Brooklyn students take on pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in dispute over fenced-off vacant lot

·3 min read

Students and teachers at a Brooklyn middle school are putting pharmaceutical giant Pfizer on notice for backtracking on promises to develop a fenced-off vacant lot next door.

More than 150 students and teachers from Beginning With Children Charter School, joined by Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso and other elected officials, walked out of class Friday to demand Pfizer take action at 11 Bartlett Street.

The rally comes as decades of conversations between the school and drug company have soured as a series of proposals fell through.

Protesters called for 350,000 fenced-off square feet to be repurposed for the school or as a shared community center with an auditorium or gym — two facilities that the school currently lacks — or build apartments in an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood.

“It had barbed wire, and it made the school look like a prison,” eighth grader Leeandra Cleto, 13, told the News. “A lot of the time when we’re playing sports outside, our balls will get stuck inside the fence.”

The vacant lot is nestled inside the Broadway Triangle on the border of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. For more than a century, much of the area was home to Pfizer, which closed its Brooklyn manufacturing facility in 2008.

Pfizer gifted the building to Beginning With Children in the 1990s for $1 in annual rent. As the pharmaceutical company vacated the borough, property records show it sold the schoolhouse for $10. But school officials said the property was split into two tax lots that granted Pfizer development rights over the full stretch.

In the years that passed, Beginning With Children representatives said they partnered with Pfizer, the city Department of Education and developers to pour money into a slew of proposals for expanded school spaces, neighborhood hubs and affordable housing.

But all were ultimately shut down for environmental or business concerns.

“Pfizer tore the buildings down, carted away the rubble, and left more disappointment — and a vacant lot in its wake,” said Nancy Lewson Kurz, chief executive officer of Beginning With Children. “And that’s the vacant lot you still see today.”

As plans came together for the protest on Friday, school officials said Pfizer began clean-up at the abandoned property this week, while students tried to block out the noise and focus on annual state exams.

“Over the course of this week, [the property] has gone from being the graffitied lot that we’re used to seeing, to a construction zone,” co-principal Eloise Cummings told the News. “So it’s crazy to see how quickly they’re able to get things done when they’re motivated by media pressure.”

A spokesperson for Pfizer said they were proud to be a “major benefactor” to the charter school.

“Pfizer is currently constructing a landscape improvement project on the property to improve its aesthetics while the company continues to explore future options for the vacant property,” read a statement from pharmaceutical company. “We look forward to sharing our future plans for the site with elected officials and the community of Brooklyn once finalized.”

But the elected officials, which included Assemblywoman Martiza Davila and a representative for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, had a less rosy characterization of the relationships.

“They did the least that a corporation that is worth billions of dollars could possibly do,” said Reynoso at the rally. “And after they gave us that little piece, they thought that we should shower them with praise, that we should be grateful for the crumbs that they gave us — after all the years that this community contributed to their growth.”

Cleto, who will graduate from middle school next month, said in a speech to her classmates Friday that she will not get to see what becomes of the space. But her younger sister will start sixth grade at Beginning With Children in the fall.

“I hope that she will be here to see the development of the space, and the impact of raising awareness today,” Cleto said.