A Farm Grows in Brooklyn: Visiting the Weeksville Heritage Center
One of America’s first free-black communities reemerges in a twenty-first century neighborhood.
Before the city grid was imposed, a Dutch and Indian trade route called Hunterfly Road meandered through central Brooklyn. In 1838, a free African American from Virginia named James Weeks purchased land along that country road.
A town bustled to life, becoming one of the first, free-black communities in the United States. By the 1850s, Weeksville’s population grew to more than 500 people, including doctors, teachers, and other professionals. Weeksville had churches, schools, an orphanage, and a newspaper, the Freedman’s Torchlight.
Yet as Brooklyn became the most populous of New York’s five boroughs, little Weeksville quite literally disappeared from the map.
Historic Dwellings, Discovered
Fast forward a century and a half. A professor from nearby Pratt Institute looks down from his seat in a small airplane. In a 1968 eureka moment, urbanist Jim Hurley’s aerial survey reveals the topography of old Hunterfly Road and a set of forgotten dwellings on a back alley.
Largely hidden by much larger and later buildings, the once-rural farmhouses had lost their identity. But the plain, mid-19th-century houses, though vacant and vandalized, were remarkable survivors of a once prosperous and self-sufficient community.
They were soon designated New York City Landmarks and entered on the National Historic Register. A grassroots effort was launched to raise funds to save the houses, and some of the first monies came from the children at Public School 243 (later renamed the Weeksville School). The goal came to be to restore the antique houses in today’s North Crown Heights and to knit together a neighborhood.
Restoration and Celebration
More than thirty years were required to do the archaeological, architectural, and historical research; to raise the money; and to complete the restoration of the houses at what is now the Weeksville Heritage Center.
In 2005, Senator Hilary Clinton addressed the crowd celebrating the opening of the restored houses. Today, visitors interact with the dwellings in a manner unusual at historic homes. As Director Pam Green says with a laugh, “We’re not quite a please-touch museum, but we are participatory and moving closer. We use inquiry-based and object-based learning. Students are invited to handle some of our artifacts.” It’s a hands-on, brains-on way of looking at how free black Americans lived in the three distinct times the houses re-create, the mid-1800s, circa 1900, and the 1930s.
If the houses draw visitors to learn the Weeksville story, a mix of other programs aims to keep people coming back. A seasonal farmers’ market on Saturdays offers fresh produce, some of it grown in the site’s kitchen gardens, in a neighborhood with limited shopping options. An annual festival in August, lectures, musical performances, and other activities welcome adults and children alike to the site.
Weeksville remains a work-in-progress, as ground was broken in October 2009 for a new, 19,000-square-foot education and art center. The gold LEED-certified design incorporates workshop space for preservation training, a media lab, spaces for out-of-school time, a research institute, and a performance space for dance, theatre, and symposia. For the first time, there will also be an exhibition gallery for showcasing new art related to the built and natural environment by artists working in various media.
The historic structures and the new center will be linked by a large green space, as the site now occupies much of a city block. “You’ll have a sense of what agricultural Brooklyn might have looked like in the nineteenth century,” says director Green, “with a semblance of farm grids, plantings, trees, flowers, and foliage.”
Taken together, the Weeksville Heritage Center is a remarkable experiment that melds historic preservation, community activism, arts, and education. As Pam Green says, “We are a cultural oasis in the middle of the inner city of Brooklyn. And we provide a sense of pride for our neighbors.”
Visiting the Center
The Weeksville Heritage Center is located at 1698 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Phone: 718.756.5250. Subway stop: Utica Avenue (A,C and 3,4).
Weeksville’s historic homes are open for tours Tuesday through Friday at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm during the winter season. The Farmers’ Market runs May to September 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays.
For updates on events and other information about the Weeksville Heritage Center, visit www.weeksvillesociety.org.