Preservation Activists Disappointed Landmark Commission Did Not Save Historic Harlem Sites

As we continue our series on the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we venture uptown to Harlem, where preservation activists said they are disappointed that the commission did not save two historic sites. NY1’s Cheryl Wills filed the following report.

During the Harlem Renaissance, passersby along Seventh Avenue would routinely hear the Connie's Inn Orchestra warm up before a performance.

Back in those days, Connie's Inn and the Lafayette Theater were the crown jewels of the so-called Great Black Way. This was where legendary black performers like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller made big names for themselves.

The venues stood side by side between 131st and 132nd streets. Now, it's The Lafayette, a sprawling apartment complex.

"Our history and our memories are going away," said author Grant Harper Reid.

Reid said he's heartbroken that the Landmarks Commission didn't do more to protect Connie’s Inn and the Lafayette Theater. The author wrote in his book, "Rhythm For Sale," how his dapper grandfather, Leonard Harper, was a major power broker during The Harlem Renaissance and staged shows at both venues.

"I wanted to have a funeral that it was gone," he said. "I mean, I lived with that."

Seventh Avenue, or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, as it's now known, has been pretty much wiped clean of its glorious past, which prompted Harlem activist and author Michael Henry Adams to start a preservationist group called "Save Harlem Now."

"It's about the landmarks commission not doing their job," Adams said. "The Landmarks Preservation Commission 30 years ago identified a series of historic districts in Harlem, and one of them was a Lafayette Theater historic district. The theater was still there. The Connie's Inn building was still there. Nothing happened. They identified it. Nothing happened. And so our history and our heritage and our culture is being allowed to be decimated."

Meenakshi Srinivasan, the head of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said they have come a long way over the last 50 years, and they are placing a special focus on Harlem.

"While we do a significant amount of research on our buildings all over the city, I think it's helpful to have community groups that have identified these as cultural landmarks in their neighborhoods to bring it to our attention," Srinivasan said. "What we've done more recently is, when we've looked at historic districts, we have included as a part of our documentation their cultural significance. And if you look at the reports we did in 1965, they were two pages long, and if you looked at the reports that we do now, they're large and they include its cultural history. We're doing work in Harlem right now with Mount Morris District extension, and when we do the research, we'll be incorporating and identifying any kind of cultural overlay to the buildings as well in our description in our reports."

Activists uptown said only 3.6 percent of the buildings in Harlem are landmarked, and with new development on the rise in this neighborhood, activists say more culturally historic sites are disappearing every month. 

"Harlem is known throughout the world because of what African-Americans did here. And yet, it's disappearing day by day for no good reason other than greed, greed, greed," Adams said.

If there were ever two historical sites that should have been landmarked, preservationists said the Lafayette Theater and Connie's Inn are it. But now, activists have turned their wrath and their attention to Lenox Terrace around the corner. They don't want that complex to suffer the same fate.

NY1 caught up with basketball legend Cal Ramsey in front of Lenox Terrace. The six-building rental complex built in the late 1950s and '60s served as a middle-class refuge for black tenants who were unwelcome downtown.

"I can recall when they started building Lenox Terrace," Ramsey said. "I watched it grow, and I was lucky enough to get an apartment here."

Decades later, Ramsey still feels lucky to live in the doorman buildings that historically attracted dozens of African-American legends, from Nipsey Russell and Mahalia Jackson to current resident Rep. Charles Rangel. But the owners of the complex want to add massive residential towers to each of the six buildings, but preservationists want Lenox Terrace to be designated a landmark to stop the plan in its tracks.

"They are proposing to double the density here, the amount of apartments here to double with 30-story apartments. And that's just appalling," said Adams.

I think it's absolutely horrible," said Eva Tucholka, a resident of the Lenox Hill Houses. "They've had all kinds of meetings already, trying to convince people that it is a good thing, that we need all kinds of gentrification here."

Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright says Harlem is rapidly changing, but it's up to the people to stand up for their communities.

"Everywhere is historic, as far as I'm concerned, and if we don't do a better job in terms of marking our heritage and delineating and celebrating our heritage, I'm sorry to say we might lose it,” said Wright.

In between our tour of historic sites in Harlem, we decided to stop and have lunch at Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is a familiar face in Harlem. He says not enough historical sites in Harlem are landmarked.

"I think what people think is landmarked and what actually is landmarked can be two different things," he said "Because, is Apollo landmarked or not? Yes. But then there are other places that you just assume. Like in my mind, Sylvia’s should be landmarked."

Many are hopeful that a Harlem pool will be landmarked too. Surrounded by beautiful mosaic tiles dating back to the early 20th century, preservationists have been waiting for three years to see if the landmarks commission will approve teh majestic public pool on 134th Street, which is run by the city's Parks Department.

For most of his 65 years, Charles Jackson has watched the wrecking ball go block by block in his beloved Harlem, demolishing structures he wishes would have been saved.

"All up and down 7th Avenue, there's places that were famous - we had Small's Paradise on 135th, we had Well's across the street, you know, Club Baron – numerous things that we will never see again," he said. "It's going to be a loss. Harlem will never be the same."

For additional information about Historic Harlem Tours, Michael Henry Adams can be reached at mrmhadams@aol.com or at 212-862-2556 

For more information on Red Rooster Harlem, visit http://redroosterharlem.com/.

For more information on Lenox Terrace, visit http://www.olnick.com/residential/lenox-terrace.

For more information on the Hansborough Recreation Center, visit http://www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/recreationcenters/M131.

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