Compromise? No, Harlem Betrayed

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[Notes From The Frontline]


Take a walk Uptown and you’re likely to hear someone lament: “The only color that matters in Harlem today, is green.”

Just as often, the very same people like to complain: “Why didn’t Black people buy in Harlem 30 years ago, when it was cheap?”

They don’t stop to recollect the area’s history of iron-clad red-lining, with banks, reluctant at best, to lend to any prospective buyer here. Apparently, they’re also somehow blissfully unaware of surveys calculating how even now, on average, Blacks earn only 60 cents for every dollar made by whites.

Such revisionist takes on the past can seem insufferable. Consider enthusiastic grating comments of Planning Commissioner Amanda Mortimer Burden about the proposed rezoning of 125th Street: “ It‘s a milestone…Something we haven‘t done before… ”

One thing is undisputable: it’s hard not to be impressed by a commitment from the city, reserving 46 percent of 3,858 projected new apartments here for residents making, in some cases, as little as $30,750.

Alas, the details tell the true storey. First, Community Board 10 were adamant that there ought to be no new housing on Harlem’s famed shopping street, period. Looking closer at this unwanted housing, it’s significant to observe that all apartments for the wealthy will be condos owned by tenants. This is not the case regarding most of the “affordable” units. And, if 19 storey apartment towers are better than the original proposed 29 storey skyscrapers, remember, the community wanted any future buildings limited to just 13 floors.

In addition, there’s no new plan for Harlem’s preservation, so none of the area’s historic buildings that local people wanted protected have been made landmarks, in the proposal.

Accomplishing these hotly contested successes are, at best, of only limited value. Moreover, the example of Adam Clayton Powell’s and Malcolm X’s activism makes it plain: with only a little greater resolve, much, much more than this was possible.

So what if such reasoning invites dismissal as an alarmist, objurgate obstructionist? Apparently, plenty of disgruntled folks from the neighborhood are all too happy to respond, “guilty as charged!”.

“The truth is,” laments one Uptown resident, Ron Lester, “ these so called ‘compromises’ are all just too damn little and they’re too darn late to help any Black people.”

“Worse,” Lester states, echoing the sentiments of many, “ this mess isn‘t happening either for the first time or in any vacuum. There are lots of other instances when our leaders have sold out and-or backed projects that diminish our place here, our interest and our heritage. ”

Certainly, one glaring example of the wrong-headed efforts of Harlem big-wigs happened early last year.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, all over America, low rise, entertainment complexes equipped with theatres, restaurants, meeting rooms and dance halls arose. One of Harlem’s most notable, the Renaissance Casino, was completed by 1924. It was designed in the Hispano-Moresque style , featuring exquisite tiles and fancy brickwork, by prominent theatre architect Harry Creighton Ingalls. From opening day it provided the venue for the Black community’s most elegant parties and exciting sports and political events.

Before the 1990’s, when the abandoned and derelict structure served as the “Taj Mahal,” a hellish crack-den in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever movie, it had been a highly cherished spot. “ The ‘Renny’ was where the fantastic Harlem Ren’s basketball team played. Harry Willis the boxer fought there and me, I had a hell-of-a good time dancing upstairs,” recalls 94 year old Harold Thomas.

What he and most others don’t remember is that the two-section, block-long structure on 7th Avenue, between 137th and 138th Streets, was built by a partnership of Caribbean immigrants. Followers of Marcus Garvey, they sought to provide Harlemites with the very best facilities.

But, due to the Great Depression, they lost the Renny. When new white owners replaced Black workers with Whites, it was all too much to take for Joseph H. Sweeny. President of the complex’s former builders and owners, the Montserrat native walked home near Striver’s Row, put his head in the oven and ended his life.

Fast forward, January 9, 2007. It’s early on Tuesday morning as a well dressed, well fed delegation of Harlem makers and shakers enter a room mid-way up the Municipal Building, where relatively few African Americans ever darken the door.

Few realize how such people are as culpable in Harlem’s transformation as Amanda M. Burden. On this auspicious day Inez Dickens played only a supporting role. The leader of the pack is the eminent attorney, Gordon Davis.

He used to be the City Park’s Commissioner. Now, he’s acting for the Abyssinian Development Corporation, an arm of the famous 200 year old Baptist Church. To cash in on Harlem’s status as a hot place to live, they plan to erect a luxury apartment tower.

En-mass, the most prominent members Harlem’s haute-bourgeoisie were present to lend their support, to join the demand: “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES COULD THE LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION, DARE LANDMARK THE RENNY, THE APARTMENT’S BUILDING SITE.”

If you want to know just how unprecedented it is that the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, C. Virginia Fields, Bill Lynch and David Dinkins should all go together Downtown, to keep a unique monument to Harlem’s black past from being protected and celebrated, consider this; over the past 25 years, one cannot recall a single instance, when even one of them ever appeared there as an advocate to save any Harlem landmark.

“Love of money, truly is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim. 6:10; Heb. 13:5)

Not unlike the story of Christ expelling the money lenders from the temple or August Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, today’s development of the Renny is a conflicted human contest. Unfortunately, life only rarely resembles art. Rather than redemption through an embrace and reverence of our legacy, at the former Renaissance Casino, the low pursuit of profit prevails.

The southern theatre section will give way to new apartments. But, we’re reminded, 20 percent of the units will be reserved for people with moderate incomes.

“Imagine,” laughs Nellie Bailey, noted civil rights and housing activist, “they’re actually proud of that tired 20 percent fig-leaf.”

In poverty stricken Harlem, the fig-leaf, is, ironic enough to inspire nervous tittering. Far more poignant, is thinking about all the rest of the residents.

A generation or so from now, having paid top dollar, to whom does one imagine they will sell? It’s unlikely to be an Abyssinian Church member and, as goes this building, then another and another---so goes the fabled African American Cultural Capital.


Columnist and historian Adams chronicles the transformation of Harlem on a regular basis. Reach him at [email protected]
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