by Lindy Davies
In Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, a drum circle has gathered, every Saturday afternoon, for at least 38 years. Riding city transit from all around the town to this convenient (but sadly blighted) spot, folks gathered for a joyous, raucous celebration. The gathering was traditionally along the northern edge of the park, along 124th street across from a long-vacant lot. Savory barbecues were a prominent part of the event.
This year, however, a group of new Harlem residents, fixer-uppers of classic brownstones, had had enough. They called the cops on the drummers. Cooler heads prevailed, it seems, and an agreement was negotiated by which the drum circle would move to the hilltop in the center of the park, farther from sensitive ears. Unfortunately, however, the top of Mount Morris (also called “the Acropolis”) had two strong drawbacks: the new location required more of a climb than some of the older drummers and their friends could negotiate. Then, this August, an amplified hip-hop concert series in the nearby amphitheater played havoc with the meditative air of the drum circle. Local blogs have been ringing with vitriol and controversy about this for months, and the issue is not yet resolved.
The six-block square, situated between 120th and 124th Streets, just west of Madison Avenue, has been called Marcus Garvey Park since the early 1970s, when many Harlem landmarks were renamed after prominent African Americans; prior to that it had been called “Mount Morris Park,” after the giant outcropping of Manhattan schist in its center, which made it seem like a good site for a park in the first place.
It’s significant that the drum circle had traditionally gathered across from a vacant lot. The neighborhood surrounding this park had been an extraordinary scene of urban decay for decades. The drum circle must have grown out of the Black Power days of the late 1960s, and went right on through the city’s darkest days in the 70s and 80s, when population was falling and no one — no one in power, anyway — had much use for the poor residents of blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
By the 1980s, an entire block on the southern side of the park was derelect. The block had held the James Fenimore Cooper High School, which was opened in 1936, at a cost of $12 million, but was closed down in the 1970s. In 1982 the entire block was purchased for $300,000 by the Bethel Gospel Assembly church. The building was in fairly rough condition; the church put a lot of work into cleaning and repairing the place, and offered a variety of ministries and services in the old school’s 80 rooms.
Today, the Bethel Gospel Assembly offers a vigorous, global spiritual outreach; its congregation numbers some 1,500, and its income is prodigious. Last year it sold the old school playground, as well as the entire block’s development rights, to the developers of “5th on the Park,” a 28-story luxury condominium building. In exchange, the church received $12 million, a state-of-the-art 2,000-seat sanctuary in the new building, and 47 rental apartments. Inclusion of “affordable” housing units had been part of the deal that enabled such a large development, which will dwarf other buildings in the area. Vincent Williams, a church trustee who heads the building committee, told the that “the church is exploring the option of offering a mix of market rate and affordable rental units, but that a final decision has not been reached.”
No doubt the church is doing good deeds with its huge profits — but the deal’s inspiration may not have been completely divine. Not only does it get the new sanctuary and the 47 new apartments — it also retains ownership of the old school building. While the (additional) development rights have been traded away, there are still four buildable stories on the remaining two-thirds of the block — and four-story brownstones in this up-and-coming neighborhood are going for a pretty penny. Bethel Gospel Assembly, which calls itself a “Loving, Learning and Launching Church” — is sitting pretty in “the new Harlem.”
Meanwhile the new building, “5th on the Park.” which has sold 62 units in its first three months on the market, bills itself as “simply magnificent… downtown prestige, at uptown prices.” Units are selling at between one and three million; penthouse prices haven’t been determined yet.
Both the architecture and the marketing of 5th on the Park display a certain touchiness about what, and where, the new building is. Although “on the Park” is in its name, the dramatic setbacks, which create luxurious terraces, are on the downtown side of the building, where they afford gorgeous views of the Midtown and Central Park locations that Harlem buyers want, but can’t quite afford. Also, the slick, sumptuous promotional material shows the building either by itself, utterly without context on a white background, or in hard photographic clarity against a wispy pen-and-ink rendering of the old park — which, by the way, is never referred to as “Marcus Garvey Park,” but by the more calming 19th-century name. As for the in-house church, well, as much as they must want to, the promoters can’t crop out the huge cross on the front of the building. The church does not feature prominently in the advertising. Instead, it touts the “40-foot-high art-filled atrium lobby, doorman and concierge, drive-in valet parking, lap swimming pool, large, commodious indoor and outdoor communal spaces, state of the art gym, and much, much more.”
Newcomers — who are not, perhaps, conversant with the “nonprofit” ingredient that spices many real estate deals — don’t seem to “get it” about the church; one blogger writes, “Looks like a great building, but do we really need another church??? Can’t the people just go to 1 of the 19 churches that are right there within a 2 block radius???”
Undoubtedly there will also be state-of-the-art soundproofing installed between the sanctuary and the rest of the building.
There is a good deal more money to be made in this neighborhood. A whole block full of spanking new townhouses gleam just one block downtown — with their own gated parking. And, many very desirable vacant lots sit waiting for the right deal. Rents in the area are rising precipitously. There is a Starbucks, and a couple of very pricey wine stores, right down the street from Sylvia’s, the famous soul food restaurant.
And the drum cycle goes on, for now, anyway. A recent article in the International Herald Tribune concludes:
On a recent evening, incense rose into the oaks and maples. Inside a circle of drums, children joined dancing adults. A woman with a walker shook her percussion instrument as a man strolled by with a cane. A dog stopped to watch. Carl Alexander, 71, a retired public school teacher originally from Trinidad, has been drumming here 34 years. “People come and drum for spiritual reasons — and to get away from the hustle and bustle,” he said.