Making Weeksville Their Own

Activating a Historic Landscape in Crown Heights, Brooklyn through
Community-Place Engagement    

By Baruch Tauber

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As an intern at Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect PLLC (EKLA) in the summer of 2015, I coordinated a community garden and arts initiative at the Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. WHC is a museum and community arts center located at the historically restored site of Weeksville, one of the first free black communities in the country, established in the 1830’s.

The “Green Weeksville” initiative was designed to help children in Crown Heights/Bed-Stuy explore their identities and histories through gardening, within the context of Weeksville’s living historical landscape. For ten weeks, more than 40 local students ages 8 through 13 participated. Together we mapped ideas and built a garden behind the historic Weeksville Houses. Our garden included a pumpkin patch, an apple tree, and a vermicomposting factory. We also started a seed library, to help the local community start gardens of their own.

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Weeksville’s historic landscape and architecture played a role in our design process, and served as a platform to discuss the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality as seen through the eyes of the founders of Weeksville as well as the students themselves.

For their final project, the students collected and painted dozens of plastic bottles and created a sculpture inspired by the bottle trees of the African-American gardens of the South. Originally intended to trap evil spirits, our bottle tree opened a discussion about recycling and our hopes for the future. This “legacy tree” is also a tribute to the original trees planted at WHC to honor community members whose lives were taken by violence, and symbolizes a hope that the legacy of Weeksville’s residents who dared to dream for a better future can one day become a reality.

The goal of the GW program is to establish a relationship between the community and the place that connects Weeksville to the present. It is part of EKLA's principal Elizabeth Kennedy’s vision to activate newly designed public spaces, particularly ones of cultural importance, initiating a process ensuring the success of a place years after the contractor has left the site.

Last week, I met with Brianna, Jaden, Jalil and some of the other young Weeksville gardeners and learned that they can’t wait to return and tend to their garden next summer! For them, Weeksville is no longer just an expensive-looking piece of architecture in stark contrast with the surrounding row houses and public housing. It is a place they helped create for themselves, for their community.

Baruch Tauber is a student of landscape architecture at the City College of New York. 

DESIGNING FOR COMMUNITY CONTINUITY

Past and present overlap at Weeksville Heritage Center. Photo by Yifan Sun

Past and present overlap at Weeksville Heritage Center. Photo by Yifan Sun

Op-ed originally published in The Architect's Newspaper.

Brooklyn’s newly-completed Weeksville Heritage Center building and landscape celebrate one of the region’s first freedmen communities established after chattel slavery was abolished in New York State, in 1827. The formal launch of the Heritage Center’s programming in its new education center building culminates a 50-year community-driven effort to preserve in situ the memories of a largely African American community that played a significant role in shaping Kings County’s history.

Weeksville is one of few sites in the five boroughs where its historic houses—together the contextual centerpiece of the Center’s collection—remain in their original location. Weeksville is also one of the few heritage sites that remain within the living community about which it teaches. Many of Weeksville’s community institutions, and much of its private housing stock, predate the turn of the 20th century: photographs show the Heritage Center’s earliest dwellings, dating from the 1830s to the 1960s, in the face of a radically changed urban environment. While many modest wood frame houses were scattered through the neighborhood, the structures comprising the heritage site, now known as the Hunterfly Road Houses, were slowly pulled back from neglect by amateur preservation efforts that invested the neighborhood in their conservation. The Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford Stuyvesant, founded in 1968, taught local youth hands-on restoration trades and senior citizens to be able docents. The organization made sure that everyday activities took preservationist turns: before the landmark structures were restored, in 2006, residents of the Kingsborough Houses across the street maintained a thriving community garden on the vacant lot behind the historic houses. In bittersweet gestures, the society planted trees on the site to commemorate the lives of neighborhood young men and women who were lost to violence.

Weeksville is one of numerous examples within the five boroughs of history with a lower-case “h.” The success of the society’s evolution as a living heritage institution serves as a unique model of neighborhood sustainability, and evidence suggests that the Heritage Center’s development has galvanized other home-grown preservation efforts: in 2011, the center’s research director, Jennifer Scott, told the New York Times, “We get a lot of calls for advice on how to get where we are today from people who want to landmark other sites in Bed-Stuy."

While not all communities will qualify for landmark status, Weeksville demonstrates that that which is essential to a particular community can—and should—resonate with others. Designers look for, and seek to manipulate, patterns of meaning to arrive at form, space and order. The Heritage Center’s landscape design juxtaposes Kings County’s historic farm grid and Brooklyn’s contemporary urban layout, and is a place diagram composed of “space then, space now, and space in between.” The Hunterfly Road’s passages from one to the other are thresholds between the two, and embody exactly that, largely because Weeksville’s compelling story, that dates from James Weeks’ purchase of three lots to James Hurley’s and Joseph Haynes “rediscovery” of the Hunterfly Road. Fragments of the city’s land use history can be found in off-grid street alignments and slivers of undeveloped land behind multi-story apartment buildings. The richness of these interstices is lost when their meaning as places is underestimated or ignored. Ordinary places are fragile: their significance hides in plain sight, meaningful to those whose stories are grounded there, and invisible to others who are, or are content to remain, outsiders. 

