For Weeksville, I combined my preliminary research and my visit into one. While there were a few things I could (and did) learn later at the library, I felt the site itself would be a much better starting-point. It was.
The Hunterfly Road Houses are near the boundary of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. I took the 3 to the Utica Av stop and walked seven blocks north on Utica Av, then east on Bergen. The houses are, for the time being, dwarfed by a huge construction site. This will be the home of the Weeksville Cultural Center. (A rendering of the completed site is at right.)
I was 45 minutes early for the walk-in tour, so I decided to look around the site. That big building in the background above is the former St. Mary’s Hospital, which closed in 2005. Its grounds have been reclaimed by three things that always seem to accumulate in abandoned areas: weeds, trash, and graffiti.
I was hungry so I figured I’d find a slice of pizza. I popped into the office at the Hunterfly Road Houses to ask for a recommendation. The office is in the building farthest from Bergen Street, a replica of a house from 1865 that burned down in the early 1990s. I’m guessing the new floor-plan was laid with an office in mind, because the main floor is mostly one big room with several desks. There were five women at work when I walked in.
Unfortunately for my stomach, the houses are in a residential area. I had walked past several joints on Utica, but by this point I felt I didn’t have enough time to get to any of them and back in time. Good thing I had an apple! I walked around the grounds for a bit as I waited for the tour to begin. The crew was preparing gardens for the spring.
Weeksville hosts many events throughout the summer, including a concert-series in July. They have a stage set up with a sweet mural and one of those things where you put your head in. I didn’t have anyone to join me, or even to take my picture. Next time.
I had thought I was alone, but I soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one enjoying the grounds.
Our group was eight strong. (I reckon the members of the staff were worried that this guy showing up half an hour early and asking questions about pizza would be the only participant.) We started off with a brief introduction before we entered the first original house, a duplex from the 1840s. Unfortunately, the tour does not allow visitors to take photos inside the houses.
The two sides are mirror-images. The front door leads directly to the living room, which has a fireplace and two closets. Behind that is a mud-room. There is a small bedroom facing front, and another, even smaller bedroom facing back. Here’s what I drew while I was standing in the house:
The entire house is furnished to look like the 1860s, but each half of the house is set up with a particular theme in mind. The left side is designed as if temporary, migrant workers from, say, the Navy Yard were rotating through. It is very spartan, with uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs and a few knick-knacks about. The right side is more “permanent” and better equipped, with plush chairs, a carpet, and a wood-stove. Neither side has a dedicated kitchen, which I found odd (and probably somewhat unsanitary).
The second house, a two-story, single-family home, dates from the 1880s. It is made up with turn-of-the-century amenities: a piano! a radio! a kitchen — with cans and an ice-box! It belonged to the Johnson family. (For the duplex, the Weeksville Heritage Center has narrowed the list of possible families down to five.) Mr. Johnson was a wagon driver, while Mrs. Johnson was a canner.
The house has a living room (called the “best room”), a kitchen, the master bedroom, and a mud-room downstairs; a few interconnected bedrooms upstairs (which at one point slept ten across perhaps four beds); and an attic. Compared with the first house, the place feels very open and warm — maybe that’s because the ceilings are higher, or there are actual gas-lit (now electric) lamps inside.
This was one of the best tours I’ve ever taken for a few reasons. Our guide, Nia, was the new girl on the staff, having been there only since the beginning of the year. She handled her duties like a pro, though, rattling off answers to obscure questions — there were a lot, and not just from me — and keeping everyone amused. She had come from Oakland to take this position because she was drawn to the location’s history and to the mission of the Center. It was a thrill to be in the presence of a person who loves what she does.
We had a great group, as well. Everyone was engaged and knowledgeable. One woman, a teacher on spring break, gave a thorough explanation of the 1863 riots, down to the amount of money rich persons could pay to escape the draft. Another compared what she had seen to her experience growing up in the South decades ago. Two Australian visitors offered their own takes. I had expected the tour of the three original houses to last 45 minutes. Ours went for 75. The third house was closed for renovations.
Satisfied, but now famished, I walked back to Utica Avenue to find a bite. Just a block from the Hunterfly Road Houses, I passed another remnant of the Weeksville age: Berean Baptist Church, which dates from 1850. There was a rock-band rehearsing inside. The overcast skies had given way to sunshine.
So far, my meals on my nabe-visits had been pizza; fried chicken and waffles; pizza; and pizza. So why not fried chicken AND pizza? It sounded too good to be true. The meal was decent, but I paid only $3.50. (The ladies at Weeksville had suggested Saraghina, but I was short on time. I’ll keep it in mind when I hit Bed-Stuy.)
I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I should follow it up with a trip to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side (which, I am ashamed to say, I have yet to visit). It would be great to compare the lifestyles of the two areas and peoples — particularly because the two populations were at brutal odds during the 1863 Draft Riots.
The Weeksville Heritage Center offers walk-in tours Tuesday through Friday at 3 p.m. Special tours can be arranged for schools and for groups of 6 or more.