Planned Willoughby Park could be renamed to honor Downtown BK abolitionists

September 26, 2019 Lore Croghan
Community Board 2 has postponed a vote on this Willoughby Square Park design. Rendering courtesy of NYCEDC and Hargreaves Jones
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After designs for a planned park in Downtown Brooklyn were met with pushback from local historians for not doing enough to honor the area’s involvement in abolition, Community Board 2 came up with an idea.

The board’s Youth, Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted to recommend a name change for Willoughby Square Park at a meeting on Wednesday night.

The planned 1.15-acre recreation area should be called Abolitionist Place Park, the committee decided. It will be built on a Duffield Street site where houses that are believed to have been used for Underground Railroad activities were demolished.

The committee will present its recommendation to the full community board at its Oct. 7 meeting, committee Chairperson Betty Feibusch told the Brooklyn Eagle.

In mid-September, CB2’s full board postponed a vote on a design for Willoughby Square Park after City Councilmember Stephen Levin’s deputy chief of staff Glomani Bravo-Lopez expressed concern that local historians’ input had not been sought.

Landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Jones created the design for the park, which is surrounded by skyscrapers. It includes an artwork with the theme “In Pursuit of Freedom” that would be created through the Percent for Art law. This city regulation, in effect since 1982, requires one percent of the budget of city-funded construction jobs to be spent on public art.

The city Economic Development Corp., which is in charge of the park project, wants as much construction as possible to be done before the de Blasio administration is over.

A park has been planned at the site since 2007 as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan.

The city cleared the land where the park will be built after seizing buildings through eminent domain a decade ago. Included among the demolished buildings were 19th-century Duffield Street houses with possible links to the Underground Railroad, which aided runaway slaves.

Jacob Morris, a historian, is calling for a Willoughby Square Park design that honors Brooklyn’s role in the abolitionist movement. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Jacob Morris, a historian, is calling for a Willoughby Square Park design that honors Brooklyn’s role in the abolitionist movement. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Next to the park site, a house where abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell lived, 227 Duffield St., is still standing because of a successful legal challenge against eminent domain by its former owner, the late Joy Chatel.

The current owner of 227 Duffield St., which is believed to have been an Underground Railroad site, plans to tear it down. Grassroots groups are trying to get it landmarked, which would halt demolition.

The CB2 committee formulated its resolution about changing Willoughby Square Park’s name following a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting by historian Jacob Morris. He proposed that the park be given Abolitionist Place Park as an honorary co-name.

More than a decade ago, Morris worked with the late owner of 227 Duffield St. and the Duffield Street Block Association to get their street co-named Abolitionist Place.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Morris applauded the committee’s call to rename the park.

“Namings are a tangible manifestation of the community’s respect for its own history,” he told the Eagle.

Morris, who heads the Harlem Historical Society, told the Eagle he wants the city to make a new call for park designs that would focus more fully on Brooklyn’s involvement in the abolitionist movement.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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