Harlem: Beaten To A Pulp!

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[Notes From The Frontlines]


Given a choice, wouldn’t you prefer to go to tea, to eat delectable cake and smoked salmon sandwiches with a glass of port, as opposed to demonstrating in the streets?

So would I!

Then, why abandon the fireside, for the barricades? Alas, what else can one do? Otherwise, widely celebrated, African-American culture and history, as embodied by the historic buildings where our ancestors lived, worked and worshiped, is all but ignored and denigrated.

Think of it, we still live in a world where though most of TriBeCa, SoHo and Greenwich Village are protected City Landmark Districts, most of Harlem and all of Saint Alban’s, Queens, remain vulnerable to the whims of greedy developers.

Taking exception to Bert Williams’, Lena Horne’s, Jackie Robinson’s, Hazel Scott’s, Edna Thomas’ and Scott Joplin’s houses not being recognized or protected, while those of their white counterparts are, sooner or later, you act. Initially, you politely write letters, circulate petitions, attend conferences, host receptions for would-be colleagues, write books and mount exhibitions.

Yet, no matter who you are, or what you do, it’s difficult to succeed, to keep from being misunderstood. Sometimes a cultivated outlook is mistaken for weakness and invariably dismissive treatment makes one increasingly radical.

“Of course you’re an optimist,” says my dear friend, District Leader, April Tyler. “Otherwise you wouldn’t work so hard to try to save great buildings from the past, as a gift to the future!”

But, disinclined, from long experience to have very high expectations of human nature, I wonder, “just how optimistic am I?”

“Don’t you ever have anything positive to say?”

This is what a reader wrote me last week: “All you preservationists ever seem to do, is to complain. You want to freeze everything as it is and are always trying to stop other people from making anything better!”

When he profiled me, in the New Yorker, several years ago, Adam Gopnick, had a different take. Regarding my efforts to preserve and restore Harlem’s largely unprotected landmarks he wrote, “Michael Henry Adams, not only sees the glass as half full; he sees a glass where others see only a puddle of stagnate water, spilled long, long ago.”

What accounts for such divergent assessments? Well with Gopnick, it’s plain. Not living here, during his infrequent flying visits, somehow he miss-read my effusive welcome of 20 years worth of extraordinary improvements.

Sure, just like him, I also see the litter-strewn vacant lots and derelict, empty buildings adjacent to Harlem’s million construction sites. But, to fully appreciate how enhanced Harlem has become, he had to have seen it before.

A short generation ago, who ever dared to imagine that in so little time, there would ever be a Fairway here, the best supper-market in town! Many of us might have yearned for restaurants like The Hudson River Grill, cafes like Spoonbread and Sette Panni, or shops like N; but soon we realistically despaired of them ever actually coming.

What’s more, who on Lenox Avenue, passing the deliberately long truncated steeple of that 1887 Victorian-Gothic masterpiece, the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church, dreamed that within our lifetime, it would be painstakingly restored? Not I! However, with the help of the Landmark Conservancy, it has been renovated, magnificently! Bravo!

Nearby, on Lenox at 126th Street, right down to the mutilated engaged Ionic columns, the NBA has unusually utilized the National Investment Tax Credit, associated with land-marked properties, to restore the old Park & Tilford Building.

Built in 1907, before Prohibition, it served as Harlem’s most deluxe grocery store. Thirty years latter, it had been remolded for Dr. Charles Ford. Trinidadian native, Ford had worked as a laborer on the Panama Canal before going to NYU as a night student.

Heading the newly-organized United Mutual Life Insurance Company, his designer was John Lewis Wilson, the first Black architect to ever enroll at Columbia.

Certainly changes like these warrant recognition and praise. They are worthy endeavors that underscore how Black heritage is second to none. Because they are the same structures our forbearers knew, they provide us with a look back in time at their lost world as nothing else can.

Some get it and others, sadly, don’t. At times, even knowing people pretty well, is no assurance of any understanding. Time and again, Harlem’s significant role, both as the African American Cultural Capital and as a multi-cultural Mecca, as highly flavored and richly textured as the tortes served for deserts by immigrant German Jews and Irish Catholics living here a century ago, is overlooked.

During Black History Month, at the Museum of the City of New York, kicking and screaming, I was dragged out. The occasion was a symposium--Preserving New York: Then and Now.

With a title like that, you’d think that historic Harlem might be addressed by at least one of the all-white panelists? Especially since, as early as 1938, Black homeowners here scored one of the nation’s first preservation victories.

