Mayor Appeases on Underground Railroad Rancor

Given that an outside consultant failed to find evidence that the Underground Railroad stopped at seven imperiled rowhouses on Duffield and Gold streets (PDF), Mayor Bloomberg could have pressed on, letting the properties be condemned and then flattened to make way for a park and underground parking lot envisioned in the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn Plan.

Today, though, comes the news that he will heed the recommendations of some of the peer reviewers of that study and has committed $2 million for capital and construction of “a project to commemorate abolitionist activity that occurred in Brooklyn in the 1800s.”

That doesn’t mean the houses will be saved; most likely the opposite will occur. But the memorial project—what it turns out to be will be decided as a result of a bidding process this fall—signals a more conciliatory approach toward City Council Members and others who criticized the Underground Railroad study when it came out in the spring.

The Mayor's press release:

MAYOR BLOOMBERG ANNOUNCES PROJECT TO RECOGNIZE BROOKLYN’S ROLE IN 19TH CENTURY ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT

Widely Respected Panel Selected to Assist with Commemoration Project

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced plans to develop a project to commemorate abolitionist activity that occurred in Brooklyn in the 1800s. To assist in that effort, a six-member panel of noted historians, community leaders and academics has been selected to work with the City and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. The panel will assist with the creation of a Request for Proposals (RFP) and the selection of a local cultural organization that will develop and manage the program. Representatives from the Mayor’s Office, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership will serve as technical advisors to the panel. Members of the Commemoration Panel named today are: the Reverend Lawrence Aker, Senior Pastor, Cornerstone Baptist Church; Richard Greene, Executive Director, Crown Heights Youth Collective; Colvin L. Grannum, President, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp.; Chris Moore, Research Historian, Curator, Schomburg Center; Pamela Green, Executive Director, Weeksville Historical Society, and Antonia Yuille Williams, Director Community Relations, Con Edison.

“Recognizing and honoring the historic role that Brooklyn played in the abolitionist movement is a worthy endeavor, and a role we should be proud of,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “It’s important that as we work to bring new jobs and housing to downtown Brooklyn that we also work to ensure that the noteworthy deeds of our ancestors will not be forgotten.”

In connection with the City’s efforts to implement the Downtown Brooklyn Plan – an initiative to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and improve local business conditions and quality of life for residents and employees in the area – an extensive research effort was completed in response to suggestions that certain houses on Duffield and Gold Streets in Downtown Brooklyn played a role in the Underground Railroad. The research did not directly connect Underground Railroad activity to the houses, but it did confirm a great deal of abolitionist activity in the area. As a result, the City is seeking to develop a commemoration program that will celebrate and embrace the role that Brooklyn played in bringing an end to slavery.

“I am grateful to the Administration for recognizing the need to memorialize the rich history of Downtown Brooklyn,” said Councilmember Letitia James. “The past is a prologue to our future, and all Americans need to understand and learn about the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn, and the role that slavery played in the development of this country and state. Brooklyn has a great history that must be commemorated appropriately.”

“Right now, Brooklyn’s role in advancing abolitionism and in the Underground Railroad is practically invisible to most New Yorkers,” said Councilmember David Yassky. “Today we are making a commitment to make that history more visible, so children can learn its enormously important lessons.”

The Commemoration Panel in collaboration with NYCEDC, DCA and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership will participate in the preparation and release of the RFP to identify potential commemoration proposals, review proposal responses, select the finalists and recommend a final proposal. Ongoing duties will include assisting in program development and overseeing its implementation.

“Solid economic development must recognize and enhance the culture and history of an area,” said NYCEDC President Robert C. Lieber. “The goal of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan is not only to reinvigorate the neighborhood and create jobs and commercial successes, but to also retain and embrace its unique heritage.”

“The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership is very excited about the commemoration and applauds the Mayor for appointing this panel,” said Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Joe Chan. “Downtown Brooklyn is home to several sites that had a strong connection to anti-slavery activity and the abolitionist movement. We are enthusiastic about participating in a process to formally commemorate Brooklyn’s role in bringing this tragic chapter in our nation’s history to an end.”

The RFP is expected to be issued this fall. The City will provide initial funding in the amount of $1 million for planning expenses over the next three fiscal years, and another $1 million in capital funding for the same period to be used by the selected respondent to implement the commemoration program. Respondents’ budgets must demonstrate program sustainability using City funds for the next three years, and sustainability with funds from other sources beyond FY2010. Programs and activities must occur within Brooklyn and involve existing locations that have a documented association with the Underground Railroad or abolitionist activity.