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Long-stalled Downtown Brooklyn park should be renamed ‘Abolitionist Place Park,’ locals say

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The park is steps from the neighborhood’s epicenter of abolitionist history

A barren vacant lot filled with building debris and weeds seen through a hole in a construction fence.
The Downtown Brooklyn site for Willoughby Square Park.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

The city’s long-planned Willoughby Square Park should be renamed Abolitionist Place Park to commemorate Downtown Brooklyn’s role in anti-slavery activism, according to a Brooklyn Community Board 2 committee.

The board’s Youth, Education, and Cultural Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to rename the forthcoming green space, which was promised to locals as part of a neighborhood rezoning in 2004. Historian Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society and the New York City Freedom Trail, brought a resolution forward to the committee asking it co-name the square Abolitionist Place Park.

“This would show that this community cares about the power of the symbolism and it would send a message,” Morris told committee members at a Wednesday meeting.

But the group went a step further and voted to recommend that the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) entirely rename the space to honor the coalition of activists who used the area to shepherd slaves along the Underground Railroad.

“Why not simply call it [Abolitionist Place Park]? Particularly since there’s so much abolitionist history on that particular block,” Eric Spruiell, a cultural affairs committee member, said at the meeting. “And there’s a house down the street where there’s a whole lot of controversy going on about it right now.”

Spruiell was referring to 227 Duffield Street, where the owner plans to tear down the townhouse with ties to the 19th-century abolitionist movement, which has triggered uproar among preservationists and locals. That building is located on Duffield Street between Fulton and Willoughby streets, which in 2007 the community board voted to co-name Abolitionist Place in recognition of its role as part of the Underground Railroad. In nearby Brooklyn Heights, there’s also the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, a Grand Central Terminal of sorts of railway stops.

How the city should honor that legacy within Willoughby Square Park, which will be located on Willoughby Street between Duffield and Albee Square West, has been hotly debated. CB2’s executive committee voted to approve plans for the park, including a monument to commemorate the area’s abolitionist history, over the summer, but in September the full board tabled a vote on the plans after City Council member Stephen Levin’s office raised concerns about the lack of historian input on the monument.

Preservationists hope the push to rename the park will signal to the city that they’re serious about ensuring they do history justice with the commemorative marker, and that it brings the conversation surrounding the long-stalled park back to the neighborhood’s history.

“It’s so important,” said Todd Fine, the president of Washington Street Advocacy Group, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s so many skyscrapers around this park. It’s become this luxury destination. Willoughby Square has become a part of that marketing, so I’m hoping that naming it Abolitionist Place Park will return the focus to this historic element of downtown Brooklyn, which has been totally eviscerated.”

The cultural affairs committee also agreed to request the original 2007 Request For Proposal that NYCEDC put out for Willoughby Square Park, which is currently embroiled in a lawsuit by a developer who was once involved with the project, over concerns that the agency may reduce what Morris says was an initial funding pledge of $1 million to design the historic monument. Nothing has been finalized regarding the park’s abolitionist tribute and the city’s chosen artist will set up their work at the beginning of next year, in time for the park’s September 2020 debut.

Community Board 2’s full board will vote on the renaming resolution come October 7. EDC was unable to immediately return a request for comment.