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Brooklyn’s Abolitionists on Duffield Street

Can gentrification change–and even erase–history? What kinds of buildings mobilize a community to dispute a city’s attempts at eminent domain? What stories do New York’s streets tell, and who controls those stories?

The Fugitive Slave Act had just passed when Harriet and Thomas Truesdell moved into 227 Duffield Street in 1850. This set of laws, passed as an attempt to stop southern secession, incentivized citizens to assist authorities in capturing runaway slaves. It denied runaway slaves the right to trial by jury, and punished free citizens who attempted to aid in their escapes.

But stronger restriction was met with stronger resistance. The Underground Railroad–a network of people and safe houses that assisted runaway slaves in their escapes to Northern states and Canada-reached its peak in the 1850s. It was getting increasingly difficult to be an abolitionist, but some of Brooklyn’s most prominent and courageous abolitionists called Duffield Street their home. In fact, a prominent Underground Railroad conductor named William Harned lived a few doors down at 123 Duffield Street. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of enslaved people were supported in some way by Duffield Street residents and by 2050, 200 years later, that history may be erased entirely. 

Thomas and Harriet Truesdell lived in the boxy, 2-story red brick house that still stands on Duffield between Willoughby and Fulton. See it as soon as you can, because the city is making continued attempts to demolish it and build new structures–a parking garage, two hotels, and most recently, a public park–on that land. Each of the city’s attempts to build “Willoughby Square Park” have been met with resistance from locals who cherish the story that 227 tells.

Locals launched a petition following the former owner’s death a few years ago. Joy Chatel, who’d lived and raised children and grandchildren 227 Duffield Street–fought for the building’s preservation through her final days. Old records and maps of her property indicated the existence of secret passageways and tunnels under Duffield Street!

When the city attempts to seize property though eminent domain, it’s usually with the promise that the land will be repurposed for public good. If you had the power, would you give 227 Duffield Landmark Status, or use the land differently? Who determines which stories get preserved through architecture? Might the story of Harriet and Thomas Truesdell’s home get lost if Willoughby Square Park is built?