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In NYC, A Preservation Dispute Over Possible Underground Railroad Site


It's an old story in New York. A developer plans to demolish a once-charming villa in Manhattan and replace it with a 13-story residential building, but elected officials and neighborhood groups are saying not so fast. They say there's evidence that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad and should be preserved. Jim O'Grady from member station WNYC has this story.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: The first problem is, how do you prove something happened when it was supposed to be a secret, which was the essence of the Underground Railroad? In this case, you start with a white 19th century sugar refiner named Dennis Harris. He was the fiery abolitionist who built the four-story wood-framed house in Upper Manhattan. New York state Assemblyman Al Taylor brought him up at a recent rally outside the House.


AL TAYLOR: In 1951, this house was built by Dennis Harris, an abolitionist.

O'GRADY: And there's another problem. The past is hazy and sometimes hard to keep straight. Taylor meant to say it was built in 1851.


TAYLOR: 1851 - I remember it like it was yesterday.


O'GRADY: In the 1850s, Dennis Harris lived in Lower Manhattan, where he preached sermons against slavery and was active in the Underground Railroad. When his sugar refinery burned down, he moved to Upper Manhattan. There, he built the house and another refinery with a wharf on the river, a potentially ideal location for continuing his work, ferrying fugitives further north. The case is strong but circumstantial. Still, Assemblyman Taylor says, of course Harris kept at it in his new spot.


TAYLOR: It's a given if that individual was involved with it down where he lived before, he relocated up here, he's going to continue that because that's in his heart, to help Black people run for freedom.

O'GRADY: The report was submitted to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission with a request to protect the House. That request was denied. The commission's executive director, Lisa Kersavage, says this about Dennis Harris.

LISA KERSAVAGE: He never lived in the house. And the report acknowledged the house's use as part of the Underground Railroad was purely speculative.

O'GRADY: She also says this about how the house has evolved over time into a structure stripped of its ornamentation and covered in something called PermaBrick.

KERSAVAGE: When you have a building that is so altered that it is essentially a 20th century building, it can't communicate that story.

O'GRADY: Kersavage points to a row house in downtown Brooklyn that has also been altered but more closely resembles its 19th century origins has stronger ties to the Underground Railroad and is on the verge of being landmarked.

KERSAVAGE: We're really focusing on those places that have that documented history.

O'GRADY: Defenders of the Harris house say, give us more time, and we just might find that documentation. And they say, sure, the house looks janky now, but it can be restored. They add that it's in the kind of Black and Hispanic neighborhood that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has overlooked in the past.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says the city should allow more time to prove the importance of the house and then backed it up with some stats.


GALE BREWER: There are very few landmarks in our city that link to the anti-slavery movement. The Landmarks Preservation has only granted 17 - only three in Manhattan, none in Upper Manhattan.

O'GRADY: Increasing that last number does not look promising. The development company that bought the Harris house last year has applied to the city for a demolition permit. Their application is pending. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.