By Akosua K. Albritton
While not an astrophysicist, Zulmilena Then has chosen a different path. She chooses architecture as her profession and civic engagement. The New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA New York) counts over 5,000 licensed architects, allied professionals, students and public members in its membership. AIA New York does not keep track of gender, race or ethnicity statistics; however, the Directory of African-American Architects does. As of March 5, 2016, it counts about 264 licensed African-American architects in New York State, of which 77% are located within the five boroughs.
Within that small pool of professionals, there are 48 licensed women. 42 are located in New York City. True, Ms. Then is not an astrophysicist but she certainly is a rare breed, particularly when she decides to take the licensing examination. Then remembers the first time she looked at buildings aesthetically:
I remember when I was 15 years old living with my family in the Dominican Republic. My aunt visited from the States…she took us to visit the Colonial Zone. This was my first time visiting and it felt like I was in a completely different world. I was awed by… the narrow cobblestone streets filled with wonderful colonial-style architecture. I was completely fascinated because I was walking through the past while being in the present. It was such a surreal experience. This was the day that helped me learn about the importance of historic preservation.
Her stumping grounds are Cypress Hills and East New York. Today, Then holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Pratt Institute and works at Michael Ivanhoe McCaw Architects, P.C., located at 365 Stuyvesant Avenue in the Stuyvesant Heights Historic Landmark District. Mr. McCaw is one of the 264 African-American licensed architects in New York State. Then explains she is “currently the only female in the office”. This firm is the architect for Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation’s US Department of Housing and Urban Development/NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development Asset Control Area Program.
So this neighborhood preservationist works for a business that is doing good in her neighborhood. Better still, Zulmilena Then is using her talents to save her community. In 2015, she and colleagues Ena K. McPherson, Farrah LaFontant, James Ward, Rickie James, Hector Lozada, Claudia Williams and Damian Mercado formed Preserving East New York to protect the architectural gems spotting and clustering in East New York.
There are several historic [structures] that are interspersed throughout East New York. Many are eligible for Historic Landmark Designation. Also, a potential Historic Landmark District—East New York Historic District–is there. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) surveyed the area for a potential Historic District in 1977 but the proposal never came to fruition. We have asked LPC to revisit their survey in hopes of having the 1977 proposal fulfilled.
Some examples of the notable buildings within the area include the 75th Police Precinct Police Station House at 484 Liberty Avenue, Grace Baptist Church at 233 New Jersey Avenue, Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church at 400 Glenmore Avenue, and Tyrian Masonic Lodge at 68 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Time is of the essence to organize the community and activate LPC because the East New York Rezoning Proposal was recently approved. This plan involves demolishing wide areas. The members of Preserving East New York disapprove of it. The organization gives the following assessment of the proposal:
The East New York Rezoning Proposal will have a major impact within the communities of East New York and Cypress Hills. It will lead to the lasting transformation of these two communities. Our neighborhoods, as we know them, will disappear because the lack of historic preservation within this plan has left our historic [structures] under a severe risk of demolition. As the first of 15 neighborhoods to be rezoned and as the one that will be used as a model for the other neighborhoods, it is important that the city recognizes the need to address the preservation of all our historic resources in order to protect our communities. All of our neighborhoods deserve to keep a part of history.