Historic Preservation Raises Questions in Brooklyn Neighborhood

By Jenny Rogers

As preservationists and politicians campaign for the official preservation of Bushwick’s architecture, the tension between neighborhood preservation and historic preservation emerge. 

On a cold October Sunday in Bushwick, snow melts on the sidewalk outside St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Its green steeple rises out of the scaffolding surrounding the neo-Gothic structure – scaffolding meant not for renovations but simply to shield pedestrians should the steeples’ spires fall. The bells there do not ring; the children who once rushed up the tower to ring them are grown or gone.

Inside, 19 congregants singing “I love you, Jesus” stand bundled against the cold in down coats and knitted hats, because it costs too much to heat the church.

For nearly 120 years, members of this congregation have gathered here each Sunday morning. But between the rising costs of repairs and upkeep and the dwindling congregation, this year may be its last. As the congregation prepares to leave, no one knows what will ultimately happen to the structure. The building is not a city landmark, and if sold it could be demolished.

Landmarking would likely cripple the congregation financially; but, it could also be the only thing that saves the building.

Inside St. Mark’s, flags from a discontinued tradition show the states or countries where members of the congregation have come from. | Jenny Rogers

St. Mark’s is one of seven potential landmarks in the north Brooklyn neighborhood deemed in danger of demolition or decay by a survey by Columbia University Historic Preservation graduate students. Spurred by the threat of increasing gentrification in the neighborhood, the students, along with Councilmember Diana Reyna and a local high school teacher have campaigned for the protection of Bushwick’s architecture.

But historic preservation is more complicated than deciding whether or not to landmark. A neighborhood is more than its architecture, and historic preservation – while saving structures – does not necessarily preserve the community itself. Some even worry that landmarking would displace residents and further a community’s disintegration, as Bushwick – one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city – faces rising rents and foreclosure, according to the community board district manager. Meanwhile the three landmarks that already exist are all symbols of the old, prosperous neighborhood of the mid-1800s to the turn-of-the-century.

The story of St. Mark’s is the story of a once-robust congregation and its decline. The church structure, dedicated in 1892 at the height of the north Brooklyn beer-brewing heyday, was built to hold 1,000 people. It topped that during its peak from the turn-of-the-century to the Great Depression, according to a 1968 history of the church produced by congregation members.

The church had begun its decline by 1965 when Eugene Mitchell entered first grade in the neighboring St. Mark’s Lutheran School. Still a member of the church 46 years later, Mitchell fondly remembers racing the other children up the three steep flights of stairs in the clock tower to ring the bells on Sunday mornings.

Today, there are three children among the congregation’s 29 members, and the clock tower is silent save for the sounds of pigeons that have taken up residence. Mitchell’s old school closed in June due to lack of enrollment.

Over time, the physical decline of the church has mirrored the decline of the congregation. Surrounded by 10-year-old scaffolding meant to shield pedestrians from falling debris, the 193-foot tall Gothic structure is in a state of disrepair. Department of Building violation records from 2003 and 2011 describe missing mortar joints, metal breaking loose from the steeple and the crumbling façade. A 2010 tornado damaged the roof, and four spires on the steeple have leaned for years, congregants said.

Its physical deterioration and a lack of future protection put it in danger of demolition like many other buildings in Bushwick.

In the spring, the historic preservation students identified the church as a potential landmark because of its history, beauty and original features, according to the students’ survey. Other potential landmarks include a public school, row houses, an 1880s mansion, a 19th century architect’s office, a former restaurant club and a one-time home for the elderly. They also identified three potential historic districts.

Landmarks and historic districts are proposed by community members but chosen by the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission. The designation protects the buildings and districts from demolition or substantial alteration, unless the commission permits it.

The proposal is the most recent step in a larger neighborhood historic preservation effort. Diana Reyna, the area’s councilmember and a local resident, has long championed the cause. After reaching out to Reyna’s office, Adam Schwartz, a social studies teacher at the Academy of Urban Planning high school in Bushwick, worked with his students for two years studying the history and the architecture of the neighborhood.

Schwartz’s effort gained new clout when the graduate students – as part of a course – partnered with Schwartz’s high school students to catalog and research the neighborhood’s historic buildings. In June, the students young and old presented the proposal to Reyna and the chair of the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission.

As well intentioned as the preservationists’ efforts have been, they have touched upon a changing neighborhood’s anxiety about whether historic preservation actually preserves a community.

