Why Harlem Now?

Event: A Community in Transition: Focus on Harlem
Location: Center for Architecture, 08.12.09
Speakers: Fred Schwartz, FAIA — Principal, Frederic Schwartz Architects; Barbara Wilks, FAIA, ASLA — Founding Partner & Principal, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture; Roberta Washington, FAIA – Principal, Roberta Washington Architects; Dan Lobitz, AIA — Partner, Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Respondents: Christine Haughney — Journalist, The New York Times; Zevilla Preston-Jackson – Principal, J-P Design; Wendell Walters – Assistant Commissioner for Housing Production, NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development
Moderator: Lance Jay Brown, FAIA
Introduction: Abby Suckle, FAIA — Founder & President, cultureNOW
Organizers: AIANY Planning & Urban Design Committee; cultureNOW


HarlemNOW map of cultural sites in Harlem.


In celebration of Harlem Week and the recently published HarlemNOW, a map/guide of art, architecture, and cultural sites in Harlem, a panel of architects living or working in Harlem discussed how new construction and renovations have affected the neighborhood. “Harlem has been undergoing a profound transformation as a wave of gentrification is overlaid on a vibrant cultural community,” said Abby Suckle, FAIA, founder and president of cultureNOW, an organization that recently added HarlemNOW to its list of cultural maps of NYC.

Roberta Washington, FAIA, has been a resident and a working architect in Harlem for more than 20 years. She recounted that, at the start of her practice, the city was selling dilapidated buildings for one dollar so they could be renovated as housing for the homeless. When Former President Bill Clinton moved his office to the neighborhood, the perception of Harlem changed from dangerous to trendy. Washington’s affordable and market-rate housing at 1400 Fifth Avenue, developed by Carlton Brown’s Full Spectrum Realty and designed for LEED-Silver certification, is noted for being Harlem’s first luxury residential building — and it happens to be located across the street from an NYC Housing Authority project.

Another neighbor of 1400 Fifth Avenue is the Kalahari, designed by Frederic Schwartz Architects, also for Carlton Brown. The building is 50% affordable and 50% market-rate housing, and is distinguished by every floor incorporating a combination of the two. The design references Harlem’s African-American roots by using the color palette and tribal patterns of the Kalahari Desert.

Wendell Walters, assistant commissioner for housing production at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), noted that budget pressures are forcing the agency to focus more on preservation than new construction citywide, not just in Harlem.

Barbara Wilks, FAIA, ASLA, principal at W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, showed “before” renderings of her West Harlem Piers Park, and proudly noted that if they were current photos we’d see a park packed with people instead of architecture. The site, formerly a parking lot for a Fairway grocery store, gives residents access to the waterfront. Wilks sought to make the park bigger by adding new sandbar-like piers. The project sought input from local organizations including We Act for Environmental Justice, a non-profit agency that has since been priced-out of its office.

They’re not the only ones. Zevilla Preston-Jackson, principal of J-P Design and a third generation Harlem resident, noted that many commercial tenants are getting “squeezed out” of the neighborhood, including both herself and Washington. According to Christine Haughney, a reporter for The New York Times covering the “Frontiers” beat, “money rushed into Harlem in recent years. In 2007, no brownstone sold for under $1 million — even ones in the worst shape.” But now developers are having trouble financing projects, and retailers are seeing their revenues drop 30%, while rents keep going up. “The landlords haven’t seen the reality of the situation,” she exclaimed.

Preston-Jackson worries about gentrification. “Harlem has to be more than the buildings. Places are important because they are repositories of history and culture, but there’s an energy on the street from the people.” Fred Schwartz, FAIA, bemoaned the loss of local store owners: “125th Street is losing the ‘juice.’ It’s the same as the Lower East Side or SoHo.”

Perhaps Harlem will get an infusion of “juice” with the new Museum of African Art, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), now under construction along Museum Mile. Even though the museum has produced more than 50 widely-acclaimed exhibitions and catalogues exploring Africa’s artistic traditional and cultural heritage, it has led a nomadic existence for the past 25 years. As explained by Don Lobitz, AIA, a partner at RAMSA, the permanent museum will be part of a residential building, and will include a 210-seat theater for film and dance presentations, and a staircase within a drum-shaped volume.