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.