Sacred Ground

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When she joined Abyssinian Baptist Church 15 years ago, Marie Littlejohn believed in its role as a Harlem leader. Her daughter was baptized by the minister, Rev. Calvin Butts, who was also a guest at their home.

That, however, was before this March, when the church’s real estate arm, Abyssinian Development Corporation, started to rebuild the shelter next to her family’s brick house off 135th Street. Without seeking permission, workmen invaded her garden to do surveys and marked their home with orange paint. She is scared to use the backyard because of falling bricks. Customers patronizing the family boutique on the ground floor contend with dust and vibrations emanating from the worksite.

The family called the police, then took the church to court seeking a temporary injunction to stop work. The construction manager, F.J. Sciame, has since obtained legal permission for workmen to access Littlejohn’s property. But the work to reconstruct Abyssinian’s building, which once housed the legendary Small’s Paradise nightclub, is still causing problems. Window covers are falling; workmen are digging under the foundation of Littlejohn’s home. And for the time being, Littlejohn has stopped going to church.

“I cannot sit there in church anymore and hear Rev. Butts talk about what we can do for the community,” she says. “This church is going against its own.”

Sh adds: “I go to church to feel serene, not to feel angry and betrayed. I am upset that I have been disrespected by the church. Because of this, I have to rethink what church in this day and age means.”

Littlejohn’s experience is one of the more glaring instances of strained church-community relations in the new Harlem Renaissance. During the ghetto days of shootings and drug epidemics, Harlem churches were often the bedrocks of the community. Many still provide vital social services such as day care, youth programs and senior centers.

But with the recent real estate boom in the area, an increasing number of churches have gone the way of Abyssinian and become developers, acquiring or building on valuable property. What they do, or don’t do, with their real estate has frayed relations with residents outside their congregations.

Community activists have accused churches that have sought to raze or alter historic buildings of selling out Harlem’s heritage. They argue that the religious institutions should instead preserve architectural icons as magnets for tourism that would benefit the community at large. Other neighbors are angered when churches try to sell property to speculators. Still more decry some churches’ practice of sitting on precarious properties, letting them rot, while waiting to raise money to renovate them.

“Churches find themselves in the fortuitous position of being owners of some of the most desirable properties, especially along main commercial strips,” says Yuien Chin, executive director f the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization, an umbrella of neighborhood groups. “Unfortunately for the community, many churches are not always able to deal with those properties they hold if the operation does not relate directly to the spiritual mission of the church.”

The most visible controversy surrounds the Abyssinian Baptist Church, arguably the most powerful of Harlem’s religious institutions–and one publicly associated with the revival of the neighborhood. Since its establishment in 1989, Abyssinian Development Corporation has launched millions of dollars worth of projects to create affordable housing and provide neighborhood services.

But its plans for the sites of Small’s and another former nightclub, the Renaissance Casino, have sparked the ire of community residents. In February, Community Board 10 called for emergency protection for the buildings from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The board argued that the two properties should be preserved as landmarks, i light of their history as major venues of Harlem social life from the 1920s through the 1960s, hosting big bands, politicians, writers and ordinary folk. Plans for the Renaissance have not been finalized, but the community board was alarmed by one proposal to alter the building to establish a catering hall. (The landmarks commission has not issued decisions on the matter.)

As for Small’s, Abyssinian Development has signed a deal to lease the building to the Board of Education; it is now constructing three extra floors on top of the three-story structure to accommodate extra classroom space for nearby Thurgood Marshall High School. A retail tenant, the International House of Pancakes, signed up for ground-floor space.

The plans for the site have disappointed residents who had proposed that ADC reopen the nightclub as a historic anchor on the block. Pointing to the success of the Lenox Lounge, another Harlem jazz icon, which reopened a couple of years ago and now draws busloads of tourists, the neighbors argued that a club would revitalize the area’s economy. “We want our past history preserved,” says board chair Stanley Gleaton. “We would prefer tourists coming to visit a revived Small’s rather than to eat at an IHOP.”

But reopening Small’s is not “economically viable,” counters Karen Phillips, who was CEO of Abyssinian Development Corporation until last month. (She’s now a nominee for the City Planning Commission.) Instead, she says, 700 students will benefit. “This was a unique opportunity to efficiently build a new school facility,” she says. “The school entails tremendous progress for the community.” She and church leaders declined further comment.

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Another big Harlem institution under fire is the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, which provides valuable services for youth and the elderly in West Harlem. Under a previous pastor, the church was linked with the civil rights movement, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day it continues to be a Mcca for politicians.

