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‘I hate it. It hurts me’: Historian slams city’s weak proposals for abolitionist memorial in Downtown park

A historian accused the Economic Development Corporation of sidelining an abolitionist memorial to being only an ‘afterthought’ as part of their newly-proposed design for Willoughby Square Park on Aug. 26.
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A historian accused the city of sidelining a planned abolitionist memorial as part of a planned Downtown park.

The city’s quasi-public, pro-development arm, the Economic Development Corporation, unveiled new design renderings for Willoughby Square Park at a meeting of Community Board 2 on Monday, and one history buff accused the agency of failing to deliver on a promised tribute to the area’s rich abolitionist history.

“They’re just reducing what was supposed to be a great and prominent memorial to Brooklyn’s great role in the abolitionist movement to an afterthought, and that is a disgrace,” said Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, and longtime advocate for memorializing the neighborhood’s connection to the Underground Railroad.

When EDC first proposed the Downtown greenspace between Duffield Street and Albee Square W. as a selling point for the neighborhood’s 2004 rezoning, its original plans required the city to raze the former Duffield Street home of abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, which may have served escaped slaves as stop along the Underground Railroad.

But local advocates rallied and the city backed off its demolition scheme in 2007, leading then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to earmark $2 million of the project’s $15 million budget for a monument and programming dedicated to the legacy of Kings County’s abolitionist movement.

At the Aug. 26 meeting of Community Board 2’s Executive Committee, Mary Margaret Jones, a representative for landscape architecture firm and Willoughby Square Park designer Hargreaves Associates showed off some ideas for a proposed $700,000 memorial — including an abstract sculpture in the form of a tall, squiggly column and inscriptions chiseled into steps or furniture throughout the park — which outraged the Harlem history buff, who said the presentation fell well short of what Bloomberg promised more than a decade ago.

“It was supposed to be a critical and central element of the park,” said Morris. “I hate it, I hate it. It hurts me.”

But a spokesman for the Economic Development Corporation claimed Morris is just salty with the city for shooting down his own proposal for a memorial in 2007, and defended the agency’s plan as a sincere tribute to the area’s abolitionist roots.

“Despite Mr. Morris’ unfounded position and the fact that his proposal... was not selected in 2007, this project has the support of community leaders and elected officials, and will pay homage to the abolitionist history in Downtown Brooklyn,” said Christian Ficara.

And Jones assured the group that nothing has been finalized regarding the abolitionist tribute, and that the city will solicit design proposals from artists later this year that will be reviewed and finalized by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Irondale Ensemble, and the Weeksville Heritage Center by November.

The chosen artist will set up their piece at the beginning of next year — in time for the park’s opening September 2020 debut, Jones said.

In the end, the board’s Executive Committee recommended the group support the park’s new design with a letter to the Public Design Commission when the board’s general membership reconvene for the first time after its summer recess next month.

But Morris accused the city agency of bypassing the civic panel’s Parks Committee — which traditionally provides recommendations to the full board on park designs — and vowed to raise the issue at that committee’s upcoming meeting on Sept. 16.

“That was a hell of a move, that was a slick move,” he said. “By bringing it to the executive board instead of a committee, that was a rushed process.”

Ficara said Morris’s claim that EDC pulled a fast one is nonsense, noting that the community board sets its own agenda and determines which committees hear which issues — not the city.

The public will have an opportunity to provide comment on the upcoming design proposal online before they’re finalized in November, according to Ficara.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Updated 5:30 pm, August 28, 2019
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Reasonable discourse

Tyler from pps says:
Just STOP. Seriously. Stop! It looks like a nice park. And it could have absolutely ZERO memorials for anything in it. Just stop.
Aug. 28, 2019, 5:41 pm
Local from Here says:
Why would anyone be surprised that a bunch of gentrifying racists want to crush any memory of abolitionists freeing people from the plantations of the wicked bigots?
Aug. 28, 2019, 10:20 pm
Jacob Morris from Brooklyn says:
First let's understand that the Economic Development Corporation is an extremely powerful agency. When they want to get on a community board agenda they get on - they don't get denied. The great majority of New York City citizens do not know how things really work regarding the process of getting things approved to get built in our City. 11 years has gone by since the park project was initially announced and the $2,000,000 was allocated to commemorate Brooklyn's great role in the Abolitionist Movement in this park. People forget and of course history gets forgotten and that's what's happening but could we have something really beautiful? Something that would make Brooklyn proud? I say that we can. When you look at what they presented those pictures those squiggles standing as a possible memorial to the history of abolitionism and the underground railroad it's way worse than disheartening. We need to move to an open transparent competition for the highest quality memorial and not what they're giving us - which is an expedient and rushed end run around the approval process. When the African Burial Ground had it's competition for their now world-famous memorial - that was a transparent process - what we wound up with was wonderful - Brooklyn deserves no less!
Aug. 28, 2019, 10:35 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
What's wrong with statues of actual people? Why does all the new sculpture are have to be abstract POS that sends no clear message and looks like it's waiting for the scrap yard?
Aug. 29, 2019, 7:16 am
Local from Here says:
Just keep the jigaboos out, they ruin everything.
Aug. 29, 2019, 8:33 am
Ron Schweiger from Flatlands says:
The squiggly,vertical sculpture represents nothing related to the history of the underground railroad. A plaque describing the history of the underground railroad and it's relation to the neighborhood, would educate the people.
Aug. 29, 2019, 8:55 am
Local from Here says:
These people are homophobic, they kicked me out for wearing a thong and horsetail butplug.
Aug. 29, 2019, 10:12 am
KRE says:
Ron, the four examples are just placeholders for potential physical form. They're not proposed as memorials here.
Aug. 29, 2019, 11:49 am
Harry Haller from Bed-Stuy says:
What's the use of memorials and monuments to history anymore when there's always someone rewriting history just as Orwell so clearly illustrated in 1984. Good and bad, we need reminders of all the past because what's proper today may be seen as an affront tomorrow. Somehow, a great statue was recently removed from Queens Borough Hall ; Civic Virtue. It was too naked, I guess. And before any snowflakes get in a lather, understand that history is usually very different from the Cliff notes. That being said, the design looks nice to me and I would agree that a solid plaque and human representation would be ideal, in addition to some abstraction.
Aug. 29, 2019, 1:05 pm
Local from Here says:
Put up a trump statue so we can let our dogs pee on it.
Aug. 29, 2019, 1:15 pm
CDS from Crown Heights/BedStuy says:
You know, When people are ashamed of action of their ancestors, especially those charged with not only the design of black historic properties, it's easier to minimize the actions of the past by using abstract symbol as opposed to life like reminders of disgusting, embarrassing injustice. The display of ungodly acts while convincing ones selves that they are Christians. A large population of our white brothers and sisters find it easier to hide from the truth, than to face it and reveal it for what it was and still is today. God help you, he sees and knows all, there's no fooling God fool..
Aug. 29, 2019, 3:01 pm
Local from Here says:
god isn't real CDS, you fool.
Aug. 29, 2019, 3:09 pm
Ro from Park Slope says:
It would be nice to see artwork used for monuments that will be understood by Brooklynites in 2121 CE.
Aug. 29, 2019, 3:40 pm

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