When the students presented their findings at a community board meeting in May, the reception surprised them, said Alison LaFever, one of the graduate students there.

The board members were leery of the proposal and offended by the way it was presented, according to district manager, Nadine Whitted. Minutes from the meeting describe the Housing and Land Use Committee as “ambivalent” about the presentation itself.

“The feeling was that outsiders were making recommendations and decisions for residents of this community,” the notes say of the board’s reaction. “Condescending statements [such] as ‘Bushwick the poorest neighborhood in the city’ and displaying pictures of homes as neighborhood threats set a very negative tone.”

Bushwick is not the city’s poorest neighborhood, according to the 2007-2009 American Community Survey.

Sarah Rosenblatt, one of the graduate students there, said she believes the board misunderstood what the students meant by “threats.” The students were referring to “threats to buildings” when they showed pictures of homes, not buildings as a threat to the neighborhood.

One of the board members recognized a house that had been damaged in a fire. She stood, saying that she knew the woman who lived there.

“She isn’t a threat to the neighborhood,” the board member said.

Rosenblatt and her classmates now realize one of their blunders. Instead of tailoring their presentation to community members, they spoke as though they were presenting to academics, jargon and all. But, the community board’s unease also revealed a larger apprehension about preservation: Could historic preservation be at odds with community preservation?

Bushwick’s history, like that of St. Mark’s, is a story of rise and decline. German beer brewing made the neighborhood prosperous in the 19th century, but it declined in the 20th century. By the time the 1977 citywide blackout resulted in arson and looting, the neighborhood had become a haven for drugs and gangs. Since 1993, however, criminal complaints to the neighborhood’s 83rd Precinct have dropped nearly 67 percent. By the early 2000s, longtime resident, Virginia Giovinco, who had watched drugs being sold on her corner and had had her chin slashed in a 1998 mugging, was finally glad she’d stayed in the neighborhood.

For the residents who survived the changing neighborhood, “preservation” means something other than protecting historic buildings, said Schwartz who co-curated the 2007 exhibit “Up From Flames” at the Brooklyn Historical Society about the neighborhood’s rise out of the blackout.

“The people are the landmarks,” Schwartz said. “It’s community preservation. It’s about family.”

One of the community board’s concerns after the presentation was how landmarking might affect a neighborhood whose population was already in flux as new developments sprang up. Would it increase rents or displace lower-income residents?

“We’ve been here,” Whitted said. “We’ve struggled through the hard times. We should have first pick, but that’s not always going to work.”

Near Schwartz’s school, a neo-Art Deco glass and metal firehouse, Ladder 112, stands. Known as the “House of Pain,” Ladder 112 was one of the main responders to the 1977 blackout riots and the arson that plagued the neighborhood for years afterward, Schwartz said. The city tore down the 1913 stone and brick building in 2005 and built a new and larger firehouse in its place. Not everyone likes the new metal and glass structure. Community board district manager, Nadine Whitted, said she preferred the old one, but she appreciates the new, larger building and what the firefighters can achieve there.

To Schwartz, the firehouse represents the kind of “community preservation” that moves beyond the importance of the architecture.

“In a way, it’s not neighborhood preservation, but it preserves the legacy – the historical legacy – of the neighborhood,” Schwartz said. “To make sure this neighborhood is always defended, they needed a new building, not the old one.”

The firehouse is at the heart of the distinction between community and historic preservation. Whitted said she hopes that the two preservation forces can work together, but as outside preservationists advocate for the protection of the buildings they deem culturally significant, the conflict over how to preserve the past while maintaining the present community remains unresolved. After all, whose history is being preserved?

“The thing that we struggled with a lot is that so much of the history there is this German brewing history, but the Germans aren’t there anymore,” Rosenblatt said. “So why do these people care? Why should they care? We never had a beautiful answer for that.”

The neighborhood currently includes three landmarked buildings. The city landmarked a Christopher Wren-inspired church in 1968. A 1905 Carnegie library followed in 2004 and a 19th century brewery came in 2010. All are symbols of a previous neighborhood and population.

Diana Reyna, who grew up in Williamsburg and lives in Bushwick, sees landmarking as a way to preserve the architectural landscape of her childhood regardless of which cultures built them, according to Bennett Baruch, her deputy chief of staff.

“She wants the people that are growing up there now to still have those structures,” Baruch said, referring to the architectural character of the neighborhood. “Neighborhoods have always changed, but the people who have left their marks behind are celebrated.”

