Article Image
Gene Fedorenko / Staff Photographer

Graham Court, commissioned by William Waldorf Astor, is one of the few buildings in Central Harlem designated as a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Updated on April 17, at 5:12 p.m.

Compared to other neighborhoods in the city, Central Harlem has far fewer city-recognized historic landmarks, a discrepancy that advocates of preservation say is driven by real estate interests, lack of resources, and alleged discrimination against African-American neighborhoods.

Curbed NY reported that the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 137th and 138th streets, for example, was demolished by its owner and developer, BRP Development Corporation in late March. BRP wants to replace the building, completed in 1924, with a new luxury apartment complex. The crumbling Renaissance was the site of intense confrontation among preservationists developers for years.

A site is designated as a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission if it has a "special historical, cultural, or aesthetic value to the City of New York, state or nation," according to the LPC website. Once a site is a designated landmark, any restoration, alteration, or demolition to it requires a permit from the LPC.

Only two sites in Central Harlem are considered historic districts by the LPC: the Mount Morris Park Historic District and the St. Nicholas Historic District.

There are also 28 "individual landmarks"—sites whose exterior features have been designated, permitting interior renovation—and two "interior landmarks"interior-designated spaces that must usually be accessible to the public.

But relative to other districts in Manhattan, Central Harlem's historic sites are under-protected by landmark designation. According to a 2012 report on preservation completed by Community Board 10's Land Use and Landmarks Commission, only 3.6 percent of Central Harlem is covered by LPC historic districts, as opposed to 10.6 percent of Manhattan as a whole, 26 percent of the Upper West Side, and 45 percent of the West Village.

For Walter South, a member of CB9's Housing Committee and former chair of CB9's Landmarks & Preservation Committee, the difference is largely explained by the fact that preservationists from areas like the Upper West Side and the West Village have long been more proactive about getting their sites designated and having more resources backing their advocacy than those in Harlem.

"The Upper West Side has got the landmarks organization, they have a lot of money, and they've worked very hard," South said. "We don't have the money, and they [the LPC] don't have the interest."

South also pointed to a deficiency of leading figures and nonprofit organizations in West and Central Harlem to advocate for preservation.

"There's a public support [for preservation], but there's no leadership," he said.

John Reddick, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt Design Center, said that preservation nonprofits in Harlem often try to negotiate with developers and have managed to slow development in some cases.

"The nonprofits are the backbone of all the change," Reddick said.

However, he said that these nonprofits usually do not have the resources or the know-how to negotiate adequately, and that this has hindered them overall.

"There has to be an educated dialogue for a mediated agreement," Reddick said.

According to Kate Wood, the president of the Upper West Side historic preservation organization Landmark West!, the powerful influence of real-estate developers, whose projects stand to be delayed by preservationists, have stymied attempts to preserve historic architecture all over Manhattan.

"This leads to a lack of transparency, limited opportunities for meaningful public participation in land-use decisions, and the loss of resources that are important to our city in exchange for development that takes more than it gives back," Wood said in an email to Spectator.  

Another part of the problem, according to both South and Reddick, stems from the large bureaucracy involved in getting a site designated by the LPC, which requires an eight-step process that can take several months or even a few years.

"There's a ridiculous amount of time it takes for a district to go through that process," Reddick said.

South added that suggestions in reports submitted by CB9 and CB10 to the LPC regarding which sites should be designated landmarks have rarely been followed.

He mentioned that in 2007, CB9 submitted a 197-a plan—a report directed to city agencies guiding them on future policies. But he said that the LPC did not follow any of the community board's recommendations for landmark designation.

"They probably didn't read it," South said.

CB10's 2012 Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan also contained a large number of suggested landmarks for Central Harlem, none of which have been successfully protected.

Spectator did not receive a response from LPC.

But for Michael Henry Adams, longtime preservation activist, Harlem historian, and author of the award-winning book "Harlem, Lost and Found," the low level of LPC-recognized historic sites in Harlem is evidence of systematic racism of "the worst kind" against districts with large populations of African Americans.

Adams proposes that most of Seventh Avenue and Lenox Avenue be protected, as well as a number of historic Harlem relics, such as Lenox Lounge.

Protection of such sites, for Adams, would mean not only preserving Harlem's heritage, but also taking a stand against what he said was the city's discriminatory refusal to landmark more Harlem sites.

"It's a measure of legitimately addressing racism that is more meaningful than just renaming streets after black heroes," Adams said of his call to preserve more historic buildings.

Critics of historic preservation, though, have argued that it depresses property values in a neighborhood, stifling investment and redevelopment.

Still, the New York City Independent Budget Office conducted a study on protected historic districts, which concluded that they appreciated in price at the same rate as non-protected districts.

Wood also said that preservation is actually necessary for economic development because it feeds tourism.

"People come to New York as tourists to see historic neighborhoods and landmarks," she wrote.

Gregory Dietrich, who offers consulting on historic preservation to advocacy groups, developers, and historic preservation commissions, also said that historic preservation will help maintain affordable housing in Harlem, since many historic buildings that get demolished are replaced by luxury housing.

"You'll see redevelopments where churches become market-rate housing," Dietrich said.

There are important strides being made for preservation in Central Harlem, like the ongoing efforts by the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association to extend the area of its historic district that is designated as a landmark.

Still, according to Adams, much remains to be done.

"What's more important is to have historic districts of the number and the breadth that you have in the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village," he said.

He suggests that the first step for the LPC should be to include all the sites that have been deemed of historical significance by the National Register of Historic Places, which has a more stringent set of standards than the LPC, as landmarks.

"That would be a great way for the city to begin," Adams said.

Reddick also called for the LPC to be more proactive by designating many sites in Harlem as landmarks without depending on submissions by community boards and organizations.

"If it doesn't come up, they won't landmark it on their own," he said.  

The best way to get the Harlem community more interested in preserving their buildings, according to Reddick, is through education. Reddick gives a number of lectures, exhibits, and walking tours on Harlem's history to students, including those from classes taught at Columbia.

Dietrich said that more involvement by community boards will be key to bringing the community together on the issue.

"This is how the neighborhood can get engaged. I feel that their support is essential," Dietrich said.

And to Adams, it is crucial that action be taken soon.

"The African-American cultural capital of the world is disappearing," Adams said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Renaissance Ballroom had not yet been demolished. Demolition began on March 31. | @ColumbiaSpec

preservation central harlem CB9 CB10