Joy Chatel and Lewis Greenstein started organizing together in the spring of 2004 after they learned that their properties were at risk of being seized by the city under eminent domain. The unassuming wood-frame buildings on Duffield Street, near the Manhattan Bridge, fall within the area affected by the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan.
The plan, sponsored by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Department of City Planning, affects roughly sixty blocks in the borough. A redeveloped Duffield Street would include a park, two luxury hotels and an underground parking garage. The park and parking garage directly threaten Chatel and Greenstein’s homes.
The two neighbors are voluble on the topic of Duffield Street; their buildings sit on the north side of the narrow street. Chatel lives on the upper floors of 227 Duffield. Greenstein, a retired civil servant, doesn’t live on the block, but he can often be found there. “I’m not an absentee landlord—I come here all the time. We have a woodshop,” he explained.
Although Greenstein resides elsewhere, events in the past three-and-a-half years have given him an almost spiritual dedication to Duffield Street. In his mind, the street needs a savior. “We’ve devoted our lives and souls to this,” he said, referring to himself and neighbor Chatel.
Representatives of the EDC say that their plans for the area are essential to the continued revitalization of Downtown Brooklyn. In May, EDC Vice-President Thomas McKnight referred to the Duffield Street construction as a “signature” component of the plan.
What might be referred to as The Case of the Duffield Street Homes has come to involve a shadowy consulting firm, congressmen, a grandmother and former hairstylist and a former employee of New York City’s department of finance. In reality, though, the story begins more than two hundred and fifty years ago in the decades preceding the Civil War, radical abolitionists established the Underground Railroad, a large-scale project of civil disobedience.
Underground Railroad activists were considered intellectual or religious leaders in some cases, outlaws in others. The distinction was often a matter of skin color, and may account for why the Duffield Street homes did not receive historical landmark status years ago.
“The well-documented history of the Underground Railroad goes up through the south, through Virginia and Maryland, and then the Quakers in Philadelphia, but then that history stops until you get farther north,” Chatel shook her head as she spoke.
The history of New York City’s freedom depots was poorly documented, “because here,” Chatel proposed, “the conductors were black.” This suggestion is not entirely supported by established fact; some of New York’s active abolitionists were black, notably a Wall Street restaurateur who aided a great number of escaped slaves, but many were white, too, including members of the city’s Quaker Meeting Houses. There are rumors, however, that Chatel’s predecessors at 227 Duffield, the Truesdell family, were black abolitionists.
Thomas and Harriet Truesdell were veterans of the abolitionist movement by the time they moved from Rhode Island to Brooklyn in 1850. Thomas was a delegate to the 1836 Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Convention. He donated to the American Anti-Slavery Society, and subscribed to the National Anti-Slavery Standard. His wife, Harriet, sat on the planning committee of the 1838 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.
The Truesdell’s neighbors included officers in the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery New York State Vigilance Committee, and other abolitionist eminences such as William Lloyd Garrison and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The guns that the Reverend was then sending to anti-slavery militias in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska were called “Beecher’s Bibles.”
Joy Chatel says that she has believed in her building’s historic significance since moving there forty years ago.
In her basement, the floor is still earthen. The two side walls are lined with cool gray flagstones. The uniformity of the stones’ pattern is interrupted about three yards from the front of the building. There, Chatel pointed to a worn wooden beam that separates the wall from an arch that is bordered with stone. Beyond the arch, a new pattern of red brick covers the rest of the wall.
“Look at that tunnel! Tell me what that looks like!” she exclaimed.
Whatever had been in the middle of the arch—a pathway, or one of the “cauldrons” that her neighbor Lewis Greenstein says had been in his basement for years—it has been replaced by an unpolished gray boulder, sealed at the edges with grout.
Documents from the mid-nineteenth century support Chatel’s claim that we are looking at a sealed-off tunnel. A map published in 1855 shows dashed lines connecting buildings, including Chatel’s, running east to west. The map’s key indicates that these lines represent “buildings communicating.”
Duffield Street lore, which Chatel and Greenstein consider to be oral history, was what transformed them into two of Brooklyn’s most visible Underground Railroad preservationists. Now they fight for the future of their properties and five others.
