By Lou Cespedes
At the intersection of history and the deep recesses of our cognitive memory, place occupies a special category. It is in place that we ground our identity and idiosyncrasies. In “place” is where we set the narratives about ourselves and others as we try to navigate our present and future. Often however, those narratives are set upon anecdotal information, erroneous assumptions, or “mis-taken” facts, when in haste and with prejudice, history is revised for gain. When these occurrences happen upon “a place” the political, economic, and racial tremors are felt immediately. So it is, today, in our beloved Flatbush!
The consolidation of the communities that are popularly referred to as “Flatbush” are composed of several loosely bounded neighborhoods dating as far back to the 1890’s. Ditmas Park, E. Flatbush, Kensington, South Midwood, could easily be lost to other neighborhoods of lore such as “Pigtown” and Vanderveer Park, also associated with Flatbush. But in the present, those associations are much more fraught, where streets, demographics, and economies are not as uniform or harmonious as the picturesque typologies might suggest. When narratives about place cross the political threshold, the machinery of institutional racism and class warfare aren’t far behind. Whether its in narratives about protests in our community, or about fireworks, or about “Landmarks”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has always been a hotbed of organized influence peddling by the powerful. At its core, the mission of LPC is to protect the historical integrity and “narratives” that help cement the identity of a community through the characteristics of its architecture and the significance of its ”place in time”. Here in Flatbush, the Victorians – stately wood frame homes on large parcels of land – have become the targets of well financed and intrepid developers that understand the value of the large lots these houses sit on. Many communities – even poor communities in E. Flatbush – have tried to use “landmarking” as a tool to protect these buildings from developers – failing miserably to convince LPC, even when the historical record is plainly in their favor. On the other hand, well organized and affluent communities, with significantly less claim to these historical underpinnings have gained “landmark” status and “downzoning”, such as Ditmas Park.
Today that discussion continues as communities like South Midwood, through organizations like South Midwood Residents Association and the Historic Districts Council (HDC) attempt to “redefine” the history of Flatbush to the detriment of Black homeowners in neighborhoods west of Flatbush Avenue. A brief but surgical survey of the historical record as presented in the rare book titled “Flatbush of To-Day” transposed over the narrative presented on http://www.southmidwood.org/ exposes the simple nuanced bending of truths in pursuit of economic and political goals. Although “landmarking” itself is not nefarious, when the undercurrent of such a transformative “designation” are felt, it usually results in the bankrupting of financially insolvent homeowners, many that are longtime West Indian and Black homeowners, not members in the minority white, but well organized “residents association”. These narratives are usually presented in discrete and unassuming language by third party “institutions”. Take for instance this example lifted directly from the HDC’s website describing the effort to have landmark designation in Flatbush:
Victorian Flatbush is known for being the largest concentration of wooden Victorian-style homes in the country. The area presently has five New York City Historic Districts, but the blocks in between them remain undesignated and unprotected despite architecture of the same vintage and style. Six local groups representing Beverly Square East, Beverly Square West, Caton Park, Ditmas Park West, South Midwood and West Midwood have joined together with the Flatbush Development Corporation to “complete the quilt” of city designation of their neighborhoods.
Many of these Black and Caribbean homeowners are simply not well versed in the politics or economics of property development or Landmarks, or how “completing the quilt” will impact them. Ironically, as the book “Flatbush of To-Day” reveals, it is the poorer communities of Vanderveer Park and the quickly disappearing Victorians of East Flatbush that are historically more significant but architecturally less grand. This hearkens back to the politics of our community’s creation by the Germania Real Estate and Improvement Company, and its founder and one-time candidate for Mayor of Brooklyn, Henry A Meyer.
The sale of lands by the Vanderveer family where “censured” by other consolidating neighborhood residents, and Vanderveer Park quickly populated with high demand for the developed lots. The consolidation of Brooklyn into New York City was contemporary with the Vanderveer Park development, the first by Germania, and was partially purposed on a political strategy against consolidation. Today those competing tendencies persist, as “landmarking” and “rezoning” efforts, misguided as they are, run the gamut of homeowners in Victorian houses as well as masonry Townhouses in our community.
At issue is basic economics of course. Homeowners that benefit from “landmark status” are NOT the same as homeowners that will be burdened by it. Developers will continue to prey on homeowners with Victorians on large lots that are zoned for greater density, because their owners are not financially solvent and cannot upkeep their home. Meanwhile in more affluent areas like South Midwood, the effect of a landmark “designation” will directly crush homeowners of color, by making already expensive homes wildly more valuable and collapsing the solvency of less affluent homeowners in that community under heavier tax liability and red-tape to make even the most minor modifications or repairs to their home. Thus, the institutional apparatus that is afforded to white “associations” of well to do influencers, and its racial impact, is evident in the politics of our Flatbush TO-DAY.
As we deal presently with the realities of race and privilege in our quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, we may be well served to probe the structures that have existed in our community for well over 100 years, that continue to segregate Black homeowners from their own wealth in Brooklyn to guarantee our economic demise.