Demolition of the iconic East New York Savings Bank traumatized many community members.

The Village Voice covered a February 2015 protest—in minus-6-degree wind chills—to save the building. Demonstrators denounced a plan to tear down the structure that proudly stood at the Pennsylvania and Atlantic Avenues corner since 1889.

It was a failed cause. A sleek-looking, modern health care facility now sits there.

“I said to myself, if there’s a way for me to help, I will help because I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Farrah Lafontant told BK Reader, recalling her vow to join future efforts to preserve East New York’s treasures.

Indeed, that collective trauma strengthened the resolve of many in the community not to let that happen again.

The wreckage gave birth to an organized movement in East New York that’s determined to preserve its cultural landmarks.

Shortly after the demolition, Zulmilena Then brainstormed a way forward. She launched the nonprofit Preserving East New York (PENY) in 2015 to give East New York and Cypress Hills residents a voice in the preservation process.

“Our mission is to preserve and protect the unique spaces in the neighborhood that are connected to our history,” Then told BK Reader. “We want to preserve the culture and social life of the neighborhood.”

There was a huge challenge ahead. Navigating the landmarking process is no easy task.

Then, who worked for a Bed-Stuy architectural firm at that time, knew that she had to learn quickly because rezoning plans for East New York were already underway.

PENY members Porscha Williams Fuller, Zulmilena Then and Farrah Lafontant. Photo: PENY.

Taming the rezoning dragon

In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council placed East New York at the top of its redevelopment list. They passed a rezoning plan intended to create affordable housing.

However, many residents feared that it was really a scheme to gentrify their community. They predicted that developers would construct mostly market-rate apartments and a few truly affordable units.   

Rezoning was also a red flag for preservationists.

“When historic properties aren’t protected during rezoning, they become vulnerable,” Then said.

Most of East New York is low density, with most structures having no more than four stories. Under the rezoning plan, Atlantic Avenue would have buildings up to 12 stories, she explained.

Then started attending rezoning hearings to get community stakeholder support. At one of those hearings, she met Lafontant and other like-minded preservationists who formed PENY’s core.

“We’ve had cheerleaders who coached us along the way,” Lafontant said. “PENY stands out in this space because we are young and people of color. People involved in preservation say they have been waiting for an East New York group to do this work.”

Much to be done

Then and Lafontant said several buildings in the rezoning area need protection. There are about 12 buildings in serious jeopardy, in addition to others outside the rezoning area.

“We want to do the work now before things start moving,” Then said.

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. Photo: PENY

Lafontant said there are houses of worship that have active congregations and not in jeopardy but are still deserving of landmark status.

One of the most distinctive is the onion-domed Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church on Glenmore Avenue.

In the 1930s, East New York was home to a large community of Russian-born immigrants who established a congregation in 1909 and built the church in 1935.

PENY is also working hard to save the former NYPD 75th Precinct house, located at 484 Liberty Avenue, that has fallen into disrepair.

Original NYPD 75th Precinct House in East New York. Photo: PENY.

The structure, originally known as the 17th Precinct, was designed in the Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1891. It was renamed the 75th Precinct in the 1930s and sold to the Peoples Baptist First Church in 1976.

Teaching youth to celebrate the community’s past

Part of the preservation effort includes walking tours to educate people about East New York’s history and culture.

“It gives me great joy and excitement to share it with everyone,” said Lafontant, who conducts the tours. “It hits home when I’m sharing it with young people, especially if they live in East New York.”

PENY Youth Tour. Photo: East New York Farms/Jaylene Eugene.

She views the tours as a remedy for the negative stereotypes about East New York, one of Brooklyn’s most impoverished and high-crime areas.

“So, we talk about the neighborhood’s history and future,” Lafontant said of the youth tours. “I want them to have a sense of pride and ownership in the community.”

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Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based, award-winning freelance journalist. During his career, Nigel has written for several newspapers and magazines. He has extensive experience covering politics and was a...

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