“What do we want?”
“Kill the deal!”
“When do we want it?”
These cries emerged from the public meeting quarters of the New York City Planning Commission (CPC) in late October of 2017. The deal in question when Crown Heights residents stormed the CPC meeting was a redevelopment plan for the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Dozens of protesters—including Jabari Brisport, then a candidate for city council and currently a state senator, and Joel Feingold, a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, both of whom were arrested—had rallied outside the site for months, coalescing in opposition to a proposal for a recreation center and housing complex at the former National Guard armory. Their contention—and that of the lone CPC member who voted against approving the plan, Michelle de la Uz—was that publicly owned land ought to be used for public benefit. The armory, which had been turned over by the National Guard to the city in 2011, was slated for a privately managed adaptive reuse project that would transform it into a 65,000-square-foot recreation center and add new housing units, both apartments for rent and condos for purchase.
Opposition to the plan centered on the limited number of units reserved for residents making up to 50 percent of the area median income, the threat of displacement and gentrification, and uncertainty for longtime residents in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The CPC approved the measure and green-lighted the project, with BFC Partners as developer, for what recently opened as the Major R. Owens Health & Wellness Community Center and 415 adjacent units of housing. Of these units, only 250 are affordable. This portion (60 percent) far outperforms the 720 units of low-income to 3,474 units (21 percent) built in the neighborhood over the past decade, according to data from the NYU Furman Center. Despite this accommodation, the central conflict of the armory redevelopment remained unresolved. The Bedford Union Armory, like dozens of its architectural ilk, embodies the tension between an old order that suppresses social uprising—the armories were built, after all, for this explicit purpose—and the potential for a new social arrangement in which grassroots organizing and agitation yield public ownership of land and planning.
IN THE NORTHWEST BRONX, the Kingsbridge Armory has sat vacant for three decades. Here, too, there is a struggle over the building’s future. In this case, it reveals the armory’s potential to transform existing ownership norms over land and housing. After assuming the armory’s management from the National Guard in the 1990s, New York City made efforts to adapt the structure for a nonmilitaristic use, but these mostly led to a series of failed redevelopment plans. Just last year, a plan to turn the drill hall into a multirink ice-skating complex sputtered to a halt. About a decade prior, so did plans for a shopping center and multiplex cinema. Now the city’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) is launching another attempt to transform the site into something useful and economically viable (for whom exactly?) while maintaining the building’s facade. The option to raze the armory, while having a basis in history, has not been publicly floated, but the idea inspires questions about the potential utility of a plot of land.
In the fall of 2022, the NYCEDC launched a working group of community stakeholders called Together for Kingsbridge/ Juntos para Kingsbridge; it includes local elected officials, economic development organizations, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and anchor institutions. The group will guide the redevelopment process by soliciting ideas about how the armory can be used in the future, ascertaining the values residents want to prioritize in the new space (for example, collective economy, resilience, education, and diversity) and requesting funding from local, state, and federal officials. Undeterred by its previous failure to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory, NYCEDC has laid out a timeline through which a community vision for the armory will be developed; its website states that we can expect a “vision document” by spring of this year. While Together for Kingsbridge/ Juntos para Kingsbridge, under the guidance of NYCEDC, convened once in the fall of 2022 and twice in 2023 for visioning sessions, grassroots organizing campaigns by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) insist on a more transformative process of redevelopment.
NWBCCC’s vision for the armory rests on principles of economic democracy and community ownership of the site to serve the relevant public. After facilitating community conversations, the coalition distilled the most economically viable and value-oriented plans to build shared ownership and benefit Bronx residents. The group has put forth five development options from the process and identified core revenue- generating anchor tenants or projects. Each is centered on a model of cooperative ownership that addresses the latent potential of the Kingsbridge Armory to bolster economic democracy and enact racial justice in a neighborhood from which the city has historically disinvested. The coalition’s list of potential anchor projects taps into state and federal funding for STEM workforce training and advanced manufacturing; it includes expanding support for cultural programs by establishing a space for events and partnering with local institutions, and it addresses food security through an urban farm and food manufacturing and distribution center.
