On the corner of Rogers Avenue and Crown Street in Brooklyn sits the hulking skeleton of what will soon be a five-story, 165-unit hive of fancy apartments. The decadent development is among the first of its kind to be built in the part of Crown Heights that lies south of Eastern Parkway. Nearby, snaking well into Bed Stuy, a trail of gray, glassy apartment complexes and upscale cafes interrupt the landscape of sandy brownstones, Caribbean restaurants, and bodegas.
In the last few years, a burgeoning coffee house culture, economic transformation of adjacent neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, and developers' plans to build upwards of 1,250 new units in some two dozen residential undertakings (including several condominiums) have made Crown Heights a hot new locus of gentrification. The result? Bloomberg News reported that the medium price of Crown Heights homes climbed 58 percent in the first seven months of last year. In July 2014, rent in the neighborhood—where the medium individual income hovers around $40,000 per year—averaged $2,110 per month, up 18 percent from a year earlier.
What sets this particular development apart is not the building itself, but the land on which it sits, which was occupied by a since-demolished Jesuit church for more than a century—and before that, a prison called the Kings County Penitentiary.
Now a small group of community members and leaders are trying to halt the development, arguing that it sits on hallowed grounds. Perhaps, they say, the physical remains of inmates still lie buried on the property. Even if that isn't the case, they believe the earth attests to a racist history that the developers of this country have often dampened in order to keep the land profitable.
In 1846, nearly two decades after the full abolition of slavery in New York State, the Kings County Board of Supervisors bought an empty section of scrub land on which to build a penitentiary and workhouse, the latter for those who committed minor offenses. According to a Brooklyn Public Library history of the facility, the bounds of the penitentiary stretched roughly between Nostrand and Rogers avenues, and between Crown and President streets. The few hundred inmates locked in the penitentiary at any given time were serving sentences from between 30 days and ten years after new rules were set in 1875.
The prison ledger presents no record of the convicts' race, only their names and towns of residence (nearly all of them were from Brooklyn). What is known is that at the time, Crown Heights was called Crow Hill, a name some sources attribute to the birds that settled on the hill, but the derivation of which likely lies in the neighborhood's robust black population at the time ( crow was a slur for black people that originated in the early 1800s—hence "Jim Crow"). An 1873 Brooklyn Daily Eagle unearthed by the Brooklyn Public Library quotes a white policeman responding to the question, "How did their settlement get to be named Crow Hill?" by saying, "Well, they had to live away from the white people, and they got up there in these woods. The woods were at the time full of crows, and it was called Crow Hill, partly because there were a great many crows there and partly on account of the people nicknaming the darkies 'crows,' too."
Crow Hill Penitentiary was the lesser-used name of the prison. Articles written about it during the time it was operational refer explicitly to there being African-American inmates, as well as Irish immigrant ones.
"There's the connection of forced labor, the connection of African Americans who died here, who labored here, who still live here." -Maria Molina
From its inception, the Kings County Penitentiary confined both male and female inmates, making it one of the first in the nation to incarcerate women. In 1872, the facility announced plans to construct an additional wing to house female inmates. Children were held there too, as revealed in an 1870 Eagle article: "At the further end of the wing is a room used for ironing, and as a nursery, and three or four little babies give proof that children must be born, even in the Penitentiary," to which the reporter somewhat disdainfully adds, "but they are not necessarily criminals."
For the first few decades of its existence, the prison operated with rampant corruption and violence against inmates. In 1865, the New York Times reported on charges presented before the Kings County Board of Supervisors against the head keeper of the prison, after an investigation found he had employed prisoners in his personal business matters, even going so far as to send prisoners to work on his own property. The investigation also turned up regular whippings of prisoners, both men and women, a practice a local investigative body referred to as a "relic of barbarism."
By the 1870s, however, the penitentiary had reinvented itself—at least in the eyes of the media—as some kind of pinnacle of well-managed incarceration, according to the Brooklyn Public Library's account. This meant the prison switched over to an "anti-punishment system" in which inmates were kept in line through forced labor, some paving roads still trafficked in Crown Heights today, others working for the Bay State Shoe and Leather Company, which leased the convicts' labor. The reason for the prison's closure is tricky to divine, but a strong possibility is that the neighborhood was changing and the penitentiary was viewed as a "barrier to further growth." After all, "fine houses are not likely to be erected in the presence of such a forbidding neighbor."
As the public library's account put it, "What was originally built far outside the main city in a African-American neighborhood found itself in the middle of an up-and-coming white neighborhood full of mansions and tree-lined streets."
Henry Goldschmidt explains in his book Race and Religion Among the Chosen People of Crown Heights that sometime in the 1910s, Crow Hill was reborn as Crown Heights. "The area's real-estate developers and middle-class residents seem to have felt that the name 'Crow Hill'—with its connotations of African Americans, prisoners, and underdeveloped woodlands—would not do to describe their new neighborhood."
If you've been in New York City for more than a minute, this should all sound familiar by now.
Like many Brooklyn real estate projects, the one that sits on land once encircled by the Kings County Penitentiary's prison walls is colored by twisted technicalities and sharp silences.
This winter, construction workers dug a deep pit on the old prison grounds—where there's no record of archeological work having ever been conducted—to make way for a 35-unit underground parking garage.
The developer on the project is Heights Advisors, or "1267 Rogers Avenue LLC" as they list themselves on the construction site. The sleek design firm Think! has been brought on the team as well.
