The Precedent-Setting History of How Brooklyn Heights Became the City's First Historic District

The construction of the BQE and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 1948.
The construction of the BQE and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 1948.

When many of us think of Brooklyn Heights today, we think of beautiful rowhouses and active, upper middle-class residents. A recent Curbed feature details how these features of the neighborhood converged with Robert Moses's urban renewal plans of the post-War years to result in its historical landmarking and the setting of a legal precedent for historical districting.

After gradual industrial development during the Dutch and British colonial eras due to its harbor-hugging location, prominent residents for whom streets in the neighborhood are still named (Pierrepont, Middagh, Hicks) began to develop uniform residential plots for the neighborhood. By the first half of the 19th century, Brooklyn Heights came to be characterized by row houses diverse in architectural influences.

24 Middagh Street, the oldest surviving home in Brooklyn Heights
24 Middagh Street, the oldest surviving home in Brooklyn Heights
Photo: Curbed

24 Middagh Street, built in 1824 in the Federalist style, is the oldest of these to survive. Through the Great Depression and World War Two, the neighborhood remained a largely white and middle class enclave throughout waves of industrialization and the opening of new transportation connections.

During the 20th century, Robert Moses's notorious urban renewal plans such as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the expansion of Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn and a proposed expansion of hi-rise public housing developments motivated residents to organize community conservation councils in order to preserve the Heights's built form and social composition.

Besides spatial and aesthetic problems with the plans, "Heights residents don't want poor people and they don't want Negroes and Puerto Ricans," as one resident plainly told the Times in 1965. The battle between residents' and Moses's vision for the neighborhood had begun.

One option for fighting Moses that the CCIC began to explore was a little-known piece of legislation known as the "Bard Law" which gave the state of New York the ability to preserve "buildings, structures...having a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value." In 1959, the Bard Law had never been used, but the CCIC saw an opportunity: New York City was in the process of overhauling its zoning regulations. Perhaps the city could be convinced to invoke the Bard Law and seal off Brooklyn Heights from further development.

The evocation of this little-known law proved successful. Mayor Robert Wagner formed the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1962 and, after endowing it with legislative authority under Bard's Law in 1965, paved the way for Brooklyn Heights to become the first historic landmarked district in New York.

Though landmarks laws would suffer many reversals in the coming decade, the Brooklyn Heights district remains intact and a sterling example of how a community—albeit a white and well-connected one—can sometimes face down city bureaucracy and win.

via Curbed

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