A Historic Residential Development Defends itself Against the Newcomers
Preservationists love to hate developers. But this year in Williamsburg, advocates who sought to protect history’s cornices from slick condos found themselves arguing the merits of one of the area’s first planned communities—-a uniform development of matching facades built by speculators at the height of a housing boom: Fillmore Place. A sweet street, teeming with life, the one-block long passageway spans from Driggs Ave. to Roebling, just South of Metropolitan Ave.
A prototype of today’s condos, over time the Fillmore Place development acquired enough joie de vivre to have been described as chock-a-block with character by the author Henry Miller—who grew up in 662 Driggs. From 1892 to 1901, when he lived there, it was to him, the ideal street—for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician.” Today, it has retained its diversity as a microcosm of life in Williamsburg—a snapshot of the gentrifying, diverse neighborhood in a single block. According to the artist and activist Sarah Nelson Wright, who lives on the block, that diverse character is just as strong today: “Old and new residents alike share a love of the block,” she wrote in a statement. Still, she noted, these diverse residents have “varied opinions about what gentrification and development has meant for people in the neighborhood and the area.” Earlier this month, when the Landmark Protection Commission (LPC) voted it in as Williamsburg’s first protected historic district, they were not just saving an architectural façade or a cultural landmark—though it does have those qualities—they were protecting a neighborhood.
Though the Williamsburg Greenpoint Preservation Alliance, founded as a response to the 2005 rezoning, has fought for Landmark status for individual sites, this was the first Historical District it pushed for. “Williamsburg has always been, from its early founding, been based on speculative development,” said Ward Dennis, a member of the WGPA. “It’s one of the most intact sites from the period when Williamsburg was a city.”
The history of the block is an earlier chapter in Williamsburg’s gentrification. In the 1840s two real-estate developers— Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller—bought up the block, razed it, and built up Fillmore Place out of their own pockets—adding the street to maps, building everything down to the curbstones. Designed for working class residents whose houses swelled up out of the industrial waterfront, it was not made to resemble working class tenement, but instead to mimic the housing of the wealthy—the mauve brownstones of downtown, whose candelabras warmed the windowpanes. In 1852, The New York Times advertised the spaces as “Magnificent Dwellings” and a swelling population in Williamsburg at that time quickly filled the multi-family homes—which in some cases were owned by residents, not landlords. Old ledgers show the properties passed through the hands of paper hangers, joiners, coppersmiths who lived here for generations. At first these were English, German, and Irish immigrants. With the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side, the area swelled with Jewish residents and, in the 1930s drawn to work in the sugar industry on Kent Ave., with Hispanic families.
Henry Miller would go on to describe the block in Tropic of Capricorn as “containing just such representatives of the human race, each one a world unto himself and all living together, a solid corporation, a close knit human spore which could not disintegrate unless the street itself disintegrated.”
It was following the proposed rezoning of North Brooklyn’s waterfront that neighborhood organizations started aggressively seeking Landmark status. In that zoning, the Environmental Impact Statement for 184 rezoned blocks identified only twelve potentially historical sites—a number that one preservation group immediately questioned. The non-profit New York City Municipal Art Society’s Preservation Committee drew up a brigade of volunteers to survey the rezoned swaths for noteworthy sites and defined 95 as such, many of which were made up of dozens of buildings. Founded to defend those sites, the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg formed in 2005 as the area’s first locally devoted preservation group. While some on that list—such as the Old Dutch Mustard Co. building have been torn down already—Fillmore Place was an easy sell. “There was a huge amount of community support for this,” Dennis explained, citing the work of Diana Reyna’s office. Plus, the association of the author Henry Miller in artsy, well-read Williamsburg was, he said, “certainly helped with popular perception of it”—not to mention broadened the actual district to include Miller’s childhood home.
Thanks to the LPC’s designation, the next émigrés to the neighborhood will be a highbrow architectural firm, who will come bearing old, original copper details and replica cornices—the first step in the battle against disintegration.
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