"The minute you look down a street and see a Dumpster, you know that's hope."
It would be hard to take that quote seriously from anyone other than Maya Angelou.
August 7, 2003
A New Harlem Gentry in Search of Its Latte
By JOHN LELAND
Malcolm X Boulevard from West 122nd Street to West 118th Street.
WHAT is the relationship between home and a good cup of coffee? On first reckoning, coffee (or tea) organizes space and movement; in the brewing of a serviceable cup, a house becomes a home.
Yet there is also a public way that coffee shapes the sense of home, even from down the block. If you sketched the foot traffic around a cup of espresso, for example, you might see the pattern of intersecting lines that Jane Jacobs described in her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." To Ms. Jacobs, the number of opportunities people have to cross paths with their neighbors correspond with the quality of life in the neighborhood. A good coffeehouse, like a friendly restaurant or a neighborhood shop, brings together lines that might not otherwise cross. These lines transmit the vital information of a community — what's the best preschool, whose son is dealing drugs on the corner — into the homes where it has weight. Add a froth of crema, and you are in business.
On a ridiculously hot afternoon a few weeks back, Michael Adams, a Harlem architectural historian and preservationist, sat at a sidewalk table at Malcolm X Boulevard and 120th Street, weighing the social dimensions of a very nice cup of iced cappuccino. The table belonged to a cafe called Settepani, on one of Manhattan's broadest sidewalks. Nearby sat an editor from a new neighborhood newspaper and a marketing rep for a new local brewery called Sugar Hill. Pale mist curled from pastel-hued scoops of gelato in porcelain bowls.
Mr. Adams wore shorts and, in deference to the heat, no straw boater. "For so long, living in Harlem has meant being painfully aware of what a difficult place you chose to live," Mr. Adams said. "People begrudgingly accepted the reality that everything it had was substandard, because there was no alternative."
Yet as he sipped, Mr. Adams gestured toward Native, a fusion bistro at Malcolm X Boulevard and 118th Street, and to a design boutique called Xukuma, near 119th. A new hair salon and day spa called Turning Heads lay just up the boulevard, also known as Lenox Avenue, and a clothing shop called Harlemade farther down. All have been opened in the last three years, all but Settepani by people from the neighborhood.
"The miracle of Lenox is that now we have facilities in Harlem that are the finest of their type," Mr. Adams said, referring to the Mount Morris Park area. "You cannot find a better cafe and bakery than Settepani. You cannot go to any neighborhood restaurant and find a better dish of lamb tagine than Native's."
No one can accuse Mr. Adams, who lives in a rental apartment off Malcolm X on 122nd Street, of being temperate in his boosterism, yet from a Jane Jacobs point of view, what is happening on this stretch of the boulevard is a modest revelation.
One of America's most mythologized neighborhoods, Harlem, like Hollywood or the East Village, exists both in the public imagination and on the urban grid. In both realms it has a rich cultural history and an alluring stock of 19th-century brownstones.
But from the level of the grid, which takes over the first time you need an all-night green market or a trusty sushi bar, the neighborhood lacks some basic urban amenities, like a good corner dry cleaner, a florist, a deli. And until the opening of Settepani, it lacked a good neighborhood cafe.
"I took my laundry downtown for months," said Gregory Carey, a stand-up comedian who bought a derelict brownstone on Malcolm X Boulevard in May 2000 for $250,000 and has been restoring it floor by floor, with an owner's duplex and floor-through apartments he rents out for $1,950 a month. When he moved in, prostitutes and crack dealers worked the upper floors; the boulevard had not begun its transformation. The things he took for granted in his old neighborhood on the Upper West Side — where he rented an apartment of 300 square feet — were nonexistent unless he hopped a subway. "Seeing Settepani was a light," Mr. Carey said. "Services have improved a million percent, because there were none." Though even now, he said, when salad beckons, he heads south.
Gina Ramcharan and her husband, Arnold Ramcharan, bought a house on 123rd Street five years ago for $140,000 and have been slowly fixing it up. Ms. Ramcharan, a business manager for Escada, said that since the new businesses have opened, she hardly ever goes downtown, and now friends will come up. "When we first moved in it was still the wild West," she said. "But my friends' attitude has changed." She said her friends had gone through three stages: "danger, curious, and we'll be right up."
The story of Harlem's resurgence is generally told in terms of the big chains that now sparkle along 125th Street — including Old Navy, Staples, Seaman's, H&M, Starbucks and Magic Johnson Theaters — or the restoration of the brownstones once occupied by New York's rich and powerful. The recently restored house at 22 West 120th Street, opposite Mount Morris Park, for example, was the early childhood home of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, whose grandson Arthur is the publisher of this newspaper; if you lived there today, your new neighbors would include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Maya Angelou.
"On every block you see a house that used to be beaten down," said Ms. Angelou, who just finished restoring the hollow shell of a house by the park, which is also called Marcus Garvey Park. She said she plans to divide her time between New York and Winston-Salem, N.C., where she teaches at Wake Forest University. "The hope is there," she said of the neighborhood. "The minute you look down a street and see a Dumpster, you know that's hope."
Yet big chain stores, historic brownstones and even famous neighbors do not provide the connections that make a neighborhood a neighborhood. On Friday afternoon, Georgia Boothe, 37, sat underneath a ceiling fan in the spacious living room of the house she and her husband, Ron Leonard, restored on 120th Street near the park.
Not long ago, Ms. Boothe said, she was taking care of a neighbor's child and stopped into Settepani. Another woman was there with a small child, and as one thing led to another, they segued into an impromptu play date — the kind of small, mundane interaction that would not have happened without the cafe. "Harlem is a real community in the sense that you know your neighbors," Ms. Boothe said. "So you see them in the cafe and just start talking. I'll know someone's doing renovation or refinancing, so I'll give them the name of my mortgage broker."
From the time Ms. Boothe and her husband, who are both computer professionals, bought their house five years ago, she saw an empty niche in the neighborhood. Newcomers and longtime residents were doing marvelous things with the houses, but if you wanted to take one a housewarming gift, you had to go downtown.
"There wasn't anything in the neighborhood I wanted to buy," Ms. Boothe said. "If I wanted a candle, I'd have to go downtown. For a while you could buy gifts at the African market on 116th Street, but that wore off. How many times can you show up with African cloth?"
Then in November 2000, a neighbor named Murphy Heyliger and two friends opened a clothing boutique on the boulevard called Harlemade that felt like an uptown version of downtown. It was the first of the new shops on the avenue. With encouragement from Mr. Heyliger, Ms. Boothe conceived a store with a complementary vibe, selling mainly small home furnishings and design accessories.
She opened Xukuma across the street from Harlemade in May 2002. On odd Friday evenings she has free jazz performances in the shop to draw out the neighborhood. "The businesses try to work with each other," she said.
One of those businesses is Turning Heads Beauty Salon and Day Spa, which Shannon Ayers, 44, relocated to Malcolm X Boulevard and 121st Street from farther uptown in May 2002. Staff members complained about the move, she said, until they saw the view from the big storefront windows. "The boy-watching is good, and the girl-watching is good from that corner," she said.
If you want to predict cultural trends in New York, one trick is to examine the needs of the real estate market. When the East Village and the Lower East Side needed pilgrims in the 1970's to fill buildings vacated because of drug traffic or urban blight, the culture produced punk rock, which brought creative young people in droves, including waves of squatters eager to claim places nobody wanted. Those legions helped revive the neighborhood and drive up property values. Two decades later, when a stock of decaying brownstones called for new troops uptown, the culture produced the "ghetto fabulous" ethos of 1990's hip-hop, which celebrated Harlem boulevards as the Tigris and Euphrates of urban hip. In the raw rhymes of 50 Cent lie the advertising jingles of gentrification.
The appearance of amenities here, similarly, both reflects and facilitates the real estate boom, in which the price of a shell has risen to around $750,000 from under $100,000 in less than a decade. Marc Anderson, an architect who has renovated several neighborhood brownstones, including Ms. Angelou's, said the basic construction work to restore a shell starts at $400,000 to $500,000, though many locals do much of the work themselves.
On another day at Settepani, a real estate agent named Glenn Rice sat with Nicholas Bunning, an architect, discussing what it would take for the market to make the next leap. Mr. Bunning had a shaved head, a silver lip stud and a left forearm covered with tattoos, the most recent a drawing of brass knuckles that he said quite catches his eye when he practices his Autoharp. Wearing an immaculate dress shirt from Turnbull & Asser, he was a hub of intersecting lines all by himself.
They contrasted Mount Morris Park with Hamilton Heights, another Harlem neighborhood of elegant brownstones. "Architecturally, Hamilton Heights is a treasure, but it's not moving," said Mr. Bunning, who owns a mansion there but is now tempted to move to Mount Morris Park. "The difference here is that commercial is doing things. Having houses is great, but it's commercial that gives you street life and foot traffic, which are so vital."
Mr. Rice added, "It's hard to get people to pay $1 million for a house where they can't go out to eat."
