being involved with HDC. We are more attentive to our surroundings, and it is easier to spot changes that seem out of character.
Where are you now with preservation and historic districting? Phase II has been calendared and we are waiting for it to be designated (See Updates). We have elected officials who support us, but they also have other areas demanding their attention. We have to keep in touch with our elected officials, reminding them what we need them to do, so they don’t forget about us.
Connecting with the Wider NYC Preservation Community: Through HDC, we were introduced to a city full of people who are like-minded. When we won the HDC Grassroots Preservation Award in 2007 we were surrounded by people who said they heard about us and asked how we accomplished what we did. Everyone was on the same side, and it was great to have such a large venue of support.
But it put us in competition with other worthy communities that started looking at their own neighborhoods for designation, Here we are in 2010, and LPC has only designated Phase I of the proposed four phases. Increased requests from other communities have delayed the designation of our additional phases.
Advice for other neighborhoods interested in an historic district: We always tell them call to HDC and Simeon. Sit down with them, talk about your ideas, and let them become familiar with your neighborhood. That focus on people was strategic and it helped us move forward more quickly than we could have otherwise. It is easy to become very excited about getting landmarked. Without a focused strategic plan, though, you can waste a lot of valuable time, so it is best to get advice from HDC in the beginning. HDC staff is the best about giving lessons about how to get landmarked.
In June, 2011, LPC approved the creation of Crown Heights North II Historic District, which includes 610 row houses, apartment buildings and large Queen-Anne style homes, most of which were built between 1870 and 1935. Many long time residents of the area, some of whom recalled the 1970’s efforts, attended the hearing. For more information, a map and photographs, visit http://www.crownheightsnorth.org/. CHNA and neighborhood leaders are working on Phase III.
Each year, on the first Saturday in October, the Crown Heights North Association offers a house tour of its historic neighborhood. Check the website for details!
In 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved the designation of the Crown Heights North III Historic District in Brooklyn. The new district consists of more than 600 buildings, including single-and two-family row houses, flats buildings, and apartment houses, primarily built in the 1870s to the 1930s.