To honor Black History Month, Corcoran agents and staff went on the Tenement Museum’s Reclaiming Black Spaces Tour — an outing sponsored by Agent Studio with Corcoran’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council.
This insightful walking tour, which is also offered by the museum to the general public, serves as an introduction to the story of the Lower East Side’s Black community, whose history has too often been disregarded and forgotten.
Led by Laureen Fredella, one of the Tenement Museum’s educators, the tour started at a single-family row house at 143 Allen Street. While the 1831 Federal-style is historic in itself, the land below it tells an even bigger story: the parcel once belonged to Sebastiaen de Britto, a 17th-century New Amsterdammer who was among the city’s first Black landowners.
In the mid-1600s, the Dutch West India Company, which controlled the New Netherland colony, wanted a buffer between their settlements around Wall Street and Lenape territory in the north. To create this intermediary space, the Dutch began granting land as part of an agreement of “half freedom” to some of the enslaved people who had been brought to the colony to help farm the area. “The Land of the Blacks,” as it became known, covered parts of modern-day Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, Little Italy, and Chinatown. However, “half freedom” meant that the Black landholders could be recalled into service with the Dutch West India Company at any point, and that their spouses and children remained enslaved. The Black Dutch landholders lost their land when the British took control of the colony and revoked their rights.
The tour continued around downtown Manhattan, visiting Studio We, an important hub for the 1970s Loft Jazz movement, and visiting Engine Company 55 on Broome Street, the firehouse of Wesley Williams, FDNY’s third Black firefighter and the city’s first Black battalion chief.
“It really gave me room for pause and thought,” said agent Christophe Tedjasukmana of the experience. “I realized how little I know, and how even stopping and reading the signs on gardens, monuments, and streets could help me learn more. While it’s always great to know the history and background of neighborhoods and buildings in our business, this particular walking tour really gave me a deeper education than I would seek out myself.”
Jennifer Hsu, another agent on the tour, said that her favorite stop told the story of Elizabeth Jennings, a 24-year-old teacher who hopped a streetcar at Pearl and Chatham Streets in 1854, only to be pushed off by a conductor into the street. Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the streetcar company, hiring future President Chester A. Arthur — then just a young lawyer — to represent her. Together, they won, a meaningful victory for desegregation on public transportation a century before Rosa Parks. “I think both of Jennings and Arthur are great examples of bravery and having a mission larger than themselves. It’s a good reminder for us all to take risks and continue to clear the shadows so that more and more people can live with dignity and fairness,” said Hsu.
Joanna Penny, agent experience coordinator and a member of the DEI Council, also cited learning about Elizabeth Jennings as a highlight of the tour, adding, “My favorite part, though, was connecting with agents and colleagues in a different capacity outside of real estate. I was so impressed with the intellectual questions that were asked and the engagement level of all who participated.”
The tour is offered multiple times a week through the Tenement Museum and options for private and group tours are also available. Michael Sorrentino, Corcoran’s SVP – General Sales Manager for New York and co-chair of the DEI Council, said, “I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about some of the history of the city that does not get enough attention and mention.”