A long-standing adage has it that you can get any kind of food you want in Harlem, as long as it's fried. In January 2002, Brian Washington-Palmer, who moved to 120th Street from the East Village for the cheap rent, opened a bistro called Native that he hoped would recreate the casual funkiness of Yaffa Cafe on St. Marks Place. "People said, `Is it Caribbean or soul food?' " he said. "I had to say, `You know, there are other choices.' "
Though his prices are neighborly (entrees are $12 to $18) and the food is good, Native has had a hard time drawing customers. Mr. Washington-Palmer says he serves 40 to 50 meals a night, about what a downtown bistro does in an hour. "It's tough," he said. "People here are used to things a certain way, because that's how they were before. They don't get fusion food."
Valerie Jo Bradley, who bought her house on 120th Street in 1980 for $35,000, welcomes the newcomers. She and her husband came in an earlier wave of eager new homeowners, one of several that stopped short of revitalizing the neighborhood. Now she imagines Malcolm X Boulevard developing along the lines of Columbus Avenue or Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights — "more small businesses that give it verve."
"I can go to Settepani on Sunday and fellowship with the neighborhood," she added. "I can go to dinner at Native and not have to apologize because the menu is not sophisticated. How many places can you have soul food? Black people eat more than soul food."
Yet several businesses are caught in what they hope is an adjustment period. Ms. Boothe said her store needs mail-order or online sales if it is going to break even. The owners of Settepani, Leah Abraham and her husband, Nino Settepani (the name is Italian for "seven breads" ), who commute from Westchester County, were robbed twice at gunpoint when they first opened. "It was a way of saying, `Welcome to the neighborhood,' " Ms. Abraham said.
After spending around $1 million to open, they are losing money as though it's going into "a vacuum cleaner," Ms. Abraham said. On a recent afternoon, she sat outside adjusting the menu, adding health-oriented lunch dishes. The neighborhood and the amenities are still finding each other; the lines of connection are not there yet.
On a July afternoon, Antonio Da Silva, a fashion designer, sat in the living room of his 20-foot-wide brownstone on 121st Street off Malcolm X Boulevard. After buying the building at auction for $200,000 three years ago, he and his partner, Calvert Joseph, finally moved in last month. The house is a showplace, with Brazilian cherry floors and an upper duplex they hope to rent for $3,000 to $3,500 a month.
They may never know life on the boulevard without good coffee. For them, Harlem means staying put, not chasing after stuff in other neighborhoods. "If you're living in Harlem, you have to live grand," Mr. Da Silva said. "Because it's far."
Audio Slide Show: A Harlem Renaissance
Locations: Boulevardiers on Malcolm X
TAKE the No. 2 or 3 train to 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) — the Mount Morris historic district begins at 118th and Malcolm X. To the east is the 20-acre Marcus Garvey Park, originally Mount Morris Park, where an 1856 cast-iron fire watchtower rises 47 feet. Brownstones surround the park on three sides; 3 West 120th Street was the boyhood home of the songwriter Richard Rodgers. Saturday walking tours of the district include Harlem Old and New, and Jewish Harlem; $25 each. Information: www.harlemmtmorris.org or (212) 369-4241.
Shopping outlets on the boulevard include Harlemade, at No. 174, which sells gifts, T-shirts and books, including the 38-page "Touring Historic Harlem: A Guide to Historic Architecture," $12. Xukuma, at No. 183, sells contemporary housewares. Nearby at the Brownstone, 2032 Fifth Avenue (125th Street), boutiques offer jewelry, clothing, furniture and housewares.
Light meals, Italian bread and pastries are available at Settepani, in an 1887 Queen Anne-style row house at 196 Malcolm X Boulevard. Native, a French-Moroccan-Caribbean restaurant, is at No. 161, and at No. 308 is Bayou, a Creole restaurant that Bill Clinton has patronized. Downstairs from Bayou is Slice of Harlem pizzeria.
Mount Olivet Baptist Church, at 120th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, was built in 1906 as the neo-Roman Temple Israel of Harlem. The Turning Heads Beauty Salon and Day Spa, at 218 Malcolm X, is in a town house designed in 1888 by de Meuron & Smith.
The Lenox Lounge, at No. 288, is a restored Art Deco jazz club that opens at noon and serves lunch and dinner. Live music is offered at 9 and 10:45 p.m. and at 12:30 a.m. And the Studio Museum in Harlem, at 114 West 125th Street, has a show of Cara Walker silhouettes running through Sept. 28.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
"The minute you look down a street and see a Dumpster, you know that's hope."
It would be hard to take that quote seriously from anyone other than Maya Angelou.
February 2, 2004
Stress of Harlem's Rebirth Shows in School's Move to a New Building
By ALAN FEUER
To get a sense of the mixed emotions swirling around the building boom in Harlem, consider the Thurgood Marshall Academy, which is to move this morning to its new home at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 135th Street.
The public school - the first to be built in Harlem in 50 years - has been praised by local residents who marvel at its spacious greenhouse, its wireless classrooms, its library stocked with 20,000 books.
But creating a new home for the school, which is moving from 135th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, has also drawn the criticism of local preservationists who complain that it and a pancake house would be taking over the spot long occupied by a famous Harlem nightclub. In addition, a neighbor's lawsuit maintains that poor construction put a six-foot sinkhole in her basement and destroyed her pipes.
The second renaissance of Harlem has arrived, but it has arrived in a vortex of money, opportunity, new hopes and old resentments. Even as developers have brought in Starbucks, Disney and the Body Shop, not to mention scores of beautifully refurbished brownstones, many residents have cried foul play.
Perhaps no group has felt this shifting tide of anger and excitement more keenly than the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which built the school in partnership with New York City. As the development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which has served the poor in Harlem for 195 years, the corporation has been forced to walk a fine line between bringing economic growth to the community and remaining true to its community roots.
It has not always been easy. Abyssinian has struggled to create a balance between working successfully with big developers like Forest City Ratner while keeping an ear open to local residents who complain of changes in the quality of their life, like rats invading their block.
"People recognize that because we span both worlds, it's exactly why you want to deal with us," said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor at Abyssinian. "People in the community are intelligent. They want you to deal with people who have the large dollars. They just don't want you to sell them out."
Harlem, particularly central Harlem, has changed almost as fast as Clark Kent changed into Superman. It is virtually impossible to spend five minutes in the area generally bounded by 110th and 155th Streets and Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues without seeing a for-sale sign or construction van. While the boom has made it possible to sip your mocha latte on 125th Street, it has also chased an untold number of the poor and the not-so-poor from the area. Average rents in central Harlem have increased 45 percent in the last two years, some experts say, and the vacancy rate of 3 percent is the lowest in recent history.
The Thurgood Marshall Academy is just the latest project for the development corporation, which has grown as quickly as the neighborhood's real-estate market. Founded in 1989, the development corporation started with a $50,000 grant and a staff of one. It now has a $6.6 million budget and employs more than 60 full-time workers.
Its projects have ranged from the corporate to the communal. It has worked with Forest City Ratner to build the Harlem Center, an $85 million shopping mall on 125th Street with tenants including H&M, Marshalls, CVS and Staples. It has helped to bring a 53,000-square-foot Pathmark to the neighborhood. It has also built millions of dollars worth of housing for the homeless, the elderly and low- to middle-income families.
As Abyssinian has grown, however, so too has the volume of complaints against it. Jeanne Littlejohn, an artist and church parishioner who lives next door to the academy, has sued the corporation in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, saying that construction of the school has ruined her apartment.
"I'm at odds with my own church," said Ms. Littlejohn, who added that Dr. Butts had baptized her. "The church has been a salvation in our community with civil rights and everything, but this is politics and business."
The corporation has also taken heat from Harlem preservationists like Michael Henry Adams who have lambasted it for building the school in tandem with an International House of Pancakes in the building that Smalls' Paradise, the famous nightclub, once occupied. "Cultural genocide," Mr. Adams has called the loss of any trace of the club.
Beyond these complaints, there are broader concerns among local tenant groups who say they worry that as community developers like Abyssinian get larger, they will forget the people they were originally meant to serve. As a testament to Abyssinian's reputation, no group mentioned the church by name. Still, the message was clear.
"Some community groups have lost their focus," said James Lewis, chairman of Harlem Operation Take Back, an advocacy group for Harlem tenants. "If you want to branch out into business and moderate-income housing, that's cool. But don't forget about the people."
Sheena Wright, the president and chief executive officer of the development corporation, says she could not possibly forget about the people. She spends a good portion of every day working on community projects like the corporation's Head Start program - named one of the best in New York State in 2002 - and its homeless shelter, which houses up to 25 families at any given time.
Her development corporation was also asked in recent weeks to join a citywide campaign to pressure government officials into building more affordable housing. Representatives from the corporation, she said, regularly attend meetings of their local community board, which has asked the group to help create a neighborhood plan for early-childhood education.
If Ms. Wright is somewhat shocked when she hears complaints about Abyssinian, she understands what causes them. Harlem is changing. Abyssinian is taking part in that change. There is great fear in the neighborhood. People are worried that they might be left behind.
