Mission Possible: Engaging Communities around Preserving Their History

It is perhaps not surprising that those of us who work at the NYC Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) see the value in the services we perform preserving the records of City government and helping communities connect with that material. In a more recent development, many colleagues are extending the agency’s mission into organizations and communities across New York City. The agency is grappling with how to improve accessibility to the Archives and Library holdings, and reaching out to various communities. So it makes sense to look to members of our team for inspiration—people who are engaging with public history and living the mission through their volunteer work and extracurricular pursuits.

This week, we are spotlighting a relatively new member of the Municipal Archives staff: Porscha Williams-Fuller. She joined the agency in June 2018 as a conservation technician on a special project inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in Lower Manhattan.

Porscha—a Queens native who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in public history – recently shared the distinctive way she acclimated herself to living in a new neighborhood. After moving to East New York, Brooklyn, she was inspired to explore the history of the area and became deeply involved in her new community’s efforts to preserve their history.

Sectional Aerial Map of the City of New York, Plate No. 17, Brownsville, East New York, Brooklyn. Aero Service Corp. 1951. NYC Municipal Archives

Preserving East New York

While growing up in Queens, Porscha developed a strong impression about Brooklyn. “You would hear about Brooklyn—there’s always something going on. It’s energetic. It’s fun. You’d go there to do a little shopping … but then you go back home to Queens.” Once East New York became her home, Porscha launched into one of her favorite activities: deep research. It was during this process that she stumbled upon an organization called Preserving East New York (PENY) and its founder, Zulmilena Then.

The historic East New York Savings Bank was built in 1889. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

PENY began in 2015 after Zulmilena—who grew up in East New York—learned that the East New York Savings Bank was scheduled to be demolished. Built in 1899, the four-story Renaissance Revival structure served as a fixture in the community and in her childhood. Because the permit had already been issued to destroy the bank, there was nothing that could be done to save it. After wrestling with her fear that more important buildings could be lost unless someone took action, Zulmilena decided that preservation could be used to help her neighborhood and give residents a voice in the changes ahead.

Zulmilena started by handing out flyers at a public rezoning hearing and invited people to email her if they wanted to be involved. Zulmilena described receiving that first response one day later: “It was exciting to get that first email and realize that there was support out there. I understood deep down that our community was interested in saving the special places in our neighborhood but perhaps did not know how to. I wanted to create a community or group where we could all learn the process and, by learning together, create the movement that engaged everyone to save the buildings and history of the neighborhood.” Zulmilena reported that although she worked in the architectural field - renovating historic buildings—getting a building landmarked was a very different process so she was learning along with everyone else.

Empire State Dairy Company buildings – the earliest of which was built in 1906-1907. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Likewise, the impending demolition of the East New York Savings Bank also served as a flashpoint for Farrah Lafontant – who would ultimately join PENY, serving as the “bullhorn” for the group. A long-time resident, Farrah described a beloved routine, “I would drive by some of the buildings that seemed important and beautiful to me—even in their state of disrepair.” After hearing about the East New York Savings Bank, she made sure that the former 75th Police Precinct Station House on Liberty Avenue dubbed “The Castle,” which had become derelict, was not also slated for demolition. Farrah reported that she prayed for a way to help and, shortly afterwards, met Zulmilena at a public hearing.

Farrah happily counts herself among the “small army” assembled by Zulmilena. “What we lack in experience, we make up for in energy and a willingness to try anything that help the effort.” This small group has very quickly made significant strides in the community. Counted among one of their first victories is the land-marking of the Empire State Dairy Company buildings, located at Atlantic and Schenck Avenues.

Empire State Dairy Company Buildings, 2018. NYC Department of Records.

The Renaissance/Romanesque Revival-style collection of buildings designed by Otto Strack feature a unified façade and two ceramic tile mosaics depicting the countryside. In part, as a result of the efforts of PENY and other key individuals, such as historian and tile expert Michael Padwee and the president of Friends of Terra Cotta Susan Tunick,the Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously for its designation in 2017.

From left to right, Porscha Williams-Fuller, Zulmilena Then (founder of Preserving East New York), and Farrah Lafontant, pictured in front of café along Pennsylvania Avenue in ENY.

The PENY team described their layered approach to identifying landmark-worthy buildings: conducting extensive research at institutions such as the Department of Buildings and the Municipal Archives, utilizing the rezoning plan for the neighborhood as an opportunity to introduce preservation into conversations with community officials, partnering with institutions such as the Historic District Council and Municipal Arts Society, and remembering to celebrate the community as a whole while moving the group’s mission forward.

When describing the work, Porscha observed, “It’s somewhat of a duty—especially in this day and age with technology at your fingertips—for archivists, librarians, researchers, historians to reach out to get the community engaged with the history. I want to get the newcomer (from Ohio or Texas) to learn more about the community that they are moving into and becoming a part of—whether through old newspaper clippings, a traditional museum exhibit, or through social media. We can push the mission—using those platforms and developing attention-grabbing and meaningful content.” This sounds like a good model for the agency.

New Lots Community Church, New Lots and Schenck Avenues in Brooklyn. Formerly, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in the town of New Lots, founded in 1824 and landmarked in 1966.