The three-story Italianate mansion at 87 MacDonough Street, with a large gingko tree in its overgrown front yard, is one of Bed-Stuy’s most mysterious homes. The white sign hung above his porch doesn’t offer much clarity: “1888–1988 Eastern District Grand United Order of Tents of Brooklyn,” it reads in capital letters. Since 1945, the house has served as the headquarters of the United Order of Tents, a national (and secret) charity society run by black women that traces its history back to the Underground Railroad. In recent years, the Tents have struggled to hold on to their property. They had to contend with few resources, the expensive upkeep of a historic home, bad contractors and unscrupulous developers. (In 2020, someone even made a $9.5 million scam Zillow listing for the house.) Now Tents is in serious danger of permanently losing the house due to a dispute with a city agency over whether or not the house is vacant.
The headquarters of the United Order of Tents is not identified. This might have helped secure funds for the maintenance and repair of the building, but the Tents pursue other strategies to save it in the meantime. Their long fight to keep their headquarters is another example of how difficult it is to preserve black history sites in New York. From Weeksville Heritage Site near bankruptcy in 2019 and the eleventh hour underground railroad stop marker 227 Duffield Street as he faced demolition in the fight to save Langston Hughes’ home in Harlemthese battles represent the ongoing conflict between the immeasurable cultural value of these sites, the scarce resources – both monetary and political – available to preserve them, and the reality of a highly competitive land market.
Photo: Courtesy of United Order of Tents of Brooklyn of the Eastern District No.3
87 MacDonough has been in bad shape for some time. But the tents’ legal troubles began in 2011, when the organization sold the back half of its land to cover the cost of repairing a load-bearing wall. But the new ownership of the land was not properly subdivided for tax purposes, and the tents were wrongly charged with the tax bills of the new condos that rose there. When they failed to pay, the organization was on the verge of losing its building following a tax lien sale in 2015. Then-board member Robert Cornegy and attorney for legal aid, Jacques David, were able to remove the house from the sale list just 24 hours before it was sold. scheduled to occur.
But the list of major repairs kept growing: a leaky roof, water damage to ceilings and walls, outdated electrical and heating systems, among others. The next hurdle involved in preserving the home was finding a way for the tents to generate revenue and not fall behind on taxes anymore. (The tents currently have a bill of $408,000.) David advised the tents to apply for nonprofit status with the IRS, which would incentivize donations, open up preservation grants, and grant them a property tax exemption. He worked with the tents on a revised mission statement to reflect the charitable work the tents had done – such as raising awareness and supporting the elderly – and what they plan to do in the future. Once the building is restored, they also want to open a museum about the group’s history, provide space for community meetings and events, and have a center for seniors and young mothers. Further still, they would like to serve meals and plant a community garden. In the fall of 2021, the Tents filed their application, and in February of this year, it was approved. “I thought that was the last hurdle,” David says. And then it got complicated.
Tents has applied for a property tax exemption with the New York City Department of Finance. This would prevent the house from receiving a lien and allow the group to spend their funds restoring the architecture. After a small technical glitch was ironed out, the DOF started asking more questions about the house. He wanted to see a piece-by-piece account of the duties at headquarters, information about the Tents’ mission, and a copy of the deed. “It alarmed me,” David says. “Because I imagined the city was basically gathering the evidence to support an unfavorable decision.” Then he sent a city assessor to inspect the property. This week Tents received a letter from the Department of Finance saying it could not grant an exemption because the building is vacant – and Tents ‘have not adequately demonstrated that the property is or will be used for the foreseeable future for exempt purposes”. purposes. It’s a real catch-22: the tents need money to repair the building so they can use it safely, but to get money they have to use the building. The Tents plan to appeal the decision. Legal Aid also noted that property law has provisions for a situation like this, when a building cannot be used but there is a good faith plan to improve it. As he stated, “We have described all the reasons why the headquarters fell into disrepair and the tents’ good faith plans for renovation, but the DOF personnel are deliberately obtuse.”
David, who also worked on efforts to save 227 Duffield, only believes the downtown Brooklyn home was finally scarred after a 20-year grassroots effort due to the 2020 uprisings sparked by the killing of George Floyd by the police. Now, two years later, it’s back to business as usual. “I get bureaucratic indifference,” says David. Just last month, the Jacob Dangler Housea 19th century French Gothic mansion about a mile from 87 MacDonough, was demolished after the Monuments Commission failed to put the house on the calendar amid a flurry of calls from the community to save it. The Dangler House, which had fallen into disrepair, was until recently owned by the United Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization made up mostly of black women who bought it in 1967 and used it for events community, weddings and baby showers. The group (which opposed the demarcation) sold the house to a developer after facing a $2.3 million lien that would have bankrupted the organization.
Despite this setback, the Tents continue to advance. Their membership has grown from eight women who are mostly in their 70s and 80s to 24. The head office is part of a new series of audio-guided walking tours of historic Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, which debuted last weekend, and the band hopes the building will be a landmark in the future. “My sisters and I are not new to difficult circumstances or hardship,” said Essie Gregory, president of the United Order of Tents. “Our organization was founded in the days of slavery and flourished in the days of Jim Crow. We work tirelessly to ensure that our organization maintains a shelter tent for decades to come.