Two weeks ago, the Department of Buildings (DOB)determined that renovation work performed in the cellar of 329 McDonough Street by ANC Construction, a contractor hired by the building owner, undermined the shared party wall between 329 and 331 McDonough Street causing it to partially collapse on Wednesday morning, January 20.
DOB engineers immediately determined that the damage to the party wall compromised the structural stability of both buildings and created a “perilous” public safety hazard. According to DOB spokesperson Ryan Meredith Fitzgibbon, “The contractors dug a ravine next to the party wall causing instability.”
DOB vacated 329 and 331 McDonough Street because they said damage posed a risk to the lives of the tenants and the property owners.
Rumors were rampant that the bookend buildings 327 (with four condo owners) and 333 (vacant and up for sale) might be adversely impacted if 329 and 331 were demolished, as noted in postings.
· Property owners of 327, 329 and 331 joined forces with engineers and lawyers to sue to stop the demolition, and show the properties can be saved. The plaintiffs include: the owner of 329 MacDonough St., Robert Providence; 327 Mac-Donough LLC; and owner of 331, Doreen Prince.
Meanwhile, last week, the plaintiffs’ engineers submitted a plan to pour concrete in the basement for shoring. The DOB reviewed the plan and determined “it was comprehensive and safe,” according to Fitzgibbon. Last Friday 29, DOB allowed the engineers to have the work done.
· On Tuesday, February 2, Supreme Court Justice Bert Bunyan extended a stay on demolition until Monday, February 8 to allow further time for submission for a shoring and bracing plan that would pass DOB approval. Announced Fitzgibbon yesterday, “The buildings are being closely monitored, and there are no signs of movement at this time,” adding, “The owner of 329 McDonough Street is currently working with his engineer to develop a plan to salvage the buildings.”
Joining block residents in the courtroom on February 2 were Borough President Marty Markowitz and City Councilman Al Vann (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights). Both, it was learned, had monitored the MacDonough Street situation and had been in conversations with City Buildings officials – Vann, from out of the country — since reports of the crisis two weeks ago.
The View From There
Krystal Coddett’s window has a view of two of Brooklyn’s loveliest landmarks: the great stained-glass window of St. Philips Church , itself a home to one of the nation’s most precious legacies — a history that embraces the Brownstones, some unchanged in their century of existence, and a section of the village of Bedford Stuyvesant’s ancestral roots.
Before the lofty term gentrification collapsed into a racial pejorative during the late 80’s meaning wealthy people purchasing properties mainly for cheap in poorer areas, there was another wave of gentrification, this involved aristocracies of color from the Caribbean and the South who purchased properties along MacDonough, Macon, Decatur, Bainbridge, Stuyvesant, Lewis and other blocks.
In appreciation and respect for the natural woods, and the artistry and craftsmanship, detailingslargely remained unharmed by most of these property owners.
As Tremaine Wright, owner of Common Ground café on Tompkins Avenue, and heir to a legacy of longtime brownstoners on Jefferson Avenue, “They held on to the real estate, so the next generations would not have to launch from the starting line. They worked hard, maintained and did their business.”
MacDonough Street former resident Mother Singleton, the late Bridge Street Church icon, who owned several properties, created a “museum” in her MacDonough St. home base with artifacts from her lifelong journey. She probably knew the parents of community organizer Sam Pinn who residents, with his wife, Doris, in the same MacDonough brownstone that his ancestors purchased in 1929.
Pinn, in a recent interview with Our Time Press, recalled watching Junior High School 35 going up in stages right across the street from his house, where beautiful brownstones once stood. There’s now a Brownstone School, there, and the nearby Brownstone Books, owned by McDonough resident Crystal Bobb-Semple and her husband Walter, MacDonough Street homeowners.
Before the Pinns, a young Lena Horne walked down MacDonough to get to the Macon Library, one block over. Her father owned a store near there, and she grew up in a house in the Weeksville area, an area coming back to life due to work of the late Joan Maynard and the current executive director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, Pam Greene. The Center, on Bergen, is about to build the first “green” museum devoted exclusively to an African-American village.
Pre-Civil War Weeksville’s ancestral connection to Bedford-Stuyvesant reminds that the community’s roots did not begin with the textbook description of the migration of people of color to the area during the 1920’s or just a few years earlier. In the early 19th century, black stevedore James Weeks purchased land from the Lefferts family, and started a self-contained village from the ground up. In doing so he began the pathway that ambled down a Native American trail into what is now Stuyvesant Heights, where eventually Miles Davis and Max Roach jammed in a forgotten after hours spot; “Native Son” author Richard Wright’s secretary, Mrs. Leach, according to Ms. Maynard, typed his manuscripts; Thomas Russell Jones and Elsie Richardson motivated Robert Kennedy to “restore” the neighborhood; the founder of the first magazine devoted solely to Black business, and Richard D. Parsons, the current CEO of Citigroup, were raised, and so on.
