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.