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Council takes up ‘Railroad’ fight

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The battle over whether the Underground Railroad passed through seven houses on Duffield and Gold streets made it this week to the City Council, which could block a city plan to destroy the houses for a hotel parking lot.

“We should be celebrating history, not [destroying it],” said Charles Barron (D–Canarsie) at a rally on the steps of City Hall before Tuesday’s hearing.

Barron and about 40 others said a report commissioned by the city Economic Development Corporation wrongly asserts that the houses were not part of the Underground Railroad.

The EDC wants to tear down the 150-year-old houses and a build a public park and a parking lot near a proposed hotel.

Barron said the rush to knock over historic black structures was racially motivated.

“We doubt that they would advocate building a parking lot on the site of the Guggenheim Museum,” he said.

In 2004, land owners objected to the city plan and sought protection of their homes as historic landmarks.

So the EDC paid a Park Avenue consulting firm, AKRF, a half-million dollars to research the historic value of the properties — and specifically their ties to the Underground Railroad.

On Tuesday, an AKRF vice president, Linh Do, said the Underground Railroad did, indeed, make more stops in Brooklyn than the Q train — but the company’s researchers found no link between the seven houses and the Abolitionist movement.

“Bulls—t!” one Duffield Houses supporter said in a far-from-quiet stage whisper.

That could be a majority opinion. Of the 12 outside analysts who reviewed the AKRF report, eight said they disagreed with all or part of the findings.

One reviewer called the report “seriously flawed” and another said “Duffield Street has all the markers of an Underground railroad site.”

The houses’ supporters have said that underground tunnels in the buildings are evidence that fugitive slaves were spirited through Duffield Street on their way to freedom. They also say that one of the houses’ former owners — the Truesdell family — was heavily involved in the Abolition movement.

But Do said oddities in the sub-cellars were merely “ventilation wells” for kitchens, not tunnels between houses.

AKRF’s report also said there were few definitive links between owners of the properties and abolitionists in the mid-to-late 19th century — and that the consultants could not find evidence that Truesdell used 227 Duffield St. as a safe house.

Barron ripped into Do, telling her, “What you presented here was disgusting and despicable.”

He reminded Do that not all of AKRF’s reviewers agreed with the consultants’ findings.

“I feel really insulted that you would come here and present this to our community,” he said. “I think this is a bogus piece of research you did here.”

After Do, dozens of members of the public, including Joy Chatel, who owns one of the Duffield Street houses, testified in favor of historic preservation.

A second hearing is scheduled for later in the month.

Updated 4:28 pm, July 9, 2018
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