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Preservation group designates American Indian and African-American site in Setauket as historic

Pastor Gregory Leonard of the Bethel African Methodist

Pastor Gregory Leonard of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, left, poses for a portrait with Setauket resident Robert E. Lewis in the church Tuesday, February 25, 2014. The church is in the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District of Setauket. Credit: Barry Sloan

The state's top preservation group has designated an American Indian and African-American neighborhood in South Setauket as an endangered historic site.

The Preservation League of New York State, a private group that works to preserve historic sites, will announce the designation of the Bethel Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District at a ceremony Friday. It will add the site to its "seven to save" list of most threatened resources.

The group has designated a number of historic properties on Long Island in recent years. This year's was the only one selected for Long Island. The group does not preserve property itself, but draws attention to the value of sites with the hope of swaying public opinion to preserve them in the face of development pressures. The area in South Setauket was designated a Brookhaven historical preservation site in June 2005.

Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, said preservation of the site would help maintain the unique character of the region as development occurs around it.

"Certain types of development isn't going to be appropriate for a place like that, but it doesn't mean all development has to go away," she said. "You can introduce change, but it has to be well thought out."

The community has its roots in the 18th century when American Indians, dispossessed of other lands on Long Island, settled there. They were followed by free African-Americans who lived around the Bethel AME Church and cemetery. Houses were built and community gardens started to provide food for families, preservation league officials said.

The historic district is a half-mile long and bounded by Main Street and Mud Road. Archaeologists from Hofstra University have done digs at the site to help authenticate its past. They have found a range of artifacts, from fragments of dishes to buttons and pieces of pipes.

Descendants of some of the first African-American families stayed in the area well into the 20th century.

"The area still has the feeling of a close-knit family working the land," said Erin Tobin, who oversees the Preservation League's program for eastern New York. "It's a place whose history is built out of being marginalized. African-Americans and Native Americans had limited places to settle."

She said residents of the area have long faced development pressure and high property taxes.

"It's close to a wealthy residential community," she added. "These are small homes on large lots [and] attractive parcels for those wishing to build large new homes."

Tobin said the designation allows the Preservation League to search for grants and to give public presentations about the area's history.

Robert E. Lewis, president of Higher Ground Inter-Culture & Heritage Association, a Setauket-based preservation group that submitted the application for the designation, said he hoped the designation would spare any historic homes from being demolished.

Lewis, a lifelong Setauket resident, said: "It's endangered and has been endangered for 20 years. We want to do everything we can possibly do to keep the historical community active and well."

A ceremony in honor of the designation will be held Friday at 11:30 a.m. at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 33 Christian Ave., Setauket.

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