"There's a sense that the people who fought the fight for 50 years in Harlem, that their contributions aren't being recognized," Ms. Wright said. "There are people who stayed the course in this neighborhood, who made the contributions, who bled, and some of them are falling through the cracks."
"That's a tragedy," she said.
Abyssinian has powerful political friends - among them C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, and Randy A. Daniels, New York's secretary of state, both of whom are members of the church - and that fact has added to the sense that the development corporation has swung too far toward politics and business.
Even local politicians who have spoken out against gentrification in the neighborhood have rallied to the corporation's side. "It may look like they are selling out, but I maintain they have not at all," State Senator David A. Paterson said. "Sometimes they act like a church, sometimes like a corporation. For the most part, I have been pleased with the way they have tried to structure decent and affordable housing. Actually, if we had more of them, there'd be greater opportunities to create moderate-income-level housing."
In the face of criticism, Ms. Wright remains an unabashed booster of development in Harlem. If Abyssinian refurbishes brownstones to sell to people in the neighborhoods, that's good, she says. If it renovates the old Renaissance Ballroom for the Classical Theater of Harlem or the Harlem School of the Arts and then builds apartments atop the structure, well, that's good too.
"It's all about wealth creation in the community," Ms. Wright said. "It's all about access to capital."
She said, for instance, that only 6 percent of the residents of central Harlem own their own homes. "If you own your home, then you can send your kids to school, you can open a business. The wealth in this community does not exist nearly to the level that it could - and should."
Her vision of development reflects a broader vision of black neighborhoods like Harlem throughout New York. The central struggle was once the fight for civil rights, she said. Now it is the fight for economic parity. From activism to equity, that is the progression.
Ms. Wright embodies this progression in her own biography. She is the daughter of Debra Fraser-Howe, the founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and was steeped at birth in the civil rights movement. She grew up in the housing projects of the South Bronx, went to Columbia University at age 16, then on to Columbia Law School. She worked at the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, then for a smaller firm specializing in private equity investment.
She took over the Abyssinian Development Corporation in July 2002. Now her face graces the cover of the Winter 2003 edition of Harlem World magazine. "The Right Person at the Right Time," the headline says.
"When you talk about preservation and gentrification in Harlem, you're not just talking about bricks and mortars," she said. "You're talking about character, people, culture.
"Still," she added, "there's sometimes a balancing act - and it's hard - between doing what's best and doing what's right."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The Small's Paradise episode was a topic of discussion when we discussed gentrification in the Introduction to Sociology class I took at NYU in 2002. Adams and other community activists rallied outside the ABC during Dr. Butts's announcement of the project, shouting among other things "save Harlem from pancakes!". The major point of contention wasn't the new school, but that the pancake restaurant is an IHOP franchise and that Small's Paradise was demolished as part of the project, though the new building's design is somewhat reminiscent of the old theater.
November 16, 2003
STREETSCAPES | HARLEM
Patient Restoration on a Harlem Brownstone Block
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Michael T. Johnson, left, and Michael de V. Roberts at their Fifth Avenue brownstone, whose renovation is nearing completion.
DRIVERS caught in southbound traffic on Fifth Avenue as it reaches Mount Morris Park in Harlem are usually so eager to proceed that they rarely glance at the row of 19th-century brownstones that line the block from 125th to 124th Street. But over the last two decades, as prices have risen, some owners have remade at least part of that stretch of what had become shabby rooming houses. Now, two decades after it began on a small scale, the total renovation of one house is almost complete.
The houses on the east side of Fifth from 124th to 125th were built together, designed in 1878 by David and John Jardine for the developer Charles Wellde. The homes are fairly ordinary, except for unusual dark colonettes set into many window enframements, an elaborate detail for what otherwise was mass production architecture.
The essentially ordinary brownstones on the west side of the avenue were built over two decades, the youngest the 1882 houses at the north end of the block and the earliest Nos. 2004-8, put up in 1869 by the developer Christian Brand, who apparently was his own architect. Brand was an active developer in post-Civil War Harlem. In 1866, he served on a committee of five that sponsored a mass protest against a plan to run a locomotive line across 125th Street to carry livestock. Their effort was apparently successful.
Brand sold the buildings to professionals and businessmen, including Joseph Brown, a lawyer, who bought No. 2004 in 1872; Brown had been living on 127th Street near Second Avenue.
Soon, 125th Street became increasingly commercialized. A trolley line was added, and the growth began to jeopardize the block's prestige. In 1888, the Jardines rebuilt 2013 Fifth Avenue as an apartment house, with the name Marcella — no record could be found on why that name was used — neatly carved in a shield over a large Romanesque arch cut into the ground floor. The New York Times carried an ad for the building's "elegantly decorated flats, to let at extremely low prices for the locality," suggesting that the block's heyday was at an end.
By the 1920's, most of the buildings were run as rooming or boarding houses. In 1946, The Times noted that 2002 Fifth Avenue — today a vacant hulk — "has been used as a bus terminal for many years."
Beginning in the early 1990's, passersby began to notice that broken window panes were beginning to disappear, the accumulation of trash was receding and the sagging character of the block was starting to change. In 1997, Jane Alex Mendelson bought No. 2005 and converted it to a bed-and-breakfast, the Urban Jem Guest House. Three years ago, Dorothy Pittman Hughes, a feminist author, sold her house at No. 2007 Fifth to the rapper DMX for $725,000.
But before them — before almost anyone else on the block — came Michael de V. Roberts and Michael T. Johnson, who are finishing a total renovation of No. 2006. Both immediately recall their closing date in 1982. Mr. Johnson says they had looked at houses on the Upper West Side, "but once you went inside they were stripped — here, I fell in love with the detail."
Dr. Roberts, who was born in England and trained as a theoretical physicist, was working for I.B.M., and Mr. Johnson was just switching from a career in costume design to investing. Mr. Johnson is now chairman of the Greater Harlem Real Estate Board, an association of owners.
At first they had only one and a half floors for themselves, and 14 tenants — "including one with a big carving knife," Dr. Roberts recalls. The front doors, interior woodwork, stairway and fireplaces had survived practically intact from what appears to have been a major redecoration in the early 1880's that added high-style pier mirrors and elaborate overmantel woodwork.
They made only modest changes to the building until 1997, when they got full possession. "We waited for the tenants to leave over the years," Dr. Roberts says. Then they began a major renovation, starting with wiring and plumbing.
A tour through their house finds a mix of original and new, and plenty of in-between. The imposing exterior oak doors of the 1860's design — with giant projecting medallions the size of soccer balls — have been stripped and refinished. Most of the marble mantels survive, as does the thick, sinuous baluster railing, which rises up the stair hall like an escaping python.
IN several areas, especially where they have temporarily removed woodwork from the 1880's, the original wall coverings of the 1860's survive, a mixed assortment of floral, anthemion and other designs. The original octagonal newel post, at the base of the stairway, is faceted with panels of burled inlay and bears no trace of the rough usage it must have seen.
Traces of the 1880's renovation are hard to miss — tall wooden casings for pier mirrors and fireplace decorations that temporarily sit on the parlor floor, propped up against the walls and construction debris.
The rooming-house history of the building is also documented — several thick 1860's doors have openings crudely chiseled through for peepholes, and on the upper floors some individual rooms have metal plaques that declare, "Not more than two adults may sleep in this room."
Although the owners are clearly restoration minded, the changes they have made are apparent. The rear room in the basement is awash in stainless steel kitchen equipment, and most of the backyard is taken up by an expansive goldfish pond. They have brought in a wide assortment of vintage light fixtures: one in an upper room has multiple, flowing arms with shades that look like scoops made from peacock feathers, covered in opalescent glass.
"We're always upset when we go around to other houses with a horrible mismatch between the furnishings and the architecture," Dr. Roberts says, sitting in the front basement room at an 1880's walnut dining table, checking for a phone number on his Palm Pilot.
In the rear of the parlor floor they have had the artist Charles Foster Hall execute a brightly colored four-part ceiling painting with mythological themes, including a very lascivious-looking Leda and swan; Castor and Pollux; the expulsion of Vulcan from Heaven; and Achilles with a shield.
Dr. Roberts says he has no idea what the final cost of the renovation will be. "This has been done without concern for budget," he says.
He says he hopes to "die happily in the front bedroom" someday, and that his only regret is that their 1860's house does not have the stairwell niches often found in older houses. These are usually considered "coffin corners," created so a body could be taken down the stairs in a coffin.
Instead, he says with amused resignation, "I'll go out in a body bag."
November 20, 2003
For Harlem Homebuyers, Prices Head North
By MOTOKO RICH
TALK about having their work cut out for them. Richard Parnell Habersham II, a real estate agent with the Corcoran Group, and his colleague, Nancy Love, are charged with selling a town house in Harlem for $2.2 million.
In a market where most homes sell for less than $1 million, "we sometimes cringe and say, 'Oh my God, $2.2 million is going to be a hard sell,' " said Mr. Habersham, sitting in the meticulously restored living room of the four-story, eight-bedroom house, which one of the owners, Nicholas Bunning, an architect, renovated at a cost of more than $550,000. "But for the right buyer it is going to be worth every penny."
