Earlier this month, Muba Yarofulani made the trip across central Brooklyn, from her East New York residence, to a vacant plot of land at 2286 Church Ave., in Flatbush. Yarofulani, along with dozens of other Black Brooklynites and white allies, know very well what was discovered under that vacant land. And, they said, they want to put an end to the city’s plans to develop it.
“It comes back to respect of the dead,” Yarofulani said about the land, where archaeologists uncovered in 2001 what they believe are the remains of African slaves. “Would you go in a cemetery and build an apartment building?”
Six months ago, city officials convened a Flatbush African Burial Ground redevelopment task force, with plans to release a request for affordable housing proposals from developers this fall. A vocal and growing group of community members has stepped up calls to honor the dead, who were likely enslaved by the Dutch colonists who built Protestant Dutch Reformed Church only blocks away. While some community members support affordable housing, those who oppose it have called for the city to halt its current plans.
Community members have begun meeting every Wednesday this month, at the corner of Bedford and Church avenues in front of the lot, chanting “African Graves Matter” and “Black Lives Matter.” More than 800 people have also signed a Change.org petition to halt the city’s development plans.
The activists have called for green space and a memorial, akin to Manhattan’s African National Burial Ground.
Speakers at the recent rallies who propose a memorial have said private development should not be allowed there. “When you know history, you can change it,” said activist Betty Davis, who spoke at a June 16 rally.
Harriet Hines, organizer of the #Justice1654 coalition, said area residents, including Haitians in the neighborhood, should support the efforts.
“There shouldn’t be a cultural divide when it comes to Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, we should all be united as one when it comes to Africa,” Hines said. “We’ve just been dropped off at different ports when it comes to being enslaved.”
Earlier this month, 10 city council candidates in District 40, which encompasses the lot, endorsed the group’s petition to stop the development plans pushed by the city task force. Maxi Eugene, also a candidate and the brother of District 40 Council Member Mathieu Eugene, a key player in the formation of the task force, was notably absent from the petition.
One signee, Republican District 40 candidate Constantine Jean-Pierre, said he wants to see a museum at the site honoring Black heroes.
“Haitian-Americans make up the fortieth district, so that’s who should control what people we honor,” Jean-Pierre said about his idea.
Video by Sam Bojarski, edited by Leonardo March
Acknowledging history and honoring the dead is the imperative at this particular site, Yarofulani said.
“If it could be done in Manhattan, then it could be done in Brooklyn,” Yarofulani said. “Everybody has to be involved, the community, elected officials, everybody who lives in this community has to understand the necessity of respect for our ancestors.”
Affordable housing receives some support
The city-organized Burial Ground task force has organized a series of community workshops this year, with the final workshop scheduled for June 30. On its website, the task force outlines plans for “100% affordable” housing and youth-focused community space. It invites community members to shape the future of the site and honor former slaves buried there.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Council Member Eugene are co-chairs of that task force. Eugene’s office has not responded to requests for comment via email and phone.
But during the May 22 community workshop, Eugene said the city project, which he has been advocating “for many years” would fulfill critical community needs for affordable housing and youth vocational training.
“One of the things that people are complaining about is they see so many buildings going up in New York City, but they are not really affordable,” Eugene said. “By creating vocational training, we will give a sense of purpose to young people. I believe that we will prepare them to enter the workforce.”
Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) department, said the task force is working to honor the site’s history.
“Flatbush residents have expressed a need for more housing that is truly affordable and memorializing the site’s connection to a burial ground for enslaved and free people of African ancestry,” House said. “This project is being planned in a way that respects the site’s historical significance while serving the community’s desire for affordable housing and youth-focused community services.”
Tenant organizer Ivie Bien-Aime said she supports the need for housing. Bien-Aime participated in a Burial Ground task force workshop earlier this year and said the event offered an opportunity for the city to capture the community’s affordable housing needs.
“We needed to make it clear on what that one-hundred-percent affordable means,” said Bien-Aime, of Flatbush.
New housing should be affordable to community members with annual incomes of $30,000 or less, Bien-Aime said. That would be a departure from other city developments that have offered housing for tenants making 50% or more of the area median income.
Activists demand respect, deeper engagement
Protesters who oppose the city say that plans for housing, regardless of affordability, are beside the point.
Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston told the crowd at a recent rally that the site is appropriate for a memorial or monument, given its history. “We need to put affordable housing in places where it is appropriate to build it,” Livingston said.
Robert Elstein, a playwright and Brooklyn borough president candidate, criticized the city’s community workshops. The plan for housing at the site seems like a predetermined conclusion, Elstein said, and the community was not engaged from the start of the process.
In October 2020, two months before the task force was formed, the mayor’s office and Council Member Eugene announced plans to build affordable housing at the 29,000-acre, city-owned lot, per media reports. At the most recent workshop, officials outlined a project timeline that involves ongoing community engagement, then a request for proposals from developers.
Fellow activists, Elstein said, are trying to address their concerns to city government and the Dutch Reformed Church. “We need to take this to city hall, we need to take this to borough hall,” said Elstein, at a recent rally.
Editor’s Note: Livingston has not personally advocated for green space and supports a monument at the site. And, Hines is an organizer of #Justice1654, not the Bedford-Church Lot Organizing Group, as originally stated. These elements were corrected in the story.