On the Harlem Watch: Why The City Should Rezone the Shit out of 125th Street

29Feb08

In which The Gay Recluse takes a field trip to Harlem and makes the case that the city should rezone the shit out of 125th Street.

Lately there has been a lot of press — from Curbed, The Times and others — about the city’s proposal to rezone 125th Street in Harlem. Much of this unfortunately buys into the stereotypical view that Harlem is filled with nothing but poor black folks on the verge of being thrown off a cliff by a small cabal of evil (white) businessmen in league with the mayor. Of all the articles we have read, only one — in the City Section of The Times a few weeks ago — describes anything close to the truth of the situation, which is that the battle being waged there (as everywhere else in the city world) has a lot less to do with race than class (i.e., money). In fact, it comes as news to many that much of the “evil” gentrification is coming at the hands of middle and upper-class African-Americans with as much right to make claims to the cultural heritage of Harlem as anyone else.

Particularly problematic are the uncritical posts we’ve been seeing from writers in the local “blogosphere” who now seek to rush in to defend Harlem from the city’s plans. Having apparently never visited the neighborhood themselves (or looked at the plan in any detail), they feel quite comfortable holding forth on the dangers of gentrification for the Harlem “community.” A good example of this comes today from Lost City (based in Cobble Hill, New Jersey Brooklyn) who tells us that “[t]he plan is stultifyingly stupid and misguided…I am surprised that somebody, anybody could think this was a good idea. The African-American community of Harlem sticks it out through thick and (mostly) thin, remaining in place so as to hold on to its history and heritage in the once-glorious, but long-blighted neighborhood, and how does the City repay them? By opening the gate to blue-chip development.”

Ok, so we live in Washington Heights, which is not exactly the same as Harlem, but is close and “uptowny” enough that we would like to surprise Lost City (and others like him) by saying that we not only think the City’s plan is a good idea, but we crave blue-chip development. Blue-chip development? Uptown? You’re saying there’s too much of it? The fact is, we don’t even know what it is. (We feel like a native who has just been told by an American that we shouldn’t want television or any other modern convenience because it’s really “bad” for us.)

Let’s pause for a moment and take a closer look at the City plan, which can be found in full here. The “Main Goals” include:

1) The zoning proposal seeks to sustain and enhance the revitalization of 125th Street as a unique Manhattan Main Street. Key to the zoning proposal is establishing a new special purpose district for the 125th Street corridor. The special purpose district allows the proposed zoning regulations to respond to specific conditions with customized density, building form controls and use regulations. The proposal incorporates a balanced rezoning approach that creates incentives for new mixed-use development where appropriate and that protects the corridor’s existing scale and character, particularly along those portions of the corridor where there is occupied housing. The zoning proposal seeks also to expand opportunities for the creation of housing, including affordable housing, by increasing the density allowed for residential development in certain areas and by offering an inclusionary housing bonus in the areas where increases in residential density are proposed.

2) The zoning proposal seeks to support the growth of 125th Street as a premier arts, culture and entertainment destination. A mechanism is included to support the creation of uses that would complement existing and future arts and cultural venues and expand the range of activities along the corridor. The proposal also includes regulations to promote distinctive signage that would reinforce the street’s arts, culture and entertainment character.

3) In keeping with 125th Street’s pedestrian vibrancy, the zoning proposal seeks to improve the pedestrian experience by ensuring that active uses occupy the ground floor of new developments and that their street frontage includes some degree of transparency. In connection with these requirements, the proposal would also limit the ground floor frontage of banks and similar ‘non-active’ uses.

Does this seem “stultifyingly stupid” to you? Does it not take steps to provide affordable housing and to enhance the urban quality of the street while maintaining its historic character? If anything, it seems eminently reasonable to us, given that 125th Street is currently marked by 1) shitty — no, the shittiest possible — retail stores and fast-food restaurants, 2) abandoned property and storefronts, and 3) great swaths of post-war architecture with about as much interest as a New Jersey strip mall. (See pix below.) We would also like to note that the City has no plans to alter the few grand dames of 125th Street, namely “historic buildings such as the Apollo Theater, Theresa Towers and the Corn Exchange which are registered New York City Landmarks.” (More pix below.)

Much has also been made of Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden’s statement in The Times to the effect that she went to a Roberta Flack concert at the Apollo some time ago and was told by a friend afterward that they should go downtown to eat because there was nothing in the vicinity. “There should be a million different eateries around there, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to frame and control growth on 125th Street,” Ms. Burden said, according to The Times.

Lost City’s response to this is typical in both tone and substance: “If I had gone to that Roberta Flack concert and was hungry afterwards, I would have known where to eat. I would have known where to go. Anyone who knew the first thing about Harlem would have. The place may not have had white tablecloths or a snooty hostess or careful lighting, but it would have had good food, some of it of a kind you can’t find the better of anywhere in the City. Sylvia’s, Amy Ruth’s, Rao’s and Patsy’s, just to begin with the legendary places. There is wonderful Senegalese food to be found. A Zagat’s will tell you about plenty more.”

Umm, somehow we don’t get the sense that Lost City has spent a lot of any time on 125th Street, particularly at or around midnight, when we can assume the concert ended. Sylvia’s — which is two very long (and at midnight, desolate) blocks away — closes at 10:30pm (even if we did want to eat at a place known for attracting the tour buses); Amy Ruth’s is on 116th and Lennox (even further away); and meanwhile, Rao’s and Patsy’s are in East Harlem, not even walkable from the Apollo. As for Zagat, we invite you to crunch the numbers: when you compare the number of Zagat-rated restaurants to the geographical size of Harlem, you find that it has 99 percent fewer entries per square mile than any neighborhood south of 110th Street. What does this mean in practical terms? Ask anyone who lives uptown what they think of local restaurants and shopping and we guarantee in response a facial expression that can only be described as haunted. The last thing we need is “help” from those who want to protect us from getting the same kind of urban services they inevitably take for granted.

“Save the beauty supply and 99 cent stores!”

“Unmatched architectural grandeur and significance!”

“Save the shells!”

“Save these shells, too!”

“Evil gentrifiers offer Harlem fresh bread and coffee!”

“Look what Settepani did to the block!!!! (Only six more shells!) (Note the evil gentrifier/fag with baby carriage!!!)”

“Evil gentrifier pushes out empty storefront (only 6,453 remaining)!”

Hotel Theresa (surrounded by crap.)

The Koch Building (Note the excellent restaurant cool store vacant storefront in the middle.)

The Apollo (Note all of the great restaurants within walking distance.)

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