Harlem, which has been undergoing a nouveau Renaissance, has breached an important real estate threshold: several town houses on the market have asking prices that top $2 million. Although there are no comprehensive figures on sales or listings in Harlem, a real estate data firm, Comps Inc., said that between January 2002 and September 2003, the highest selling price it found for a house in Harlem was $999,000.
Three blocks away from Mr. Bunning's house, in the historic Hamilton Heights neighborhood, another town house carries a $2.95 million price tag — the highest ever asked for a home in Harlem, brokers said.
A four-story town house built in 1889, it still has virtually all of its period details, said the owner, Richard Dudley, who is a psychiatrist. They include six fireplaces, pocket doors and hardwood floors. Pointing to the original intricate cherry-wood latticework above the door between the foyer and the living room, he added, "It is clear that people buy these houses and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make them look like this."
Willie Kathryn Suggs, a Harlem-based broker, sold a five-story duplex, which she described as "done to death," in the Mount Morris Park neighborhood for $2.005 million in August 2002. But she questioned the pricing of other houses above that mark.
"I call it aggressive marketing," Ms. Suggs said, adding that $2 million listings can scare away buyers at a time when four-story houses in Harlem, albeit needing some work, can be had for $499,000.
Lawrence Comroe, another agent with the Corcoran Group, said average sales prices are irrelevant when it comes to "one of a kind" properties like Dr. Dudley's. If the house, with 4,620 square feet, were on the Upper East Side, it would be a bargain at $2.95 million, real estate agents point out.
That said, the house is not without opportunities for upgrading. The master bathroom tub has cracked enamel and weathered grouting. The his-and-her sinks in an adjacent dressing room bear the original floral print in faded pinks and greens. The basement, where Dr. Dudley stores his patient files, has an old kitchen and an aging whirlpool tub.
Mr. Bunning, the architect who renovated the house three blocks away, bought his house for $475,000 nearly four years ago. The windows were filmed with mold, and the wood fireplaces, painted white, were stained by smoke from crack pipes.
Today, the house is gleaming, with hardwood floors — some original, some reproductions — two new terraces with wrought-iron gates, Italian limestone kitchen counters and networked electronics throughout.
Despite these amenities, "we believe that the person who is going to buy this house is someone who wants to live in Harlem," said Mr. Habersham, the sales agent. Potential buyers are not likely to include those who demand a Starbucks and a Citarella.
Spencer Means, an agent with Corcoran, who expects to close soon on the sale of a $1.2 million town house in Harlem, said that $2 million was a psychological barrier that may be hard to crack. "If you want to spend $2 million you might as well be on 85th Street spending $3 million to be in a better, more service-oriented neighborhood," he said.
But Ms. Love, who with Mr. Habersham is showing Mr. Bunning's house just a block from the 145th Street A-train stop (by appointment only), said that she believed it would attract a buyer who "for some reason or another, ends up in Harlem and says, `Oh my gosh, there is a 2/3 train, there is an A' " and decides the house is a bargain.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
February 13, 2004
ARCHITECTURE REVIEW | 'HARLEMWORLD'
Metaphors Rise in Harlem Sky
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
"Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor," the new architecture show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, cannot be recommended for those who are keen to avoid the topic of identity politics and their role in cultural enterprise. But then, neither can New York.
Organized by Thelma Golden, the museum's deputy director, the show presents the work of 18 architects in a group analysis of Harlem's unstable identity in changing times. To judge from the results, the identity is anxious at present. Property values are on the rise in Harlem. Outside investors are moving in. Housing stock is being gentrified. A trend that some business leaders may see as good news is viewed as a threat by the community directly affected by it.
For Harlem's architects, that might translate as being trapped between a rock and good times. By tradition the first law of architecture is "get the job." In New York it is debatable whether second and third laws exist. It is rare, in any case, to see a public searching of the architectural soul conducted quite as candidly as we see here. "Harlemworld" aims to be a show of conscience.
A critical context is established at the entrance by a video documentary loop. Made by Emmanuel Pratt and Olalekan B. Jeyifous, the video features brief man-on-the-street interviews with residents about development. Not one of those interviewed has anything positive to say about it. The imbalance of opinion is refreshing. How many other cultural institutions in this once intellectually aggressive town would have the guts to represent truth at the expense of television-style fairness?
The age of irony hasn't ended in Harlem, it would appear. Several of the show's projects focus on the collision between the new signs of upscale living and Harlem's conventional associations with the urban underclass. The most mordant of these is a full-scale sales office for "Reparation Tower, Harlem," a luxury high-rise designed in the form of an upraised fist.
A straight-faced parody by Ronald Norsworthy, the project entices potential buyers with the familiar upscale images. "History. Destiny. Luxury," reads the tower's motto. "Reparation Tower, Harlem sets a new standard for luxury living in New York and is matched only by opulent shopping and cultural landmarks just steps away."
Architecturally the tower is a theme park throwback to 18th-century architecture parlance: a symbol of defiance aimed at indifference. But the symbol is handsomely fitted with interiors that signify bourgeois complacency. And the views from within must be fabulous.
In fact, fabulousness, ostensibly a more egalitarian form of identity than luxury, is the explicit theme of one project. "Harlem: The Ghetto Fabulous," by Nathaniel Belcher and Stephen Slaughter, tries to humanize the modern buildings of 20th-century urban renewal without erasing their history.
One feature of the project envisions rolling lawns planted atop high-rise housing, for example. The design recalls successful experiments in retrofitting carried out by Christian de Portzamparc on bleak buildings of the same period in Paris.
In "House for Josephine Baker (Parody Series)," Darell Wayne Fields proposes Harlem as an urban factory for the production of blackness, whatever that might be. Here blackness takes the form of dissecting Adolf Loos's unbuilt 1929 design of a house for this great entertainer whose dancing revolutionized the world of Paris fashion.
Using a model for structural analysis developed by the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the project parodies academic efforts to link defined spatial forms to the complexities of cultural difference. Such efforts may actually be exploitational, the project suggests, a high-brow version of using black models in commercial advertising.
For the most part, however, "Harlemworld" consists of conceptual projects, not plans for direct intervention in the city's material fabric. "Metropolis as Metaphor," the show's subtitle, establishes the theoretical orientation. It is sometimes objected that conceptual work shirks the architect's responsibility to the real world. The truth is that a show like this describes the extent to which the real world has already changed in the eyes of its designers. The show would be valuable even if it did no more than hold the perceptual ground.
Too, "Harlemworld" reveals that architecture has become an effective medium for educating the public about the ideologies encoded in urban forms. Some time ago the architect Diana Agrest described the city as the subconscious of architecture. In this show the situation is reversed. Architecture has become the practice of exposing the emotional content and above all the energy beneath the well-dressed urban facade.
In "Visuals of a Harlem Brand," Shawn Rickenbacker manipulates facades into declaring the marketing of Harlem as a producer of violent images. "Introducing the Fall 2004 Line of Black Culture," declares Mr. Rickenbacker's design for a billboard. Hip-hop, wildin', graffiti: such images of inner-city menace have become valuable commodities in the globalized marketplace of hot brands.
"There is no inevitability so long as there is willingness to contemplate what is happening," the media guru Marshall McLuhan once pronounced. The problem with architecture is that it is often a means of dissuading people from looking at what is going on. Projects by Olalekan B. Jeyifous, Todd Palmer, Emmanuel Pratt and Zevilla Jackson Preston present serious, penetrating analyses of Harlem's complex social and visual texture.
To a degree, these architects reverse the typical developer's ploy of contrasting a Bleak Before (urban blight) with a Happily Ever After (cityscapes sanitized of all sense of place). In works that demonstrate the enduring influence of the critic Jane Jacobs, they propose historical awareness as the most vital piece of equipment in an architect's studio.
A vast megaphone flares out from the corner of one gallery, the work of a team led by Coleman A. Jordan. Entitled "Harlem Speak: Streetsigns & Soapboxes," the speaking device is a reprise of a concept presented 20 years ago by Laurie Hawkinson, John Malpede and Erika Rothenberg. Clearly, the desire to be heard does not go out of style. Mr. Jordan roots his version in the lapsed tradition of soapbox speakers who once animated Harlem street corners.
The technological enhancement of voices is the subject of Gordon Kipping's "Harlem Mediatech." Using vacant and abandoned lots, Mr. Kipping proposes a decentralized information bank spread out across Harlem as if the neighborhood were an exploded campus for learning.
The concept recalls the work of the London architect Cedric Price in its educational slant, its emphasis on access and its transformation of disconnected, underutilized resources into organized social systems.
"Harlemworld" offers a multiplicity of voices, speaking in a broad range of media. In addition to conventional models, drawings and renderings, the architects use maps, videos, street signs, photographs, collages and above all written texts. Architecture is now a hybrid, mongrel medium.
This is perhaps the most important point the show has to make. Its expressive possibilities are limited only by the individual talents of those who choose to operate in the field. It's up to them to improvise the laws of architecture as they go along.
