Monument planned for newly named abolitionist location faces backlash

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Late last week, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) announced it would permanently rename Willoughby Square to Abolitionist Place and allocate $ 15 million to build 1.15 acres of open space at the site.

The name change, although celebrated by many elected officials, left some in the community with questions, in particular – why the word park was removed from the intended title of Abolitionist Place Park and what was going on. with blueprints for a monument that had been stuck in the design process.

The confusion was exacerbated by the unexpected postponement of the name change ceremony, which was due to take place earlier in the week, alongside the ribbon cutting at 1 Willoughby Square.

Shawne Lee. Photo: Mateo Ruiz Gonazalez for BK Reader.

Shawné Lee, who, alongside his family and other activists, has campaigned for the preservation of the region’s abolitionist history for decades, said the whole situation made no sense.

First, she said, “people, including Community Board 2, have agreed that it should be called Abolitionist Place Park, it’s on Abolitionist Place, it’s not Abolitionist Place.”

And secondly, she said that the concept of the planned monument, although created by a beautiful artist “and no disrespect for it”, had no connection with local history.

“I really don’t understand what they’re doing. It’s not in the interest of preserving the history that is in this area, this whole area belongs to the abolitionist movement, and it looks like they’re just trying to hurry up and do something thinking we’re going to. just shut up because there is a young lady who is black who has been commissioned to be the artist.

Mayor Bill de Blasio cutting the ribbon during the celebration at 1 Willoughby Square, where the abolitionist park was to be officially renamed. Photo: Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez for BK Reader.

In January, the proposal of selected artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed was made public at a meeting of the Public Design Commission. The proposal includes roadway engravings and bronze signs, highlighting Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement and its legacy.

But Lee, who owns the recently listed property at 227 Duffield Place, said the design didn’t fit the area – with risks people stepping on names and stories – or doing the story justice, like the would make a monument to the Sisters of Liberty.

Lee has advocated for years to build a monument for the black suffragette group, which includes educator and abolitionist Sarah J. Garnet and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells. There is currently a ongoing petition in support of the monument which has collected more than 3,500 signatures.

In a statement to BK reader, NYCEDC said Rasheed’s public engagement process will include discussions with stakeholders and the public this summer to develop his concept and help draft the text that will be included in the monument.

The City will spend $ 15 million to redevelop Abolitionist Place.

“We are working closely with the Department of Cultural Affairs to commission public works of art as part of the Percent for Art program which recognizes the abolitionist history in the neighborhood,” a NYCEDC spokesperson said in a statement. .

“The City looks forward to continued community engagement as the artist design process unfolds.

Regarding the renaming of the area, NYCEDC said that although Community Board 2 and community members decided to rename the place to Abolitionist Park Place, the area was not mapped as a park and was not under jurisdiction or managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation. .

If this was a park, development on adjacent plots of land that are part of the downtown Brooklyn neighborhood plan would not be permitted.

“We worked closely with the community council and local leaders to ensure that the name of the open space was in keeping with the preservation of the abolitionist history of this region,” the spokesperson said. “We have come to an agreement to name the open space Abolitionist Place.”

Abolitionist Place, as planned by the City, will include a new playground, lawn, dog park, ornamental plantings and multiple rest areas.

In a press release, NYCEDC CEO Rachel Loeb said the new name honored “the legacy of the many men and women in this region who fought to end slavery and undertake social reform. meaningful for generations to come “.

“When completed, it will be a wonderful open gathering space for downtown Brooklyn that will enrich the lives of those who live in this community. ”

Also in the statement, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said the unveiling of Abolitionist Place was the culmination of a nearly two-decade promise to those who live in downtown Brooklyn. .

“This openness if necessary [space] delivers on NYCEDC’s long-standing promises to community advocates and residents, and I thank NYCEDC and advocates for their efforts to ensure that promises made have been kept – and kept in a way that honors our collective past.

As part of the construction of Abolitionist Place, NYCEDC selected Rasheed in partnership with DCLA’s Percentage for art program to design the public artwork commemorating the abolitionist movement.

The press release said his proposal – “Questions Worth Having Answers” ​​- was in the process of being designed and would incorporate a wide range of community feedback being collected.

He said the project was built ‘In search of freedom, A multi-faceted public history initiative led by the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Ensemble Project that explored the everyday heroes of the Brooklyn anti-slavery movement.

Lee said that “In Pursuit of Freedom” was “a beautiful, beautiful tribute to the abolitionists in the region,” but NYEDC still had a long way to go to aptly honor the history of the region.

“I would like to tell them why don’t you try to get to the right side of the fence, why does it always have to be a fight against each other.” You are supposed to work for the people and with the people; listen to people.

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