With block after block of crisply handsome 19th-century row houses arrayed in almost military precision, punctuated on the avenues by fantastically turreted schoolhouses and apartment buildings, the area of Bedford-Stuyvesant between Bedford and Tompkins Avenues and Monroe and Fulton Streets is unquestionably a historical district.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
Whether it ought to become an official historic district, however, was the subject of sharp — though polite — disagreement at a hearing Tuesday before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The proposed Bedford Historic District in Brooklyn would include all or parts of 16 blocks, about 800 buildings in all. (Map, as a PDF.) “With its unparalleled opportunities for homeownership, Bedford-Stuyvesant became the community of choice for many of New York’s African-American residents,” the commission said in its description of the district (PDF). The beauty of these blocks is still something of a secret in New York at large, a secret that may have helped protect its population.
Neighbors who oppose or challenge the historic district said that it would have the effect of raising property values and rents and that it would impose so many regulatory burdens that the very people who had held the blocks together through awfully lean years — poorer, older African-American and Caribbean-American owners and occupants — would be the first to go.
“What needs to be preserved are the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” said Sehu Jeppe, who lives on Hancock Street, between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. “I’d hate to see us become a Harlem, where the jewel has been extracted.”
Neighbors who favor the creation of the district said it would reward and honor residents who had clung to their homes through decades of financial redlining, municipal neglect and economic decline. In a historic district, advocates said, it would be much more difficult for speculative developers to construct buildings out of character with their surroundings.
Anna Bloodworth, who lives on Jefferson Avenue, between Nostrand and Marcy Avenues, said she feared that displacement would occur if the area were not regulated, which is why she favors the district designation. “It will prevent anyone from sticking up a home or a house that they have no intention of living in,” she told the commissioners. “Developers don’t care about people who live in neighborhoods. They care about money.”
The commission has not set a timetable for its vote on the Bedford Historic District.
Councilman Albert Vann, who has represented Bedford-Stuyvesant as an elected official since 1974, appeared in person to testify in favor of the district.
“It is difficult for a community to protect itself when powerful economic forces threaten changes that strike at the core of its identity,” Mr. Vann said. He added that the proposal for a district was the “result of a community’s decision to come together, to use the tools available to it to protect investments its members have made over generations.”
How broadly the measure is favored or opposed in the neighborhood is hard to gauge. Evelyn Collier, the chairwoman of the landmarks committee of Community Board 3, read a letter from the board chairman, Henry L. Butler, saying that the residents of the district supported designation.
Opponents, including the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church (just outside the district on Tompkins Avenue) and Kirsten John Foy, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Action Network, said that more than 200 residents had signed a form stating, “I cannot say whether I am for or against landmarking our homes because I have not been provided with enough information to make a decision.” Mr. Foy said the scheduling of the hearing (a work day) and its location (the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan) “benefit the architectural elite who happen to follow the workings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and who share its objective and economic interest that are very different from the majority of the residents and homeowners in the community.”
To which Charlene Phillips, the district manager of Community Board 3, replied that the commission had held three “very large public meetings” in the neighborhood and that volunteers had approached homeowners and block associations with information. Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council (presumably one of Mr. Foy’s “elite”), said he had attended at least 15 meetings about the district.
“It’s not true that the agency and advocates have not done their darnedest to reach out to the community,” he said.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 16, 2013
An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the Landmarks Preservation Commission was not expected to vote on the Bedford Historic District until spring. The commission has set no timetable at all on this matter. It does expect, however, to vote on the nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant/Expanded Stuyvesant Heights Historic District this spring.