But if "Harlemworld" has a poetic heart, it is found in Leyden Ynobe Lewis's project, "Drawing Closer Making Home." A composite work, it consists of a drawing applied directly to the gallery wall and a video of Mr. Lewis executing it. Brain, hand, body, surface, pencil, eye, memory: such a reduction to basics stands out in a show that pops with visual sensation. Here is the practice of architecture, honest and unadorned.
"Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor" is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, (212) 864-4500, through April 4.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
January 22, 2006
By KEVIN BAKER
THE first thing you notice about Harlem is how wide the sky is. For a longtime New Yorker, so accustomed to being blinkered by ever more towers, the views along Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards are almost giddying. To the south, it feels as if you can see the rest of Manhattan below you, or at least down to the skyscrapers of Midtown, set like so many pickets against the horizon. Those structures offer a different tone poem every day, depending on the weather and the time of year; spectacular beneath the gaudy sunset of a summer evening, moody and contemplative on a drizzly winter afternoon.
The view is one of the few strands that tie the Harlem of today to what it was 60 years ago, and it is very welcome. When writing about the city as it was, one searches for any visual clue, however fleeting, to what people were seeing, feeling and hearing back then as they went about their daily lives.
Such moments are not easily forthcoming. New York is a wastrel with its past, shucking its skin like some giant snake as it slithers relentlessly into the future. Some of this is inevitable, of course, if a city is not to become a mausoleum, and the past is not something to be idealized. And yet it is easy to wish that what existed before had not been eradicated quite so quickly, or so thoroughly. That is certainly the case with the Harlem of the 1940's.
This nostalgia is ironic, because Harlem is a fluke. Those grand avenues give away what the neighborhood was intended to be, a hundred years ago: a wealthy, white suburb for the city growing explosively just to the south. But because of a combination of overspeculation, racism and pure chance, Harlem became something very different, the capital of black America, the locus of countless dreams - and a prison of sorts.
The swampy village that was Harlem had been intended as a home for the white elite, who had been retreating up Manhattan before one immigrant wave after another for most of the 19th century. Moving up the island almost simultaneously were New York's African-Americans, living together as a segregated community since the terrible lynchings of the Civil War draft riots. They were pushed on from one neighborhood to the next by assaults from the police, and by the same, white ethnic hordes that so frightened the nobs.
Deprived of their anticipated upper class, the landlords of Harlem turned to black tenants, knowing they could be charged double the standard rents for working-class New Yorkers because they had no place else to go. The result was New York's first real ghetto.
The word, ghetto, has come to be used almost interchangeably with slum, but it means something else. Where a slum implies simply poverty, a ghetto is a place where everyone, from all walks of life, rich or poor, is relegated by virtue of race or religion. By the 1920's, the convergence of blacks from every walk of life and region had brought about the Harlem Renaissance, the first great concentrated flowering of black culture in America. The Depression was hard on Harlem, and it ended the renaissance. Yet by 1943 Harlem was enjoying an edgy resurgence, infused with the new money generated by the war.
THIS was the last moment when Harlem was still a destination, an irresistible attraction for black and white servicemen alike who were on leave. Both the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X, were walking those broad avenues then, and they would scarcely recognize the Harlem of today.
Like the rest of Manhattan, it is an almost sedate place now. Much of the exuberant street life is gone, the vendors no longer hawking everything from ice to coal to sweet potatoes, with songs made up and sung to tunes from the hit parade. There are no more numbers runners, catching the nickels that slipped like quicksilver through the fire escape slits above; no more "Thursday girls," who strode out for a night on the town from beauty shops that were filled with smoke from the various, frightening hair-straightening processes of the day.
The Harlem of World War II was a vibrant place, a place well-honed by both disappointment and hope, where the music was harder and better than ever, where some of the best musicians who ever were competed against each other in midnight parties to raise rent money for the host. The music was best there, in those overcrowded, ordinary apartments, played by men who would never leave their best stuff in the downtown clubs.
Physically, most of Harlem is still built on a very human scale, and still has one of the city's largest collections of brownstones. Some of the old institutions remain from that time as well: the magnificently ponderous Y.M.C.A. on 135th Street, where Malcolm and so many other eager newcomers lived, and the stately Hotel Theresa, where more celebrated visitors stayed, from Joe Louis to Fidel Castro.
Yet the Harlem night scene has almost vanished, gone the way of the city's other fantastic entertainment districts, from the Latin Quarter to the old Coney Island to the German beer gardens that once lined the Bowery. The enormous dance halls, where the big bands played and jitterbugging came into its own, are long gone. The Cotton Club moved to Midtown before the 30's were out, and the fabulous Savoy Ballroom - "the home of happy feet," with its battles of the bands and its 250-foot-long dance floor - has been replaced by a housing project and a few stores.
The only physical remnant of the great halls is the gorgeous ruin of the Renaissance Casino, a hall that was big enough to hold one of New York's first great basketball teams, the New York Rens. It still runs the length of a city block on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and is somehow still majestic despite the layers of grime on its red-brick facade, the trees growing out of its roof, and its rusting marquees, one of them incongruously advertising "Chow Mein."
The great clubs are gone, too. Connie's Inn, where Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller played, has been replaced by something that looks like a garage. Small's Paradise, which had the best floor shows and, some say, the only working air-conditioning in Harlem, and where Malcolm met all the hustlers and pimps and burglars he would write about so lovingly in his autobiography, has now been subsumed by a school and an International House of Pancakes.
The old live theaters and the great movie palaces, the Lafayette, the Alhambra and the Victoria, have been plowed under as well, or changed beyond recognition. The Regent, considered the first truly "deluxe" movie theater in Manhattan, has long since been converted into a church.
Gone, too, are the less respectable establishments. The stretch of 133rd Street between Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards was then known as Beale Street or Jungle Alley; this block of raucous clubs and after-hours bars was described rather melodramatically at the time as a place where "a knife blade is the quick arbiter of all quarrels, where prostitutes take anything they can get." Now it is a quiet block full of brownstone churches, and workmen rehabilitating brick town houses. West 144th Street, where a teenage Malcolm once worked as a "john-walker," escorting white tricks up to see black prostitutes, seems even more somnolent.
About all that remains of Harlem, the entertainment mecca, is the elegant Apollo. One can still stand on 126th Street and study the long, fire escape staircases on its back, wondering which one might have been used as a separate entrance for black patrons, confined to an upper gallery when the building was still the segregated Hurtig & Seamon's theater.
To the west of the Apollo stood the old Braddock Hotel, now demolished. For a while, it was the place leading black entertainers would stay, and in the 40's the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday could still be found in its bar - close enough so they could step over from the stage door of the Apollo for a quick drink. But by World War II, the hotel itself had become seedy. The race riot of 1943, the worst in Harlem's history, which would leave six people dead and the neighborhood ravaged, would begin there when a black serviceman was shot by a white cop in a fight that started over a complaint about a room.
Across 125th Street from the Apollo is the site of other battles. The old Kress's department store, where an earlier, more contained race riot began in 1935 after the false rumor that a shoplifter had been killed by store detectives, has been altered irretrievably. But the facade and name of a defunct department store just down the street, Blumstein's, is still in place. This was among the last great bastions of segregation in Harlem; the store had refused to hire black employees or even to allow black women to try on dresses. It was finally conquered by the "don't shop where you can't work" campaigns of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Those initiatives were a dramatic first step for Mr. Powell, who, while still holding the pulpit he had inherited from his father at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, went on to become the city's first black councilman, then its first black congressman. It was not surprising that the first black man to represent Harlem in Congress was a clergyman; no part of the old Harlem has survived as intact as its many, splendid churches. They stand like fortresses along its streets, as many of them have for the last 80 or even 90 years: the Abyssinian and St. Philip's, Salem Methodist and Mount Olivet, Mount Calvary and St. Mark's, to name only a few.
The great churches have never been the be-all and end-all of religion in Harlem; the area has many humble storefront churches, and many cultists and revivalists. But the big churches played a special role. These were the "invisible institution" made manifest - the term dating to the days of slavery, referring to how black believers had often had to hide their services.
Over the decades these entities, some of them dating to Lower Manhattan in the late 1700's, had been painfully brought to life. They had been kept together as their communicants moved up the West Side of Manhattan, transferred to private homes, abandoned buildings, even old stables. Critics argued that these great structures were too heavy a burden on the community, but to finally establish large, impressive churches was to make a statement, to say that Harlem was where they would make a stand.
Mr. Powell, a determined democratizer, relentlessly mocked his fellow clerics, accusing them of hypocrisy and "churchianity," and ridiculing all pretensions on the basis of income, or background, or skin tone. His needling fell largely on deaf ears. Distinctions are always made within the ghetto, lighter skin vs. darker skin; old New Yorkers vs. Southern migrants vs. proud immigrants from the British West Indies.
And of course, there was money. Wealthy Harlemites gathered together in specific areas - on Sugar Hill, in the Dunbar Apartments, or on Strivers Row - as the rich always have. But in the ghetto these enclaves were more heterogeneous and interesting than they were in New York's white neighborhoods. On Strivers Row alone, there lived at various times the composers W. C. Handy and Eubie Blake; Dr. Louis T. Wright, a prominent surgeon; Henry Pace, the founder of Black Swan Records; the fine heavyweight Harry Wills; the comedian Stepin Fetchit - and Mr. Powell himself.
