Wedged between a string of high-rise developments in Downtown Brooklyn, the two-story brick house at 227 Duffield Street is an unassuming monument to our borough’s and country’s Black history. While the building’s current owners have let the building sink into tragic disrepair, this home once housed some of the country’s leading abolitionists.
In the 1850s, Harriet and Thomas Lee Truesdell owned the property. They frequently hosted other prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet was a central organizer in the women’s anti-slavery movement. Perhaps most striking, there are a series of tunnels underneath the house which led to other properties on the block, a telltale sign that the house may have been part of the Underground Railroad, used to help enslaved people find liberation.
This powerful testament to the centrality of Black history also connects us to the present struggles of Black communities in Central Brooklyn, as New York City is about to let a developer demolish that building. The Landmarks Preservation Commission senselessly refuses to grant the building historic landmark status. Evidently, the Commission places more emphasis on a building’s “architectural significance,” than its deep cultural resonance with millions of New Yorkers hoping to preserve Brooklyn’s roots.
Even more troubling, the conditions under which the current owners purchased 227 Duffield mirror the pattern of deed theft that is being cataloged throughout this borough. In 2017, developer Samiel Hanasab bought 227 Duffield for two payments. The first payment of just $149,000 went to the family of Joy Chatel, a community activist known as “Mama Joy” who had lived there for generations and had been fighting for the building’s significance since the 1980s. A second payment of nearly $500,000 dollars was given to Errol Bartholomew, a real estate investor who had purchased 50 percent of the title when the family was cash strapped.
We don’t have the full facts of the case, but what we do know should warrant an investigation by New York’s attorney general. In 2017, other properties on Duffield Street sold for between $3 million and $10 million dollars, and an attorney with connections to the Chatel family initially put 227 Duffield on the market at $4.5 million without the family’s consent
Samiel Hanasab, the current owner of the property has a history of extorting elderly and disabled homeowners and coercing them to sell their property at a fraction of its worth. In 2012, he purchased a $600,000 Sunset Park home for $6,000 from an 84-year-old wheelchair-bound woman and her unemployed son. Fortunately, a judge nullified the sale, claiming it “reeked of fraud.” Hanasab also purchased a $1.8 million home in Brooklyn for a paltry $10,000 from a terminally ill senior addicted to Oxycontin. The purchase was similarly negated. If these actions don’t constitute deed theft, then I don’t know what does.
And, even if Hanasab’s fraud and greed don’t meet the technical definition of deed theft, the proposed demolition of 227 Duffield still symbolizes how unchecked gentrification destroys our borough’s history and culture. Fortunately, we have models in our own community for how to fight back. In the 1970s, community leaders, activists, and scholars fought to preserve the Hunterfly Houses that now serve as the cornerstone of the Weeksville Heritage Center; grassroots organizations in the present, like Equality for Flatbush and the Brooklyn Movement Center, organize and fight alongside communities who have been pursuing this work for generations.
Our city and state must join forces to save 227 Duffield. We must ask why the Landmarks Preservation Commission can’t take this opportunity, during Black History Month, to save this monument. We must demand our attorney general and governor investigate the suspect terms under which this house changed hands. We must find allies to raise the funds necessary to transform this building into a permanent monument to Brooklyn’s abolitionist and Black history. Finally, we must pass proactive policies that protect residents against deed theft. As a future state assemblyman, I pledge to build upon State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s anti-deed theft legislation by allocating additional money to homeowner protection workshops throughout Central Brooklyn.
We know abolition is an unfinished project. Slavery morphed into Jim Crow, red-lining, mass incarceration, and now deed theft is just the newest method for pilfering the wealth and labor of Black people. As we fight for the soul of Brooklyn, we stand on the shoulders of organizers and abolitionists who fought for generations before us, so let’s use this moment to save 227 Duffield.