The neighbors first challenged the EDC during an open review of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement in 2004. The city conceded to study the historical relevance of the buildings further and commissioned a report from AKRF, the consulting firm responsible for the Environmental Impact Statement on the Atlantic Yards project. The firm took two years collecting documentation of the area’s history from homeowners, city records, and local church archives. They also contacted historians and academics.
Eight of AKRF’s twelve “peer reviewers,” including research librarians, and Afro-American and Art History professors responded with concerns about the firm’s evaluation of Chatel’s house, specifically, and also regarding the absence of archeological investigation into any of the other six buildings being studied. Nonetheless, in a report released in March 2007, AKRF concluded, “the sensitive context in which the buildings on Duffield Street and Gold Street existed is not sufficient in itself to presume a potential connection to the Underground Railroad.”
Much of the evidence cited by would-be Duffield Street preservationists can seem circumstantial; sealed-off rooms in old houses and the mere presence of abolitionists doesn’t prove activity in the Underground Railroad.
By the time AKRF released its report, Chatel and Greenstein had formed the Duffield Street Block Association and established contacts with local activist Raul Rothblatt and groups like Families United for Racial and Economic Justice (FUREE) and Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. They began to speak at rallies and city-planning meetings, and drafted personal histories about their lives on the block. On June 15, Jennifer Levy of South Brooklyn Legal Services filed a lawsuit against the city, on behalf of Chatel and FUREE, alleging that AKRF had been biased and negligent in its investigation of the sites.
The lawsuit asks that the city commission yet another study of the Duffield Street area, this time conducted by a firm chosen in an open bidding process. Chatel would like to turn her home into a museum about the Underground Railroad. “This belongs to the people,” she explained. In a conversation with the New York Times, neighbor Greenstein concurred, “If someone came to me and said they wanted to turn my building into a museum, I’d say, ‘where do I sign?’”
The subversive and dangerous operations of the Underground Railroad did not lend itself to documentation. In his review of AKRF’s report, Dartmouth professor Craig Wilder noted that “movements like the Underground Railroad, that incorporate mechanisms for hiding their own existence, are often only apprehended though oral and non-traditional sources.” Archeological evidence may exist at Duffield Street, but no excavation has been mounted. As a result, the preservationists’ campaign is based largely on stories.
Certain characters hover enigmatically over local memory, and they are not the types to appear in academic histories. There was the jeweler and amateur historian who lived on the top floor of Greenstein’s building. Chatel and Greenstein fully trust what he told them about the Underground Railroad “artifacts” he’d collected from the block, but they seem uncurious about the fact that he was known by at least three different first names.
When asked if she’s optimistic that her home will be saved and the legacy of Brooklyn’s Underground Railroad safe houses will be preserved, Chatel doesn’t hesitate before nodding and saying yes. She seems more determined than hopeful, however, when she continues, “After three-and-a-half long years in the forefront, I wouldn’t be able to continue without the power of my ancestors who came before me.”
She and Greenstein have garnered the support of a well-established non-profit law firm, City Council members Letitia James and John Liu (of Queens), as well as prominent historians.
On August 13 Mayor Bloomberg’s office announced the creation of a commission to commemorate abolitionist activity in Downtown Brooklyn. On the same day, ironically, the EDC issued a Request for Proposals for the development of the parking facility and park that would replace the Duffield Street homes. On August 20, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development made its final ruling, approving the use of eminent domain on Duffield Street.
The South Brooklyn Legal Services lawsuit will continue, but Joy Chatel and FUREE are the only plaintiffs in that case. After the HPD ruling, Greenstein said, “I can only do so much.” He continued, “let’s face it, we’re dealing with grounds, earth, buildings and wood, and those things are transient. We need to rise above transient levels. Hopefully the people who come after me will have the resources to do that.
“Because this is really the foundation of where Brooklyn grew, right here, downtown, this is the essence of Brooklyn,” Greenstein concluded. He says he doesn’t know what the borough’s future is, but it seems increasingly likely that Downtown will have more parking garages than small museums. He describes Brooklyn’s incorporation into New York City in 1898 as “a takeover, a coup,” and continues, “the same thing is happening today, interlopers coming in and taking away our identity.”
Emma Rebhorn is a writer living on the Lower East Side. Her website is redadmirable.com.