In New York in 1975, Jacqueline Kennedy was worried about a plan to destroy Grand Central Terminal.
Writing to the mayor, the former first lady asked:
“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? This is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
Nearly 50 years later, the same threat hangs over Harlem. It is nothing less than existential. In the home of so much African American history, churches and other landmarks are disappearing with a rapidity that invites thoughts of the indifference that places our whole planet at risk.
The gentrification of Harlem has been blamed on the disregard and greed of white people. The truth is much more complex.
For sure, Bill de Blasio’s trickle-down housing policy has set the stage for rampant destruction. Any possible rezoning site seen as under-utilized is placed in certain peril. To the New York mayor, high-end high-rises are the only way to gain “affordable” units. No matter that his “affordable” is beyond the means of most. As entire blocks are cleared for condominiums, displacement is just so much collateral damage.
Our built environment, our history of striving for excellence, is every bit as good as anything in the VillageValerie Jo Bradley, Save Harlem Now!
But there are black leaders assisting in this violation. In the fight for Harlem’s heritage and soul, they are the enemy within.
Nearly every two months, another church is lost. From 96th to 155th Streets, an estimated 350 properties are owned by churches. According to the Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer, a study in progress considers these structures as the mayor might: as 5m sq ft of development rights, potentially translated into 5,600 two-bedroom apartments.
In Harlem, some truths are universally acknowledged. Local politicians are manipulated from downtown; a deal has been made in the dark to sacrifice black Harlem, its legacy and people, to provide convenient housing for the better off. Everyone knows the gap between black wealth and white is at a ratio of 100:1. Everyone knows new residents are bound to be white.
More obscure is how for each landmark recognized in Harlem there are five in Greenwich Village, where three-quarters of buildings are designated versus about 10% uptown.
Attempts to excuse this disparity amount to victim blaming. Sure, Jane Jacobs took down Robert Moses’ proposed superhighway that would have split the Village in two. But 30 years earlier, unsung Harlem preservationists led by Dr Louis T Wright and architect Vertner Woodson Tandyalso wrangled with the all-powerful planning tsar – and won.
“When [Moses] focused on destroying Stanford White’s brainchild, an elegant enclave of houses know as Strivers’ Row, in 1935, to build a housing project, the black press and homeowners hollered like hell and were victorious,” said Valerie Jo Bradley, president of Save Harlem Now!
“Our built environment, our history of striving for excellence, is every bit as good as anything in the Village. We are deserving of the same comprehensive preservation they have. Harlem is too important, so that’s our goal.”
‘A bar and a church’
Little more than a century ago, Harlem was transformed. Churches, synagogues, theaters and brownstones were repurposed and along with a few new structures and innumerable remodeled store fronts became black houses of worship. More than a place to meet God, they were places to meet each other, combinations of employment agency, settlement house, dating service, social club and credit union.
It was said there was “a bar and a church on every Harlem corner”. They were the chief glory of the neighborhood, places for praising the almighty with awe-inspiring fashion, oratory and music. Expressive of abiding faith, Harlem churches proclaimed African American humanity.
Today, there is not one that would not be more valuable as the base of a condo tower.
“It seems as if everyone sees a big payday,” said Brewer. “This condo takeover may seem attractive but we’re working with residents to identify a better tactic that’s more sustaining and sustainable … We are working to allow air rights to be transferred far more widely.”
“No one is forcing us,” she said. “Black parishioners, treating preachers like infallible ambassadors from Jesus, are just giving our churches away.”
The United Methodist church of New York has profited by destroying two churches. Two more await demolition. Carey King, a Harlem activist, said of the endangered Metropolitan Community church: “The new owner, Round Square Builders, paid the bishop $16m. They bought the lot where the church stands as well as the 45 East 126th Street brownstone and are planning an eight-story building with a parking garage underneath. They say they hope to make it as contextual as possible. Their architects are DXA Studio.
“The church retains ownership of the parish house and empty lot next door. Demolition is to be complete by September … The fate of this Gothic revival relic by Rembrandt Lockwood, from 1872, is sealed.
“The congregation will never see that money. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is to blame. They rejected our request to landmark the church. They said it did not meet the standard of an individual landmark but would be a contributing structure in a historic district. But if a tower replaces the church, we know that our hopes for a district are doomed.”
Nearby, St Martin’s is famous for its outstanding carillon, dedicated by both Queen Juliana of Holland and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Uniquely, with its merged sister congregation, St Lukes, the church owns its parish buildings. But now the Rt Rev Andrew ML Dietsche, episcopal bishop of New York, has taken charge. The city building department approved services in the parish hall while work ensues but church authorities decided to close St Martin’s regardless.
Recently, at a sidewalk service outside the shuttered church, erstwhile choirmaster and organist Malcolm Merriweather asked: “Why in Harlem is there no provision for landmarked not-for-profits to transfer air-rights profitably, anywhere across an entire neighborhood, as is possible in the new rezoning district called Midtown East? Such an option would make maintaining our historic church no longer automatically most easily achieved through destruction.”
All Saints, between 129th and 130th Streets on Madison Avenue, is the most architecturally significant church in Harlem. Deconsecrated and closed in preparation for sale, it is about to meet its fate.