NO neighborhood better exemplifies both the triumph and the frustration of Harlem than Strivers Row, on 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. On its two blocks, lovely, ethereal yellow- and rust-brick Italianate town houses seem to almost float above the branches of the slender trees along the sidewalk.
Originally called the King Model Houses, they were designed by Stanford White and several other leading New York architects of the 1890's. One can still find gates on some of them with the ancient imprecation "Walk Your Horses," directed at the sports who liked to race their horses along the broad avenues. There are even back alleys, providing residents with those luxuries so rare in Manhattan, house decks and garages.
Yet Strivers Row was designed for white people. When not enough of them would stay, refusing to live in an increasingly black Harlem, the Equitable Life Insurance Company kept the buildings vacant for a year before finally giving in, and allowing African-Americans to buy them. Even in Harlem, black people had to be insulted before their money was accepted.
One other extant building tells the story of the Harlem of the 40's, and what lay in store for it: the vast Art Deco armory on 142nd Street. The armory was built for the 369th Regiment, the "Harlem Hellfighters," after their return from World War I. Forced to fight with French troops, the Hellfighters had distinguished themselves, serving longer in continuous combat than any other American fighting unit, and they had marched back up Fifth Avenue in triumph with their band breaking into "Here Comes My Daddy Now" as they crossed into Harlem.
But for World War II, most of the 369th was trained in the Deep South, under white officers, along with tens of thousands of other black soldiers. Throughout the war, the people of Harlem had been receiving letters from their young men telling of how shabbily they were being treated, both by their white commanders and by the sheriffs and the police of Southern towns.
The letters, combined with news reports of white police officers and white mobs assaulting and even killing black soldiers and black defense workers around the country, brought people of all classes in Harlem together by the summer of 1943. James Baldwin would remember seeing "the strangest combinations" of people, standing about in tense, silent groups, churchgoers and "the most flagrant disbelievers."
"Something heavy in their stance seemed to indicate that they had all, incredibly, seen a common vision," he wrote, "and on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow."
ALL that summer, the conflagration crept palpably closer, with every precaution taken against it only more enraging than the last. Military authorities had the Savoy closed, ostensibly to preserve the morals of our fighting men but mostly to prevent "racemixing," and motorcycle police patrols roared constantly through the streets, looking out for trouble. When the riot did come, with the shooting at the Braddock Hotel, Harlem would be permanently altered. Ultimately, the fury behind it would leave standing only a few suggestions of what had gone before, peeking out here and there.
This largely vanished Harlem may be most readily understood from the inside, looking out at those broad views of the looming city and its sentinel skyscrapers. So accessible and yet so unobtainable, still spurning those it had so arbitrarily driven out. To have looked upon that city every day, to understand the hatred and bigotry it represented even if you had no desire to join with it, must have been all but unbearable.
Kevin Baker is the author of the novel "Strivers Row," set in Harlem in the 1940's, to be published next month by HarperCollins.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
January 6, 2010
No Longer Majority Black, Harlem Is in Transition
By SAM ROBERTS
For nearly a century, Harlem has been synonymous with black urban America. Given its magnetic and growing appeal to younger black professionals and its historic residential enclaves and cultural institutions, the neighborhood’s reputation as the capital of black America seems unlikely to change soon.
But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.
By 2008, their share had declined to 4 in 10 residents. Since 2000, central Harlem’s population has grown more than in any other decade since the 1940s, to 126,000 from 109,000, but its black population — about 77,000 in central Harlem and about twice that in greater Harlem — is smaller than at any time since the 1920s.
In 2008, 22 percent of the white households in Harlem had moved to their present homes within the previous year. By comparison, only 7 percent of the black households had.
“It was a combination of location and affordability,” said Laura Murray, a 31-year-old graduate student in medical anthropology at Columbia, who moved to Sugar Hill near City College about a year ago. “I feel a community here that I don’t feel in other parts of the city.”
Change has been even more pronounced in the narrow north-south corridor defined as central Harlem, which planners roughly define as north of 110th Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues.
There, blacks account for 6 in 10 residents, but native-born African-Americans born in the United States make up barely half of all residents. Since 2000, the proportion of whites living there has more than doubled, to more than one in 10 residents — the highest since the 1940s. The Hispanic population, which was concentrated in East Harlem, is now at an all-time high in central Harlem, up 27 percent since 2000.
Harlem, said Michael Henry Adams, a historian of the neighborhood and a local resident, “is poised again at a point of pivotal transition.”
Harlem is hardly the only ethnic neighborhood to have metamorphosed because of inroads by housing pioneers seeking bargains and more space — Little Italy, for instance, has been largely gobbled up by immigrants expanding the boundaries of Chinatown and by creeping gentrification from SoHo. But Harlem has evolved uniquely.
Because so much of the community was devastated by demolition for urban renewal, arson and abandonment beginning in the 1960s, many newcomers have not so much dislodged existing residents as succeeded them. In the 1970s alone, the black population of central Harlem declined by more than 30 percent.
“This place was vacated,” said Howard Dodson, director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “Gentrification is about displacement.”
Meanwhile, the influx of non-Hispanic whites has escalated. The 1990 census counted only 672 whites in central Harlem. By 2000, there were 2,200. The latest count, in 2008, recorded nearly 13,800.
“There’s a lot of new housing to allow people to come into the area without displacing people there,” said Joshua S. Bauchner, who moved to a Harlem town house in 2007 and is the only white member of Community Board 10 in central Harlem. “In Manhattan, there are only so many directions you can go. North to Harlem is one of the last options.”
In 1910, blacks constituted about 10 percent of central Harlem’s population. By 1930, the beginnings of the great migration from the South and the influx from downtown Manhattan neighborhoods where blacks were feeling less welcome transformed them into a 70 percent majority. Their share of the population (98 percent) and total numbers (233,000) peaked in 1950.
In 2008, according to the census, the 77,000 blacks in central Harlem amounted to 62 percent of the population.
In greater Harlem, the black population peaked at 341,000 in 1950. The black share hit a high of 64 percent in 1970. In 2008, the comparable figures were 153,000 and 41 percent, respectively.
About 15 percent of Harlem’s black population is foreign-born, mostly from the Caribbean, with a growing proportion from Africa.
Some experts say the decline in the black population may be overstated because poorer people are typically undercounted by the census, and Harlem has a disproportionate number of poor people. Others warn that proposed development and higher property values may force poor people out and say that when the city was the neighborhood’s leading landlord it should have increased ownership opportunities for Harlem residents .
“Gentrification — the buying up and rehabilitation of land and buildings, whether by families or developers, occupied or abandoned —means a rising rent tide for all, leading inevitably to displacement next door, down the block, or two streets away,” said Neil Smith, director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Mr. Dodson of the Schomburg Center moved from Riverside Drive to Newark not long ago. He said, “I tell people that I can’t afford to live in Harlem or in New York in the manner I deserve to.”
Other analysts point to the outflow of some blacks and the influx of others as positive evidence that barriers to integration have fallen in other neighborhoods and that Harlem has become a more attractive place to live.
“It’s a mistake to see this only as a story of racial change,” said Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president. “What’s interesting is that many African-Americans are living in Harlem by choice, not necessity.”
Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College, said, “Harlem has become as it was in the early 1930s — a predominantly black neighborhood, but with other groups living there as well.”
Ronald Copney, a former limousine driver, and his two sisters share a brownstone on West 147th Street that his grandmother bought in 1929. He rents two floors to tenants, one of whom is white.
“This was always a very nice neighborhood,” he said. “In a way, it’s better now as far as property values are concerned.”
Geneva Bain, the district manager of Community Board 10, blamed the economy and the lack of jobs, rather than gentrification, for the dwindling number of blacks.
She acknowledged, though, that white newcomers have sometimes been greeted ambivalently. “Integration is very subjective,” Ms. Bain said. “One person’s fellowship is another person’s antagonism. I am one who thinks that central Harlem has become a better place because of integration.”
Mr. Dodson, the Schomburg Center director, said one source of historic resentment remained true: that while blacks made up a majority of the population, they still accounted for a tiny minority of the property owners.
“There are people who would like to maintain Harlem as a ‘black enclave,’ but the only way to do that is to own it,” Mr. Dodson said. “That having been said, you can’t have it both ways: You can’t on the one hand say you oppose being discriminated against by others who prevent you from living where you want to and say out of the other side of your mouth that nobody but black people can live in Harlem.”
“The question of whether it’s a good thing or not,” he added. “I honestly can’t make that judgment yet.”
What it used to be like:
In Sugar Hill, a Street Nurtured Black Talent When the World Wouldn’t
By DAVID GONZALEZ
New York is a city of blocks, each with its own history, customs and characters. Yet from these small stages spring large talents. Anyone who doubts that need look no further than a stretch of Edgecombe Avenue perched on a bluff near 155th Street.
It was part of Sugar Hill, the neighborhood of choice for elegant black musicians, dapper actors, successful professionals — and those who aspired to be like them.
