Photo Credit: Brooklyn Paper
A 19th century building is in the throes of an urgent campaign by community activists in an effort to save it from demolition. There is extensive proof that 227 Duffield Street in Brooklyn was used as a safe haven for fugitive slaves during the abolitionist movement and several groups are attempting to have the building designated as a landmark.
The building has been on developers’ radars for a while and in June 2019 the City’s Department of Buildings approved an application to demolish the small lot.
“This should be a national landmark,” said Michael Higgins, an organizer at Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, one of the organizations lobbying the city to landmark the building. “Why can’t we figure out a way to save it?”
Families United for Racial and Economic Equality is being joined by Circle for Justice Innovations in the effort with a petition urging the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 227 Duffield as a landmark. The wave of support has continued to grow with an additional 20 local elected officials, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. He signed a letter to the LPC in support of giving the building landmark status. "With a lack of African American historical sites in Brooklyn, we cannot stop at the installation of statues recognizing historical figures," the letter read. "We must also work to preserve the physical movements of our ancestors."
According to Gothamist, a spokesperson for the LPC said they had "received a request to evaluate 227 Duffield Street as a potential landmark and it is currently under review.” Samuel Hanasab, a small developer, and the current owner of the building did not respond to questions.
Slavery in New York was abolished in 1827, but it was still illegal to harbor an escaped slave from the south. The building’s late owner, Joy Chatel, always insisted that the property had been a stop along the city’s Underground Railroad. It was made up of a loose network of homes, businesses and churches that assisted black fugitives making their way north to upstate New York and New England and Canada.
Kelly Anderson, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, who made the film “My Brooklyn” documented some of the efforts to save the home along with a neighboring one at 233 Duffield Street from eminent domain, which the city was seeking as part of a plan to build a public park on the site. When the film was made in 2006, it included images of what the owners said had been part of an underground tunnel between 227 and 233 Duffield.
A report by a planning and environmental firm done at the request of the city disputed that the site was used as part of the Underground Railroad, but was criticized by experts.
It is often difficult to provide if an area was used by the Underground Railroad. Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said that it is because of its clandestine nature. Those who participated in harboring escaped slaves put themselves at a high level of risk. Bankoff says that there is proof that the house was owned by two abolitionists, Thomas and Harriet Truesdell. This fact is very much in favor of understanding if the site was indeed used as an Underground Railroad stop. In addition, in 2007 the city abandoned its eminent domain request and renamed the street Abolitionist Place.
If the site is named a landmark by Landmarks Preservation Commission, it would not be the first time the City has intervened to protect buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.
In 2009, following a contested renovation of a mid-19th-century row house at 339 West 29th Street deemed to be the only surviving documented Underground Railroad stop in Manhattan, the City landmarked both the property and the neighboring ones as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District. This property, according to Bankoff, had historic records of its association with the Underground Railroad.
The area near 227 Duffield has seen robust development recently including two hotels, one on the same block and another across the street. Recently residential buildings have been demolished and several businesses have left making way for further development.
It will be interesting to see what happens, and if Kelly Anderson will have enough material for a sequel to her film.