N.Y. / Region



February 21, 2008, 2:05 pm

Should All of 125th Street Be Declared Historic?

HarlemA real estate lawyer has proposed that 125th Street become the “Harlem Historic Zone,” a step he believes would help to protect older buildings along the thoroughfare. (Photo: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)

Adam Leitman Bailey, a lawyer who was born in Queens and grew up in New Jersey, has devised a novel way to halt gentrification in Harlem. Mr. Bailey, 37, has proposed having 125th Street, from river to river, declared the “Harlem Historic Zone,” which he believes would make it more difficult to tear down the neighborhood’s old buildings and replace them with new ones.

And though Mr. Bailey has become a strong advocate for historic preservation along 125th Street, he is not a disinterested party: He represents a group of Harlem business owners who are in the process of being evicted to make way for a shopping mall.

Mr. Bailey, who the New York Real Estate Journal wrote in 2005 was “one of New York’s best real estate attorneys,” talks quickly, and he is adept at multitasking. He says he receives 30 to 40 e-mail messages each business hour.

He equates the historic value of the building he has been hired to save with the homes of the Founding Fathers.

“When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, they tore down George Washington’s house,” Mr. Bailey said by telephone this afternoon, speaking rapidly. “Was that a good idea?”

The businesses Mr. Bailey represents are not George Washington’s house, but five small businesses located in a building at the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The establishments include House of Seafood, Manna’s Restaurant and Million Nail Salon.

“Where do these people go?” he asked. “They’re not Starbucks. They’re not Nike. They’re not Sears.”

And, said Mr. Bailey, by tearing down the building, history will be forever lost, including the site of W.E.B. Du Bois’s first office space, and the backdrop for some of the speeches of Malcolm X (who was assassinated 43 years ago today at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem). In addition, his clients have leases and some of them had recently invested hundreds of thousands of dollars each by doing extensive remodeling work to their shops before the building was sold last summer. The city’s proposed rezoning plan for 125th Street is also likely to accelerate further the rapid redevelopment in Harlem.

Because Mr. Bailey realizes that the historic district idea is likely a long shot, he has also done what lawyers do: Filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, challenging the evictions. On Jan. 30, he won a temporary injunction against demolition. The next court date, is next week.

If he fails to get the area declared a historic site, he said he would settle for an agreement in which at least 20 percent of all new residential developments in the area would be devoted to low-income residents of Harlem, and a similar percentage of new retail space set aside for residents as well.

Mr. Bailey, who is white, said he was greeted with skepticism when he first spoke to a group of mostly African American residents at a meeting in Harlem last summer.

“They asked me, ‘Why should we hire a white man, someone who doesn’t understand what black people are going through?’” he said.

Mr. Bailey said he responded by invoking the names of Abraham Lincoln and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed Jackie Robinson, making him Major League Baseball’s first African American player.

“Just because I’m not black doesn’t mean I’m not a good advocate and I can’t understand what you’re going through,” he said he told the group.

He received a rousing ovation, was eventually hired, and thrust into a battle rife with a symbolism that is not lost on him. Besides, Mr. Bailey said his grandfather, a taxi driver, grew up in the neighborhood before it became an African-American mecca.

“This is Harlem’s last stand,” said Mr. Bailey. “I don’t think you can ever recreate it. If you are black, you feel proud to be there.”


11 Comments

  1. 1. February 21, 2008 2:45 pm Link

    I’m all for designating the entire street as historic if it will prevent individual stores from being bought out…and for what? Another shopping mall???!!! Oy veh!

    And Manna’s….?? That’s a Harlem institution. What is WRONG with people? The mall-ization of distinct Manhattan nabes has to stop!

    — yippee1999
  2. 2. February 21, 2008 2:55 pm Link

    Making 125th Street a historic zone wouldn’t stop gentification. Most of the building are loaded with fire and safety code violations. All the speculators need do is demand code enforcement. The city would jump at the opportunity to do that for the rich fines, building permit fees, and augmented property tax revenues upgraded buildings generate.

    The current owners would sell out with their replacements protecting the facades while modernizing the buildings to attract upscale tenants.

    — MARK KLEIN, M.D.
  3. 3. February 21, 2008 3:43 pm Link

    Sadly all of this is starting to happen in East Harlem, also.
    It’s getting so there’s hardly any place left where we can feel like we’re still living in New York City.

    — Perley J. Thibodeau
  4. 4. February 21, 2008 4:06 pm Link

    Can some of the elected officials, developers take a stroll up Frederick Douglass & Adam Clayton and take a look at all the empty store fronts. New residential buildings are going up but what do residents have for shopping besides hair braiding saloons, 99 cent stores. NYC Economic Development & Mayor Bloomberg get your heads out of your butts and take a look up town. Inez Dinkins maybe she should take a look around her district.

    — Harlem resident
  5. 5. February 21, 2008 8:16 pm Link

    There should be a moratorium on any new development in all of Manhattan let alone 125th Street. If there is any place that should be rezoned to allow for massive re-development, it is Park Slope where all the people who are so concerned about Manhattan seem to live. Hopefully that would dilute the gene pool over there.

    — P Dub
  6. 6. February 22, 2008 11:50 am Link

    “Develop, don’t destroy Harlem!”

    — Rtis
  7. 7. February 22, 2008 2:30 pm Link

    When I recently walked up and down almost the entire length of 125th Street, I was struck by 1) the continuing blight in the form of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings, 2) the lack of retail beyond what commenter 4 alludes to, and 3) a suprising number of truly uninspired swaths of post-war architecture that really doesn’t deserve any kind of protection, unless you’re into the “Payless Shoe Aesthetic.” Yes there are a few “grand dames” — e.g., the Hotel Therese and the Koch Building — but on the whole, 125th Street needs A LOT of work, and guys like this attorney who are trying to muck up the process are not helping the people who actually live there and WANT development. (For the record, I live in the 160s and feel exactly the same way about Washington Heights.)

    — thegayrecluse
  8. 8. February 22, 2008 6:54 pm Link

    The truth is, if the “Coalition to Save Harlem” where honest, they would be called “The Coalition to Keep Harlem Black”, which I think most would agree is something we should have moved beyond.

    — Peter Allard
  9. 9. February 22, 2008 6:54 pm Link

    Harlem has some great successful businesses like Sylvia’s and The Apollo, these can stand on their own two feet and nobody questions if they will survive gentrification. The business this attorney represents, like the record shack would also survive if they where viable businesses, like Sylvia’s, but alas, in the age of ipods, should New York subsidize a failing record store. Maybe this attorney should request a store selling buggy whips in the interest of historic preservation.

    — Peter Allard
  10. 10. February 25, 2008 11:02 am Link

    I live in Harlem…..Please move quickly with the rezoning….progress cannot be stopped! The businesses that are going to be lost would have needed to close anyway since they are no longer viable in todays day and age. It’s funny that we are even talking about this…I mean these are for profit businesses not housing.

    — c
  11. 11. February 25, 2008 11:12 am Link

    The politicians and religious leaders in the area just want to keep Harlem down so that they can continue to bleed the neighborhood. If the demographics change they will eventually lose their jobs….this is definitely one of the many reasons why they don’t want things to change. If they had the people’s best interest in mind they would promote gentrification while working with govt. to work out housing concerns. As for the businesses, I’m not so concerned about them….these are BUSINESSES and many businesses have to close their doors everyday all around the city because they just can’t survive. In order to keep a business runnning long term you must 1st be a GOOD SAVVY BUSSINESS PERSON….they should have seen this coming and should have prepared a business plan B.

    — f

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