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.
“If landmarking is seen as a way of recording and telling history, then there’s no question that the way it’s been done up to now is not telling the whole story,” says Ned Kaufman, the Municipal Art Society’s resident landmark expert. “It is the story of well-to-do people and their nice houses, not working people and their lives and their struggle for equity. Or minorities and their struggle for recognition.”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission was born as a result of the most notorious architectural crime in New York history: the 1963 razing of the grandly Romanesque Pennsylvania Station to make way for the concrete cupcake that is today’s Madison Square Garden. Two years after the station’s destruction, the city established the commission to safeguard New York’s architectural, cultural and historical icons.
Penn Station set the standard for the preservationist movement’s focus on municipal grandiosities, handsome homes, skyscrapers and commercial palaces. Then in recent years, under the leadership of Beckelman and current chair Jennifer Raab, the commission began to move beyond its elitist foundations. “In the beginning we were really eager to save the city’s great architectural treasures,” says commission spokesperson Katy McNabb. “But lately we have been looking to do more cultural landmarking.”
Even these modest efforts have been criticized by long-time preservationists. In the 1998 edition of The Landmarks of New York III, former commissioner Barbarlee Diamonstein-Spielvogel argues that diversity in landmarking is undesirable. “Structures and districts of sometimes questionable or dubious architectural significance outside of Manhattan and in non-white areas are designated, while fine architectural examples may be ignored,” she writes. “Although many of these items deserve some sort of protection, it is not readily apparent that they merit landmark status.”
Such attitudes are not surprising given the racial make-up of the 11-member commission. There seems to be a quota allowing just one minority member at a time. Beginning under the Koch administration, that member was architect Gene Norman, the chair, who was followed by Bill Davis. Three years ago, Chris Moore, a Fort Greene resident who works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, was appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“I may be the only black person,” Moore jokes, “but I’m tenacious.”
The panel’s shortage of black representation has made it a lightning rod for community criticism, especially in Harlem, which has been the site of several high-profile landmarks battles in the last decade.
The conflict between the board and the city’s most prominent black community reached its height when Harlemite David Dinkins sat in City Hall. A group of activists sought to preserve the Audubon Ballroom, the 166th Street site where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, but the commission refused even to hold a public hearing. Instead of landmarking the Audubon, the commission–with the blessing of Dinkins, who was captivated by the site’s economic development potential–allowed Columbia University to build a new business incubator for biotechnology firms there. Ruth Messinger, then the Manhattan borough president, managed to save the facade and part of the lobby.
In the early 1990s, during the start of this fracas, newly appointed Beckelman developed what came to be known as the “Harlem 25”–25 buildings that would be seriously considered for landmark designation.
But when the final list was released, the emphasis was on pretty buildings over important ones. Honorees included Mount Morris Bank, a brewery, a couple of firehouses and a handful of schools–most of which have since been landmarked. But other famous sites like Minton’s Playhouse, the birthplace of bebop, were passed over. “This was an opportunity to say to the community, ‘We’re looking to landmark here,’ so people could come forward with ideas,” recalls Carolyn Kent, who oversees the landmarking committee of Harlem’s Community Board 9. “But it was almost like a drive-by: Collect the name of some churches and some large buildings. This was just a political way of proceeding.”
Others say there was nothing wrong with the Harlem 25–except that it wasn’t the Harlem 50 or the Harlem 100. Thomas Bess, former executive director of Landmarks Harlem, a nonprofit founded to be a liaison between the commission and the community, thinks the commission needs to do more work uptown. Large sections of white Manhattan, including the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, the Village and Tribeca have been declared landmark districts while places like Central Harlem–home to a famous black cultural renaissance–have not.
“To have a place like the West Side landmarked from 62nd Street to 96th Street and not include areas like Harlem is criminal,” Bess observes. “There are entire blocks in Harlem that are so significant in the creation of jazz and the development of Harlem as the black cultural center of the world.”
Quiet, leafy St. Albans, Queens doesn’t look like a jazz Mecca, but to those in the know, it’s not far below Harlem in stature.
The neighborhood’s resident historian is Milt “Judge” Hinton, an 88-year-old bassist who spent his youth playing for Cab Calloway. Hinton is now dedicating himself to celebrating his fellow musical St. Albans luminaries: Thomas “Fats” Waller, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and his friend Count Basie. A ballplayer by the name of Jackie Robinson lived there too.
“They didn’t think a Negro could afford a house like this,” says Hinton, who has lived in his two-story house for the last 40 years. “We didn’t know how nice it was when we came here, how near it was to heaven.”
Hinton sits in his basement, not far from Basie’s piano, which is hidden under a blanket and a few scotch bottles. “I’m here drinking and he would hop onto the piano and start playing,” he recalls of Basie’s frequent visits. “When we get together it’s like corned beef and cabbage.”
On a plush green sofa, Hinton has temporarily stored brass plaques he intends to put up on Waller and Basie’s homes. The markers, which describe the cultural importance of the jazz pianists, are just the first in a series that he plans to install. Hinton hopes that by celebrating the homes of successful black musicians, local youth will develop the desire to succeed as well.
To Hinton and other black landmark proponents, that’s the importance of preservation. It’s the simple recognition that the value of a building isn’t necessarily found in the arrangement of bricks and wood, but in the lives that unfolded there, and the lessons passersby can take away. “The only way to go ahead is to build on those who’ve gone before,” Hinton says.
Even the commission’s harshest critics concede that the job of landmarking worthy sites would be aided by the kind of passion that comes naturally to Hinton. 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 Harlem 25 structures 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.”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has made some progress in recent years. Eighteen of the buildings in the Harlem 25 were conferred landmark status. In Bedford-Stuyvesant four landmarked 19th century houses mark the location of the former free black community of Weeksville. And the Flushing, Queens home of Lewis H. Latimer, who invented the filament that transformed Thomas Edison’s expensive light bulb prototype into a mass-market necessity, has also been so honored.
More recently, the commission agreed to extend the boundaries of the Hamilton Heights historic district in Harlem. And nearby Sugar Hill–former neighborhood of the city’s black political and cultural elite in the 1930s and 1940s, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and author Ralph Ellison–is on the table this year.
But even this relatively modest designation has been marked by controversy. The local community board wants to include parts of the neighborhood that contain apartment buildings; commission officials only want to include a section featuring the neighborhood’s attractive townhouses.
Including all of Sugar Hill–some 450 buildings–in the historic district doesn’t seem like such a tall order. Last year, 600 homes in Douglaston, Queens–a well-off community of English cottages and Colonial, Tudor and Mediterranean Revival houses–was designated. The Upper West Side has more than 2,000 buildings in its district and the Village, the city’s largest district, has 2,300.
But Sugar Hill’s landmarking may ultimately come down to the community’s will and its capacity to prove its case through careful research. Given that the commission’s staff has been whittled down from 80 people in Beckelman’s era to about 50 today, the advocates know that they have to do what preservation advocates in richer communities routinely do–find locals to help out. West Harlem Community Preservation Organization is reaching out to building owners and looking for money to hire a consultant.
Showing this kind of community commitment is the best way to compel the city to recognize the importance of overlooked buildings, Commissioner Moore says. “It’s a matter getting these black sites, of locating them.”
And that’s just what Adams plans to do as he roams the city suggesting site after site for the commission to consider–undeterred by the stream of form-letter rejections he receives in return.
“What landmarking is about is who was here before and who was important,” he says. “If black people acknowledge their history and take pride in it, then it can only brighten the future.”