In East New York, Historic Preservation Empowers a Community

Preserving East New York was founded by Zulmilena Then to advocate for historic preservation in one of New York City’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church (courtesy Preserving East New York)

Last October, a stately 1908 church on Sackman Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was demolished, but not without local notice. A funeral service was held for Our Lady of Loreto Church to celebrate its century of history before it became rubble. Silver balloons floated the name “LORETO” against the construction site barriers, and readings commemorated its past. The action was organized by the Brownsville Cultural Coalition, which includes Preserving East New York (PENY), a local preservation group aimed at protecting such vulnerable structures through landmarking and historic districts, and raising visibility for them as community resources.

“This neighborhood is full of strong, encouraging, passionate people, and great organizations that have helped our community move forward when the neighborhood was underrepresented by city planning initiatives for several decades,” Zulmilena Then, founder of PENY, told Hyperallergic. “This neighborhood is part of who I am, and when I saw that it needed help, I just couldn’t turn my back on it.”

Today we celebrated Our Lady of Loreto by honoring her with a funeral service. Although we are heartbroken by the physical loss, the community came together in an act of empowerment. We were defeated on this try to protect a neighborhood relic from demolition, however, this experience has served us to make us stronger so we can continue fighting for what's right for our communities. Our Lady of Loreto is now physically gone but her legacy will remain forever. ______________________ Hoy celebramos a Nuestra Señora de Loreto al honrarla con un servicio fúnebre. A pesar de que estamos angustiados por la pérdida física, la comunidad se unió en un acto de empoderamiento. Fuimos derrotados en este intento de proteger la reliquia del vecindario de la demolición, sin embargo, esta experiencia nos ha servido para hacernos más fuertes para que podamos seguir luchando por lo que es correcto para nuestras comunidades. Nuestra Señora de Loreto ahora se ha ido físicamente pero su legado permanecerá para siempre. #bcc #brownsvilleculturalcoalition #funeralservice #oll #ourladyofloreto #brownsville #oceanhill #eastnewyork #eastbrooklyn #preservingeastnewyork #penybk

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Then grew up in East New York and now works in architecture at the Bed-Stuy office of Michael Ivanhoe McCaw, a practice which emphasizes developing projects contextually. A lack of consideration to the existing character of a place is especially of concern now in East New York and Cypress Hills, where the East New York Neighborhood Plan, unveiled by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015, allows developers to build taller buildings with the inclusion of below-market-rate apartments, and shifts industrial areas to residential. That plan, as well as the demolition of the 1889 Renaissance Revival-style East New York Savings Bank, sparked Then’s interest in founding PENY in 2015.

“We want to help blacks and Latinos join the conversation on these land use issues,” Then said. “There aren’t many of us in the preservation field and we would like to help change that by having more people of color join this movement. PENY’s goal is rooted in helping the East New York community have a voice within the municipal preservation process, a topic that many, in communities of color, aren’t aware of or aren’t familiar with how it works.”

277 Vermont Street (courtesy Preserving East New York)

PENY focuses on educational programming and outreach to advocate for preservation as a form of community empowerment, and inform people on available resources. They believe that historic preservation and developer investment don’t have to be mutually exclusive, with opportunities for adaptive reuse and landmarking able to guard a neighborhood’s distinct identity alongside new buildings.

“Our goal for 2018 is to continue with our educational and awareness campaign to shed light [on], and help move into designation, the various buildings within the rezoning area that were left unprotected, with the exception of the Empire State Dairy Company which was designated this past December by the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Then said. She added that PENY will be at the local farmer’s market every first and third Saturday of the month from June until November, with information and petitions and volunteer lists to sign.

Empire State Dairy Company (courtesy Preserving East New York)

The Dairy, built between 1906-15, has vibrant ceramic tile mosaics of Swiss scenes with cows. Previously, per its Final Environmental Impact Statement, the rezoning plan did not “include any measures that would prevent the demolition or alteration of the Empire State Dairy Building.” Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated in a release that these “brick buildings stand today as century-old reminders of the once prominent New York dairy companies and of East New York’s and Brooklyn’s important industrial past.”

Still the majority of historic buildings in East New York remain without designation. Whether the Romanesque Revival 1895 fire station for Engine Company 236, the soaring domes of the 1935 Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, or the 1885-90 Vienna Flats with its Queen Anne-style curved corner bay, these buildings reflect the diverse history of East New York.

FDNY Engine 236 (courtesy Preserving East New York)

And their preservation can be a model for other neighborhoods, particularly low-income areas where landmarking and historic preservation resources are scarce. East New York is the first test case for 15 neighborhoods planned to go through the rezoning plan. Then stated that they “testified against the rezoning, demanding that the City include historic preservation within its plan,” yet “the City approved the plan without addressing this concern.” So rallying grassroots attention is vital. Neighborhoods change, but without historic preservation, their connection to the past can be eroded or erased. This is not an issue unique to East New York; Nathan Kensinger’s recent photo essay for Curbed highlighted 10 historic New York City buildings planned for demolition this year, from a 19th-century Federal house on Bowery to a Beaux-Arts pumping station in Gowanus, while Meagan Day at Jacobin recently chronicled how similar rezoning in Manhattan led in turn to skyrocketing land values and a loss of manufacturing jobs.

“PENY stressed the importance of including historic preservation because it is essential to ensure a responsible and effective lasting neighborhood revitalization for each unique neighborhood throughout the city we love,” Then said. “Do we really want soulless neighborhoods with cookie-cutter glass buildings everywhere? What will become of New York City’s essence if we continue this way?”

75th Precinct Station (courtesy Preserving East New York)
Magistrate’s Court (courtesy Preserving East New York)
Vienna Flats (courtesy Preserving East New York)
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