According to the NYU Furman Center, the rate of poverty in the Bronx in 2019 (26.4 percent) was higher by several points than in the city overall (16 percent), and the poverty rate in Kingsbridge Heights was just a few points lower (22.6 percent). The median household income in the Kingsbridge neighborhood in 2019 was $43,440, about 40 percent less than citywide median ($72,930), and the rate of severely rent-burdened households in 2019 was more than 36 percent, ten points higher than the city average. Collective ownership would ensure that the historically underresourced residents of the Bronx have an opportunity to shape a physical space that could both enhance neighborhood assets as well as meet the needs residents have defined for themselves over time. While the NYCEDC has continued to pursue case studies of adaptive reuse modeled on private-sector investments in real estate, NWBCCC has put forth economically viable models of redevelopment that rely on community ownership.
THERE ARE MORE than two dozen armories across the five boroughs, and dozens more have been razed. While the extant structures are most united by their architectural dominance of the landscape—the complexes of former drill halls, administrative buildings, shooting ranges, and club rooms often occupy an entire block—their functions vary greatly. The well-known Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, dedicated to the Seventh Regiment (a volunteer militia called to arms by President Lincoln in 1861), serves as a cultural center; the Twenty-Third Regiment, or Bedford Avenue Crown Heights Armory is used as a shelter for unhoused men. Still, these armories remain linked by the social order that they all helped to establish about a century ago. The armories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries calcified class distinctions; they were the infrastructure through which working-class rebellion in New York City was suppressed. Today, the city’s armories continue to embody upper-class solidarity and enforce a continuation of a hierarchical social order, particularly in their typical development processes.
Most armories in New York were built between the Civil War and World War I, with the support of public and private funding. Before that period, a number of labor riots incited the formation of volunteer militias to suppress uprisings. (Just in New York, volunteer militias suppressed the 1826 Flour Riots, the Election and Abolition Riots of 1834, the Stonecutters’ Riot of 1835, the Croton Water Riots in 1836, the Astor Place Riots of 1849, the Dead Rabbit Riots of 1857, and the Riots against Staten Island Quarantine in 1858.) Strikes and civil unrest continued after the Civil War, largely in response to squalid labor and living conditions. After participating in the war, observing the Draft Riots of 1863, and triangulating these events with news of the Paris Commune in 1871, George Sherman Batcheller, inspector general of the New York State National Guard, feared that the U.S. was on the edge of civic chaos. He encouraged the volunteer militia to respond to such disorder and argued for a building program to house them and represent the order they instilled in society at large.
This is how armories came to be. First, they served as gathering places for the volunteer militias that eventually formed the National Guard. Once that transformation took place, the armories served as the Guard’s permanent home. Armories constructed during the Gilded Age needed to house ammunition, be large enough for the militia and cavalry to practice drills and gather for social events, and be fortified against the masses in the event of civil unrest. During social functions, members prominently displayed their wealth and social status in a quickly economically stratifying society, and the designs of the armories’ halls encouraged these displays. The Park Avenue Armory contains more than twenty reception rooms, opulent in their decorative and functional mahogany features, Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass and lighting fixtures, ornate friezes, and intricate bronzework. As an elite social club, it was a venue for the National Guard members to express class solidarity.
The rioters, in contrast, were working-class people, mostly immigrants, and were frequently portrayed—and ridiculed—by the popular press and public discourse as having “un-American” political allegiances to communism, anarchism, and socialism. The use of volunteer militias of the National Guard to suppress the demonstrations of working-class people set the precedent for using violence in response to protest. The appearance of the armories reinforced these militias’ authority. The massive, castle-like buildings with towers and turrets imposed not only a sense of order and authority; they also served as coherent visual representations of the National Guard, their class interests, and their ability to suppress the working poor in the city.
After years of violently suppressing rioters, the National Guard tired of its involvement in public peacekeeping. New York State responded with the creation of the state police force (“troopers”) to fill the role, modeled after Pennsylvania’s endeavor to resolve the same issue on behalf of Guardsmen. During the twentieth century, armories were knocked down and handed over to the state. Their formal associations with public order and institutional dominance loosened.
