Between ongoing redevelopment and a wave of new residents, West Harlem is changing quickly. But Cator Sparks, president of Block Association 122, wants to make sure that old and new residents work together to preserve the neighborhood’s unique culture.
Block Association 122 unites the residents of West 122nd Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell boulevards. Sparks, a fashion journalist who is originally from Atlanta, became the association’s president in 2005, three years after moving to Harlem from downtown SoHo.
Sparks described the block as an eclectic but tight-knit community.
“It makes me sad when I walk down the street and I say hi to people and they don’t say hi back,” he said. “That’s not Harlem, that’s SoHo.”
The block association is one of Harlem’s great traditions, Sparks said. Started in the late ’90s by Haja and Cindy Worley, Block Association 122 meets once every two months in a local church. The association, which has 80 people on its email list and about 15 regular participants, has organized many of the block’s community projects, including the construction of tree guards, the development of a community garden, a weekly farmers’ market, and an annual potluck.
“It’s a very important part of the community here,” West 122nd Street resident Mario Pinto said. “Harlem is known for that kind of grassroots movement.”
The block association also functions as an important source of support in a neighborhood that occasionally must cope with destructive behavior. The association has helped residents report robbery and cases of abuse to the police.
“If somebody is doing something or needs something—if a cat is lost, if a kid needs a summer camp, if someone has a table for sale—then we are there to help,” Sparks said. “It’s a sense of community. It’s bringing people together. It’s knowing your neighbors.”
Sparks said he was among the first of an ongoing wave of new residents coming to the area. The block association now faces the challenge of getting residents unfamiliar with Harlem to embrace its unique culture and traditions.
“A lot of the people moving up here don’t realize that they are moving to a place with economic difficulties, or a culture that’s been thriving for 50 years,” he said.
Sparks noted that the street’s most recent annual block party, which was attended by more than 200 people, prompted complaints for the first time in 10 years—particularly from new residents.
“You cannot think like that if you’re going to live in Harlem,” he said. “You have to be part of the community and support what happens here.”
Other association members echoed Sparks’ description of the neighborhood’s evolving culture. Pinto said that low rents have attracted renovations and new residents, which has created a distinct “mix of old and new.”
Cindy Worley called this mix “not a recipe for disaster, but a recipe for hope.”
“I happen to think it’s a good thing for people of all stripes—all financial strata—to live among one another,” Worley said. “I have hope that rather than live in enmity, they could find common ground. And I would say that Cator is exactly the right person to encourage such empathy and understanding.”