If you want to build in Bedford Park and need a variance, you start with Community Board 7 and district manager Fernando Tirado. You mail Tirado an address and a plan. You expect a “yes” or a “no.” You don’t expect to disturb a potential landmark, a fort manned by African-Americans during the revolutionary war.
When land-use lawyer Joshua Rinesmith mailed CB7 a copy of a plan for an 11-story residential tower at 186 St. George’s Crescent, he had never heard of the ‘Negro Fort’ of 1776. But Tirado had heard of the “Negro Fort,” thanks to a BronxNet documentary. According to a British map drafted in 1782, American colonists erected a handful of small forts – redoubts – on a ridge west of the Bronx River. A redoubt is a glorified trench; the Negro Fort probably incorporated a barricade of sharpened sticks.
The redoubts were strategically important; troops kept watch on the Bronx River, the old Boston Post Road and a bridge spanning the Harlem River. General George Washington passed by the Negro Fort when he retreated to White Plains in 1776. It then fell into British hands. In 1777, colonist General William Heath took the Negro Fort back. At one point, African-American soldiers from Virginia held the redoubt.
“There were at least eight forts in the Bronx,” historian Bill Twomey said. “The fort at what is now St. George’s Crescent happened to be held by African-Americans.”
In 2008, Rinesmith submitted a permit request to the city’s Department of Buildings on behalf of St. George’s Crescent LLC. Three months ago, the DOB sent Rinesmith a list of objections. The proposed floor area exceeds the max, as does the proposed number of dwelling units. The proposed rear yard is too small. St. George’s Crescent LLC has requested a variance; CB7 will tender a letter of support or condemn the plan. The lot in question is unusual and warrants a variance, Rinesmith said. It is sloped and shallow.
At a meeting on Thursday, June 4, land use chair Ozzie Brown indicated that CB7 would denounce the project. Although the property in question is zoned for the height, most of the existing buildings on St. George’s Crescent stand only six stories tall. That said, CB7 will alert the Board of Standards and Appeals to the historical element and ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to investigate.
“It makes sense to dig,” Twomey said. “There may not be any remnants of the redoubt left, but what do you have to lose? At the very least, there should be a plaque.”
The Negro Fort soldiers numbered less than a hundred, Twomey said. African-Americans served on both sides during the Revolutionary War. Some 5,000 fought with the colonists. In 1974, historians Lloyd Ultan and John McNamara reported that the Negro Fort was sited on what is now St. George’s Crescent. The Department of City Planning has approved an environmental impact statement for the lot; the statement doesn’t address the Negro Fort, Rinesmith said.
“We know little about the role that African-Americans played in the history of the Bronx,” Brown said. “We need to dignify the Negro Fort with research.”