Local passport: Harlem

Photo: John Weiss

April 10, 2011

THE CORN EXCHANGE BUILDING is one of those sad reminders of what was and what could be. Once a gabled and elegant red sandstone building, circa 1883, it was a symbol of Harlem’s come-uppance. Built as the Mount Morris Bank, later purchased by the Corn Exchange Bank, it always had a sense of prosperity. It was built by Lamb and Rich, the architectural firm that designed Pratt Institute’s Victorian Renaissance main building and other National Register-worthy buildings.

The upper floors were luxury apartments not seen in that neighborhood, in that day. It was Harlem’s own little piece of a Park Avenue lifestyle.

I know this only from pictures. Today the building, at East 125th Street and Park Avenue, is a stump, battered by a fire in 1997 that took off the top floors, then a demolition in 2009 that lopped off another two.

The city Economic Development Corp. is now soliciting redevelopment proposals for the building—or what’s left of it. When I was reporting on this story for The Wall Street Journal (April 9), I asked community leaders what they envisioned for the spot and how to reclaim some of its  glory. There was some nostalgic speculation—how grand would it be to reconstruct something that signaled the building’s past? Most people I spoke with thought that was a pipe dream.

Nearly everyone I spoke with thought it ought to reflect a plan of a few years back—also a pipe dream. Long-time community activist Ethel Bates, credited for the campaign to preserve Marcus Garvey Park,  purchased the building in 2003 with the intention of establishing an nonprofit culinary school that trained and employed local residents. She came under fire by city officials for failing to preserve the city-landmarked building as obligated under the terms of the sale.

By all accounts, Ms. Bates was in over her head. She entered the project with no real estate or finance experience. She had a series of business partners who backed out of the project. She spent $300,000 of her own money trying to stabilize the building and keep city officials at bay. In the end, her plan and the building crumbled.

Community leaders are hesitant to criticize Ms. Bates. They told me she was handed a problem child from the get-go, and then not given the resources to succeed. And, now many are suspicious about what will happen here next; few think it’s going to be a community-friendly development.

Garry Anthony Johnson, an architect whose office looks out at across the street at the blighted building, is familiar with the history. He served on Community Board 11’s economic development committee and is concerned with the rate of development in Harlem and the lack of preservation ethic.

“I dare say there’s nowhere else in the city that a landmarked property would have been demolished with the speed in which it was done [here],” he told me. “Harlem does get ignored in terms of the processes that take place for development.”

Mr. Johnson points out other historic sites in the city that received respectful attention such as the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, properly stabilized while it awaits revitalization in the Southpoint Plan, part of the Trust for Public Land.

He says instead of preservation, inappropriate development—buildings out of human scale and of poorer material—is what’s happening in his neighborhood in the name of progress.

“The population in Harlem isn’t as interested in their environment—it’s more about survival. I think everyone knows that, and  … they take advantage of that,” he said. “Nowhere else in the city does a building go up with a stucco façade and get labeled luxury. All over Harlem, that’s considered luxury. The materials are poorer quality, the idea was build them and people will come.”

Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation Inc., agrees. She said she’s tired of  deep-pocketed developers “bulldozing through our neighborhood” without regard to local history.

“People with money and fortune and resources—those are the ones that will be able to follow the [city] requirements, but what does that do to that corner?

“Many see 125th Street as not just a retail front, but a cultural corridor, it is a gateway to central Harlem,” she said. “We already have plenty of glass boxes on 125th street: we don’t need another. We need something that honors our history and provide real opportunities.”

This is a little of a complicated back story, and it’s only the beginning of an overdue debate.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Local passport: Harlem

  1. man, I miss my Brooklyn days! Great post… 🙂

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