Construction of Manhattan men’s shelter on African burial ground opposed by residents, politicians
A concerned Inwood dad wants to stop construction on a 116-bed men’s homeless shelter next to his daughters’ school because he says it would create a danger to his children and desecrate a historic African burial ground and Lenape ceremonial site.
Raldy Montano, who lives a few blocks away from the planned facility at 10th Ave. and W. 212nd St. in Inwood, says that the Department of Homeless Services took shortcuts in its environmental review of the project and ignored the adverse effects the group home would have on the students of Public School 98, the neighborhood and the historic site.
“DHS ignored significant adverse effects, improperly deferred consideration of whether the project would create a hazard to the health of the residents, and did not take into consideration the school in their traffic and noise study,” Montano charged in his suit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court last month.
“I believe that we should be pausing the construction while we get the landmarks issues cleared and that these things are historically preserved in a way that is dignified, and speaks to the history of slavery in our city, especially in a community of color, especially in a community where descendants of slaves still live,” De La Rosa told the Daily News.
She suggested that a shelter for women and children next to the school would be more appropriate than one for men.
Montano may have an uphill legal battle, though, as the construction has been approved by the Department of Buildings and workmen have already begun digging the foundation.
The history of the land dates to the Lenape tribe who used the site for ceremonial purposes, according to archeologists’ findings.
The land was later settled by several Dutch families, including the Dyckmans, Nagels, Vermilyes, and Hadleys, who owned slaves. The Dyckman farmhouse survives today as a historic site and museum.
It wasn’t until 1903, when the hilly area was graded for the extension of 10th Ave. that workmen uncovered human remains believed to belong to the slaves of those Dutch families.
Local historian Cole Thompson researched the discovery and found extensive New York Times coverage.
“The rows of crude gravestones which marked the burying ground which the extension of Tenth Avenue has unearthed has long been the source of varied conjecture,” read one Times article that Thompson found. “Old men in the neighborhood said that here lay the bones of slaves, and this belief was strengthened by a British picture, which showed a few hundred yards west from the burial place the ‘huts of the blacks.’”
Archeologists with the American Museum of Natural History conducted a dig on the plot and concluded that the remains were the bones of slaves.
The remains were removed and construction continued.
The area has since been built up. The elevated 1 train platform runs along the east side of the plot and PS 98 sits to the west side.
Since the 1930s the site has had a few different incarnations: A parking lot, garage, auto parts store and repair shop until 2020 when it was purchased by the Bowery Resident’s Committee, or BRC, an organization with a long history of providing housing and services to the homeless.
BRC chief executive Muzzy Rosenblatt acknowledged that it was building on an African burial plot and Lenape ceremonial site, and halted the construction for several years to involve historians, indigenous people, local politicians and Community Board 12 in the future planning of the site.
“We concluded then that to walk away from this history of trauma would not serve the need that existed and exists to help heal it,” Rosenblatt wrote on the organization’s website. “While BRC will operate the residence, we will seek out appropriate partners to design and operate the memorial and interpretative center.”
He set up the Advisory Group for the Inwood Sacred Site, headed by Meredith Horsford, the executive director of the Dykman Farmhouse Museum. She did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
The group had three public meetings in late 2020 and early 2021 and submitted an eight-page recommendation report that supported the shelter project and offered suggestions for a permanent memorial to the slave burial ground and Lenape ceremonial site.
Their suggestions, which the BRC agreed to adopt, would include a meditation garden, a film festival, public space and signage that acknowledged the significance of the plot, among others.
That’s not good enough for Montano, he said in his complaint.
“By allowing a shelter to be built next to an elementary school and African burial ground, the building will be totally out of character with the historic community,” Montano said in his suit.
The BRC also met with the parents of PS 98, Montano’s lawyer, Mayvel Garcia, said, but he said they never told them it would be a group home for men.
Garcia said that he believes the site will hold 120 beds for men, not 116.
Rosenblatt did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
“Transitional housing for our vulnerable population is a necessity. But often times this marginalized group suffers from mental health. Having this group next to an elementary creates a hazard to human health,” according to the suit.
Under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, not considering the proximity of the school to the shelter is a violation of the law, Garcia said.
Further, because the site has not undergone official state review under the state Historic Preservation Act, construction should not go forward.
“DHS is required to consult with the state “Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (“commissioner”), when a site is eligible for registration in the state register,” Garcia said in the suit.
Construction on the group home is well underway and the Community Board overwhelmingly passed a resolution in June.
The Department of Social Services refuted Montano’s claim that they had skirted regulations and laws governing the review of the site and said that BRC will control intake so that the community feels safe.
“We will honor the history of this long-overlooked site by helping some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers get back on their feet,” Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Neha Sharma said. “This formal burial site was tragically disinterred more than a century ago, and unlike subsequent and recent users, our nonprofit provider-partner will be formally memorializing this site and has been working with others who have demonstrated investment in the historic significance of this location and are supportive of the city’s efforts to reclaim, honor and revitalize these spaces for future generations. As with any shelter site, DSS-DHS ensures that we are complying with all manner of regulations and works closely with the community to collaboratively serve our neighbors in need.”
Montano, De La Rosa and Levine all acknowledge that the city needs more shelter space.
“We are in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and we are going to need to expand shelter capacity throughout the city,” Levine said. “But we have a process to determine the appropriateness of individual locations and the parents of PS 98 are asking important questions which deserve answers.”