|Should you go?|
|Time spent||89 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||I have a fascination with kitchens. I loved the 1930s kitchen in the Williams House. Full of obsolete appliances and a pantry stocked with canned good brands that no longer exist.|
In 1838, about a decade after New York State abolished slavery, James Weeks bought some land in central Brooklyn with the aim of creating a community of free, landowning, African Americans.
Weeksville thrived for about a century, before changing times and demographics conspired to end it as a distinct neighborhood. While local people never quite forgot Weeksville, the larger city did, as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant absorbed and paved over it.
Weeksville might’ve become simply a fragment of historical trivia, except that a professor at Pratt “rediscovered” it in the mid 1900s. Examining a map of the Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights border, he found a few 19th century houses that remain from the Weeksville era, swallowed up by the modern-day street plan.
A community group formed in 1968 to dig up (in some cases literally) the stories and artifacts of Weeksville, preserve the remaining Weeksville-era houses, and to share them with the public. The Weeksville Heritage Society has restored the houses to evoke various times and offers periodic guided tours of them.
In addition to the “Hunterfly Road” houses, a terrific new building focused on education, art, and culture, opened at Weeksville a few years ago. The contrast between the ultra-modern and historic works well, and the area of landscaped green space between them creates an unusual transition in one of the most urban parts of the city.
At its peak around 1870, about 1,000 people lived in Weeksville, creating a thriving community. Residents included a mix of skilled and unskilled labor, relatively well-to-do and working class, landowners and renters. The village included a school, an orphanage, churches, and businesses. Weeksville also published its own newspaper, the Freedman’s Torchlight, which related area news but also served as a primer promoting literacy, history, and morality. Finally, Weeksville also served as a beacon of refuge and safety and a center for abolitionists in antebellum New York.
Architecture and Archaeology
The Weeksville Heritage Center has five historic houses on its property.
One of them is used as an art center for local schoolkids; when I went it was decorated with various pieces my guide charitably called “upcycled” and I thought of as “making art out of trash.” That sort of program would be better shifted to the new building, freeing more historic space for telling the story of life in Weeksville.
Another house is in the process of being turned into a self-guided explanation of the Weeksville story. I think that’s terrific, and look forward to seeing it.
The final three old houses compose the focus of the guided tour. Each is devoted to a specific time period: 1800s, 1900, and 1930s. None of the houses retains its actual, original furnishings, but all are furnished closely to how they would have been.
The Heritage Center has also sponsored a number of urban archeological digs over the years, unearthing all the usual sorts of debris that academics can spin into stories. Another form of upcycling, now that I think of it.
I liked the modern building, designed by Caples Jefferson Architects, quite a bit. It occupies the opposite corner of the Heritage Center from the historic houses. Built in an L-shape, it features much glass, and several art, class, and multipurpose rooms. It functions partly to welcome visitors to Weeksville, and partly as a community center, hosting films, concerts, lectures, and other events.
Telling Untold Stories
The Weeksville Heritage Center joins the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and very few other places in telling how ordinary people — those neither presidents nor robber barons nor old-school Dutch landholding families — lived in 19th and early 20th century New York.
Unlike the Tenement Museum’s deep specificity, the Weeksville houses tell much more generic stories. For the 1930s house, the Heritage Center knows quite a bit about the family who lived there. The Williamses offered insights on furnishings and donated copies of family photos.
I wanted more details, though, about professions and hobbies, relationships and life events. But at least I felt a bit for the people. For another of the houses, the Center knows some names from census records but little else. So visitors get a generic sense of life and times, but not the immediacy that brings the past to life. Something the Weeksville curators and historians should work on.
Should You Visit Weeksville?
As with all historic sites, the experience of the place depends heavily on the guide telling the story. I liked Alfonse, my guide through the Hunterfly Road houses. He clearly feels close to the place and the story it tells. And he was upfront when he didn’t know something about the buildings or their history.
The Weeksville Heritage Center is a half-century old this year. However, as a museum, the institution feels youthful to me, and entering a new phase of its existence. It is still figuring out how best to leverage its new and old buildings to tell the story of the place and the lives lived there.
Weeksville today serves as a monument to self-determination, self-empowerment, and self-improvement. If you have an interest in New York City history, African American heritage, historic homes, or urban planning Weeksville is well worth a visit.
|Address||150 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn|
|Cost||General Admission: $8 to tour the Hunterfly Road Houses|
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