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Street Naming Committee Ignores Prominent African-Americans, Critics Say

By Donna M. Airoldi | December 11, 2015 2:28pm | Updated on December 15, 2015 12:32pm
 Renee Collymore wants Putnam Street, between Grand Avenue and Downing Street, to be co-named after her father Cecil A. Collymore, but Community Board 2 rejected her proposal in October 2015.
Renee Collymore wants Putnam Street, between Grand Avenue and Downing Street, to be co-named after her father Cecil A. Collymore, but Community Board 2 rejected her proposal in October 2015.
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DNAinfo/Donna M. Airoldi

CLINTON HILL — In an unexpected turn, a Brooklyn community board voted Wednesday night to approve a controversial street co-naming petition in honor of a politically connected woman who died of a drug overdose in 2011, spurring frustrations from critics who say the board has rejected repeated requests to do the same for prominent African-American candidates.

Community Board 2's sudden move to greenlight a bid to name the corner of Dean and Bond streets in honor of Hope Reichbach, an aide for Councilman Stephen Levin and daughter of a prominent Brooklyn judge, came after the board tabled the proposal last month at the request of the family amid revelations about her cause of death.

“[Reichbach] lived on that block her entire life. She was active in the community ... and was supportive of the youth and the children of the community, particularly of the [housing] projects in Community Board 2,” said CB2 member Sidney Meyer, who introduced the motion to untable the proposal Wednesday night.

Meyer added that Reichbach, 22, was someone many in the community looked up to. “[Her] life was unfortunately and tragically cut short as many young people have by the use of drugs that unfortunately caused her untimely death.”

The board — which covers areas of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene — voted 21 in favor, 3 against with 15 abstentions.

The vote frustrated others who have long been seeking to rename streets after prominent African-Americans in the area, including rapper Biggie Smalls, whose co-naming petition is still stalled after years of attempts to jumpstart it, and Cecil A. Collymore, a local African-American businessman originally from Barbados who invested in Clinton Hill when few people were willing to open new businesses because of the area’s problems with drugs, prostitution and violence.

Collymore's daughter Renee Collymore, who has been continuing a push to co-name Putnam Street, between Grand Avenue and Downing Street, for her father after CB2 members rejected it in October, said Wednesday night's vote raises questions about the board.

"I can’t express how sorry I am for [Reichbach's] family, and this is a sad situation. I just want fairness and equity. Just fairness in a street co-naming. Fairness in the minds of people," said Collymore, who met with District 35 City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo on Tuesday to discuss the next steps toward making the street co-naming a possibility.

"Drugs were taken off the street because of my father. Prostitutes, crack, gambling, illegal numbers running, were taken off the streets in that area because of my father. And that’s a major accomplishment. Small businesses were able to thrive because of my father. It had nothing to do with me."

Kenn Lowy, a member of the CB2 Transportation and Public Safety Committee who supported Reichbach's co-naming, had voted against Collymore's proposal because he believed it was based on political motivations and connections — Renee Collymore is a former district leader and close with Borough President Eric Adams and Cumbo — and at the time of the vote, he said he could find little evidence of Cecil Collymore’s historical or cultural significance.

“I’m sure he was a great guy,” Lowy said. "But it was one of the few times no one on the board knew him. No one could make the case except Renee."

The committee's chairman John Dew said at his November committee meeting that for him, "it's a little bit personal," adding that when he walks home, he passes “blocks that were named after people [who] owned slaves. So there’s a perspective to all of this.”

City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo said she sent a letter to the board last month requesting information about any designations in the district for African-Americans — including streets, homes, parks, statues, public plazas — because she doesn’t know of any and hopes to be surprised.

“This was a strong African-American neighborhood for decades. [They’re] still a strong part of the district even though their number is depreciating. We live in a diverse community. It’s a loss for the community to not tell their story,” Cumbo said.

Collymore said she provided the committee with more than enough information about her father’s contributions — which included forming the area’s first street patrol to report back to the police and allowing people to wait for the bus inside his laundromat.

“Anyone who knows their history of Putnam and Grand knows my father made it possible for their property values to increase,” Collymore said. “You cannot push the African-American contributions aside.”

Lowy — who expects to meet with Adams in January to discuss his position on co-naming amid rumors that Adams is unhappy with his voting record — said he believes street co-namings are sometimes "vanity plates" for family members of the deceased.

"There should be more, where you see a plaque and it tells you about the person," he said. "Unless it's a well-known person or it says police officer or fireman, people will look and walk away. I do believe in honoring people who have done something."

Adams said through a spokesman he was “disappointed by the decision" to reject Collymore's co-naming. But he declined to discuss Lowy's fate on the board.

"[Adams] supports recognizing people who fought for, invested in and revitalized the community,” the spokesman added.

It took longer than supporters would have liked to get a street co-naming in honor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman to come to fruition, according to Lowy, who said after Wednesday's meeting, "Harriett Tubman took months. It shouldn’t have."

Some in the community are frustrated at the delay in considering a street in honor of Biggie Smalls, who one former committee member called "a criminal, a misogynist — and too fat to be honored.”

District manager Robert Perris said CB2 has been waiting for the required paperwork before considering a proposal on Smalls.

CB2 chairwoman Shirley McRae said she received several emails about the Collymore co-naming issue after the October meeting, which she did not attend, and reminded members that their role is advisory and council members can bring co-naming proposals before the Council without input from community boards.

The City Council is the only body that approves co-namings, and it adopted its own standards for them in 2008. Boards throughout the city handle co-naming recommendations differently. Some don't vote on them at all; others have protocols in place, like Brooklyn’s CB2 — which has a review of its co-naming procedure on the agenda for Tuesday's Transportation and Public Safety Committee meeting.

Since 2003, Brooklyn's CB2 has approved 13 co-naming recommendations and rejected two, including Collymore's application as well as a proposal in 2007 to co-name a street after Dolores Barbieri, a former mayoral aide. Four proposals bypassed the board and went directly to the City Council, Perris said.

Of the approved streets, eight were named after people of color, four were named after white people, and two were named after institutions, including "Abolitionist Place," according to CB2 records.

"Our track record clearly shows a great deal of sensitivity," Perris said.

Perris said committee votes for Collymore and Reichbach didn't fall along racial lines — an even mix of people voted for both.

Collymore said she intends to keep fighting.

"Heroes in local neighborhoods should be acknowledged in the highest way possible, for our children’s sake. To let them know that average people are the people who make this community," Collymore said.

"Greatness comes from within our own communities. But we have to learn and understand how to identify the greatness."

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the story attributed comments about Biggie Smalls to a board member, not a committee member.