All Saints was completed early in the 1900s but it was designed more than 20 years earlier, the final church by James Renwick, architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown. In distinction to the French Gothic convention of St Patrick’s, All Saints is Renwick’s homage to the Italian Gothic, as popularized by John Ruskin.
Were St Patrick’s, or Temple Emmanuel, or the Metropolitan Opera, or the New York Public Library about to be stripped of all architectural and decorative elements of identity and distinction, would New Yorkers or elected officials sit by? Would they even fail to comment?Advertisement
Some might say that as a cultural landmark, All Saints hardly rises to the level of such places. That would be understandable. In America, virtually nothing black can hope to be as esteemed or revered as a comparable white institution or landmark. Class counts too. The mostly Irish immigrants who built All Saints are not likely to be accorded the same importance as the mostly well-to-do Irish who built St Patrick’s.
Think of amazing restaurants and studios abroad made from disused churches, decorated by amazing windows and frescoesBarry Bergdoll, Columbia University
All Saints is made from brick and terracotta, not Sing Sing marble. It was built in a far shorter time. Nonetheless, the architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler deemed it aesthetically superior.
Black, white, rich, poor, full, nearly empty: by almost every metric the two Renwick churches, uptown and downtown, represent a uniquely American dichotomy of disparity. But church and cathedral are equal. This ought not be overlooked as a consequence of arbitrary and racist devaluation.
Barry Bergdoll, a historian who lives in Harlem and teaches at Columbia, made a plea for the beauty and value of All Saints to be maintained in whatever comes next: “Think of all the amazing restaurants and design studios abroad made from disused churches, still decorated by amazing windows and frescoes filled with religious scenes and iconography.”
Ann-Isabel Friedman, who heads the New York Landmarks Conservancy Sacred Sites Program, said: “A provision to protect exceptional interiors in historic houses of worship must be provided once they no longer have a religious function.”
David Levering Lewis of New York University, dean of African America scholars and the author of When Harlem Was in Vogue, said: “It’s regrettable that the integrity of this landmark must give way in the maw of a real estate deal.”
‘Across 125th Street’
In Harlem, many other enterprises seem hellbent on a kind of cultural suicide.
“Whether churches or venerable institutions, the record of collusion with gentrification is endless,” said Dr Kay Samuels, a community activist.
“At least two black-owned, Harlem-centered developers are responsible for destroying several historic properties. BRP Development demolished the Renaissance Ballroom, after Abyssinian Development promised the community to restore it. It was proposed as a rental building, but surprise, now it’s condos.
“BOS Development purchased and destroyed the 1893 edifice of the Church of the Master. Again, for luxury condos. Child’s Memorial Church of God in Christ, where Ossie Davis, officiating at Malcolm X’s funeral, said: ‘He was our black shining prince, who loved us so, he gave his life for us’ … I was just shocked when that got torn down. The developer promised members there the moon but then got into a little ‘spot’, so it’s only an empty lot now.
Whatever celebrates that black people built this country, despite being held back, that’s fantastic!Cordell Cleare
“Harlem Hospital, that’s just as bad. We are talking about magnificent Georgian revival-style buildings, English bond brickwork and limestone with steel structures, from the early 1930s. And all the people in charge can think of is to raze them, claiming that keeping them, adapting them into affordable, much-needed hospital staff housing, would add $26m to whatever they did. Yeah, right!”
Even the Studio Museum In Harlem is in danger. A late 19th-century building by notable architects, remolded by acclaimed black designer J Max Bond, it is about to give way to British “starchitect” David Adjaye’s latest project. No one seems concerned that what will be lost formed the backdrop of Harlem’s greatness, or that what will come is by design an alien intrusion, unrelated to surroundings or history.Advertisement
“Nor is anyone bothered that area architects of color, who seldom see so prestigious a commission, were yet again passed over for an outsider,” said Alan Berman, a Harlem architect. “The same situation is at play across 125th Street.”
There, the National Urban League is erecting its new headquarters. Devised by white architects, this project for the nation’s oldest civil rights group has displaced local businesses. Ironically, 50 years ago the league secured discounted commercial spots for locals when a new state office building went up.
Speaking of irony, from 1920 to 1937 the best place blacks could stay in Harlem was not the elegant and luxurious Hotel Theresa, which opened in 1913. As at the best restaurants and nightclubs, black patrons were refused. So Alain Locke, Louis Armstrong, Satchel Page and Nancy Cunard, the English aristocrat who took a black lover, all stopped instead at the three-story Hotel Olga.
Now, the Rev Al Sharpton seems – a request for comment was not returned – on the verge of agreeing to level this forlorn shrine and replace it with his civil rights museum, a laudable enterprise but one meant to sit within a 50-storey condo tower. Despite the urging of community board 10 and groups like Save Harlem Now!, the landmarks commission has taken no action.
“It’s not right,” said Cordell Cleare, a district leader and city council contender. “Some dismiss landmarks as a triviality. But whatever celebrates that black people built this country, despite being held back, that’s fantastic!”
Written by: Michael Henry Adams
First published 23.06.19: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/23/harlem-historic-churches-new-york-city-personal-essay