ADVANCEMENTS IN CONSTRUCTION had allowed for these armories to be built at a massive scale—drill halls often had square footage in the tens of thousands. Armories made abundant visual references to the castles and monumental architecture of Europe, with crenellations and machicolations, barrel vaulted halls, and imposing towers and turrets. Their construction was inspired by and responsive to contemporaneous building aesthetics and technological movements in Europe. Drill sheds, for instance, resembled train halls at then recently constructed railroad depots. Today, the exteriors of landmark armories remain true to their original forms, although many have undergone interior renovation and adaptation for nonmilitary uses. The physical forms of the armories, in particular their cavernous halls, lend themselves easily to adaptive reuse.
Still, the armories of New York City often elicit controversy among local residents as the city evaluates their worth and plans for their redevelopment. Grassroots organizing ensured that city council members voted down a shopping mall proposal once put forth during the Bloomberg administration for redeveloping the Kingsbridge Armory. Years later, the NWBCCC successfully bargained for an unprecedented, legally binding community benefits agreement (CBA) for redeveloping the armory into a massive ice center. The key provisions of the CBA included minimum hourly wages, a guarantee that 51 percent of jobs created would be reserved for Bronx residents, union labor contracting for construction, and 51 percent procurement from minority- and women-owned businesses. Failure to secure financing for the project resulted in its dissolution almost a decade later. After decades of organizing for the adaptation of the site, locals are now coalescing around the idea of shared ownership and cogovernance from within the community as the ideological and logistical thrust of the vision.
Echoing the controversial adaptation of the Bedford Union Armory, the planning process for the Kingsbridge Armory is prolonging a conversation about the armories and development in the city more broadly. The NWBCCC has led the Bronx community’s response to city-sponsored redevelopment efforts of the Kingsbridge site since the late 1990s. The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI), a supporter and partner of the NWBCCC in the most recent campaign for community ownership of the armory, is facilitating buy-in from local Bronx businesses among its own membership. From the perspective of the BCDI, the armory represents a critical juncture in the Bronx’s development landscape and investment horizon. According to Evan Casper-Futterman, senior director of education and planning for BCDI, the organization’s Bronx-wide Plan, of which the armory is a critical component, “seeks to capture the scope of that narrative [of the Bronx’s future development investments] and shift the conversation toward we believe there is a different way to do this. …We have a different vision, a contending vision, for what our government leaders should prioritize and what the incentives from the public sector should be to have a different kind of development trajectory. And so the armory, then, in that context, plays a huge role in that it is a major anchor for the future of the Bronx economy and the regional economy, but it’s actually just one of several [neighborhood-based development and investment initiatives].”
The armory is pregnant with possibility—of threat and devastation, but also of stability and racial justice—for the Bronx. The questions involved in adaptive reuse of a military structure complicate the historic preservationist impulse to value the cultural and historical aspects of the building. They also reflect some of the challenges inherent in redeveloping an armory—in the Bronx or elsewhere. The particularly massive Kingsbridge Armory was constructed under historically specific conditions and unfortunately appears to have limited usability for the present moment. If a community planning process repeatedly fails to deliver opportunities for stability to those who live and work in the former arsenal’s shadow, it might be that not much stands to be lost in continuing the tradition of simply razing armories to the ground. Preserving the building itself, and in so doing calcifying its function of violently suppressing working-class demonstrations, may in fact stand in the way of transforming the site, the Bronx, and the existing social order. Demolition and redevelopment, especially if they follow the collective ownership model that NWBCCC is pioneering, could open the door to alternative uses such as a public land bank, as land for community land trusts, or as sites for hundreds of units of deeply and permanently affordable housing. Maybe the ghosts of the armories’ past could finally be evicted from the rubble.
Rachel Bondra is a PhD student studying waste and the history of the built environment. From experience, she thinks the acoustics in armories make them terrible concert venues.