Reyna also hopes that historic preservation will encourage a greater respect for the neighborhood, leading to less littering or vandalism, Baruch said.

For Virginia Giovinco, the history being preserved is her own family’s. She has lived in her family’s turn-of-the-century home on Bushwick Avenue since 1937, when she was 10 months old.  Her family was one of the first Italian families in the then-German neighborhood, she said. Back then, the home was a doctor’s home complete with a separate patients’ entrance. She has meticulously preserved the Georgian Colonial home, down to her uncles’ doctors’ office furniture.

“I think I’d die if I had to move out,” Giovinco said.

Once the location of drug deals and muggings, Virginia Giovinco’s home has stood on Bushwick Avenue since 1898. | Jenny Rogers

About five years ago, her home was nearly landmarked after Giovinco met Reyna and discussed ensuring the preservation of the home. In the last step of the process, she backed out when she realized that she would need permission from the Landmark Preservation Commission for any structural changes. Since then, she has installed a modern kitchen, something she would have needed the commission’s permission for had the house been landmarked.

Dedicated to preserving the home, Giovinco decided she didn’t need the landmark status. She has found a cousin – fittingly, a doctor – to will the home to after she is gone. She is confident he will protect the home as much as she has done.

Still, without formal landmarking, the house’s protection will rely on her cousin’s word. The student preservationists worry that the Bushwick Avenue turn-of-the-century mansions are in danger because they sit on relatively large lots for the neighborhood. Zoned for taller buildings, buyers could bulldoze the lots and build high-rise condominiums in their place for a larger profit.

As the preservationists worry about protecting the architectural integrity of the neighborhood for future generations, Giovinco continues to care for her home as a way of preserving the memories she has there, she said.

“I can still picture everyone here,” she said, looking at an empty dining room. “You don’t know – but 30 people would sit here on the holidays.”

At St. Mark’s, the walls and stained glass are etched with history and memories of the last 120 years. On a wall in the empty clock tower, “Camp Summer 1962” is scribbled above a list of names.

All of it may disappear soon. The church’s .6-acre lot was listed for sale in June for $5 million. But, after years of struggle, members of the congregation have accepted that they may have to leave the church. If future owners will not allow them to continue to meet there, then the congregation will move to another church or a Lutheran school on Sundays, the pastor said. Even so, the thought of seeing the church destroyed still saddens congregation members.

“I’ve kind of come to grips with that, even though it chokes me up to think of it even going,” Cintron, St. Mark’s deacon, said.

The irony, congregation members know, is that landmarking could protect the church, but it would further cripple the congregation financially.

Chandeliers hang over the pews in St. Mark’s. | Jenny Rogers

Landmark and historic district statuses do not come with restoration funds, though matching grants are occasionally available. Still, owners are required to keep designated structures “in good repair” or risk being fined, according to the commission’s website.

The amount of restoration work needed far exceeds the funds of the shrinking congregation, already drowning in unpaid bills.

“The church would go belly up,” said Randy Gast, the church’s temporary pastor. “It would be an absolute mess.”

Throughout its history, much of the church’s funding has come from the congregation, Cintron, the deaconess, said. But with only two-dozen or so congregants in 2010, coffers have long run dry.

This year it partnered with a Lutheran day school headed by Gast, and the church has removed four leaning spires and restored part of the masonry work, in an effort to make the building saleable, Cintron said. At $260,000, the work is classified as a minor repair in its Department of Building job filing. With such an uncertain future for the congregation, it makes little financial sense to undertake more extensive restorations, Cintron said.

Meanwhile, Reyna continues to advocate for the designation of landmarks and historic districts throughout her neighborhoods. The Columbia graduate students have presented their proposal again – this time publicly at the Brooklyn Public Library to a small crowd – but the students have largely moved on to other preservationist studies. Their proposal is now in the hands of the Landmark Preservation Commission to do with as it pleases.

By the end of November at St. Mark’s, the scaffolding has finally come down. There’s been some interest among buyers in preserving the exterior of the church, according to the pastor, and he is tentatively hopeful that the “integrity” of the building may be saved. The Lutheran day school will have to approve any future sale of the property and the board of directors there has plans to review any potential buyers’ plans for the church. Even so, without formal protection of the building, a buyer could raze the structure at will. The church’s fate, like so many structures in Bushwick and other neighborhoods throughout the city, remains uncertain.

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