The 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd thrust the Movement For Black Lives firmly into the public consciousness. When centuries of anger, frustration, and despair spilled out into the streets, I hoped that our political and civic leaders would finally take stock of the mass uprisings and realize the dire need to radically rethink the practice of government. Sadly, that message seems lost on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Member Mathieu Eugene, as evidenced by their announcement last October of an “affordable housing” project at 2286 Church Avenue in Flatbush, previously P.S. 90 and potentially associated with a burial ground for enslaved Africans.
I would like to clarify that I agree with Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Eugene on one point: there is a real desperate need for genuinely affordable housing across the City, especially in Flatbush, Brooklyn. However, I vehemently disagree with their approach: top-down planning with no transparency in the same old guise, an “illusion of inclusion.” It’s a disingenuous method that attempts to trick the community into believing that it has a say in an already decided process and destination. The hand-selected Task Force, to be convened in private – though paraded as transparency – indicates that the process is “business as usual,” and the community will have little to no real influence in the project’s details. Instead of cloak and dagger political actions, there should be open public planning meetings with development stakeholders, with extensive promotion to ensure public participation.
To make matters worse, the site’s potential history as an African American burial ground seems like a mere footnote in this project’s consideration. It is downright unfortunate that the City has a terrible track record acknowledging its relationship to slavery and struggle to respect Black lives. Although not surprised in the slightest, I was disappointed to see only a brief mention of the burial ground for enslaved Africans in the press release. I sincerely hope that the Task Force charged with investigating the history and making the final decision on a memorial will be transparent and include real community representation. This land and the people who toiled and died on it deserve more than just a plaque somewhere in a big shiny building.
Let us not forget that this is public land. I repeat, this is public land. Why was its usage decided without broad community input and discussion? Instead, unspecified “local leaders” determined its designation as affordable housing and a community center. People in power dictate the project’s destiny without community input. There are numerous affordable housing units under construction within proximity to 2286 Church Ave. Why should we build more affordable housing on this site? Were there other options considered, such as a reflective, open-space memorial and education center about Black Americans’ contributions to Central Brooklyn? Or, merely using every available square footage for a community center with a full-service gymnasium, playground, and more? An urban farm for composting and addressing the food insecurity in the neighborhood. How about a concert park or some other cathartic space to help Black people heal from not only centuries of oppression but the added traumas of COVID-19? How about any ideas the community might contribute during an opportunity for public comment or engagement?
This site is an excellent chance to do something dramatically different. The City should take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Black enslaved people who built Brooklyn and the legacies of the African descended people from across the diaspora who’ve shaped our borough into the vibrant collage it is today. It can honor them by allowing the community to maintain ownership of PS 90 rather than giving it away to enrich another private developer. Why doesn’t the City hand this property to a Community Land Trust (CLT) that would transparently and democratically serve community residents’ needs instead of the private market’s whims? CLTs are for acting on behalf of the community; a CLT would ensure that real homage to history is paid and that any development would only happen in a way shaped in true partnership with the community. Considering how racism denied Black people the opportunity to build generational wealth for centuries, a CLT might propose affordable homeownership on the site as a more robust community benefit.
If our elected officials meant it when they affirmed that Black Lives Matter, then we need to see it in their actions. They must throw out the old playbook and commit to building in partnership and collaboration with Black communities. I’m calling on the Mayor’s Office, New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Councilmember Mathieu Eugene to host a public hearing with an opportunity for genuine community input in coordination with Community Board (CB) 14 and the neighboring CB 17 so the people can decide what this site should look like from our perspective. The future of the PS 90 site is far from settled. Now is the time for a new approach.