Protesters Ask Landmarks Commission to Force Church to Remove Anti-Gay Sign
HARLEM — A Harlem church that posts hate speech on its billboard could be silenced by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Repeated efforts by offended neighbors to get Atlah Worldwide Church pastor James David Manning to stop posting incendiary messages about everything from gay people to President Barack Obama have all failed.
They've included personal appeals, calls to the district attorney and even an act of vandalism.
"If I could, I would double down," Manning said Thursday afternoon on the way into his church at Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street in the Mount Morris Park neighborhood. The sign out front that day said it was time to take Harlem back from both the "pinch nose sellout Negroes" and the "demonic" gays.
"This is America, we have free speech," Manning added.
But the pastor arrived just after Michael Henry Adams, an historian who is an expert on Harlem architecture and the author of "Harlem Lost and Found," launched the latest effort to end the messages — appealing to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
During an hourlong, one-man protest, Adams, who is gay, marched back and forth in front of the sign while yelling "Stop the Hate Now!" The protest drew at least three police cars to the scene based on an anonymous call that someone was yelling for help.
As Adams paced back and forth, his supporters collected signatures just off to the side asking the LPC to make Atlah fix illegal renovations to the historic 1888 Romanesque and Queen Anne style building, including the billboard where Manning posts his messages.
The structure is located in the heart of the Mount Morris Park Historic District, which was created in 1971 and is one of the city's oldest. The sign, along with several other changes to the building's façade, was put in place without proper permission from the LPC as required, said Damaris Olivo, spokeswoman for the agency.
"They didn't get Al Capone for all of his dirty deeds, but for tax evasion," said Adams, explaining his strategy.
Among changes for which the church has been issued violations are installing the free-standing sign, replacing portions of the iron gates surrounding the building and removing a balcony and signage, all of which was done without permits.
The lighted sign sits on a slab of polished granite with a giant cross atop. The previous sign was smaller.
The violations were issued from May 2013 through June 6 of this year.
Now Adams and his supporters want the city to take strong action against the church.
"I'm doing this as a means of applying pressure to Landmarks," Adams said after his protest.
According to LPC rules, if corrections are not made after multiple violation notices and a hearing, civil fines of up to $250 per day, with a minimum of $5,000, can be issued for serious violations such as altering important architectural elements of a building.
The LPC can also seek restraining orders and injunctions. The agency also has the authority to seek criminal fines that range from $500 to $15,000 per day.
"Warning letters have been issued, and the property owner is not yet in compliance," Olivo said.
Manning said he was unconcerned: "Let them take it up with Landmarks."
The four-story structure was built as the Harlem Club in 1888 by the architectural firm of Lamb & Rich, which is also well known for designing the Corn Exchange building in East Harlem.
The building has an unfortunate history, Adams said. The Harlem Club was exclusively used by wealthy white men and did not want to admit Jews, even as more Jewish people moved into the neighborhood. The club eventually closed in 1907.
A business college then occupied the building but eventually closed in 1935 after declining to admit black people, Adams said. The building was later occupied by Father Divine, a spiritual leader who claimed to be God that some refer to as a cult leader, but who also advocated racial equality.
It's been used as a traditional church building since 1947.
Neighborhood activist Barbara Herd has lived on 123rd Street for 60 years and said she's tired of seeing the sign. Recent postings stating that "Jesus Would Stone Homos," and that Obama had unleashed white gay "demons" against black men, were the final straw for her.
"Church is supposed to bring the community together," she said.
"I don't know why more people aren't out here," said Yvonne Durant, a writer who signed the petition. "Which God do they believe in? This is pretty disgusting."