The current pastor, Clarence Grant, has made a practice of amassing real estate but not developing it. Some of the church’s half-dozen properties, located on landmarked blocks, are so neglected that they are practically falling down. For instance, the interior of the vacant brownstone at 356 Convent Avenue is so decayed that firefighters will not enter in case of an emergency.

Down the street, another Convent-owned brownstone has caused its neighbors much grief. Josh Weinman, a real state broker who lives next door, says he has filed insurance claims for thousands of dollars of damages due to problems like burst pipes and, on last Christmas Eve, a chimney that collapsed.

Weinman says he never received an apology or even a returned pone call from Pastor Grant. He believes that by failing to maintain its own properties, the church is hampering economic development on the block. “I was greeted with indifference when I phoned,” he says. “The community should benefit from the church, not be harmed by it.”

Pastor Grant denies that the church was a bad neighbor. “If he had come to me I would not have said, ‘That’s your problem,'” he says. “There is no way a person can say, that I’m aware of, that the church is not sensitive to the needs of a homeowner who lives next to a church building.” Pastor Grant says the church currently lacks the money to develop its sites but wants to hold onto the properties, so that when funding materializes it can use them to house social projects like remedial education and youth and health facilities.

The city Public Advocate’s office is investigating the matter, with ombudsman Ralph Perfetto giving it “priority” status.

Most galling to neighbors, though, is the ruined former P.S. 186 on West 145th Street, which Convent’s affiliated youth group, the M.L. Wilson Boys and Girls Club, bought some 20 years ago. Pastor Grant says that his church does not have enough money to redevelop the wreck. He explains that the church needs such a big site for the club, which has only 150 members in the neighborhood, for sports facilities and commercial tenants, who would provide income for the church to carry out its ambitious mission. “We saw this building as a way to put social services on a higher footing. There’s an enormous scope to create an income stream for the club and services, with retail and commercial tenants,” says Pastor Grant. “You got to own the property to define the services you provide.”

Community leaders like Yuien Chin, however, say that by leaving the property vacant, the church is hindering the economic health of one of Harlem’s major thoroughfares. Vandals and drug users lurk around the site, which has been abandoned for so long that a tree grows out of the broken roof. Neighborhood preservationists also bemoan the neglect of what might have been a prime candidate for landmarking. They say the Italianate school building with imposing arches is so structurally decayed now that it is probably beyond saving.

Members of Community Board 9 were stung by the church’s initially uncooperative response several years ago to a proposal to redevelop the building into a new home for the area’s tiny post office across the street. George Goodwill, the board’s chair, said Pastor Grant repeatedly failed to show up for meetings about reconstruction. (On May 6, the pastor reported progress on new plans to finally develop the site. “In the past, he would cancel a meeting or fail to show up. But now he’s initiated a meeting,” says Goodwill. “We welcome this dialogue.”)

The board and other community groups have taken on other problematic churches in the neighborhood as well, including St. James Presbyterian Church at 409 West 141st Street and the Christian Science Church down the street at 555 West 141st.

St. James faced strong community opposition several years ago when the church announced plans to build a 21-story tower on the site of its landmarked community house. The high rise, which would have loomed over a low-rise street, was meant to provide housing as well as income fr the church’s youth programs. However, the plan violated landmarking and zoning regulations, and the project never materialized.

Neighbors have been less satisfied with the response of the Christian Science Church. In July 2000, congregation members told the local block association that they wanted to sell its building; the church was attended by only a handful of people, most of whom did not live in the neighborhood. A church representative let it slip that they would sell to the highest bidder, and that a promising candidate was a developer who wanted to erect a high rise on the site, which would tower over the block of rowhouses.

Community Board 9 issued a resolution condemning such a development and invited the church three times to talk about its plans. The church declined, and refused further meetings with the block association. Despite pledging in a letter to the block association to keep the community’s interests in mind, the church advertised the building in the New York Times for $7 million (later reduced to $2.9 million) as a commercial property–well above the $1.4 million market rate for comparable buildings, and in violation of zoning regulations. That property is still on the market. (Church officials were not available to comment.)

Meanwhile, next to the old Small’s, Littlejohn has hired an architect, a structural engineer and a surveyor to evaluate what should be done to protect her building from the construction next door. She has consulted with a lawyer about her rights as a property owner. She says she has received a letter from the ADC pledging to correct the damage, but Littlejohn does not trust the church anymore. “I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, and fought that system,” she says, recalling her experience decades ago in the South “I will continue to do what is necessary to ensure that our civil rights are not violated.”

Judith Matloff is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.