The Struggle To Landmark African-American New York

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City Limits Magazine, September/October 1998, Volume XXIII, Number 7

Landmarks Omission

Historic preservation in the city’s black neighborhoods is a struggle against snobbery – and local leaders bent on development.

Michael Henry Adams is an interloper among the gods and goddesses of New York City’s landmarks world.

One of his favorite stories is about a tour he gave to Laurie Beckelman, the former head of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission under Mayor David Dinkins. Beckelman had been publicly proclaiming the need to landmark more buildings in poor and minority neighborhoods, so then-Councilmember C. Virginia Fields decided to take her out on a scouting expedition in Harlem. Adams, uptown landmarks gadfly and author, was chosen as her local guide.

Adams gamely took Beckelman to a building he thought would be a sure contender: the 129th Street site that labor leader A. Philip Randolph created to be the center of the black union movement. Back in late 1920s, Randolph commissioned the state’s first black licensed architect, Vertner Tandy, to design a headquarters for the new Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, comprised mostly of black railroad workers. Eventually, the Brotherhood would become the first black union allowed into the American Federation of Labor. Randolph would become vice president of the united AFL-CIO and a major figure in the black civil rights movement.

Although the building isn’t a tower of architectural achievement, it is pleasant enough to look at. Decorative double concrete columns hold up urns on each side of the arched doorway, but it is essentially a hall built for a union with limited funds. And that is all Beckelman saw, Adams says, as she turned to a colleague to ask: “They want us to landmark that?”

“It was not the New York Public Library in terms of design,” Adams admits. “But it’s like comparing Shakespeare and Langston Hughes. The art of the one does not diminish the art of the other. If you are bothered just because Langston Hughes may use ‘ain’t,’ then of course you will never see the accomplishment of what his work represents.”

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has always been a haven for the city’s aristocracy, and its architectural honor roll has been a catalogue of what rich people have built or bought over four centuries.

But that’s not all landmarking is supposed to do. City law directs the commission to landmark property on the basis of five categories: “cultural, social, economic, political and architectural.”

Despite this mandate, the landmarks commission has chosen nearly all of the city’s landmarks – 94 percent, according to a former commissioner – based on architectural value alone.

That means buildings like the ones Adams includes on his Harlem tours, buildings that reflect the history of non-white New York, are often denied the recognition they deserve. Of the almost 1,000 landmarked buildings in the city, about 100 are in communities of color. Only 16 earned their laurels based on their non-white historical or cultural value; the rest were landmarked because they had significance to white people who used to live there. And of the 750 blocks now protected by historic districts, only 135 are in black or Latino neighborhoods.

But snobbishness is not the only reason there are so few landmarks in minority neighborhoods. As the movement to landmark neighborhoods like Harlem has grown, so has unexpected opposition among community leaders.

It’s not that the ministers, politicians and businessmen who are reshaping low-income neighborhoods reject the respect and tourism income that landmarking can bring a community. They just don’t want some landmarked building getting in the way of their housing and economic development plans. …

… But communities of color haven’t exactly been obsessed with getting their neighborhoods landmarked.

“You have people who don’t do anything about getting landmarks,” says Gina Stahlnecker, chief of staff to state Senator David Paterson, who helped landmark part of the African Burial Ground, a plot of land in lower Manhattan that was the cemetery for much of the city’s black population in the 1700s. “If there were huge grassroots groups organized to find landmarkable buildings, there might be more.”

The problem isn’t simply apathy. Communities like Harlem need economic development, which means they need the regulatory flexibility to develop sites without government interference. Developers on the Upper East Side despise landmarked buildings; community-based builders in Harlem, Fort Greene and Jamaica feel the same way. Landmarking, which seeks to freeze and preserve, can raise the price of development projects or stall them altogether.

Nowhere is that conflict more apparent than at the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino on 138th Street – one of the 25 structures in Harlem yet to be landmarked.

While white hipsters made their way to Harlem’s Cotton Club, blacks from across the city flocked to the ballroom during the 1920s and 1930s to meet, entertain and be seen. And when the music from touring bands wasn’t playing, the local black professional basketball team, the Harlem Rens, used the black-owned building to practice and compete.

Bought by Rev. Calvin Butts’ Abyssinian Development Corporation in 1992, the would-be landmark sits just one thin building away from the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Abyssinian’s development chief Karen Phillips says that her organization worked with the building’s owner during the early 1990s in an attempt to help him fix it up, but the costs were too high and he sold it to speculators. They, in turn, lost it to foreclosure. Abyssinian is now developing the boarded-up brick building into a ballroom for weddings, proms and parties.

Phillips plans to turn it into a for-profit catering hall and argues that a landmark designation could have sunk the project completely. Abyssinian, she says, would have had to negotiate with the commission to get approval for necessary renovations, which would have tacked months – and additional costs – onto the project.

According to a landmarks commission source, Abyssinian’s opposition has all but killed what might have been a promising landmarks application. Phillips defends the church’s position. “I’m a preservationist, and this is preservation. We want the ballroom to be an active building for the community,” she says. “This is already a landmark. Whether it’s designated as one by the city is irrelevant.”

Howard Dodson, executive director at Harlem’s Schomburg Center, understands Phillips’ frustration. The Schomburg library, located in a limestone building where Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte made their debuts in the basement theater, was in the middle of a multi-year expansion plan until in 1981, as Dodson says, “someone had the bright idea to have it landmarked.”

Dodson believes there may also be more personal reasons for the fact that black residents in Harlem and elsewhere are not more vocal about landmark issues. Many major sites where black culture became American history, such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, weren’t owned by blacks during the height of their fame, he points out. “Ownership was usually somewhere else,” he says. “The history is, frankly, contradictory to our own. Our claim to it is as squatters’ rights more than anything else.”

– Kemba Johnson

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