A red-brick tower at 409 Edgecombe was home to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. DuBois and Aaron Douglas, who has been called “the father of black American art.”
A few blocks farther north, the building at 555 Edgecombe burst with musical talent: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lena Horne and others. Right before and after World War II, when discrimination and segregation were commonplace, young people in Sugar Hill saw success stride by on the streets where they played tag and stickball.
The son of a taxi mechanic, Roy Eaton was a childhood piano prodigy who became a trailblazer in advertising. His friends on the block included the artist and writer Faith Ringgold; Cecelia Hodges, a Princeton professor and actress; and Sonny Rollins, the “saxophone Colossus,” who is still touring.
Many of them came from Depression-era families who were short on cash but long on dreams, managing to scrimp for music lessons or art supplies.
And they lived in a community where neighbors and churches offered encouragement amid rampant racial discrimination.
“It was like our place to dream the impossible dream,” Mr. Eaton said. “It gave me a sense of, you might call it entitlement or unlimited possibilities — that nothing could stop me from doing what I felt I could do.”
A few doors down from where Mr. Eaton grew up, Cecelia Hodges reveled in the joys of reading. She had gotten the bug from her parents, West Indian immigrants who moved to Edgecombe Avenue from farther south in Harlem so she could attend better schools. Before she started first grade, her father found out the books she would use and read them with her.
She eventually skipped three grades.
Yet it was at home and in the neighborhood that her education was rounded out. Like her friend Roy, she attended St. James Presbyterian Church, participating in pageants and singing in choirs. It was the kind of church where pride was reaffirmed — the choirs, for example, were named after black composers — and dignity defended.
“These were things that were not emphasized in school,” she said.
“Anything to do with what black people experienced, I got that from church and community groups.”
Her parents took her to the theater and showered her with books, like an 18-volume Dickens set they got from a newspaper promotion. “I was always told I was as fine as anyone else,” she said. “You have to work hard. But you’re able. I never suffered from low self-esteem.”
Sundays were special, and not just because of church.
“Much of my education came on Sunday afternoons in my living room,” she said. “Dad had visitors, and the talk always turned to race, or what they called ‘the plight of the Negro in American society.’ I listened, and I learned about the plight of black folks, and how one had to be to get ahead in this society.”
She went on to get her doctorate in the oral interpretation of literature, combining her love of reading and theater. After years of teaching in public schools, she was tapped in the 1970s for a professorship at Princeton, where she stayed until the late 1980s.
These days, she devotes her talents to one-person shows, some highlighting figures like the pioneers for racial equality Sojourner Truth or Fannie Lou Hamer.
Inside Ms. Hodges’s Princeton home, shelves sag with books from her long teaching career. The walls are festooned with African masks, paintings, and photographs of Malcolm X and President Obama. And in the living room, two chairs, their arms smooth from the decades, occupy a place of honor.
They’re the ones her father and his friends used to sit in during those Sunday debates.
For her, their talk of unity back on Edgecombe Avenue played out in small ways: as a professor, she invited homesick black students to her home for dinner or a chance to mingle with writers like Ishmael Reed.
“It was the unrecognized part of the job,” she said, recalling the thanks those alumni expressed at a reunion a few months ago. “And years later, you realize the effect it had on others.”
Art and Expectations
Next door to Ms. Hodges’s home on Edgecombe, Faith Ringgold, nee Jones, spent her after-school hours drawing and painting, having graduated from her first easel, scavenged by her father on his rounds as a sanitation truck driver.
Her mother, who would become a clothing designer, taught her how to work with fabrics. Decades later, Ms. Ringgold’s painted quilts would be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She remembers arriving on Edgecombe in 1942 to a feeling of community. Her family’s pleasures were modest, with summer nights lazing about tar beach, up on the roof. Doors were kept open, and conversation flowed.
“People knew each other and looked out for each other,” she said.
Among her early friends on the block was Sonny Rollins, whom she remembers fondly as a shy, cute boy always toting his saxophone. He sometimes played in her apartment (though she joked that Mr. Rollins’s mother made him practice in the closet, lest he disturb the neighbors).
“I still remember the day he graduated from high school,” she said. “Sonny was talking about his last day at school and how he was going to pursue his music career full time. Like Roy, he knew right away.”
She had been a sickly child, with asthma keeping her from school. Yet even in her earliest years, she showed a talent for art.
“I had all these creative people living around me,” she said, referring to Duke Ellington and the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers, to name a few. “We all lived together, so it wasn’t a surprise to see these people rolling up in their limos. And that said to us, you can do this, too.”
She stayed in the neighborhood after college, married and began teaching art in public schools. While she had been raised in an era of high expectations, she was dismayed by what she saw as the unthinking prejudice of other teachers.
“They would say: ‘Oh, poor so and so, they can’t do the work. Their mother’s on drugs, or the family’s on welfare,’ ” she said. “That’s a weird sympathy that just drags you down, down, down. Expectations are the key. We were raised to know you could do it. And that’s that.”
The neighborhood captured her visually, too: the thick girders of the George Washington Bridge that she once spied from her roof have figured prominently in more than a few of her story quilts. Even now, living just on the other end of the bridge, she continues to mine her roots for inspiration.
“Sugar Hill gave me such a wealth of images,” she said. “Just the people, the environment, what we did on holidays, tar beach. It just keeps giving. And I keep getting pulled back.”
Literally. She is involved with a project to build a children’s museum on the first floor of a building going up on 155th Street, around the corner from her childhood home. She hopes it will be the kind of place that imparts a touch of creative magic. Like home.
“Children come into the world with an overpowering creativity,” she said.
“Then you get older and you say, you can’t do that. Or other people say you can’t do that. Well, I’m afraid you can.”
‘An Unlimited Horizon’
For Roy Eaton, the childhood wonder of his Edgecombe Avenue days has been like a light guiding him through dark moments and celebrations alike.
His piano career almost didn’t happen. He was slipping a piece of paper under the bathroom door, imitating the men evicting his neighbors in 1933, when it suddenly opened and mangled a finger.
Three years later, when he received the first of many awards, the 6-year-old pianist stood on stage at Carnegie Hall and carefully hid the shortened digit.
“I thought if somebody noticed my finger, they’d change their minds and take away the prize,” he recalled. “That was the first challenge I had to face in my life.”
He did not shy away from it or those that would follow, thanks in large part to his mother, Bernice, who worked as a domestic servant after she arrived from Jamaica.
“My mother constantly reminded me that I was black in America,” he said. “In order to get credit for 100 percent, you have to do 200 percent.”
He began taking piano lessons at age 6, just nine months before winning his first competition and receiving that award at Carnegie Hall.
“When I sat down at the piano, it was as if I was speaking,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist, and never wavered. Nobody had to tell me.”
Years later, his mother said she would have killed herself with work to ensure his success. Although his father did not want her to work, she slipped out for housekeeping jobs, salting away a few dollars. When judges at a piano competition suggested that Roy, then 13, needed a better piano to strengthen his fingers, she managed to buy a reconditioned Steinway Grand.
Like other local children, he showcased his skills at St. James Presbyterian Church, where the children performed to an appreciative audience at Sunday teas. The church also exposed Roy to accomplished musicians and mentors like the organist Melville Charlton.
“During services, he could improvise a fugue based on the last hymn he had played,” Mr. Eaton said. “He could do this in the style of Bach, he was so highly skilled. His praise of what I was doing meant so much to me.”
His growth as a pianist continued through college, though his concert career petered out after he served in the military during the Korean War.
He ended up as a copywriter and composer at an advertising agency, a rarity for a black man in the 1950s. He wrote jingles, including the one for Beefaroni, a pop-culture standard burned into a generation’s collective subconscious. (“We’re having Beefaroni. It’s made with macaroni. ...”)
None of his accomplishments were unusual for him, he said, even if others thought they were.
“I went through my life as if racial prejudice did not exist,” he said.
Now the father of 7-year old twins, he is reminded daily of his own early energy. The piano he learned on rests in the softly lighted sanctuary of the Episcopal church next door to his home on Roosevelt Island. In his apartment, the walls feature portraits of him in performance, as well as a quilt by his friend Faith, with women dancing around the George Washington Bridge.
“I am still that little boy that sees an unlimited horizon,” he said.
He practices every morning at his own piano, where pictures and sheet music are scattered. Within a few notes of a Chopin nocturne, he is once again that child for whom the world beyond Sugar Hill awaited. His fingers are nimble, even the mangled one, as he sways to the music.
The final notes hang in the air, like a slow, final breath. A child’s half-smile creases his face. His eyes are rimmed with tears.
Bobby Robinson, Harlem Music Impresario, Dies at 93
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: January 12, 2011
Bobby Robinson liked to recall how it all began: with him, a World War II veteran, sitting on a fire hydrant in front of a hat shop in Harlem in 1946. Hundreds of people (potential customers?) walked by.
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Bobby Robinson, one of the first blacks to own a shop on 125th Street, in 2003. His record store, Bobby’s Happy House, became a treasured institution and spawned a recording business.
His inspiration was to use all his savings to buy the shop and turn it into a record store that, as Bobby’s Happy House, became a treasured Harlem institution for a half century.
