A young junior architect who grew up in East New York is leading the fight to landmark more than two dozen of the neighborhood’s architectural icons.
Spurred into action by the destruction of the historic East New York Savings Bank and Mayor de Blasio’s controversial rezoning plan, Zulmilena Then founded Preserving East New York (PENY) last year. Now with six members, the fledgling organization has caught the attention of the preservation nonprofit Historic Districts Council, which named East New York one of its 2016 “Six to Celebrate” earlier this month.
Just to be clear, getting the recognition of the Historic Districts Council is like finding out you have a landmarks fairy godmother — HDC’s mission is to help out local groups like PENY, and they’ll work with developers, the Landmarks Commission, and community members to protect spaces that need it.
Brownstoner caught up with the 29-year-old to hear more about her plans to work with the Mayor’s rezoning plan — not against it — to revitalize the area while preserving its historic character.
Brownstoner: What inspired you to start Preserving East New York?
Zulmilena Then: I decided to initiate PENY last year in 2015 after the Brownstoner post that announced the demolition of the East New York Savings Bank and also in response to the East New York rezoning proposal.
What is Preserving East New York looking to landmark and why?
We are advocating historic preservation all throughout the communities of East New York and Cypress Hills. However, our main goal at the moment is to protect the vulnerable landmark-worthy buildings that are interspersed throughout the rezoning area of the East New York Community Plan.
On an emotional level, how do you feel connected to preservation in the area?
After so many years of seeing these neighborhoods [East New York and Cypress Hills] neglected and underrepresented, it hurts to see both neighborhoods disappear. Unfortunately, knowing the social and economic issues the community has to deal with every day, I understand that historic preservation may not come as a top priority on everyone’s list. I also understand that this doesn’t mean the community is not concerned about its treasures.
How could your landmarking effort affect the neighborhood and the mayor’s rezoning plan?
The Mayor’s rezoning plan has taken a holistic approach by working with other city agencies, with the exclusion of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to address the various strategic goals in the East New York Community Plan. However, if historic preservation is included within this plan, the various strategic goals targeted will be further enhanced and strengthened to empower our communities.
How could preservation help revitalize East New York?
Preservation, combined with sound planning and revitalization strategies, drives economic growth by promoting profitable opportunities for new and existing businesses and helps create jobs while also preserving and protecting existing structures, community organizations, small businesses and local residents. This is how preservation can strengthen and empower our communities. Without it, how can we effectively revitalize our neighborhoods?
Could this have implications for other rezonings?
Fourteen other neighborhoods are scheduled to follow in this plan’s footsteps, so it is important that preservation is included within the East New York Community Plan to revitalize and protect our communities.
Why are you championing a historic designation in the area?
Because neighborhoods will inevitably change, preserving our community’s history and identity is an important matter. East New York and Cypress Hills are home to many landmark-worthy buildings in need of protection. The majority now stand vulnerable within the rezoning area. This rezoning plan will be responsible for the lasting transformation of these two communities and without landmarks designation, our communities will be driven into extinction and our history erased.
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