A Day in Weeksville

March 11th, 2009

Inside Thirteen blogger: Bijan Rezvani, Worldfocus and producer, The City Concealed

Completed on Halloween in 1941, Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Houses shelter 2,400 people on the border of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. One of the city’s first housing projects, the complex stands as a 16-acre monument of modernist overestimation.

The Hunterfly Road houses of Weeksville,
shot from the top of the Kingsborough Houses

Across the street, the Hunterfly Road Houses of Weeksville symbolize a success to which the surrounding communities might aspire. A free African-American enclave of urban tradespeople and property owners, Weeksville provided safety for fugitive slaves and those later fleeing the Civil War draft riots of lower Manhattan. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Weeksville was a thriving community with its own doctors, teachers, publishers, and social services.

As the Brooklyn Bridge allowed for easier population flows and the 19th century gave way to the 20th, neighboring communities grew to overtake Weeksville in the consciousness of its inhabitants. By the 1960s, the name “Weeksville” was known only to few, but a Pratt Neighborhood College workshop set out to discover the old community from the air, and succeeded.

Since then, the houses have been restored to represent three periods of inhabitants, and excavated artifacts have been collected for future display. The site hosts a series of cultural and historical events in the summer, and plans are underway for the construction of a community center with exhibition and performance space.

The Hunterfly Road houses help fill a huge historical gap between slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Weeksville staff clearly promote the idea of a successful African-American project that can be remembered with pride.

The challenges to and importance of relating this concept became clearer as we spoke with members of the surrounding community. One life-long Bed-Stuy resident we interviewed was proud of the site’s “historical” status, but believed the houses were slave quarters. A driver we encountered held the same impression, and a staffperson and resident at Kingsborough knew nothing about the site.

Observing a group of elementary school students illustrated the problem more clearly, as civil rights and slavery melted into an image of black subjugation or struggle. The tour guide did all within her power to emphasize with conscious and precise word choices the point that these were NOT slave quarters, that the impressive “master bedroom” was not built for a white man, and that the enactor of any and every imaginable good was not “Dr. King,” certainly a favorite topic of the children (though we did visit in February).

Although Weeksville existed within the context of slavery, civil war, and racism, and surely had its problems, it stands as a successful overcoming of social challenges and is presented as such in the construction of positive identity for most of its visitors.

The discussion of Weeksville’s place within an always changing, mostly African-American neighborhood might forget the fact that it is, for everyone, a fascinating piece of American history with an equally amazing story of that history’s rediscovery.

See The City Concealed for Thirteen.org’s video piece on Weeksville.