Historic Brooklyn armory has a political role

Its brick facade reminiscent of a pretentious European castle, the Bedford-Union Armory looks comically out of place in the bustling urban neighborhood of Crown Heights.

The armory was erected in the wake of the violent Civil War draft riots of 1863, the economic depression set off by the Panic of 1873 financial crisis, and the rise of socialist and anarchist organizing. Some in NYC feared violence from the working class.

It is fitting, given its history, that the armory, built in the early 1890s, should now be used to organize and inspire working-class politics in the neighborhoods that surround it.

Much of the armory’s 138,000 square feet sits vacant, while some is used to house homeless people. Now, there’s a plan by a city developer to turn the piece of public property into luxury housing — with some set aside for affordable housing and other public purposes, including basketball courts and a community center.

Initially, City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who like many NYC politicians receives donations from real estate interests, supported the plan. But area activists called attention to the project’s likely impact: more luxury housing in a gentrifying neighborhood would make the area more expensive for local residents in the long run.

Many also have raised concerns about the use of a public resource for private use. Ede Fox, a progressive Democrat, made the armory redevelopment a cornerstone of her primary campaign against Cumbo, who changed her position and now says she opposes the project.

Cumbo defeated Fox in this month’s Democratic primary, but in November faces Green Party challenger Jabari Brisport, who has campaigned on the armory, with help from the Democratic Socialists of America. Christine Parker is the Republican candidate in the race.

With Mayor Bill de Blasio and the real estate industry behind it, the project probably will survive. But politically, the debate over the plan has demonstrated that real estate interests and their politicians are vulnerable.

Once a potent symbol of the ruling class in NYC, the armory today tells a story of how the working class could build power.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.