Culture

How One Community Is Using a Surprising and Successful Tool to Fight Gentrification

A group of concerned citizens is taking action to preserve East Harlem's vibrant spirit.

Gentrification in East Harlem.
Photo Credit: Carlos Martinez / Flickr Creative Commons

Ten years ago, East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, was a vibrant, predominantly Latin American neighborhood. People from Puerto Rico and Mexico lived there, as well as people hailing from Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic. African Americans lived there too, and there was a population of elderly Italian Americans. White Americans made up about 3% of the population. Almost all of the residents—even in the single-family, owner-occupied late-19th century townhouses on sleepy Pleasant Avenue—were working class.

But the last 10 years have seen significant development take hold. Where multiple generations of diverse families had called East Harlem home, upwardly mobile young white people have started moving into—and then moving out of—the neighborhood. Often, it’s said on the street, they leave because of the neighborhood’s proximity to NYCHA housing and its black and brown tenants—East Harlem is home to the largest concentration of public housing in the city of New York.

This upwardly mobile transient class has been steadily driving up rents. While a two-bedroom in 2007 could be found for $1500 a month or less, today two bedrooms start at about $2500 a month. A Costco, Home Depot, Target, and an Applebee’s have moved into an old vacant lot off Pleasant Avenue, making the once-quiet neighborhood with small local businesses loud with traffic and people from outside the neighborhood. Franchises are replacing the family business storefronts. Other vacant lots, and single-family homes, have been purchased and developed, with modern condo buildings rising in their place.

With this influx of people and franchises, the old neighborhood is losing its architecture, its history and its culture. 

Now a group of concerned citizens is taking action to preserve the neighborhood’s vibrant Latin American spirit. While many are also involved in local coalitions and demonstrations, and are vocally expressing their opposition to the city’s rezoning plans that would further gentrify the neighborhood, Landmark East Harlem is working quietly and methodically, seeking historic district and landmark status on properties across the neighborhood.

Kathy Benson is a founding member of the group, whose purpose is to give the community an ongoing voice in how the neighborhood is developed, and to support development that preserves its unique cultural and historic significance.

“We’re more proactive than reactive,” Benson explains. “We didn’t form because we knew rezoning was happening. We came together because we knew [historic and cultural preservation] was important.”

But there is an added benefit to their work: If a building is on the state or national register, or if it’s in process with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), “It gives us some level of protection. So if a developer is looking at a site, and thinking about tearing it down, it will cause the developer to find a different site, or to renovate the interior rather than tear it down. There are lots and lots of buildings we don’t want to lose. They have architectural and cultural significance.”

“It’s a lengthy process,” she adds, pointing to St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on East 117th Street. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s first public hearing on the building took place in 1966, and only one organization testified on its behalf. It then got pushed farther and farther down the list of properties to be considered for landmark status and wasn’t subject to another public hearing until 2015, when it attracted much more support. It was finally designated in June 2016.” 

Had Landmark East Harlem or a similar organization been around earlier, St. Paul’s might have been landmarked years ago, Benson says, as they could have rallied the community to testify at the hearings: “Much of our work involves educating the community about landmarking as a way to preserve the neighborhood… to inform the people of East Harlem that there are officially designated landmarks in their neighborhood and that there is a chance that more buildings and even clusters of buildings that they care about can be preserved with their support.”

If the Landmarks Preservation Commission thinks a property merits consideration, it goes on a list, and then people in the neighborhood are able to testify on behalf of landmarking. Currently there are only 22 designated historic buildings in the neighborhood, and no historic district.

One of the sites Landmark East Harlem is seeking status for is the former Banca Commerciale Italiana on Second Avenue and 116th St., a property that sat vacant for years, but now houses a 7-Eleven. They are also seeking historic status for seven brick houses across from the Harlem Court House, at least one of which, according to local lore, was populated by working girls who serviced the courthouse judges.

And they are seeking historic status for Taino Towers, a federal housing complex completed in 1976 that’s comprised of four 35-story towers, each named for a different Taino leader. The complex “came out of the great society and war on poverty,” says Benson, and was, at the time, “called luxury housing for the poor.”

The group is also working to nominate areas for historic district status on state and national historic registers. “It takes quite a bit of research,” says Benson. “You need to know the owner of every single property within a district, and then the state sends out a letter to every single owner explaining that their building is situated in a nominated historic district.”

The process on the city level is similarly long for historic districts. “The Historic Districts Council told us that it would take at least 10 years. On the state/national level, the process does not usually take as long, but the research involved is similarly detailed and time-consuming. For city, state and national designation, the owner of the building must be in favor of landmarking/historic district designation,” though Benson notes there is a petition process to landmark a building over an owner’s objections.

The advantage to landmarking—aside from preserving cultural heritage and putting developers on hold for what could be years—is that a building’s exterior is preserved and renovations must adhere to the original look. Though a building’s owner might see that as disadvantageous, to a community that wants its space preserved, it is meaningful.

A potential problem, however, is when the LPC drags its heels.

“The Landmarks Preservation Commission has not done anything to advance any landmarking proposals in advance of rezoning,” says Chris Cirillo, executive director of Lott Community Development. Cirillo points to other, whiter neighborhoods where LPC “landmarked some buildings to protect them” before they were rezoned for further development.

An LPC spokesperson says they are “continuing to study the area in conjunction with the rezoning proposal to identify eligible properties for future consideration.”

Kathy Benson stresses that Landmark East Harlem also wants “to call the attention of the city, state and national preservation entities to the other architectural, historical, and cultural treasures of the neighborhood. And we want developers to be aware that we value the look and feel of the neighborhood as it is, that we are actively seeking to preserve its treasures, and that we invite well-designed, contextual new development that will enhance rather than destroy the community we love.”

And that labor of love might just help preserve what is still a vibrant community.

Valerie Vande Panne is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Politico, and many other publications.

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