Last week, the Columbia Spectator published an op-ed entitled "Is Columbia really destroying Harlem’s authenticity?" Written by first-year student Cristian Zaharia, it supports the school's expansion into Harlem, which was made possible via eminent domain. Zaharia argues that Harlem's authentic culture is not African-American, but one of ever-changing cultures dating back to the Dutch, and that the expansion "will be the start of a new, fresh era for the neighborhood."
On his Facebook page, Harlem historian and activist Michael Henry Adams wrote a reasoned and impassioned response. It is reproduced here in full, with his permission:
Adams arrested while protesting the demolition of Harlem's Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, photo by Antwan Minter
Harlem has numerous lovely old buildings reflecting varied cultures, even former synagogues. But throughout history, nothing about Harlem has made it renown, world-wide, apart from black people. One may talk all one likes about other earlier Harlems populated by people who were not black. By contrast, these white Harlems were insignificant. African Americans alone--our culture, drive, and creativity--have accorded Harlem a status as fabled and fabulous as that held by Paris or Rome. Everything, anything else is superfluous, even meaningless, in terms of Harlem's well-deserved fame.
Entertaining any illusions about the possibility of preserving an authentic Harlem, absent African Americans, it's instructive to look downtown. What survives in Greenwich Village or Hell's Kitchen, to suggest an earlier historic black identity today? And so, yes, Columbia and by extension unknowing or unwitting students--through displacement and gentrification--are rapidly helping to destroy Harlem's irreplaceable heritage and rich legacy.
You are not alone. Many blacks, beguiled by white dollars, are just as eager to replace the houses, churches, schools, stores, theatres and other buildings where Langston Hughes, Georgette Harvey, A'Lelia Walker and other Harlem luminaries, lived, worked, played and prayed, with more luxury condominiums.
Indeed, whatever one has to suggest, even if it's making a black congregation's church into a private school for your kids, or a mansion just for you, they are cool with it. A fig leaf of 20% "affordable" housing, and an historic name, derived from some black hero, for the new condo building or the street or park nearby are nice, but hardly essential. Landmarking and preservation that enhance neighborhoods downtown are antithetical to them. "How much longer will blacks exert political sway over Harlem?" they reason, "while whites are buying, we had better sell up."
A few brave voices contest Columbia University’s contention that their Harlem expansion plans will be universally beneficial. "It's nothing but rubbish," says distinguished and scholarly architectural historian Robin Middleton, who formerly taught at Cambridge before joining the faculty at Columbia. "Columbia's plans are simply monstrous, like an Orwellian, Stalinist, or dystopian campus of factories. No one touting how much they cherish 'design excellence,' could possibly approve of what they are doing, unless of course if it were their job to do so. And, it is, isn't it?"
It was around the connected issues of Harlem being up-zoned, and observing Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden much more closely, that I began to see who she really is and how it shapes what's at stake. Did it help the homeless to provide for evermore $900,000 condos, in a community where the yearly wage for half the residents is less than $36,000? Is it beneficial to small local merchants, allowing for 25-story towers where 19th-century buildings with just 6 floors once prevailed? What's the point of confiscating thriving businesses that want to be a part of a new revitalized Harlem? Why were they "compensated" at a rate pegged to the value of property prior to the zoning change allowing greater density? Why clear 17 acres, solely for Columbia's use, and leave only 2 of dozens of historic structures? Ought not the sole Planning Commission vote against this ill-conceived venture, cast by Karen Philips, a black woman who lives in Harlem, to have influenced the chair, who said, "The community is not going to buy in, unless it reflects their culture?"
For a long while, it seemed as if the teeming numbers of poor people here would mean Harlem's and Manhattanville's salvation. Reliable voters, housing project residents seemed sure to elect legislators who would act in their interests. Given the great numbers of low-income people here and the enmity that many affluent have to living among such people, it seemed as if gentrification might just be held at bay.
Now the marketplace seems poised to pressure the elimination of such oasis of affordable civility. More and more affordable housing and other matters affecting the poor are deemed issues only possible to address by warmly embracing the concerns and requirements of the rich. In a city of more than eight million, an utterly unwinnable solution to the massive problem of housing that's unaffordable to most is underway.
Seemingly commendable, government in partnership with developers, is making inclusion of "affordable" housing a condition for building. Ironically though, on average, 80% of all new housing is targeted for those who already have the greatest amount of choice, people who make up fewer than 20% of the population. Conversely, the "affordable" component, typically 20% of units in a new structure, will never meet an ever-growing demand among the city's working poor.
What will remain when it's all finished? No one can say for certain. Some romantically hope for the best. That, miraculously, the African American Cultural Capital at Harlem will somehow survive. Very likely, however, what's in store for Harlem instead is yet another Manhattan community like every other: one boasting the same stores, restaurants, banks, condos, and rich people. As one writer observed, "the same three stores, for the same two people."
Michael Henry Adams is an accomplished writer, lecturer, historian, tour guide, and activist. Born in Akron, Ohio, he lives in Harlem. Michael trained at Columbia University's graduate historic preservation program. His books include "Harlem, Lost and Found: An Architectural and Social History, 1765-1915," and "Style and Grace: African Americans at Home." Currently, he's at work on the forthcoming "Homo Harlem: A Chronicle of Lesbian and Gay Life in the African American Cultural Capital, 1915-1995." He is a passionate supporter of historic preservation, for the Casino Renaissance the fire watch tower restoration and Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker's house at Irvington. Dismayed by Harlem's piecemeal destruction, he is seeking to establish a preservation advocacy organization to Save Harlem Heritage. For additional info, call 212-862-2556.
You can also follow him on Twitter: @harlemhellion
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