Heights Advisors is run by Alain Kodsi. Kodsi's wife, Rachel Foster, signed as a managing member of 1267 Rogers Avenue LLC on a different document, which leases the land to her for 49 years with the possibility of two 25-year extensions. In other words, the church still technically owns the land, but the developers won't lose any sleep over that for another 99 years.
It's worth mentioning that Kodsi's record is not exactly spotless. In 2002, Alain and his father Elias Kodsi settled Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges of insider trading to the tune of $3.2 million without needing to admit to any wrongdoing. In 2006, Kodsi got in trouble for insider trading again, and this time he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to eight months in prison for the felony and was disbarred from practicing law. (Heights Advisors did not return a request for comment.)
"How could people ignore it? Now one wants to realize that this used to be slave mountain. Crow Hill. Slave Hill." -Richard Hurley
Since the church leased the land at Rogers and Crown to the developers at Heights Management, it has become more valuable. According to city records, the market value of the plot where the Church of St. Ignatius recently stood more than doubled this past year, despite suffering a nearly $969,000 blow to its value after the church's demolition. And though the record clearly stated that the NYC Department of Finance will use the new market value to determine property taxes, there's a good chance those taxes will be low, since the land is still owned by the church. (A request for comment from the finance department was not returned before press time.)
This is what today's Crown Heights gentrifiers might call ironic. It's also a historical fact that in Brooklyn, the longtime landowners are not always the ones who dramatically profit off it.
Of course, what's happening on the old penitentiary grounds is happening in one form or another all over Crown Heights and other "choice" Brooklyn neighborhoods.
According to Thomas Angotti, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, "What happened in Crown Heights and many other places is investors move in, they buy up occupied buildings, they do everything legally and illegally to get the tenants out and convert the buildings to condos."
The city government has argued that if developers are given incentives to create affordable housing, new building projects can decrease income inequality. In May 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to spend $41 billion on 200,000 units of affordable housing, nearly half of them new, over the next decade. The crux of the proposal is a requirement that developers set aside a certain percentage of units for New Yorkers with low-to-moderate incomes, in exchange for generous rezoning. (As of Wednesday, the developers on the Rogers Avenue project had not filed any papers with the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development indicating that the new building will contain affordable housing units.)
But Angotti argues that when big developers sweep into a neighborhood, the community can suffer. "The logic is the more housing you build, the better everything is, but that… [can] lead to the displacement of people of color who have been there for generations and have roots in that area."
Maria Molina, who wrote a book about gentrification in New York City, recently met me in a conference room at Medgar Evers College, which borders the Rogers Avenue development. Her family has lived in Crown Heights for 50 years.
Upon returning to the neighborhood recently, Molina said, "My obvious first question was 'Where have all the black people gone?'"
Suddenly it seemed the neighborhood she grew up in—the "Crown jewel of Brooklyn," as she calls it, with its library, park, museum, and gardens—had experienced a huge demographic shift. She argues that so-called affordable housing units will do little to reverse the trend of white wealth pouring into Crown Heights.
"If we're being honest, we have to say that racism still exists and it affects all levels and all areas of society whether it's income disparity or housing," Molina said.
Molina sees the gentrification of Crown Heights in 2015 as inexitrcably linked to the penitentiary and the forced labor of black residents in Crow Hill, both during slavery and after. "There's the connection of forced labor, the connection of African Americans who died here, who labored here, who still live here," Molina told me.
Richard Hurley, president of the Crown Heights Community Council and a practicing lawyer, has been actively resisting the development since he found out about it—and its connection to the Kings County Penitentiary—last July. Since then, Hurley has appeared on local television to discuss the matter and has helped facilitate conversations about the development's particular historical significance at council meetings.
"How could people ignore it?" he asked me. "Now one wants to realize that this used to be slave mountain. Crow Hill. Slave Hill."
Hurley is also hoping to gain enough support to take legal action against the developers, although the grounds for a suit are unclear. "I want to begin a lawsuit, we just can't finance it, because if I start this thing I'm going against developers' law firms."
Juan Blanco Ruiz, a local architect who has taken a vigorous interest in the case, was the first to tip Hurley off about the development. The two have taken their cues in part from the success of the campaign to build a monument to the African burial ground in lower Manhattan, which succeeded in 1993. During the construction of the General Services Administration building on that land, hundreds of bodies were discovered beneath the earth. It's now estimated that 15,000 men, women, and children were buried there over the course of nearly 200 years until the gravesite closed in the 1790s.
"That was a case of a federal building being built on a site that had been a burial ground," Angotti, the urban affairs professor, says. "But there was never any attempt to acknowledge or preserve it. It was a neighborhood of slaves and freed blacks, so there was no value place on that until people organized. It was the organizing that turned people around, got elected officials to promise a certain portion of the site as the African monument and a museum."
Likewise, some Crown Heights residents have been organizing to stop the construction of the Rogers Avenue development, which, as Molina points out, looks a bit like a prison itself, with its five boxy, glassy stories. At the very least, the apartments are likely to impose upon the landscape of shorter row houses that surround it and typify the neighborhood's architecture.
Instead of being another monument to the Luxury City, Molina, Hurley, Ruiz, and others want the land to return to the community that has lived around it for decades.
"I want a memorial there, maybe a garden," Hurley says. "But simply an acknowledgement."
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