Lewis Greenstein owns a house that stands at the center of a wrenching controversy over the preservation of black history versus the revitalization of Downtown Brooklyn.
His home, 233 Duffield St., built in 1847, contains what he says is clear evidence that it was used to shelter and feed black slaves escaping along the legendary Underground Railroad to Canada.
But a half-million-dollar report commissioned by the city found otherwise, and now a city agency has recommended the use of eminent domain to bring down Greenstein's and other similar homes on the street to build a park and parking lot seen as the centerpiece of a major redevelopment project.
"We have strong evidence now to show this building was a feeding center for escaped slaves brought here along their route to freedom. We have shown this evidence to the city, but the city has chosen to ignore it," said Greenstein, an outspoken critic of the city¹s plans.
The Duffield Houses are targeted for demolition as part of $9 billion worth of development that promises to include new public spaces akin to Bryant Park, mixed use residential/commercial high rises like the Time Warner Center and an expansion of local colleges.
The city's report states that although "Downtown Brooklyn played a vital role in the abolitionist and Underground Railroad," the research could not "conclusively document" that 233 Duffield and six other nearby houses were stops on the way to freedom.
Although some peer reviewers disputed the findings of the report, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development this month recommended that the city exercise the power of eminent domain to take the Duffield Street houses and proceed with plans to demolish them.
The land they occupy would become part of the new Willoughby Square Park, a 1.15-acre green space that would be placed atop a new underground parking lot with space for 700 cars.
"The goal is to have a vibrant, alive, energetic park, and have a critical piece of infrastructure underneath it," said Joseph Chan, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a development group. "It will really be the centerpiece for a couple of million square feet of mixed used development in Downtown Brooklyn."
Chan said the area will be further enhanced with another greenspace at nearby Albee Square, which will front an office/residential/retail tower that is slated to be one of the tallest in the borough.
Albert Laboz, chairman of Fulton Mall Improvement Association, says the area has improved immeasurably since he first bought property there in 1985. Back then, he remembers, someone once stole the front door of his office building and installed it in their own house.
"The opening of MetroTech was a tremendous leap forward, and Willoughby Park will be the next leap," he said. "It could be like a Rockefeller Center for Brooklyn."
Although plans call for construction to begin in 2009, a lawsuit in state court alleges the City Council ignored environmental laws when it approved the project. Another lawsuit, this one fighting the use of eminent domain, is also being planed, said Jennifer Levy, a lawyer with South Brooklyn Legal Services.
Addressing concerns about the neighborhood's abolitionist past, Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened a panel this month and announced $2 million in funding for a commemoration project.
One member of the panel, Richard Greene, executive director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, said he is hopeful some way can be found to preserve the evidence of the Underground Railroad, perhaps even incorporating parts of Greenstein¹s basement into the final design.
"It's just too important a moment in our history to let it be sidelined," Greene said.
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