Designers working with community redevelopment agents should understand the importance of living history and its subtle continuity. The invisibility of meaning leads to designations of “blight” based on assumptions of neglect. (Re)development and gentrification draw ire not because they offer an infusion of resources but because they break the continuum in which meaning resides: it is vital to understand that much of the anger about redevelopment and gentrification springs from the feeling that a community’s stories don’t have meaning to outsiders.

The purpose of the landscape design was to create a contextual framework for the interpretation of the historic houses. The project’s implementation highlights the fact that its time line remains unbroken. Perhaps Weeksville’s greatest lesson for designers lies in the need to sustain vernacular place as part of a continuum worthy of respect. This project, and others like it, provide communities with the tools to remain vibrantly intact.

2015 SUMMER INTERNSHIP PROGRAM

We are pleased to announce our 2015 Summer Internship Program!

Join us for eight weeks to gain hands-on intros to professional experience, career mentoring and a head start on IDP
(if applicable). Submit a portfolio package to internships@eklastudio.com, by April 30, 2015. Include details listed below.

FINDING A CONTRACTOR IN NYC

Image from Unsplash

Image from Unsplash

Whether you’re renovating a historic home, building a new garden or totally overhauling a decrepit retail space, the process of selecting a trustworthy, expert contractor can be daunting. While it’s true that many a client has overpaid for subpar work and unexpected hidden fees, there are a series of general guidelines to follow in order to ensure your project gets completed exactly as you or the architect you’ve hired envision it.

Ask people you know. If a friend, colleague or family member has had a positive experience with a contractor who carried out a project similar to yours, then you’re certainly in luck, however…

Don’t hire a friend. It’s generally bad practice in any business, and if your friend happens to be a less skilled contractor than you expected, your relationship might unravel.

servicemagic.com is a great resource for finding the right contractor for your purposes. You can check off a series of boxes to narrow down the services and experience your project requires, and also read reviews by the contractors’ former clients.

“Homeowners, It’s Time to Think Like a General Contractor” by David Dillon is an excellent resource for every consideration in your project, from selecting a contractor through the project’s completion.

When looking at a contractor’s website, consider that new projects always look great. It’s a good sign if they have current photos of projects dating back further than five or six years.

Things become more complicated when subcontractors are involved. Be smart and don’t be afraid to ask questions. For instance, if your contractor says it’s going to cost $2,000 to hire a plumber to fix some leaking pipes, ask the contractor to see their contract with the plumber in order to figure out whether you’re getting ripped off.

It’s a good idea to see how the contractor and any subcontractors interact. In the long run, it will always pay off to hire someone who’s adaptive and creative over a cheaper option.

Learn how many projects the contractor is currently involved with. If they’re swamped, chances are they’re going to be less meticulous with your project.

You might be able to save a great deal by purchasing materials yourself. Of course, if those materials turn out to be flawed, the cost of repair is on you, not the contractor.

THE BENEFITS OF A GREEN ROOF

The beginning stages of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Roof Farm by EKLA, PLLC

The beginning stages of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Roof Farm by EKLA, PLLC

With the design community more focused than ever on sustainable infrastructure, coupled with the re-emergence of DIY urban farming, “green roofs” are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in cities across the globe. After all, what city dweller wouldn’t want a lush garden retreat atop their facility?

Besides the obvious amenity of your own park-like setting in which to grow and harvest a small field of fruits and veggies, green roofs provide a number of proven benefits to the environment, including reducing the urban heat island effect, significantly reducing the amount of stormwater that runs off into city sewer systems, improving air quality, reducing heating and cooling costs for entire buildings, noise reduction, added fireproofing, and potential educational opportunities for others.

IS A GREEN ROOF RIGHT FOR MY BUILDING?

Green roofs can be wonderful installations for certain clients, but our experience has taught us that they’re not necessarily the best solution for every building. Before jumping into such a project, we highly recommend an introductory meeting with a licensed landscape architect in order to assess your goals and challenges. Before you make that leap, here are thoughts to consider about green roof technology.

First off, it’s important to understand that there are essentially three categories of green roofs.

1. Extensive Green Roof: The name is slightly misleading. The word extensive has nothing to do with area, but the overall depth of the green roof system, including the planting medium and water retention drainage layer. They’re lighter and require less soil than the other forms of green roofs, but the disadvantage is that they can only support a limited number of perennials and herbs, and no shrubs.

2. Semi-Intensive Green Roof: These roofs systems are deeper and require greater structural support, as well as regular watering. However, they can grow vegetation that the extensive green roof cannot.

3. Intensive Green Roof: The intensive green roof system is meant to support a lot of weight – this is the kind of roof you may see dotted with small trees, shrubs, lawns, large scale agricultural ventures, and decorated with rock gardens and water features. But as the name says, an intensive roof is the most expensive to install, and requires a full-time green thumb to maintain.

Regardless of which model you go with, a green roof overburden system can be used to protect waterproofing membranes. Many roofing manufacturers provide complete waterproofing and green roof systems to protect and extend the lifespan of the roof. Overburden systems add between $50-120 per square foot to the cost of construction on average.

The type of roof you select, along with your preferred plants you want to grow will depend upon the weight-bearing abilities of your building. Of course, there are ways around these structural inferiorities provided money isn’t an obstacle.