And all who are associated with 329 and 331, and their bookends 327 and 333, are part of the history and the soul of that area. Their stories, too, are about utilizing all of the talents and skills they have to survive, and the strength to prevent two strong village teeth to be yanked from their sockets. If possible.
When the residents of 329 and 331 evacuated their space on Wednesday morning of January 20, they fully expected to soon return home. They were at first told it would be a few hours. Then, later that morning, they were assured it would be a a few days before they would be able to go back. So they went to bed Wednesday night without the benefit of the small luxuries that come from having a place to be and call your own, and the belongings that come with it. There was no reason to believe that they and their things would not be safe and sound, or that the crisis in the cellar discovered by Mrs. Prince early Wednesday morning was over for them. On Thursday morning, they carried on: went to work, shopped for clothes, searched for avenues to access accounts. After all, backpacks, IDs, passports were in “safe places” – at home. Thursday they repeated the routine of Wednesday, with some uncertainty and a great deal of discomfort with their displacement.
By Thursday afternoon, texting, emails and phone calls reached them wherever they were staying, working or trying to make a way. Postings had gone up; 329 and 331 houses would be demolished; rumors flashed that 327 and 333 might be impacted.
Architect Michael McCaw, who has an office in the area, and designed plans for the upper floors — not the cellar — of 329, heard the news, and reacted swiftly placing a call to Henry Butler, chair of Community Board III. CB3 district manager Charlene Phillips dashed off a stunner of an email to various organizations and to Our Time Press; we had just completed the distribution work on the day’s issue. When we arrived on the block people were reeling, as we were, about this life-changing announcement.
329 owner Doreen Prince kept vigil from a van as demolition companies, apparently learning of the news showed up to survey the houses and place bids on the demolition work. One hurt bystander said, “They were like vultures circling a dying corpse!” “It’s all about money,” others opined, after learning later that an out-of-borough contractor erected the wood partition barring the entry to the buildings and protecting pedestrians from any falling debris, earned, “$4,000, more or less” for the job. That partition would be moved closer to the curb, twice over the course of a few days.
“I think if they were in a different neighborhood there’d be a much greater effort (to find an alternative to demolition),” said another. Nobody knew what was really going on, how could they? But all agreed there was an alternative to tearing down, and wondered why they did not have a say in discussing another way. But they said these things in shock, more than anger.
Alan Greaves, Mrs. Prince’s son, who with Krystal Coddett, would lead the effort to find out what was going on and, then, what to do, later said, “We had no time for anger, blaming, criticizing or hysteria. Tearing down the buildings was not an option. But we knew we had very little time to devise a course of action; we had to be clear about what to do.”
But Alan, a fire safety official, also knew something else: while carpenters, contractors, plumbers huddled on MacDonough Street in discussions on how the buildings could be shored, he knew that his and their opinions and solutions didn’t matter unless they could be proved in a courtroom. He silently began to work on a plan and consult with his associates in Downtown Brooklyn at Metro Tech.
By late Thursday night, the shockwave had reached area politicians working in Albany; Councilman Vann who was out of the country; and more community groups. Behind the scenes, they all geared up to have a hand – if not a say – in preserving the buildings. Evelyn Collier, President of the MacDonough Street Block Association, was on the phone with Borough President Marty Markowitz; Vann talked to commissioners and deployed staff members James Crandle, Carl Luciano and other to get on the street; the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant were mobilizing to have a presence in force at the hearing they were told was to take place the next day, then the day after that; and CB3 was fielding calls and informing its community advocates, who in turn reached to the highest rungs in the city to get the information needed to put wheels in motion carefully and stealthily.
And the people’s movement had only just begun. If Coddett’s home was the nerve center, then area businesses were her satellites, including Brownstone Books, Bread Stuy Café, the CB3 office, Peaches Restaurant. Everyone was aligned – as McDonough Street homeowner Daphne Daniel said, “to work through the system to save legacies.”
In this week’s Community Board 3 meeting, Vann said, “The people on the block should be commended for pulling together and we should recognize, as well, the support from various organizations. And Justice (Bert Bunyan) is being fair; we can never underestimate the total benefit when people come from the community.”
At the hearing on February 2, Vann and Markowitz blended in with the people of McDonough Street and their supporters.
In an e-mail, educator and community leader Brenda Fryson, former chair of the Community Board 3, wrote: “The heart of the story is of a community pulling together around a crisis. Folks took off from work and other things to pack the courtroom to show support; others stood vigil on MacDonough Street, some worked behind the scenes to provide technical assistance. This is the true spirit of Bed-Stuy. The story is not finished.”
With the next hearing set for February 8, Our Time Press, in its February 11 issue, continues this journey.