It’s Black History Month, so we thought it would be fitting to write about the latest news concerning an important home in downtown Brooklyn, owned by abolitionists during the Civil War Era. Although the fate of this home is still unclear, it has survived two very close calls with being torn down.
The property, which is a 4-story building located at 227 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn, was a vital part of the anti-slavery movement. Number 227 is thought to be a place where Underground Railroad refugees stayed. During the Civil War era, an abolitionist couple named Thomas and Harriet Truesdell owned the house.
In 2004, New York City was about to seize the building through eminent domain as part of Michael Bloomberg’s urban renewal plan for downtown Brooklyn. Joy Chatel (lovingly known as “Mama Joy”), the owner of 227 Duffield Street at the time, as well as her neighbor Lewis Greenstein (owner of the house at 233 Duffield Street, who also made claims of abolitionist activity on that site-he said it was a "feeding station" for escaped slaves, based on stories he heard from past tenants) fought against the taking. Chatel and Greenstein were joined by local advocates, including the current New York State Attorney General (then City councilwoman) Letitia James, as they tried to prove that their houses were an essential part of abolitionist history.
Finally, in 2007, the city spared Mama Joy’s home and renamed it “227 Abolitionist Place.” However, the property was still not landmarked, and was at risk of being redeveloped, like the rest of the neighborhood.
For many years, advocates fought to have 227 Duffield landmarked. Finally, in February of 2021, officials declared the building a landmark, which stopped a planned private apartment conversion project. The effort to secure the landmark designation was hampered partly because there were no historical records officially documenting the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. However, activists and scholars argued that the series of basement tunnels that connected neighboring houses are evidence that the abolitionist couple used their home to help runaway slaves.
What’s next for the building? It was previously reported that plans had been in the works to create a Black cultural center at the site (now valued at $1.28 million). Shawn Lee, daughter of former owner “Mama Joy” Chatel, was apparently involved with the center's creation, but she hasn’t said a word about the project.
We will keep you posted as to the developments in this story. In the meantime, it looks like this important historical property is safe from eminent domain.
Back in October, we posted about The Intersection of Fast Food and Eminent Domain in Washington, DC and now we’re back to talk about it some more. As a refresh, Dave Thomas Circle is located in our nation’s capital where Florida Avenue, New York Avenue, Eckington Place, O Street, and First Street NE all converge. This specific Wendy’s location isn’t only known for the burgers – it’s known for being a particularly dangerous spot. In fact, the roundabout is ranked among D.C.’s top 10 most hazardous intersections and approximately 80 percent of the crashes there involve sideswipes or rear-end collisions.
Since the mid-1980’s, Wendy’s has been at the intersection of a small parcel of property that borders a major gateway leading downtown. According to District Department of Transportation estimates, an average of 80,000 vehicles pass through daily. According to DDOT, a total of 727 crashes occurred in five intersections in the project area between 2014 and 2018. The number of crashes in the project area increased at an average annual rate of about 12 percent those years, more than twice the citywide average of 5 percent.
This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. transportation officials announced that they used eminent domain to acquire the property. There is a $35 million overhaul plan in the works to change the dangerous traffic intersection and turn it into a public space. The purchase price of the property was announced at $13.1 million.
The Bowser administration plans to remake the intersection to create two-way traffic along First Street and Florida Avenue NE and add protected bike lanes and three public parks. In particular, officials said that they hope the bike lanes will encourage motorists to abide by speed regulations.
Local residents and commuters had mixed feelings about the redevelopment, but the general consensus is that the change is a good thing and very necessary. In a 2019 community survey conducted by a civic association, more than 80 percent of Eckington residents, where the Wendy’s is located, said fixing the intersection was the highest or a high priority for them, second only to preventing and reducing crime in the neighborhood.
This is a good story about how the local community came together to make a big change. It was actually the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area that adopted a resolution supporting the fixes. The group created a Change.org petition in favor of the plan and obtained nearly 400 signatures. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents the area, contacted Bowser two years ago calling on the city to use eminent domain to fix “a failing intersection” that “has posed a traffic nightmare for residents.”
Construction is expected to begin next year and last 18 months. Bowser has committed $35 million for the project, which should include the land acquisition, design and construction. In the meantime, we’ll grab a drink and burger and wait for more eminent domain news!