Robert Mosses, who dominated regional government in those days, had had the brilliant idea of demolishing Striver’s Row. Two blocks of model townhouses, “The Row” was built on 138th and 139th Streets, between 7th and 8th Avenues, in the early 1890’s. In place of decorous Neo-Classical facades by Stanford White and other Gilded Era architects, Mosses envisioned “a modern, middle class housing project.”

“Derided by the envious as, ‘living above their station’, the people who resided here then, were an accomplished and determined lot,” explains acclaimed historian, David Levering Lewis. “Fortunately, when it was a question of losing theses exquisite abodes they had worked so hard for, residents like Dr. Louis T. Wright, socialite Mrs. Norman Cotton and architect Vertner Woodson Tandy, who all lived on 139th Street, weren’t having any of it!”

Among the earliest of the area’s few historic districts, today’s Striver’s Row, boasts multi-million dollar houses that sell at a premium. Their harmonious architecture also inspires awe among tourists from abroad. It was the example of Harlemites who lived here and others who followed, like Harold Dolly, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Adair and Josephine Jones, well documented in the Times and other respected journals, that were also helpful in establishing the Historic Preservation movement.

An elegant, Upper East Sider, of ample independent means, Susan Henshaw Jones, the museum’s President, who ordered me removed, is an old friend. In times past she had invited me to curate two exhibitions and named me to the museum’s program committee. Naturally, the large dark, young, muscular, uniformed security guard ejecting me, was Black.

I have attended these events for over two decades. If two or three Blacks among the audiences of 300 or so is deemed sufficiently diverse, Black speakers are hardly ever considered. In this case, introducing two august White speakers, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of the Tisch Art School at NYU, provided a fleeting dash of color.

It’s their smugness that eventually gets you. All day long people prattled on and on. Over and over, as they recounted some gruesome highway proposed in the past, for the Village, or an ill-advised decision made by the Planning Commission, for Brooklyn Heights, 30 years ago. I thought: “Hell, that or its equivalent, is exactly what’s happening to Harlem, right now!”

Impatiently awaiting a lull, unable to stand it any longer, finally, I stood and declaimed: “Don‘t any of you realize, with no Black audience or speakers, ignoring all that‘s happening to Harlem, here and now, how hollow your protest of never again sounds?”

“Shut up!” “Sit down;” hostile responses were spit out from every side.

“Michael, you are losing your friends!!,” I heard one particularly paternalistic panelist shout out from the stage.

“I have no friends!” I cried in response.

This was made more than clear by my “friend,” the Museum President. No sooner had I replied to her vehement command, “I will not be silenced by your well intentioned bigotry!” did I hear a deployment of, “Security!!”

Dragged by the powerful Black youth, up the aisle, toward the exit, shouting, how wrong the entire exclusive symposium was, I knew soon, if I couldn’t think up something, I’d be out the door and on the street.

Suddenly, it came to me; Dr. King and Bayard Rustin’s tactic of non-violence. In a second, all 220 pounds of me fell limp, but defiantly denouncing, to the floor.

That, might have been, that. Except, what was I to do when the 350 pound guard attempted to pick me up? Kicking him off was all I could come up with.

“Go ahead, kick me again, brother-man, so that I can beat you to a pulp!!” he hissed loudly.

What was I supposed to say to that? Mercifully, an even bigger guard I‘d befriended was near, so I felt confident enough to sincerely offer the challenge, “Go ahead, my Black brother, beat me to a pulp. Beat me at the behest of the White man!”

I got away with only a cut lip. But what about Harlem?

At this very second, in terms of our heritage, our culture, the very places where we live and the special spot where we hoped our descendants might live, we are all being “beaten to a pulp!”

Moreover, as at the Museum of the City of New York, ironically, it’s Black people, “leaders,” who are all too eager to implement that beating. Indeed, as City Council member Robert Jackson demonstrated, when he recently demanded that protesters be thrown out of City Hall, neither rapacious developers nor their allies, are by any means, exclusively white.

After reading this, perhaps, as I do, you also find this column’s current working name, just a bit too tame?

If so, please be kind enough to submit a new, more appropriate name, by telephone to (212) 481-7745 or e-mail message to Milton@blackstarnews. Be sure to include your name and a means of reaching you.

The winner will be presented with a personally inscribed copy of my award-winning book, “Harlem Lost and Found: An Architectural and Social History,” plus a guided Harlem walking tour for the school group of your choice.

Good luck.

Link to the book: 

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Also visit out sister publications Harlem Business News www.harlembusinessnews.com publications and The Groove Music magazine www.thegroovemag.com


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