The store spawned a remarkable recording business that helped launch artists from rhythm and blues giants like Gladys Knight and the Pips to the rap stars Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Mr. Robinson died on Friday at the age of 93 in Manhattan, his family said. He had been one of the first blacks to own a shop on 125th Street, the fabled Main Street of Harlem, and his was one of the last old-time stores to battle the neighborhood’s relentless gentrification, albeit unsuccessfully.
Old-timers remember James Brown’s limo parked outside, and people breaking into a happy strut as they responded to the music tumbling onto the street. Mr. Robinson, known for his style that in later years included a cascade of white hair, did not sing or play music himself, but he produced, sold, found, promoted and simply lived it.
He was very good at spotting opportunities. The musicians who visited his store as they strolled from the Apollo to a nearby steakhouse inspired him to start his own record labels. He had many, sometimes with partners and often with colorful names like Fury and Enjoy. He recorded early works by Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and the Scarlets, later The Five Satins.
Mr. Robinson’s musicians were admitted to the rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip-hop halls of fame.
His instincts were keen. In 1959, he paid $40 for an extra 15 minutes of recording time so that Wilbert Harrison could record one more song. The result, “Kansas City,” was a No. 1 hit.
“I record things that touch me,” Mr. Robinson said. “And I try to record them pure, 100 percent, no water added.”
Morgan Clyde Robinson, a grandson of slaves, was born in Union, S.C., on April 16, 1917, and as a teenager walked six miles to high school, where he was valedictorian. The Black Music Research Journal in 2003 told how he fell in love with the blues: he and other townspeople gathered outside a jailhouse window to listen to a talented singer. The incarcerated bluesman let down a pail for contributions.
During World War II, Mr. Robinson was a corporal stationed in Hawaii in charge of hiring entertainment, from big bands to a one-footed tap dancer. He amassed $8,000 in savings by offering sailors and soldiers another service: “I was the biggest loan shark there,” he told The New York Times in 2003.
Mr. Robinson headed for Harlem, where he had no problem paying $2,500 cash for the hat store — hats not included. “I said to myself I will open a small record store and if that fails, no one can say I didn’t try,” he told The New York Amsterdam News in 2001.
He hedged his bet by buying four electric shoe-shining machines. These were in the front of the store, the records in the back.
Shoe-shining was soon unnecessary. An early doo-wop group he recorded, the Vocaleers, who harmonized on 142nd Street, rivaled Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays as Harlem folk heroes, the music historian Philip Groia wrote.
Mr. Robinson got to know the powers of the music business. Ahmet Ertegun, the renowned head of Atlantic Records, stopped by to chat about trends. “He’s a major personage in Harlem,” Mr. Ertegun said of Mr. Robinson in 2003.
When Alan Freed, the D.J. who championed the new music, first broadcast in New York in 1954, Mr. Robinson helped answer phones.
Happy House acquired its euphonious name in 1956 in honor of a doo-wop song Mr. Robinson wrote for Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords titled “I’m So Happy,” a hit in the Northeast. (Lewis Lymon was the younger brother of Frankie Lymon, best known for a song with the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”)
In the 1970s Mr. Robinson became one of the first label owners to record rap music, presenting artists like Doug E. Fresh and Spoonie Gee. In the early 1990s he moved his store from 301 West 125th Street around the corner to Frederick Douglass Boulevard to make way for a KFC franchise. He was evicted in 2008 in favor of an office building.
Mr. Robinson is survived by his daughter, Cheryl Benjamin; his sister, Minnie Stewart; two grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.
Another legacy is the catchy stage name of Gladys Knight and the Pips. When meeting the group, Mr. Robinson asked, “What the hell’s a Pip?”
The answer, The Times reported, was that the family ensemble was named for a cousin who used to sneak them into nightclubs.
“I said, ‘Gladys is the singer, so you better put her name out front,’ ” Mr. Robinson remembered. “They went for it, otherwise Gladys Knight would’ve been just another Pip.”
Another view of this sad loss. What a wonderful name for a record store.
A reader sent in the sad news that Harlem legend Bobby Robinson passed away last Friday. "He was 93," reported the Daily News, "and had been ill for several years--though he regularly went to work at his shop until it was forced to close in January 2008."
That shop was Bobby's Happy House. It closed, ironically, on Martin Luther King's birthday in 2008. It was quickly stripped and boarded up, readied to be razed, along with its neighbors, to create a new shopping mall.
The Happy House had been going strong for more than 60 years before it was felled. As the Times reported in Mr. Robinson's obituary, the shop "became a treasured Harlem institution for a half century. The store spawned a remarkable recording business that helped launch artists from rhythm and blues giants like Gladys Knight and the Pips to the rap stars Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five."
It was also "one of the last old-time stores to battle the neighborhood’s relentless gentrification, albeit unsuccessfully."
When I visited the store soon before its closure, after the neighborhood rallies and petitions could not save it, I found a place with a window full of memories--trophies, awards, autographed photos--with a television playing a 1980s video of Michael Jackson to a group of men who had gathered out front to dance, mirroring Michael's moves on the sidewalk, moonwalking and leaping to their toes. The place was alive.
I don't know what's there now. If the shop is still standing, boarded up, waiting for the economy to change, or if it's been demolished and replaced already with a big, glass box. Either way, the aliveness of the place is gone.
Places matter in people's lives. I think of elderly couples--how, oftentimes, when one dies the other soon follows, as if they cannot bear to be in the world without that person. And I wonder if this happens with people and the places where they have spent much of their lives, if the loss of these places accelerates sickness, hastens death.
Of course, Mr. Robinson's life goes on in the music and musicians he discovered, produced, and promoted. The shopping mall people can't take that away.
To pay your respects, Stupefaction gives us the details: "A memorial service for the legendary Harlem music entrepreneur Bobby Robinson will take place this Thursday, January 13, at the United House of Prayer for All People, 2320 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue) @ 125th Street. The viewing is from 3:00 - 6:00 pm, with the service to follow."
Harlem Plaza Being Transformed Into an African Village Square
A plan to turn a once desolate-looking plaza on 125th Street into community space is halfway home.
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The massive plaza in front of the Harlem State office building at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard is known as African Square. But with its drab concrete benches and open, windswept spaces, and smattering of giant planters, it resembled no such thing.
"The state had a generic plaza rehabilitation in mind but I thought people in Harlem deserved something that focused more on the heritage of the people in Harlem," said Willie Walker, general manager for the 23-story Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building.
In 2006, the State Office of General Services partnered with the Harlem Community Development Corporation to come up with the African village concept. With $50,000 from the development corporation, designers and scholars looked at 15 villages throughout Africa and adopted elements from each.
"We knew the plaza design was not meeting the needs of the community. And as the neighborhood evolved, we really wanted to to recognize the importance of the African-American and Caribbean footprint," said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
When it's finished, the village will have a black granite representation of the Nile River running through it. A black granite wall running along the "river" will feature etchings that tell the story of Harlem.
There will also be a water feature, a stage, digital kiosks and a stepped area with trees. The current underutilized breezeways will be enclosed to create a screen wall that can be used to broadcast images and two large cultural rooms for community programming space.
The first part of the project is a two-year, $11 million plan to waterproof the plaza and shore up the space so that the garage below can support the new plaza. It's ahead of schedule by five months and about $1.5 million below budget, according to Walker.
The Harlem Community Development Corporation aims to continue its long-term goal of raising another $10 million to complete the village. The plan is to spread the word about the potential long-term benefits of the project.
"We see this as a way for the community to invest in itself and express its individual culture to the world and in turn the the world would come invest their time and energy with tourism and other projects," Lunke said.
The idea is to take the concept of the African village square as the center of cultural and civic life and import it to Harlem. The African village square is a place where the sacred and the secular intersect. There is the acknowledgement of the past but also a permanent space for discussion and activities beneficial to the village's future.
"The whole concept is that this is the open square, the gathering place," said Walker.
Tthe usable space of the plaza and the lobby will increase dramatically once it's finished.
Lunke said the project is being viewed as a cultural and economic one. Since 125th street is Harlem's main thoroughfare for commerce, the hope is that the project will spur others along the street. It will also attract continued visitors looking to experience Harlem's culture and history.
Walker beams like a proud father when he talks about the plaza, which is visible from his second floor office. He makes no secret of his love of all things Afrocentric. Walker is known for wearing his collection of 100 different Kente cloth outfits and the walls of his office are filled with African and African-American art. But his focus, he says, remains on the people of the "village" of Harlem.
"My goal is to continue to open this building up to the public. This is their home," Walker said. "I want them to understand that it belongs to the people of this community."
What were they thinking?
Two Harlem Facades Emerge With One Extreme Makeover
by Sara Polsky
West 126th Street has been awaiting the restoration of numbers 71-73 for about five years, when the developer first braced the buildings' front facades. Finally, the construction netting has come down, and the developer, as it turns out, chose to take things in…a different direction.
Modern on West 126th Street [Harlem Bespoke]
That just looks like they are going to have problems with water infiltration in a few years.
looks like a cheap highway drive in dinner...