The West Harlem that Grace Jones knew as a child in the 1940s barely resembles today’s bustling neighborhood north of 125th Street.
With a substantial reduction in crime, an upsurge in real estate prices, and an influx of retail chains, Harlem has become a completely different world for Jones.
“This used to be a block of nothing but African Americans and Caribbean Americans,” she said, pointing out the middle- and upper-class residents increasingly making their way into the area.
Relics of the past century—old brownstones, historic theaters, and street signs from the block’s construction dating back to 1891—still color the streets of Harlem today, but local preservationists and historians say that maintenance is increasingly difficult due to rapid development and the complex bureaucracy of designating landmarks. Now, though, as the aftermath of recession lingers and discourages developers from breaking ground on new projects, some say that there is an opportunity to preserve what remains.
Landmark status for some
“What they want to do is make it look like black people were never here,” said Juanita Thomas, a community activist who believes that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has done little to preserve Harlem’s character and culture.
Thomas is a member of the Haarlem Victoria Restoration Group, which seeks to restore the Victoria Theater on 125th street to its former glory as a vaudeville theater and haven for jazz age celebrities.
“Everything we ever had here has been torn down or set aside and abandoned,” she explained.
Thomas said that in the early 1990s, there were very few landmarks designated north of 96th Street. This apparent oversight caused tension between Harlem community boards and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was accused of ignoring minority neighborhoods.
The discrepancy between the number of landmarks on the Upper West Side and the number in Harlem points to a bias in historic preservation toward expense, said Kenneth Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences. He also noted that “famous architects design for rich people,” and those buildings are usually deemed to have more landmark potential.
Michael Henry Adams, a local historian and graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, agreed, saying, “Harlem is grossly under-landmarked, and so is every black neighborhood in the city.” He added, “If you look at the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, all the places where the richest people live, there’s the most landmarking.”
Landmarks Commission Preservation spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon contested these claims, saying, “I don’t see how anyone could conclude that it is an underrepresented neighborhood in terms of buildings that are landmarked.”
According to de Bourbon, there are 57 individual landmarks and seven historic districts in the area enclosed by 110th Street, 158th Street, Harlem River Drive, and Riverside Drive.
But Community Board 9 member Walter South said that these landmark sites are too few, and merely symbolic. “This is just tokenism,” he said.
Opportunity in the recession
Despite potential economic recovery, the future of development in Harlem remains uncertain and builders are reluctant to start new projects, Jackson said. Those conditions, he added, give Harlem preservationists the perfect opportunity to “take a deep breath.”
Jackson noted that landmark battles between the community and the city have historically been fiercest during times of rapid development. During the economic prosperity of the ’90s, many developers sought to tear down and redevelop historic properties.
But during an economic crisis, he said, when developers shy away from new projects and construction is at a virtual standstill, historic buildings are “safe.”
“When there’s a building boom, older places with landmark potential are threatened,” said Laura Pedersen, an administrator with the New York Preservation Archive Project, which fights to preserve historic buildings. “But in this economy, developers aren’t starting new projects and they’re especially hesitant to when there might be landmark battles to complicate everything.”
Pedersen also said that designating landmark status is generally a plus for the economy, even though it can halt development on a particular site. “Landmarking often increases property values because people want to live in those areas to remember and feel a part of the city’s history,” she explained.
But at the Victoria Theater, which has been closed since 1997, “it’s just stagnant,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing really happening there right now.”
Though the Victoria was determined as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the building still hasn’t been recognized by the landmarks commission. Spokesperson de Bourbon wrote in an e-mail, “We evaluated the Victoria after receiving several different requests for review, and determined that while it may be eligible for landmark designation, it’s currently not a priority for the commission.”
John Murphy, who vends Caribbean dolls, purses, and electronics under the Victoria’s crumbling marquee, said he hopes that the site does gain landmark status.
“It’s gotta be about preserving the history,” he said. “Under the table, and over our heads, oh no. This needs to be something all cultures can share in.”
Small remnants of the past
On a Sunday afternoon at Strivers’ Row, three streets of now-pricey townhouses on 138th and 139th streets, between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. boulevards, residents walked their dogs through a street lightly dusted with gold-brown leaves. But it wasn’t always like this, said Toni Matthews, who has lived around Strivers’ Row since the 1950s.
“Thirty years ago, after 9 p.m., you’d only see men outside,” she said, adding that they were the “shifty” sorts of men she would avoid. “But now there are young people and families out at night, going off to clubs and theaters. There was never any kind of nightlife back then.”
Midway through a block on139th Street, a gated alleyway bares one historical remnant that reveals the block’s age: a sign advising residents to “walk your horses.”
Thirty years ago, Matthews said she bought her brownstone on 138th for $32,000. In 2007, she added, brownstones on the same block were selling for over $1.5 million.
“A lot of older owners are selling their houses, or asking for higher rent,” she said. “People who’ve always lived here could never afford to buy house on this block anymore.”